Tablet Original Fiction: I don’t even know if I am a boy or a girl

Gábor T. Szántó
December 10, 2018
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Vilna, 1930s.YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Vilna, 1930s.YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Someone is shaking him. Slapping him. One more time.

Sharp voices. There are people shouting in the distance. Blinding light. Plummeting. Dizziness. Darkness.

Everything is white. A tunnel. Floating. He sees himself. But who is that looking at him? He is lying on a bed all covered up. Who is looking? Soft morass. Floating as if he were lying on balloons. Not a sound, not a sign. Dead? Something hot and wet on his face. Strangers in white. He is slowly sliding. Plummeting.

Nausea. The room is undulating. He cannot swallow, there is something in his mouth. They are pushing it into him. His throat is burning. He tenses up. Suddenly sharp voices. It is frightfully cold inside him. Wobbling white figures. Hospital? There is something bubbling. Nausea. He is being prized apart. I am going to burst! I am vomiting. Who are they? They are holding my head. Where am I? What is this mask? Don’t put it on me! Wet slimy wall. Plummeting. I am not going to faint. Everything is wet and cold. I am empty. Completely empty.


The following evening the resident psychiatrist, a man with baggy eyes and curly hair, was speaking at the door of the single hospital room:

— Mrs. Kerpen, your son is out of danger.

The suppressed voices that were trying to break out of the woman’s body made her shudder. She pressed her hand to her mouth. Her son was lying on the bed with his eyes closed. She had been told that it would be best if she had a short rest and had been assured that she could come back anytime. Her son would have regained consciousness by then and she would need to talk to him to make sure he stayed awake. She had only rushed home to fetch a pair of pajamas and a toothbrush.

Adam was not completely conscious yet, only a few voices and fragments of words came through to him.

— What did he take? the doctor asked.

The woman told him that her son had emptied a box of Xanax and also taken a lot of Stilnox pills.

While the doctor was listening to the woman he took off his rimless glasses and was massaging the bridge of his nose. This was his second shift without a pause. He was so exhausted that he was able to sleep for just a few minutes whenever he did not need to talk.

— It was you who found him, wasn’t it?

The woman nodded.

— Could your son know that you were going to return home?

— We saw each other every evening. Whenever I left the house it was only for a few hours. She lowered her eyes in embarrassment. All of a sudden she realized that she had been talking in the past tense.

— Would you tell me something about your son, your family?

She outlined their life in a few sentences. She told him about her husband’s death, her son’s studies and his devotion, his bookishness.

— Something else? The doctor shook his head and looked at the bed. Adam opened his eyes for a second then closed them again.

— Sometimes he seemed jealous. I have male friends.

— This is no reason for a son to commit suicide, rest assured. Is your son involved in a love affair? Some fiasco?

The woman shook her head uncertainly.

— He never talked about anything like that. He is very reserved. But as far as I know he had no dealings with women. He is a rabbinical student and perhaps feels that it is not allowed.

— I used to attend Professor Scheiber’s kiddush. The man tightened his lips and said, I did not have the impression that the seminarians were living in celibacy. Maybe that is exactly why … In any case you saved your son’s life. Had you returned home an hour or two later, it might have been too late.

The woman started to cry. The psychiatrist looked at the woman and saw all the others who also blamed themselves whether or not they had reason to do so.

He studied the chart, then slid his glasses down his nose.

— Insofar as I could talk to your son he seemed quite depressed but his mind is clearing. It is possible that this case belongs to the category of attention-seeking suicide attempts. This means that he will not necessarily try it again. He did it at home guessing that he would be found. It would be a good idea for him to undergo regular sessions with a psychiatrist to find out what is behind it all. He will not get very far in the few days he will stay here. And the state health care and psychiatry … In any case I will prescribe some medication and you will have to watch him. At the beginning do not leave him on his own very much.

These were only sounds rather than words. The doctor asked something else but Adam no longer heard him. He vaguely saw how his mother, with a prescription in her hand, unexpectedly excused herself and rushed from the room as if she had been stung by a wasp.


— Adam, Adam, can you hear me? It’s me.

— Mother …

— I’m here holding your hand, Sonny. Hang onto mine! That’s right, squeeze it! We’ll discuss it all. There is nothing wrong. You don’t need to say anything. I am also at fault, I know. Tomorrow or the day after you will be discharged and we can talk about it. Surely there is a solution. Nowadays … In the seminary they don’t know anything about it. I called them to say you were ill. They send their wishes for a quick recovery. Aren’t you thirsty? I was told you may have some tea. Tomorrow you will also be allowed to eat. Everything is all right, believe me! Everything will be all right.


At home everything was strange as if he had set foot in the apartment for the first time. It was even more unpleasant than being in a strange place because he could not make himself feel at home.

His mother gave him a little shove as if to encourage him to go ahead and enter his room.

Everything is in its place. The narrow, creased map of Israel. The worn-out wall hanging, frayed in the middle behind his bed. The hanukkiah on the shelf with the wax from last year. The framed family photo with his father and mother by the sea. In front of the picture were his father’s shears that Adam had brought from the dressmaking workshop when it was emptied. And, of course. the books, all piled up on the desk and on the floor between the table and the bed.

He remembered everything except the last evening. That only in fragments. He entered like a visitor into his own life. He felt himself a stranger viewing everything from a distance, although perhaps it was up to now that he had been a stranger to himself. Now he saw everything more acutely.

He had lost five kilos since the last time he weighed himself. He was always slim at 70 kilos and 178 cm tall but now, as he was standing hunched over in front of the mirror after his shower, his skinny legs, his sunken cheeks, his caved in belly, his protruding ribs were alarming.

