Nearly a decade ago, at a liberal Hebrew school on New York’s Upper West Side, I was a male teacher who taught a lot of boys. I typically wore jeans and a button-down shirt in the classroom, but when it was time for the school’s Purim party, I could wear whatever I wanted. For reasons I didn’t examine too closely at the time, I decided to wear a dress.
I’d worn dresses before—onstage, or in the right queer setting—but they weren’t really a habit. This was 2010, and things were different then. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still on the books. The Democratic Party thought same-sex marriage was envelope-pushing. Trans writers were writing and trans builders were building and trans teachers were teaching, but few in the mainstream cared to pay much attention. No brands offered sponsorships.
So why did I wear a dress to the Purim party? Did I harbor a gentle, if obscure, desire to provoke? I don’t quite remember. I see now that for much of my life, my desires were obscure even to myself. I chose a sleeveless sundress that swished nicely around my shins. If anyone asked, I could always say I was Vashti. (It helped that I was openly gay. As any good homosexual knows, a near brush with death begets collective moments of camp. As with drag balls, so with Purim parties.)
The cantor came over to me to tell me she liked my outfit. “As you know,” she said, “this is the one day of the year when it is permitted for men to wear women’s clothes.”
I blushed a little because, no, it wasn’t something I knew. I looked it up when I got home and saw that the cantor was right: “A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, neither shall a man wear a woman’s garment,” says Deuteronomy 22:5. “For anyone who does these things, it is an abomination before God.”
Well, I told myself, I do a lot of things the Bible calls abominations: I eat shrimp. I am a man who lies with men. People are complicated. So is the world. I figured I’d just add dresses to my list of things to avoid discussing in Jewish settings.
Nine years later, I came out as transgender. And rather than being the nail in the coffin of my religious identity, somehow the process has reawakened it.
I have never felt more myself. I have never felt more Jewish.
I grew up going to a Conservative Jewish day school in a midsize East Coast city. Judaism was religion, culture, and history. We began studying Hebrew in kindergarten and had minyan every morning. We baked hamentaschen and sang Zionist ballads. At recess we pretended to be members of a Yiddish mafia. By the end of our nine years we were leading services and parsing everyone from Rashi to Amichai.
Afterward I went to a public high school, but I came back to the synagogue that housed the day school for the High Holidays, at least. A former teacher invited me to tell stories in the kids’ services: a parable on apologizing for Rosh Hashanah, say, and something about life in the belly of a fish for Yom Kippur. I kept it up even when I moved away for college, and then for about 10 years after I graduated. Eventually the rabbi encouraged me to compose my own stories, trusting that I understood the holiday, and the community, well enough that the lessons I shared would resonate. The storytelling was good work for me, a theater-maker living in New York with intermittent income—but it was a tradition, too. Afterward, I’d sit and chat with people I hadn’t seen since the year before, people who now had spouses and children and well-paying jobs, people I could still picture falling off a swing set.
Over the years, as I settled into my creative life in New York, surrounded by non-Jews, leftists, queers, and avowed secularists, parts of myself drifted away from the world of that shul. What did Mrs. Greenberg care about the things I was considering the rest of the year: queer community, experimental theater, ecological repair? What would Mr. Cohen do but roll his eyes at the books I was reading of Marxist feminist scholarship? Heaven forbid someone should bring up Israel. I had one part of myself that belonged in one place, I figured, and other parts that belonged in other places. We all keep certain things to ourselves sometimes. Many of us code-switch.
But something else was going on, and the dissociation went deeper than interests or ideology. Once I left the bimah and dropped the loud actorly voice I used to tell stories—once I had settled into a chair or wandered into the lobby, shaking hands, nodding hello—I turned to wood. My limbs felt stiff, wrong; my mind felt far away. I felt small, like a child inhabiting an adult body, my voice so muffled it barely made it out of the cavern of my head. I couldn’t wait to make it outside. I couldn’t wait to ditch my shirt and tie. People spoke to me, remembered me; but the person they embraced and welcomed back wasn’t me. That person, to me, was a stranger.
Back in the queer-experimental-theater-ecology-Marxist-feminist part of my life in New York, I’d occasionally get a craving for some Judaism. I just didn’t know where to go for it. I loved Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism—what Green describes as a “neomystical” reconsideration of Judaism’s central stories in ways that reckon with the contemporary world—but I didn’t know what communities were actually bringing Green’s vision to life. I missed text study. Where could I gather with others to learn and still bring my whole self to the table? I was willing to try anything—a synagogue, a club, a school, a whatever—so long as I could feel like myself when I participated.
