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Gender Through a Jewish Lens

New memoirs by transgender authors Kate Bornstein and Joy Ladin illustrate the power of religion to shape how people construct their identities

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Kate Bornstein. (Barbara Carrellas)
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You might expect transgender Jews to see Jewish law and tradition as constricting or limiting, full of static categories and lines that must not be crossed. But two new memoirs by male-to-female transsexuals suggest otherwise: Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger and Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life use Jewish tropes and themes to explore the authors’ identities, with surprising results.

For Bornstein and Ladin alike, Jewish boundaries around sex and weird gender hang-ups—whether the pressures of passing Jewish manhood between generations, or God’s sexless aphysicality—provide productive language for expressing transgender experience. Bornstein is an award-winning writer, performer, and queer activist, whose sprawling memoir chronicles a journey across continents, religious traditions, and (many, many) partners. The pained Jewish masculinity of Bornstein’s youth formed the backdrop for an eventual embrace of Scientology; though she may not intend this, it also helps explain and frame her subsequent rejection of Scientology.

Joy Ladin

Joy Ladin. (Lisa A. Ross)

Ladin, a professor of English literature at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, has written a more claustrophobic book, which tracks journeys that are less physical than psychological. She writes about attempting to save a strained (and then broken) marriage, and she explores the process of transition in close detail. But religion—and Judaism in particular—also plays a key role in her book. She found, in her idiosyncratic reading of the Bible, a God as alien to the physical world as she was to her male body. Both books illustrate a deeper point. For people negotiating complex and unfamiliar relationships to gender, religion affords some of the only language intense and strange enough to understand experiences that defy social and sexual norms.

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At first glance, Judaism may seem peripheral to A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today (Beacon). It gets, after all, only one of the subtitle’s 27 words. But then, it is a rambling title, reminiscent of the chapter heading of an early English novel. That’s fitting, because her memoir is told as a picaresque. As a boy in Interlaken, N.J., Bornstein dreamed of being a girl in a Norman Rockwell painting. Though Bornstein’s family was not observant, Bornstein’s Judaism stuck out: The Jewish family was “one of a handful” in Interlaken, and both Nazis and anti-Semitic tsars figured prominently in the family’s lore. It is hard not to hear in Bornstein’s transgender dream the echo of another venerable American Jewish desire: assimilation.

After studying theater at Brown, Bornstein journeyed cross-country, falling in with the Church of Scientology along the way. During those years with the Church, Bornstein worked as a deckhand and a salesman and also married a woman and had a child. Finally, after being expelled from Scientology, Bornstein changed sexes, discovered a queer community, and settled down to a life of domesticity and BDSM.

Bornstein had also sampled other faiths, trying out life with the Amish and the Baha’i, and reading about Zen Buddhism and pagan witchcraft before joining the Scientologists. Scientology ultimately appealed because its myths offered a solution to Bornstein’s gender trouble. Though church officials publicly deny the existence of these myths, Bornstein and many other ex-Scientologists tell the same story of Xenu, an alien overlord, who long ago enslaved the race of “thetans” by imprisoning them within human bodies. Here’s Bornstein’s take:

My gender was a ship without sails, tempest-tossed. I needed an anchor. I needed a life preserver. Here’s what the Church of Scientology threw me: they said I’m not my body, and I’m not even my mind. They told me that I am a spiritual being called a thetan … Male and female is for bodies, they told me. Thetans have no gender.
Can you imagine a more appealing theology for someone like me?

Scientology offered Bornstein a revision of Genesis’ “male and female he created them,” a world in which gender was just one more human dysfunction that thetans had to slough off. This austerity came naturally: Immediately before Scientology, Bornstein flirted with Essene asceticism and was a longtime anorexic. Disaffection from the body gave Bornstein a curious tolerance, and even fondness, for pain.

A sense of masochism made Bornstein a perfect fit for Scientology’s intense psychological discipline. Similarly, years of studying men’s physical gestures (to perform as male) proved good preparation for the church’s regimented physicality (stare people in the eyes when you talk to them; “verbally acknowledge anything that anyone says to you”). Both Scientology’s strictures and its science fiction were otherworldly. They allowed Bornstein to escape from an ill-fitting body into a fantasy.