He is looking for his phylacteries. It is a familiar motion as he wraps them. He binds himself to the texts of the Torah which are on parchment in the boxes, by reciting them as a prayer.

How many times have I wrapped them so far? At least 2,000 times.

He could manage without them he thought but he would miss them. Just as he missed his body while he was floating away. He does not want to live without his body. He does not want to give it up no matter how much he fears it.

I will put on the tefillin whatever happens. Even after I go through with the operation. But first I need to get information. And put on a few kilos. I will only go back to the seminary then. I will only go out onto the street then. Where is my medication?


He was browsing the internet. He was trying to assess his present state and was considering the possible steps. When his mother arrived home and anxiously knocked on his door he hurriedly closed the web pages and replied angrily.

— I am only exhausted, there is nothing wrong.

— At least you got your appetite back. Was the supper to your liking?

His mother was standing in the doorway holding the doorknob.

— Yes, thanks.

— If you are tired we can talk tomorrow. If I can be of any help …

— No, thanks.

— You don’t want to talk?

— No. No thank you. Maybe later when I am feeling better.

— I’ll be glad to help … Is there some special dish you would like to have … If you need a doctor, money, or new clothes.

— I don’t need anything.

— I don’t understand exactly what you would like but as far as I know … Please know that I will back you. You are my son … my child, whatever you do.

His mother stepped over to him, she bent down, embraced him and kissed him on the cheek. Without responding, Adam tolerated it.

When his mother left and closed the door Adam felt that something was missing. He regretted not having returned the embrace.

He reopens the web pages. He surfs for hours and staggers to his bed well after midnight. He lies there naked, his whole body is trembling. He is frightened. He feels excitement and repulsion at the same time. He is dulled but wants to try himself out. His hand slides between his legs but he senses that he wants something more. He wets the middle finger of his other hand with saliva and pushes it under his hip. As he touches his anus his body spasms. He is overcome by an excitement never before experienced. The wedding scene from his recurrent dream appears to him but this time he does not try to dismiss it. The bride and groom are embracing, looking at each other. He penetrates himself, his other hand is moving rhythmically. It is as if he were staring into his own eyes. He is longing for an embrace, his whole body is abuzz.

After a few seconds the tension buffets his body in wild waves. He feels relief but is trembling again. He wipes himself with a tissue with some disgust. He is tormented by his conscience but not as much as he had feared. It is as if the torrent gushing from his body had washed him onto an uninhabited island, far from everything and everybody but somewhat closer to himself. As his body relaxes he turns on his side and pulls up his thighs and hugs himself. Even though it felt good there is something missing, something that would penetrate more deeply, something that would originate from a deeper source. He clearly senses a lack in his body. He swallows hard, finally he releases the cry that was stuck in his throat and lets it race through his whole body. While he is crying he lets out a laugh. His snot and his saliva spray about.


Dr Erdődy, his psychiatrist, was concentrating silently while Adam recounted with feigned calm where he had been in the past week since the last visit. He could not figure out whether the doctor guessed what had happened to him or was surprised. The doctor listened to him with empathy but, with the exception of a slight wince, he did not show any strong emotion.

— How long did they keep you in?

— Three days. They flushed out my stomach and put me on a drip. I lay there all dulled. Then a few conversations. I mentioned that I was undergoing treatment.

— Did they prescribe any medication?

— Rivotril, Zoloft.

— And how are you feeling now?

— Better. Somewhat.

— Are you comfortable about taking medication or would you prefer to stop?

— I feel calmer. But it is as if my feelings have been amputated.

— Perhaps you could reduce your dosage. Let’s say by half.

Adam nodded.

— Do you want to attempt it again? Or do you think that it would be worthwhile to continue our work? the doctor asked.

Adam lifted his head. He looked at the therapist in shock. The doctor talked about Adam’s dilemma, whether to kill himself or stay alive, with such ease as if he had asked him to go to a movie or a play.

— How can you ask that? he snapped.

At this moment he hated the doctor.

— I was just underlining your earlier dilemmas. And, of course, I am glad that you made the decision to stay alive. So shall we continue?

— If you are willing, Adam said flippantly.

— I am your employee, Erdődy countered, we can work together as long as you wish. But you are the boss. It is you who sets the pace. Just as it is you who makes decisions about your life. And do not forget everyone is prone to accidents. Anyone can be in over his head. Perhaps I have already mentioned that what we are working on is to make sure that “the ego is the master in his own house,” to turn around a phrase of a famous psychiatrist.

He felt that the doctor was blurring the issue, that there are certain circumstances that even a specialist could not influence, that it is really up to the individual to decide how to live his life.

— You don’t even ask me why I did it? Adam was still confused but all of a sudden he felt abandoned and realized that he could not count on anyone else; he felt sorry for himself.

— I know. You even told me. When I saw you last time.

— And you didn’t try to prevent it?

— And how do you think I could have prevented it? Erdődy lost his composure for a second, then he regained it. You are an adult. You are aware of what you are doing. Be it hiding from yourself with a handful of pills or facing yourself.

The anger kept increasing in Adam. He looked at the doctor with a different eye. He was no longer omnipotent, no longer irrefutable. He is just a man who is trying to help using his experience but who is not perfect and might even need help on occasion, Adam thought.

— May we continue? Erdődy asked.

— Yes, Adam said defiantly.

— What I mean is, are you capable of putting into words what you feel?

— I have already said yes! Adam was impatient and was waiting for the question.

— If you had to imagine someone you would be attracted to, how would that someone look?

Adam shrugged his shoulders.

— For whom were you longing in the wedding dream you described during your sessions with me?

— You know that already …

— But I want to hear it from you. Had you had sexual dreams prior to this?