I hated minyan as a kid but now I found I missed praying. In a good Hebrew service, language itself shape-shifts; it is more intimate one moment than words whispered to a friend, more consuming the next moment than a chant in a locker room. It is not always pretty, though sometimes it is beautiful. Words stagger, leap, and limp along, with repetitions, calls-and-response; there are muttered, overlapping melodies; a ragged chorus of voices might rise to a wail or sink to a whisper. I found that kind of prayer when I lived in Savannah, at Agudath Achim. Eventually, I found it in Brooklyn, too, at Altshul. Wrapped in a tallit, my voice pouring out of my body, I felt good. I felt connected to a history, and to God.
But as soon as services ended, standing in the lobby in my dress pants and button-down shirt, I felt myself turn to wood again. I loved the prayer but felt little connection to the people who had been praying. The Jewish piece of me must be very small, I thought. It certainly didn’t know how to exist on its own. The person I was in the rest of my life—the writer, the teacher, the friend, the goofball, the confidant, the lover—shriveled up and blew away on a breeze. My voice shrank inside me and I became a stranger to myself.
Each time I found a shul the habit would last a few months, maybe a year. Then I’d stop going. My Jewish self had become yet another self to juggle. I doubt anybody missed me, the quiet boy with the beard who sat in the back and rarely stayed for the kiddush luncheon.
When, earlier this year, I came out as transgender, it took me a while to say aloud what that meant.
The difficulty felt physical: I could barely force my tongue and lips to move to shape the words. After a month or two I could finally say, “I’m trans,” though I usually said it under my breath and with much effort. Or, “I’m not a boy,” putting it negatively. When pressed, I could talk in quick abstract sentences about the nature of gender and the difficulties of language and culture and would share, apologetically, that, yes, if it’s not too much trouble, I was starting to try “she” pronouns.
Today I can say aloud that I am, in my heart of hearts, female. That I know it as deeply as I’ve ever known anything. That as long as I try to hide that part of myself, I will be living a poor, partial life. My voice will forever be lost in the cavern of my chest. I will be hiding and wooden. I will be half-dead. Now that I am beginning to make space for my female spirit, I feel more alive than I ever have. It’s a relief. It’s a joy. My heart sings songs of gratitude and my spirit leaps through wildflowers. Amen Selah.
Now that I’ve come out I have new rituals to master: leg-shaving, dress-shopping, eyelining, eyebrow-plucking. I study the great texts of femininity with the enthusiasm of a recent convert. I do what I can, a little at a time. I know there’s no right way to be trans, just as there’s no right way to be a woman. But I am trying things out and seeing what I like. I am trying—for the first time, it seems, in 32 years—to listen to who I am and what I want.
So why, after a lifetime of alienation from Jewish contexts, and now that I couldn’t be further (I’ve been told) from the world of the shul where I grew up—why do I finally feel a deepening sense of connection to Jewish community?
It helps to have found a synagogue I love. I moved to Los Angeles last fall, a few months before I started transitioning, and I found IKAR a few months later, in winter. Saturday morning services meet in the gym of a Jewish day school. Chairs are arranged in an almost-circle; some people sit on the folded bleachers in the back. The first time I went I wore slacks and a women’s blouse, testing the waters. The music had me from the moment I walked in: beautiful but not precious, soulful and composed of many voices.
A month or two later, after enough services and sermons that the community’s values started to seem clear, I wore a dress. The rabbis’ words notwithstanding, I was nervous. There were older men and women at IKAR who looked like the older men and women I knew from back home. Gender fluidity, a part of me thought, was a young people’s game. What would people think? What would people say? I slipped in, found a tallit, and scanned the room for a place to sit. “It’s nice to see you in that,” someone said to me. Over the course of the service, people of all ages and genders smiled at me, said Welcome.
But this new-old connection to Judaism is not just about having found a shul. In Judaism I’ve found a language that contextualizes who I am, and how I want to be in the world.
When you transition, you spend a lot of time thinking about how to tell other people what’s going on. Friends are curious, or confused. Family is scared, but tentatively supportive. They all have questions. In early conversations I found myself bringing up biology and brain structure, citing studies that show transgender individuals with brain structures that more closely match that of their true gender than the gender they were assigned at birth. Later I recounted childhood fantasies, or listed “shoulda known!” moments, to prove that, no, this didn’t come out of nowhere. But there’s still so much that doesn’t fit together, so much that’s hard to explain. What does shaving your legs have to do with brain chemistry? Are you going to get bottom surgery? What about liberating yourself from the gender binary? Does this mean you’re not gay anymore?