Though she devotes few words to Judaism, Bornstein recalls how Jewish myth provides a powerful counter-narrative to Scientology. After explaining Scientology’s beliefs in her memoir, she turns to another set of “wacky” stories, the Bible:

I believed that Abraham, the Patriarch of Judaism, was visited by God, who, doubting Abraham’s devotion, ordered him to lay his beloved son, Isaac, on an altar, and kill him with a knife. … Isaac was fully conscious, and he agreed to do this. Why? Because Abraham said, “I love you, Son. You’re a good boy, and I want you to make me proud of you in the eyes of my father, God, who’s up there watching us right now.”

She reads the Akeidah as the abusive intergenerational transmission of masculinity (“Do Jewish fathers know how badly they’re traumatizing their sons each time they tell them this story?”), which makes sense. Her own father was a self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” who, to “cure” his son’s virginity, set up a young Bornstein with a prostitute. But surprisingly, within this dark reading, Bornstein finds some pleasure:

Then Abraham raised the blade. Was Isaac smiling, do you think? The Bible never tells us what’s going on in Isaac’s mind. Might he have wanted to die under his daddy’s blade? He did, after all, just lie there. Might he have been the world’s first goth kid with a death wish, looking up at the blade in his daddy’s hand and thinking, Yeah, cut me, daddy, Wanna bleed for you, daddy. Well, that’s how I’ve always read it.

Reading this passage, it is striking that Bornstein’s sex-change treatment and return to the physical were fully realized within a BDSM relationship. In the last portion of her book, she explains with great precision how, for instance, someone “rubbed two fists full of coarse sea salt into the long bloody scores on my back.” Though there are differences, her Akeidah foreshadows this discovery of a pleasurable pain. Though this midrashic mix of abuse and bondage is unsettling, there’s a compelling religious archetype here. Against Scientology’s inhuman, otherworldly perfection are pitted the body’s pains, its joys, and the strange paradox of their interdependence.

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If A Queer and Pleasant Danger is picaresque, Through the Door of Life (University of Wisconsin Press) is inches from poetry. It is dense with metaphors, literary framing devices (trying to perfect iced coffee, for instance, symbolizes Ladin’s failed attempt to preserve her marriage), and heady reflections (buying a scarf releases “some ancient emotion that flows at the root of buying and selling, the extraordinary intimacy of strangers exchanging bits of themselves before turning back to their separate worlds”).

Bornstein is polyamorous and international; Ladin is monogamous and mostly rooted in the tri-state area. Much of Through the Door concerns Ladin’s attempt to “make it work”: to squeeze, in her forties, being transgender, and eventually transsexual, into a conventional, straight marriage with kids and a job as an English professor at Yeshiva University.

This contrast extends to the authors’ spiritual lives, too. The mythic distance from the physical that Bornstein journeyed outside to discover in Scientology, Ladin had all along in the Bible. Ladin was drawn to God as an alien; God was estranged from the world, somehow bound to it but unable to take part. She finds the television show Smallville’s Clark Kent similarly compelling, since his otherness and yet entanglement in—and responsibility for—the world trigger guilt, confusion, and alienation. This religion lacks the easy freedom Bornstein found (for a time) in Scientology, but both allowed gender misfits to retreat from their bodies into a world of spirit.

And, like Bornstein, Ladin found her myth unsustainable: There is no better refutation of the Platonic idea that minds, not bodies, matter than the lives of transsexuals. Ladin frames that discovery as a new, deeper insight into Judaism. “In Judaism you’re really not where you need to be,” Ladin told me, “if you’re out of your body.” Judaism’s goal, as she sees it, is not a paradise of souls, but something earthier and more physical: each man under her fig tree. As a child, she valorized the Moses who “didn’t much like people” and preferred the mystical top of Mount Sinai to the mixed multitude below; later, she realized that Judaism is built on human relationships.