— No, I hadn’t. Or rather I don’t remember.

— Neither with women nor with men?

Seeing Adam’s shocked face the doctor spoke again.

— Does this question still embarrass you?

— Yes.

— Does this topic or thought bother you?

— You must understand … Adam made a nervous gesture with his hand. This whole thing … it’s an abomination according to the Torah.

— Even I know that much from the Old Testament, the doctor nodded. But I also know that it is not only religious people who feel uncomfortable if they deviate from the norm. Are you sure that you feel uncomfortable about it before God? Could it be that it is before the people who are close to you?

— I don’t remember my dreams. This is the first such dream …

— What is it that makes you feel good, that you like, that gives you sensual pleasure?

— I have told you already, the clothes.

— The clothes? the doctor asked surprised.

— Women’s clothes. Fine fabrics. My father used to show me the materials he worked with in his shop. This sensation stayed with me. I still feel it when I touch cloth, silks … material used for women’s dresses.

— Did you try on those dresses?

— Sometimes my father measured them against me. Do you think this had any significance?

— Does it have any significance according to you? the doctor returned the question.

Adam reflected. It took half a minute before he slowly nodded in resignation. Then he spoke quietly.

— I don’t even know if I am a boy or a girl … literally.

— That is what we are working on, Adam, to find out. Both you and I. You have to be curious.

— Curious?

— You have no choice. You have been suppressing your curiosity for years by strict discipline. That is why you cannot really feel your desires. That is why you are feeling low. One could even say depressed. Ease up on yourself to find out what you desire. You must give it a try.

— You really want me to tell you about it? Really? the boy raised his voice.

— Are you able to?

— I’ll have you know, yes.

— What would you like?

— I would like to put on a skirt and a blouse.

— And what else?

Adam lowered his voice again:

— Stockings. High heels.

— Go on!

— I want to go outside dressed like that. I want to be seen.

— You would like to appear attractive.

He nodded, he wanted to say something but he felt that he had lost his voice.

— And at the same time I am scared and ashamed of myself.

— I know. And what else would you like? Whom would you like to attract?

— Why are you provoking me? Adam lost his patience. Yes, if you want to know, I would like to have someone! Someone who accepts me in this state and desires me, just the way I am, and as much as I desire him, he burst out and could not control a sob.

Erdődy obligingly reached for the box of tissues on the edge of the bookcase.

— You don’t know what would happen if they found out … Adam sniffled.

— In the seminary? In the community? Or your mother? I think she already suspects.

— What makes you think so? Adam suddenly looked up. Has she been here?

The doctor nodded.

— But how did she know? And why didn’t you tell me?

— I did not want to before it was appropriate. She found out my name and number from your cellphone and when you were in the hospital all drugged, she phoned me. I could not refuse to see her.

— And what did you tell her?

— No details. That is forbidden by doctors’ ethics. I only reinforced what your mother had suspected which is that you were in therapy. I think, by and large, she understands your situation.

— But how …

— You left certain websites open on your computer. As I saw it, she was not overly upset. If that reassures you. She was only worried about your life.

Adam sat there silent and in despair unable to speak.

The doctor went on in the same tone,

— You have a strong support, a mother on whom you can rely. As for the seminary or the community, why do they need to know right away? Even you do not know who you are or what you would like or what type of life you will leave once you find out. Would you not want to get to understand yourself better before you make any rash decisions? Or before you give up on being understood? Would you not like to try how it feels not suppressing your desires but following them up? If you put yourself first rather than others? Cannot the rest wait?

— I cannot bear this shame.

— Then do not blame others. The conflict is within you. I do not claim that the world accepts special people easily or particular destinies, but right now you are not fighting the world, but yourself. The rest will come after.

— I don’t want to leave my religion.

— You do not need to leave your religion. You have to find yourself.

— They will kick me out of the seminary.

— Is that a reason for expulsion?

— Have your ever seen a transgender priest, either Christian or Jewish? Adam’s anger returned.

— So you have been reading. But the label is not essential. You are not an entry in an encyclopedia but a human being with his own desires. What you need to know is what you want.

— What does it matter what I want? The Torah forbids anyone to change sex. That applies to any Jew, never mind a rabbi.

— Have you checked that?

— Not in detail, but I know. And I am familiar with the milieu in which I live. You can’t possibly understand this …

— It is true that I do not comprehend exactly. But I can guess. I have seen churches from the inside.

— We only have one female rabbi in the Reform community. The Conservative community in Hungary does not accept female rabbis.

He did not understand why the doctor nodded with a rather satisfied smile.

— You should read up on this, too, if I may suggest, Erdődy said wearily, I think you will need foreign sources.


Adam spent the following weeks looking at his computer and when he could rouse himself he even went to the seminary library. After months he reduced his medication by half. At home he made notes from the books he had bought from Amazon and AbeBooks. In the library he studied law codices and responsum collections obtained through interlibrary loans.

Although his mood fluctuated while he was organizing the information, he felt a certain pride. As he made his way through the jungle of a halachic problem, the paths of possible solutions started to reveal themselves. And as he was following these paths he seemed to be reassembling himself, piece by piece, from his former scattered state.

In the afternoons, after having left the library in a daze, he visited shops. He feverishly selected dresses, testing their cloth with his fingers. Blushing but then overcoming his inhibitions, he made his way into the fitting rooms under the shocked look of the saleswomen, and after a little hesitation he even bought some. Their whispering hurt him, but he did not have the energy to upbraid them. He pretended not to have noticed their remarks.