None of those questions touch anything true, because none of them acknowledge the scale of what I’m talking about. Instead of grasping the whole, they break it apart, manhandle the pieces. Words out of medicine or sociology feel wrong to me; poor, clinical overstatement or understatement. When I stick to words like dysphoria, cis, HRT, or binary, I feel like I’m justifying a medical diagnosis or constructing a psychological case study. The word “transgender” connects me to a history and a community that matters—I feel lucky to have those. There are trans friends, elders, and ancestors whom I learn from every day. But outside of those conversations, I crave a language that can encompass the spirit.
Otherwise I’m just cutting myself into pieces again.
The Sages often compare the Torah to water. Here in Los Angeles, sandwiched between ocean and desert, with the climate of old Palestine, water means relief. Water means health. When it rains, the earth blooms. When I go to services in a dress the downpours begin in my heart. I feel like the landscape after rain. I’ve been saying these words since I was a small child. I didn’t know who I was then. I was divided into pieces. Now the words pour through the whole of me like water. My channels are clear, my sluices open.
I get sad sometimes, of course, and angry. I get sad about fear (mine), biology (mine), and slowness of change (ours). I get angry at all the people who saw me, and continue to see me, as the boy I seemed to be but never was. I get angry at myself for having submerged myself inside that boy for so long. I know those feelings don’t get me anywhere.
We’re a far cry from where we were in 2010—I’m a far cry from where I was—but 2019 is still a strange time to be coming out as trans. On the one hand, visibility has meant some degree of awareness and acceptance of gender diversity. On the other, that very visibility has galvanized resistance to liberal “gender ideology.” The right gets hysterical about the erosion of what they imagine to have been the eternal status quo. And for many in the queer community, the celebration of visibility is shadowed by grief at how many years went by in silence, avoidance, and rejection. Ultimately, the appearance of trans women on billboards and in music videos can’t make up for the trans women, primarily women of color, getting murdered or left to die in public places, in ICE detention centers, and in jail.
I’ve been spared physical violence (see under: privilege). But I know the ugliness in our culture that is the seed of that violence. I know the bristling that happens, even among open-minded folk, when questions of gender come up. To those who have always felt at home in their bodies, the fuss we trans people make might seem like an unnecessary parsing of the self into parts. What they don’t realize is that our lives have been in pieces for as long as we can remember. We are trying to make ourselves whole again.
A few months ago, I started looking around for Jewish writing on the trans experience. I encountered Rabbi Eliot Kukla and Reuben Zellman’s rereading of Deuteronomy 22:5 (“a sacred obligation to present the fullness of our gender as authentically as possible”). I discovered Joy Ladin’s beautiful book, The Soul of the Stranger. And ever since then, it’s been the language of Judaism, refracted through trans experience—the language of my childhood Jewish education, made new—that has most given me space to find my new-old, and newly whole, self. My imperfections, my confusions—above all, my transition—have been my teachers.
I am becoming myself not so I can stare in a mirror all day, but so I can go out into the world and do the work God has put me here to do. I don’t want my voice to catch and shrink in my throat. I want to stand as I am and speak as I am and sing the beauty of all the creatures God made. I want to pull together all the pieces of me.
Or perhaps I should say that they never were pieces. Says Rav Nachman of Bratslav: “Lies are many but the truth is one.” Like the truth, like the world, I have always been whole.
Etz chaim hi, we sing, at the end of the Torah service. We dress the Torah in her favorite look, girdled and draped. We all stand and sing our appreciation for the words we’ve just heard: She, the Torah, is a tree of life for those who hold fast to her. To those who cling to her, she brings happiness. Her ways are pleasing, and all of her paths are peace.
It’s always been one of my favorite moments in the liturgy, but these days I hear it in a new way. I myself have come to life, reached branches toward sun, sunk roots into soil, and drunk deep, cool waters. It feels belated, it all feels so belated. In my own life, and in the history of our world. But what can I do? I start again. To become myself in the way I am now becoming is not to grip more tightly to some idea of who I am. It is to release myself, trusting, opening, surrendering to something larger—surrendering, I’d say, to the will of the hand that made me.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.