Through the Door of Life by Joy LadinA Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein

If Judaism meant such contrary things to Ladin, what use was it? The answer is that Ladin and Bornstein use religious myths not as firm laws for life, but as language: flexible vehicles to express experience. And Ladin and Bornstein face two difficult, conflicting imperatives, which required two opposing mythic languages. First, as children, they needed to make sense of a gender disassociation for which mainstream culture gave them no models, to forge myths of idiosyncratic difference and resist social norms according to which they didn’t exist. But second, as adults, they found they needed recognition and the language to explain who they were to an outside audience. They needed to reject the judgments of others; then they needed to change them.

For each writer, the second demand is crystallized in her fraught relationships with her children. Ladin meticulously tracks her children’s confusions at their parents’ divorce, as well as their father’s becoming a woman. At one point, her son offers her fashion advice, triggering a fight when Ladin’s ex-wife hears about it. Her son won’t talk about it, but, Ladin senses, “there would be a time in the very near future when talking about my betrayal of him would be exactly what he wanted to do.”

Ladin’s attentiveness to the pain she caused is striking. It would be easier—and perfectly legitimate—for her to claim sex-transition as a sacred right. But her children introduce social expectations in a particularly wrenching way. Born into a heterosexual marriage, they have rights, too. For the children, the social norms aren’t just narrow prejudice; they are the relationships on which they have depended. The analogical work of explaining being transgender to them is particularly urgent.

In Bornstein’s case, that urgency comes from being a 68-year-old woman with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. She frames her book as a letter to her estranged daughter, Jessica, who remained in the church with her biological mother, Molly, and who is now nearly 40. Scientologists, according to Bornstein, are hostile to ex-Scientologists. Bornstein has not seen her daughter for many years. In the epilogue, she writes directly to Jessica. Though she cautions Jessica against accepting Scientology without questions, Bornstein can still use the church’s language to communicate. For instance, even after she has rejected the idea that bodies don’t matter, Bornstein can still invoke the phrase “thetans have no gender” to prove that “you get to fall in love with any thetan or thetans, no matter the gender of their body.”

Ultimately, it seems, it doesn’t matter much what the myths—whether Scientology’s or Judaism’s—are supposed to mean; what matters is what they let you say.

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Rabbi Moshe Pesach Geller says:

Oy! This is so tiring. Forgive me, but someone has to speak the truth. These books, the author’s life experiences have nothing to do with Judaism (who’s this ‘Judy’ anyway) but os only about damaged, suffering people who were born Jewish and have it float in and around them in tangential ways. Borenstein’s description and analysis of the Akeda betray’s two important American Jewish illnesses: 1- Abject ignorance of Torah (can they read Ivrit, let alone understand it?) and the resulting self-serving conclusions about its meaning and 2- that just because someone was born Jewish, their opinions can be considered authentic Jewish expressions. 

They may at the time of writing and publication, be happy, finally, but ultimately describe has nothing to do with Yiddishkeit, but rather particularly American karmic struggles with damaged personal identities. Do I have compassion for their struggles? Absolutely! Are their choices legitimate? Why not? But they could be Southern baptist, Episcopalian, not-Jewish atheists. These are not ‘Jewish stories.’ The are stories of Jews. And yes, there is a difference.

Bianca_Felix says:

Love this “compare and contrast” piece and the nuances each author adds to the consideration of how being Jewish touches one’s life!

hypnosifl says:

What would make you think these folks have “damaged personal identities”? The simple fact of their identifying with a gender different from that indicated by their genitalia? That would be a fairly bigoted opinion, especially since it’s not even known if such identification is shaped more by childhood experiences or by biological factors in the brain. As for “abject ignorance of the Torah”, I bet you wouldn’t object in the same way to an article about one of many Jews who have made significant impacts in the arts and sciences but who have limited interest or belief in Judaism as a religion–say Albert Einstein, or Franz Kafka, or Woody Allen, or Philip Roth. Tablet Magazine doesn’t have the Jewish religion as its sole focus you know, it also deals with Jewish culture.

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Gender Through a Jewish Lens

New memoirs by transgender authors Kate Bornstein and Joy Ladin illustrate the power of religion to shape how people construct their identities

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