One night when he thought the streets would be empty, he got dressed. He took out the newly acquired makeup kit from his desk drawer, he put some blush on his face and applied lipstick. He left the house wearing a long, colorful skirt, a white batiste blouse unbuttoned at the top and high heels, he even put on a blond wig that his mother used to wear at parties and on New Year’s Eve, when she was young. At first he was stumbling in the high heels but while he listened to their clicking on the pavement, they became more and more regular, his footsteps became more self-assured and he felt a pride similar to that felt in the library.

When he got home and entered the dark apartment he became aware of the sound of nervous breathing. He was standing in the vestibule, a voice came from the dining room. He flattened himself against the wall.

— Is that you Adam?

A feeling of alarm went through his body. He yanked off the shoes. He was standing there in stocking feet and in women’s clothes. He could see his mother’s outline in the light filtering through from the stairwell as she left the dining table and came to greet him.

— It is me, Mom. Don’t turn the light on!

— Why? What’s the matter?

— Nothing is the matter, just don’t turn on the light.

— All right, dear, I won’t.

They approached each other. They could hear each other’s breath. His mother reached out her hand and touched his arm and then his face in the darkness. Adam did not budge. His mother drew him to herself. Feeling her way in the dark, she touched the wig that partially slid off. Adam’s body tensed up. He held his breath but his mother caressed his face and sighed.

—Up to now I was worried that someone might beat you up because of your yarmulke and your tzitzit … At least you won’t be wearing a yarmulke over your wig.

First it was Adam who started to snicker, then his mother could not stop herself from laughing. It was only after that when Adam started to cry. After the initial waves of sobbing he was surprised to see that a sense of relief and momentary happiness came over him.


After the consultation with the doctor Adam decided to submit his request in writing. In the seminary the others asked him what he was working on so assiduously, having seen him sitting in the library beside his computer weeks on end. He answered that it was on his dissertation. The classmates looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. The final exams were still far off. His professors were impressed.

When his submission was ready, he showed it to Erdődy who read it, nodded in agreement and handed it back to him. Adam noticed that the doctor was looking over at his hands. There were some traces of nail polish on his finger nails. He covered one hand with the other but slowly he relaxed and put them back on the arms of the chair.

— It is a masterly text, the doctor said, the rest is not up to you. How are you otherwise?

— I think better, he answered. Then after a short pause he added, I feel that I am a woman. Or rather that I would like to be a woman.

Erdődy nodded.

— It is you who decides and no matter what you decide the decision has to be to your satisfaction. Even if you choose a difficult path.

— I would like to know what the next step is.

— A urological exam and hormone treatment. In a few months, the secondary sex characteristics will start changing on your body. Your body hair will get sparser. Perhaps you will not even have to shave any more. Your shape will also change somewhat. Your hips will widen and possibly your breasts will also grow a little. It could be that your voice will get higher. And if you are satisfied with the results, what I mean is if you feel comfortable in your new shape and want further changes, that is when the operation will follow. Provided that you decide to take this step as well. But I would dissuade you from being hasty, you first have to experience how you feel in the new situation, whom you are attracted to, how your body reacts to sexual stimulus.

— Sex prior to marriage? Adam blurted.

The therapist was confused for a second. He looked at his patient blinking, trying to decide if he was serious.

— I was only joking, Adam apologized. Sorry. I know I should give it a try, still … It might sound strange, but just because I cross one boundary the next one won’t be any easier. You know the religious rules …

The doctor was perplexed. He replied slowly and deliberately.

— Look, how shall I put it, yours is an exceptional case. I must say that nothing like this has occurred in my practice before, even though I have been in the field for almost 30 years. In any case I tried to look up the details. It is possible that under the influence of the hormones, your body and your emotions will change but not your religious convictions, except in small ways. Yet, I must suggest that before you decide on the operation … So that you can make a sound decision … You will need to acquire some experience. I think you understand why. If it makes it easier for you to decide, I would say that this is part of the therapy. Erdődy stopped for a second and pondered. Actually I do not really understand why you are in a hurry … Should you not wait a little while? At least as far as the seminary is concerned.

— No. Enough is enough. I’ve been hiding for months. From myself, for years. That was the hardest I think.

The doctor spread his hands.

— Then it is your call.

The next day Adam handed in the petition to the rector’s office in the seminary. He knew that the news about his case would get out. It would not stay in the narrow circle of the rabbinical leadership, but he also knew that he could not disappear. He needed to behave naturally no matter how frightened he was, no matter how uncomfortable he was in the situation. Since the information gathered for the submission provided sufficient data for a thesis, time was not a problem. He could attend classes again.

The next time he went to the seminary, he could see the reserve and consternation on the faces of his professors and some of his classmates. In the corridor most would look away in alarm or pretend to be immersed in a book or a conversation. Only his friend Mandel came over to see him. He was standing in front of his desk wrinkling his nose as if it was itchy and asked him if it was all true. He was referring to the petition and his operation.

— It’s true, Adam nodded.

— And can you talk about it? Do you have someone to talk to? the other boy asked with a serious look.

His voice reflected true sympathy and interest. No one took Mandel seriously; he was short, fat and a loud mouth. His crocheted brown yarmulke, with his Hebrew name embroidered on it in yellow, was always somewhat askew.

— What I mean is that it mustn’t have been easy to make that decision …

— No, in fact it wasn’t.

— They are all in a lather, Mandel motioned toward the rector’s office. The leadership of the community is up in arms as well.

— Where did you get that from? Adam asked. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end.

Mandel shrugged his shoulders.

— They have no idea what to do. But they don’t want a big fuss because the news would spread.

— I can imagine.

— May I ask something?

— Go ahead, Adam said.

— How does it feel? Mandel’s eyes lit up. What I mean, is it different from before?

