An increasing number of Americans are coming out as nonbinary: terms like genderqueer, gender-fluid, and agender describe a variety of identities that transcend being a woman vs. a man. While they share many of the same experiences as binary transgender people— as in, assigned male at birth and coming out as female, or vice versa, non-binary folks also have some unique obstacles. One major day-to-day example: The English language has a limited selection of pronouns; men are traditionally “he” and women are “she.” So what about someone who’s both, or neither, or something else entirely?
There are a number of options that non-binary folks tend to use, like a singular “they,” or newer pronouns like “ze.” There are also new legal statuses available in some places for such people. But non-binary Jews find that when dealing with Hebrew, it’s a whole other issue. Now, certain corners of Jewish practice are making the adjustment.
The issue of publicly announcing one’s gender in Jewish practice is very prevalent in receiving an Aliyah, an honorary reading from the Torah in synagogue. In Judaism, one’s full Hebrew name is X daughter or/son of Y. Plus, the grammar of the language is so gendered that verbs change based on the subject. So when you call someone up to the Torah (assuming you’re a community that doesn’t only honor men in that way), not only do you have to identify them as a son or daughter, but your options are, based on gender, “Ya’Amod,” or “Ta’Amod,” (both mean “Arise”). So what about Jews who don’t strictly identify as masculine or feminine?
“There is both male and female somewhere in there, and using either he or she is not wrong, it’s just not getting the full picture of who I am,” says Aster Treitman, who usually uses “they” pronouns. They compare the word “their” to their multicolored hair, currently red and purple. So when someone describes their hair as, say, purple, or their gender as female, they’re only telling part of Treitman’s story.
Treitman, when they were in synagogue since coming out, essentially avoided having an Aliyah for awhile. For one family simcha, for example, they carried the Torah instead of taking an honor that required the use of their Hebrew name. But their little sister just had her Bat Mitzvah, and Treitman’s parents wanted to know: Ya’Amod, or Ta’Amod?
Treitman opted for “Ya’Amod,” with their new gender-neutral Hebrew name, Kokhav. Their reasoning was that if you have men and women together in Hebrew, the plural takes on the masculine form. Treitman’s identity has both masculinity and femininity, so “masculine was linguistically appropriate.”
But in increasing cases, there is actually a third option; some communities actually have instituted more specific policies for just such an occasion. Fort Tryon Jewish Center in Washington Heights, for example, uses a grammatical loophole: The phrase “Na La’Amod,” “Please rise,” in Hebrew changes the verb in question into the infinitive, which is inherently gender-neutral. As for the name, “Bat” or “Ben,” daughter or son, becomes “MiBeit”—from the house, or family of, the parents of the honoree.
“We affirm that all people deserve the respect of being referred to by the names and pronouns by which they identify,” says the congregation’s website. “How much the more so when they are being honored in public in sacred space!”
When Enoch Riese (ze/hir pronouns) came out as transgender as a teenager, ze was concerned with precisely this issue: being called by Hebrew name in a public, sacred space. Ze was a lifelong member of Manhattan’s Town and Village Synagogue, and even though the Conservative congregation is progressive, and works to be LGBTQ inclusive, Riese says that after coming out: “I avoided synagogue for a little while because I didn’t really know how to handle it.”
But Riese missed going up to the Torah, so when ze was ready, ze talked to hir rabbi, Larry Sebert, about finding a solution. Rabbi Sebert did the research and came up with an alternative to using “ben” or “bat”: He learned that “bar,” often used as a synonym for “ben,” is actually an acronym that can be short for either “ben rev” (rev roughly meaning “Mister”) or “bat rev.” Meaning, bar was already a gender neutral term. And so, Bar became part of Riese’s full Hebrew name.
“To me that felt really affirming and important,” says Riese of Rabbi Sebert’s efforts. “It helped me feel like I could continue to participate in the community in meaningful ways without having to avoid aliyot. It was really affirming to have him do that, and be so matter of fact about it.”
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, a congregation that explicitly serves the needs of the LGBTQ community, has had a system in place for years (similar to FTJC).
“Our Jewish names are very important to us, and being called up to the Torah is a central act of what Jews do every Shabbat.” says Sharon Kleinbaum, rabbi at CBST. “It’s a deep part of our ritual lives. … So we wanted to make every Jew feel like are deeply part of the community—and they are. And we didn’t want ritual or language of ritual to in any way exclude or create anxiety or terror of exclusion.”
Riese agrees that making spaces for LGBTQ Jews in halakhic Judaism is a huge step towards inclusion.
“I’ve spoken to other queer Jews who have felt like either there’s a choice to be made [between their identities] or they’d felt shunned or isolated from their Jewish communities of origin, and they’ve had to build their own.” While ze loves queer communities, “there’s something about not having to find something new. About being able to stay home, and stay where you grew up, and have everybody embrace you.”
To Riese, the “ya’amod” vs. “ta’amod” is secondary to the underlying values ze found; that hir shul cares about hir place there, and that it’s worth making an effort, engaging actively with halakha, to find a system that works for everyone, regardless of gender.