— Oh, crap … Gyuri! He shook his head. I have always been me. He paused. I’m not clear about it myself. Before … I didn’t know what I was feeling. And even now I don’t know exactly how I will feel. All I know is that I am not what my body suggests. Does this make sense?

Mandel nodded uncertainly.

— And how did you figure it out? he asked worriedly. He had never had any serious relationship with anyone either.

— You’re nuts! Adam shouted, twirling his finger by his ear … Just because you have trouble approaching women you must not suspect yourself.

Mandel let out a nervous laugh. Then he turned serious and stopped prodding his friend. The short conversation made Adam break out in a sweat. How should he describe his condition to others when he hardly knows anything about himself. Is it possible that Erdődy was right? Is it possible that he should have waited? But how can he wait when he is not able to keep living as a hypocrite.


He knew, he was practically certain, that this was bound to happen.

The next day Schuller, his Talmud professor, asked him to stay after class. This was their first meeting since he had presented the petition.

When he tried to join in the conversation during class the professor did not look back at him, did not react as in the past. That made him feel bad and after a while he stopped his efforts. When the class was over the boys all left with their heads bent down, only Mandel looked at him, blinking to express his solidarity. When Schuller and Adam were left by themselves, the professor could barely conceal that he was upset.

Adam was sitting in the first row. Schuller, standing on the dais, slammed his briefcase down on the table. He slapped it open and slid the volume of the Talmud and the manual he used for teaching into the bag. Adam did not dare to look him in the eye and the teacher was also averting his gaze. Finally Schuller broke the silence.

— I was also given your submission. Why, you know … he shook his head.

Adam did not react. Schuller waited for a few seconds and continued.

— I am an old man and have seen and heard a lot, but this … They do not understand the whole thing either. Do you know that you … You were always a good student.

— Was? Adam asked in alarm.

— That is not what I mean, Schuller waved it off, nothing has yet …

— Then what?

— I have no idea why they wanted me to talk to you.

— Evidently so that you can prepare me for the unpleasantness to come.

— Drop that frivolous tone. This whole thing is extremely unpleasant for me as well. The thing itself … and what comes with it … both. How could you put us in such a position? He looked at the boy for a second then he shook his head, staring at the table.

— You may guess that the decision about this case is not taken here. It is up to the leadership of the community. They may want you to retract your submission, but that is impossible since your case has gotten out already. You might have been better off had you not made such a big deal of it. He again looked at Adam. And if you tried to forget about the whole thing …

They looked at each other mutely.

— What do you think will happen, professor?

— I have no idea. Nothing like this has ever occurred before! And with such a talented student! He shook his head in disbelief. Maybe they will recommend that you switch to cultural history. You would be a fine Hebraist. You can do research on the Talmud or on Jewish history, or whatever. Or you can become a teacher, provided you can find an institution to employ you.

— But I want to be a rabbi!

— Have you gone mad, Kerpen? After your submission? In your condition?

— I can defend my point of view halachically. I am aware of the complexity of the question. I looked into it.

— Yes? And do you think that those who will decide your fate are not also aware of it? Or that they are interested in it? They don’t even accept a female rabbi let alone a … Schuller trailed off.

Adam turned red. The professor shuffled his notes nervously.

— I just want to finish my studies, Adam started off quietly.

— Then why couldn’t you wait a half a year more? the old man slapped the table. Why couldn’t you at least wait until that blasted final exam? Damn it, Kerpen … Such a bright boy! And how did all this occur to you? Did you notice from one day to the next that you aren’t comfortable in your skin or body and wanted a new one?

— I didn’t want to live a lie. I didn’t want to be ordained like this.

— I see, Schuller said sarcastically, that makes all the difference. And what does your mother say to all this, if I may ask?

Adam was overcome by a warm feeling. He answered defiantly:

— She accepted it. She acknowledged it. She loves me.

They were quiet, looking at each other. Schuller’s mouth was moving as if he was talking to himself. He started talking in a calmer voice.

— Look here, Kerpen, up to now you have been a well-behaved, exceptionally bright boy. I was fond of you. But I can’t get you out of this mess. This is too much even for me. I want to say that I suspect what it must mean for someone who is going through it; I wasn’t born yesterday. I have seen a few things in my life and am neither a prude nor insensitive. You must have noticed that. But this … Perhaps I am too old … I have no idea if one can change one’s orientation, I have no idea if it is possible to reverse things, but I know that it will be extremely difficult to have it accepted in this milieu. As a human being I am trying to … but as a rabbi … I hope you have indeed prepared your case well because to my knowledge based on Moses 5.23.1 this cannot be reconciled with being a rabbi and not even with being a Jew. I am not saying that as an adversary, believe you me.

Schuller spread his hands.

— I am sorry. That is all I wanted to add. I hope you won’t take offense that I have been candid. As your mentor I’m very curious about your detailed halachical reasoning but I can’t help you. I also have my convictions. If you are in need of consolation, you can find me. You know my number at home. But give me some time to regain my composure. He was getting ready to leave.

— Thank you, Adam said and got up.

He was expecting that as the professor got off the dais he would shake his hand as always before, but the old man did not extend his hand. That hurt him. He was also sure that Schuller had suggested contact by phone because he did not want to be seen with him in the seminary nor to meet him anywhere else.


That week he had a conversation with the rector, the assistant rector and the dean of student affairs in the assembly hall. The three of them were sitting behind a long table with a blue cover under oil paintings depicting former rabbis. There were glass-covered bookcases on all sides containing books with gothic script which had been collecting dust and not touched for decades, although the glass itself was always clean and glinting.

They did not mention that there was any pressure on the seminary but they informed him that they could not imagine having him ordained after that letter. They were only referring to the tradition in generalities: that a person was created either as a man or as a woman and the gender cannot be changed. Moreover, the seminary was not involved in the education of female rabbis. They did not give an opportunity for a detailed discussion but they indicated that they had consulted the leaders of the community because, as they put it, the case concerned religious politics, and it would be unfortunate to create a bad precedent that others could later quote.

They did not allow him to present his arguments in detail. This upset Adam so much that he could not even suggest the possibility of continuing or finishing his studies in another field. The leadership of the seminary, without hearing him out in a formal disciplinary process, and without considering his legalistic arguments, distanced itself from him, but it did not put the decision in writing and did not tell him outright that he was expelled from the rabbinical school. It was as if they had been waiting for him to come to that decision himself after having heard their pronouncements.


Adam became exasperated. He went to see Erdődy twice a week. The dosage of his medications had to be increased again.

From time to time he ventured into gay bars but he was frightened by the oppressive atmosphere and how the regulars latched on to him as fresh meat. He preferred to look for company on the internet. Apart from a few unpleasant experiences, such as encountering some impatient and aggressive people and a few anti-Semites among the gays and transgender people whom he met in the past few weeks, he also found a few to his liking, with a Jewish boy among them, and two transgender people who had undergone the operation recently. He began to spend time with them. He got intimately close to one of these new acquaintances and, after having overcome his fears, experienced, for the first time, what it was like when someone else was giving him pleasure.

In the meantime he made up his mind: He was going to appeal to the Beth Din although he suspected that it would not make a judgment which would contradict the interests of the community leadership or the rabbinical school. He still felt he had to give it a try. He prepared for it in earnest, collected the most cogent arguments, with all the references to his sources in the written submission.

The hearing took place on a Tuesday. He considered it a siman, a good sign, because on the third day of creation the sentence “God saw that it was good” occurs twice in the Torah.

At the rabbinate there were three men waiting for him, two of whom had even taught Adam. The atmosphere was frosty but they counteracted it by being polite. They asked if he wanted coffee, tea or mineral water. The elderly head of the rabbinate took a seat behind his desk, his two younger colleagues, one of whom was not much older than Adam, sat down by a coffee table that was pushed against the desk, while Adam and the assistant rector, a teacher of cultural history, who represented the university and the seminary, were seated across from them.

While Adam was talking he had to keep turning his head so that he could address each of them directly and look them in the eye. The somber, dark-brown furniture evoked an ominous feeling in him, even though it was not the first time he had seen the old wardrobes, chairs, and the desk.

The head of the rabbinate sat in a leather armchair with a carved tall wooden back. It seemed that his eyeglasses kept fogging up, he took them off and wiped them with a kerchief from the breast pocket of his suit. It was bothersome how often he reached for them as if he could not manage to wipe away some impurity from the lenses.

Adam kept swallowing hard trying to fight his nausea. He had kept correcting his speech until the last minute and had even showed it to Erdődy, who had suggested some small changes at the beginning and at the end. He could not comment on the battery of arguments but only on the rhetorical approach. Adam kept looking at the notes. While he was talking he was reminded of what he had learned in homiletics class from an elderly rabbi, who was almost blind and was assigned this course for that reason, and from the now retired Jewish actor whose deep voice was on the radio during his childhood.

— Esteemed rabbis, colleagues, he started his text which he almost knew by heart, I am well aware that the case I bring to the Beth Din is unusual, some might even think that it is distasteful or, indeed, provocative. It is possible that I would think the same way if I were not experiencing what it means first hand, but I do experience it and as a rabbi to be I cannot, I do not want to, lead a hypocritical life. It is important that I share my problems … I feel that when the decision was made in my case it did not take into account all the relevant sources and arguments that can be applied to evaluate my situation. That is why I asked the Beth Din to offer its opinion.

His voice was shaking a bit but he was articulate and succinct. He repeated almost word for word what he had written. When he could switch to the real arguments he calmed down somewhat although the attention of those on the other side of the table wandered. They reached for the coffee pot and refilled their cups.

— So what are those points where my situation clashes with the tradition? I would like to clarify two things: the question of clothing … he became silent as if pausing for effect but in reality he was gathering strength because his heart was racing. He had to take a deep breath before he continued … and the change of my gender. The practicing of rabbinical activity does not belong to the topic of the present petition. Apart from the traditional sources, I will later be referring to the writings of Rabbi Tilsen, the Conservative rabbi of the congregation Beth El-Keser Israel.

First Adam talked about how the purpose of the Torah’s commandment that men should not wear women’s clothes and women men’s clothes was basically to avoid adultery or maybe to tie religious vestments to gender.

— This latter is a minority position, he remarked, according Pseudo Yonatan, it concerns the tzitzit and the tallis but later on it was not regarded as normative. There are those who do not regard the prohibition of wearing men’s or women’s clothes as a symmetrical commandment, but their interpretation is that men’s weapons and equipment should not be in the possession of women so that they will not go to war. That is what Rabbi Eliezer Ben Jacob says in the Talmud and that is why Yael stabs Sisera with a tent peg and not with a sword, according to the Midrash Mishlei. In the written text I have given the exact references, of course, and he slid the prepared photocopies and stapled papers on the table over to his colleagues and to the assistant rector.

Only the assistant rector reached for them.

— Rashi interprets the commandment as the woman is not allowed to wear men’s clothes, so that she would not be able to mingle among men and thus commit adultery, but men cannot wear women’s clothes either because otherwise they could mix with women. The Shulchan Aruch, Adam was looking at his notes, at the same time allows for switching clothes at Purim because the purpose of the holiday is joy and not to commit a sin. The Sefer HaChinuch states: “The root of the mitzvah is to keep us from sexual sin … and there is no doubt that if men and women’s clothing were the same, they would mix and the earth would be filled with impropriety.” Therefore, the sin which the Law wants to protect you from is adultery.

He looked up to see how his arguments were received but he could not detect any emotion in the faces surrounding him.

— In Shulchan Aruch, according to the interpretation by Yore De’a, the commandment warns men not to shave their faces or other parts of their bodies unless it is a local custom, but today even this is not followed among modern Jews, and Adam pointed at his colleagues around him, only one of whom was wearing a beard.

As he was pointing at them, they straightened up and looked at each other awkwardly as if they found it embarrassing that the presenter of the case could find any basis for reference in their own behavior.

— After having compared the sources, we can state that the prohibition concerns basically not the clothes but the unlawful action that would be committed in the clothes: It is directed against adultery, against fooling others and deceptive behavior.

Adam paused and he drank his half full glass of water. He was gulping fast so that the others could not see that his hand was trembling. He took a deep breath and continued.

— I would like to quote the other commandment in the Torah that concerns my case: “No man whose testicles have been crushed or whose organ has been severed shall become a member of the assembly of the Lord.”

As he uttered these sentences he was not looking at the others, only at the paper, yet he felt that all his strength had abandoned him. He had to lean against the table and wait a few seconds so that he could continue. He took a deep breath through his nose several times, as suggested by the relaxation CD.

— Are you all right, Adam? the assistant rector asked. He lightly touched the sleeve of Adam’s jacket.

— Excuse me, Adam turned to him in gratitude.

He needed to marshal all his strength.

— Maimonides says in his Mishneh Torah that if someone was born with a damaged member or who lost his member due to illness, the commandment does not apply. But who would choose to be castrated willingly? Cannot we consider it a consequence of a particular state or, via a legal analogy, of illness if someone chooses the other gender by an inner compulsion. Even though he does not feel ill, only different, because he functions differently; he was beginning to be carried away by his passionate words. Who would undertake such a horrible torture, both physical and mental, unless he was driven by compulsion? On the other hand, can we not call it an impending illness if someone can lose his mind if the operation is not performed on him?

His voice got quieter, as if it was only now that he had verbalized it, that he became aware of his own truth and the danger that threatened him.

The colleague across from him, the one who was only a few years older than Adam but was already corpulent, said, drink a bit more, and poured him some water. After his faint encouraging smile he looked at the others anxiously.

The room was spinning around Adam and he had the sensation of running naked and being flogged. He felt incapable of producing another sound, but then he overcame his weakness. He talked slowly, putting stress on words as if that would increase the weight of his arguments.

— At the time when the prohibition in the Torah came about there were cults in the Middle East that subscribed to voluntary or imposed castration that proved complete devotion. The commandment was meant to be directed against this group. It was allowed to remove the genitals of the enemy as a sign of victory. That is what David did at the time of his victory over the Philistines when it can be assumed that he did not only cut off their foreskins. Jews were forbidden to carry out this procedure on another Jew but it did not apply to non-Jews, therefore a non-Jew can still perform this operation.

There is not much more left. Take a deep breath. He was encouraging himself and tried to follow the advice.

— I need to touch upon another aspect. Of course, I know that the operation will obviate the command about procreation, but I can draw a parallel with the instructions concerning abortion in the Talmud and in later writings. According to these, saving the mother’s life takes precedence over the life of the embryo when physical or mental pain is so severe that the procedure is necessary for saving a life or the integrity of a personality. The life of a living person takes precedence over the life of the unborn.

Adam looked around. He would have liked to see each of the faces but his older colleague, with his head looking down, was engrossed in turning his wedding band and the presiding judge was again busy with his glasses. Only the young rabbi and the assistant rector were looking at him. Adam sighed.

— In summary, I would like to say the following. I am aware that one has to be satisfied with the body given to him by God. But if he is not capable of living in it and keeping his sanity, then it is possible that certain rabbis would allow the operation based on the aforementioned sources. My problem touches upon two or three commandments and I promise that once this operation has been done I will follow a law abiding life, just as before. But for this to happen I will first have to straighten things out and be at peace with myself. Therefore, I ask the esteemed Beth Din to render their judgment based on the arguments presented to it, and allow for me to finish my studies. Thank you for your kind attention.

— We thank you as well. Your reasoning was truly fascinating and exhaustive, the leader of the rabbinate settled his glasses on the bridge of his nose.

He looked at his colleagues and got up. The two other rabbis followed.

— Since you have quoted several sources we will need to look into them. The Beth Din will communicate its decision to you in writing and we will naturally send it to the seminary as well, he put the stack of papers under his arm, nodded briefly to Adam and the assistant rector.

Later on Adam could not recall how he got out of the building. All he could remember was that he was already standing outside on the street, how the cold wind, unseasonable for the spring, felt good on his burning cheeks and that the assistant rector held out his hand to him before going over to his parked car.

— I hope you know that none of this is personal.

— Of course I know, Adam nodded, except he did not know if the other person meant what he said.


He received the decision a week later. The Beth Din concurred with the rector’s office which expelled him from the rabbinical seminary. The reasons for the judgment given was that he had been absent more often than permitted. He did not fulfill the requirements for studies and since this was the second term that this happened, given that he missed classes in the previous term as well, according to the regulations of the seminary, he was expelled.

As an attachment, there was also a short letter from the rector’s office. He did not understand. During the hearing he was not shown any written document.

— Are you surprised? asked the doctor, who had been contacted that afternoon.

Because of the exceptional circumstances, the doctor received him late that evening.

— No. I think not. Only the justification … it was dishonest.

— Are you in despair?

— A little bit. No, he shook his head, a lot.

— So what is Plan B?

— Plan B?

— You always need a Plan B.

Adam looked at him, not understanding.

— Will you go on fighting? the doctor asked.

— With whom? Why?

— For justice. With the seminary.

Adam shook his head.

— It won’t work. I am alone.

— Like everyone else, Erdődy said, the existentialists were aware of this as were the authors in antiquity. You need to be angrier. Don’t you have someone you could ask for help? Someone you can trust? Someone you could talk to? Someone who is well versed in how the subject is treated abroad or who might have connections abroad?

Adam was moving his head from side to side. He felt as if he were searching for refuge in a barren land.

— It is a small country with narrow perspectives, Erdődy ruminated, even my great-grandfather told this to my grandfather, although they were still living in the Monarchy … He up and left for Italy to become an automotive engineer. He was working on the design team for the Topolino in the ‘30s; have I not mentioned that to you?

— What has this to do with my story? Adam did not understand.

The doctor had never been as personal with him before.

— And after the war he came back thinking he could help revive the Hungarian automotive industry. He was put in jail for industrial espionage. In 1956 he uprooted himself again and went back to Fiat with my grandmother. My father was 20 at the time; he did not want to go, but that is another story. I have wandered from the topic a bit. I am sorry. All I wanted to say is that you can breathe more easily abroad. You speak Hebrew and English. It would be worth your while to look around. Perhaps there is a community or a seminary where you would be accepted and could study.

— Without connections? Adam shook his head doubtfully. With my problem?

— Did your good connections here count for anything?

— And my mother? as if Adam were questioning himself, what will become of her without me?

— Maybe she will remarry, the doctor said, but you should admit that what you are worried about is how you will manage without your mother.


He packed the books he had borrowed from the library in his knapsack and slid his student report booklet in as well. He started off toward József Boulevard in the blackest of moods. This was his fifth year in the rabbinical school. With the exception of the summer months he had showed up there almost every weekday until the last semester.

Once he checked that there was no one in the office apart from the secretary, he handed in his booklet. He did not want to meet anyone. The secretary got up unexpectedly and gave him a hug. That pleased him.

The librarian handed him a letter that Professor Meyer had left for him two days before. Meyer was a visiting professor of Hungarian origin from the New York Jewish Theological Seminary. Meyer had taken an interest in Adam in spite of the young man’s reticence. Adam opened the letter on the spot. It was written on a computer without diacritics.

Dear Adam, I am sorry to hear what has happened. I gave some thought to what could be done. Please come and see me in my office. Best regards, Professor Meyer.

Meyer’s office was situated at the rear of the seminar hall, near the library. When he entered after having knocked, Meyer did not waste any time.

— Is that you? I have been expecting you.

He got up and extended his hand and motioned him to sit in the chair by the table. Just shove those books aside and sit down. My place is always a mess. I am not able to resist any good book in antiquarian shops.

— Do you want a restorative drink?

From among the books on a shelf he took a bottle with a label in Yiddish showing a blue plum. It was still half full.

— It is a kosher plum brandy, a real hungaricum-judaicum.

Adam shook his head.

— Don’t tell anyone about it, Meyer tilted the bottle, they might say I am a drunkard.

He served himself a shot and tossed it back.

— I don’t want to waste your precious time. One is never too old to learn, and that also applies to rabbis, but that doesn’t matter now … I heard what happened. Please accept my sympathies.

— Thank you, Adam’s voice was strained.

He did not understand why Meyer was in a good mood.

— I read your submission. Yours is a peculiar case. What are your plans?

Adam shrugged his shoulders.

— I don’t know yet. I don’t have many possibilities here.

— But you are interested in continuing your studies, aren’t you?

— Where? Adam asked.

The professor, although no one could hear them, lowered his voice.

— If you are sure you haven’t lost your interest in Yiddishkeit … I have heard of a community in San Francisco where you would probably be welcome. You wouldn’t be the only interesting case there. Without asking your permission I have already written to them … Of course, only in principle to find out if they would be able to help. I hope you are not offended. I would not recommend my own institution. The seminary is not yet that modern, although the Conservative movement accepts female and homosexual and lesbian rabbis, but this trans business … That is what it is called, isn’t it? That is a bit too much, even for us. But as I said there is a community where you would be accepted and you could study.

— Using which halachic reasoning? Adam asked.

The professor’s eyes lit up.

— That only shows that you are a real rabbi … If I am correct, they argue that the operation, especially if it is not done by a Jewish doctor, would only contravene the law once. Then later you would be able to practice your religion. To tell the truth, I did not immerse myself in the details. As they say it is not my cup of tea. How shall I put it; my field of research is far from this. It is up to you to find out. Here is the email address and website, and he slid a piece of paper over to the boy.

Adam looked at him in surprise and gratitude.

— I looked up one thing, however, because I was curious about it. Regarding the blessings, I recommend that you look up the responsum of the Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg. In the morning prayer, those who have become a woman from a man by an operation will say, instead of the male blessing which is: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has not made me a woman,” or the female blessing: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has made me according to Your will,” what you need to say is: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has changed me according to Your will.” That is all I wanted to say, and he smiled. And if you ever make it to the eastern shore, look me up in the seminary. You have to get off at the Columbia subway station on Broadway, there someone will show you which way to go. I will be happy to see you. Don’t start crying like a woman … Shall I give you a handkerchief?

Translated from the Hungarian by Walter Burgess and Marietta Morry. English rights reserved © Walter Burgess and Marietta Morry.

Gábor T. Szántó is a novelist, essayist, and the editor-in-chief of Szombat, a Hungarian Jewish political and cultural monthly, and co-screenwriter of the film based on one of his short stories, 1945.