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Transgender Jews Find a Place in the Mikveh

Traditional rituals have become more inclusive and embracing

Marjorie Ingall
November 17, 2017
Photo: Carol Jacbos-Carre/Flickr
Walden Pond, which has become a popular spot for mikveh rituals.Photo: Carol Jacbos-Carre/Flickr
Photo: Carol Jacbos-Carre/Flickr
Walden Pond, which has become a popular spot for mikveh rituals.Photo: Carol Jacbos-Carre/Flickr

“For a long time before I transitioned, I had this dream of being in my body, as myself, in a beautiful clean and light and open space filled with water,” said Mel King, 29, a development manager and writer in Brooklyn. “The first time I went to the mikveh, I felt I’d walked into that dream. And I knew this was something I wanted to come back to.”

King grew up Catholic but had been drawn to Judaism since childhood. After college, he found a spiritual home at Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope and studied with Rabbi Ellen Lippmann for two years before converting. “Finding a mikveh that was inclusive and affirming of a trans person was not yet possible in New York, so I went to Mayyim Hayyim in Boston,” he said in an interview. “The folks there have been so thoughtful and intentional about creating rituals and having them on hand.” King is now a mikveh guide with ImmerseNYC, a pluralistic, feminist organization working to create inclusive mikveh experiences in New York. “Mikveh is a place where ritual and meaning can be made in new ways,” King said.

In an academic paper published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion in September, S. J. Crasnow, an assistant professor of religious studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, looked at the ways in which transgender Jews find meaning in mikveh, among other Jewish rituals. For “On Transition: Normative Judaism and Trans Innovation,” they conducted 72 interviews in the Boston and Los Angeles areas and talked to rabbis and members of Jewish communal organizations. Crasnow distinguished between Jewish structures that are “inclusive” and those that are actively “embracing.” In an interview, Crasnow said that being inclusive might be termed “the add-and-stir method.” “It doesn’t involve changing things—it’s using the same structures but saying ‘you can be a part,’” they said. “The power of that is limited if the structures themselves are the problem, if they’re rooted in patriarchy and heterosexism and cissexism. Telling people ‘you can enter’ isn’t always enough. ‘Embracing,’ on the other hand, is examining the structures themselves and adapting them.”

Crasnow, who attended Jewish Day School in L.A. (“from Mommy-and-Me all the way through 12th grade”) before studying English and philosophy as an undergrad at U.C. Santa Cruz, getting a master’s in education at U.C. San Diego, and earning a doctorate in religious studies at U.C. Riverside, wrote about the role of mikveh as the quintessential tool of transition in Judaism:

The mikveh functions as a liminal site where the individual immersing transitions from one state to another. At the mikveh, the ritual participant submerges entirely under the water multiple times, recites a blessing, and exits the mikveh waters transformed. For some trans Jews, the moment of liminality encountered at the mikveh may couple in meaningful ways with liminality in their own lives, mirroring the experience of living in the unstructured or in-between spaces of non-normative gender and sexuality. In terms of gender, this may be experienced as permanent marginality for those whose genders do not fit within a binary, or temporary liminality for those who are transitioning across binary gender.

The mikveh is a liminal space for cisgender and heterosexual Jews too, of course—it marks the crossing from impure to pure, from one state of being to another, from before to after of significant life moments. But for trans Jews choosing mikveh, the act isn’t about purification. Instead, writes Crasnow, it is “a method for healing or cleansing the queer/trans body from the toxicity of hetero- and cisnormativity.”

Several rabbis and thinkers have worked on transition rituals for queer Jews. Crasnow points to the work of Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor, Rabbi Elliot Kukla, and Dr. Max K. Strassfeld and Andrew Ramer. Strassfeld and Ramer created a mikveh ceremony in 2009 involving three immersions: one for the past, one for the present (“this time of transition, the in-between time”), and one for the future. The blessing for the immersion representing the present is particularly poetic:

As the sun sinks and the colors of the day turn, Jewish tradition offers a blessing for the twilight, for twilight is neither day nor night, but in-between. We are all twilight people. We can never be fully labeled or defined. We are many identities and loves, many genders and none. We are in between roles, at the intersection of histories, or between place and place. We are crisscrossed paths of memory and destination, streaks of light swirled together. We are neither day nor night. We are both, neither and all.

May the sacred in-between suspend our certainties, soften our judgements, and widen our vision. May this in-between light illuminate our way to God who transcends all categories and definitions. We cannot always define; we can always say a blessing.

Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first openly transgender man ordained by the Reform movement, in 2006, also offers a blessing for transitioning genders: Kukla created it for a friend who wanted to recite it every time he received hormone therapy, but it works for many occasions in the process of transition (“such as name or pronoun changes, coming out to loved ones, or moments of medical transition”). He writes:

“The Transforming One” as a name for God appears in the traditional blessings of gratitude that are recited each morning. The Hebrew verb root of this word, avar, has multiple layers of meaning within Judaism. Most literally it means to physically cross over; however, it also implies spiritual transformation in High Holiday prayers. It lies at the root of the word Ivrim, Hebrew people. We are the Ivrim, the crossing over people, because we physically crossed over the Jordan River to escape from slavery and oppression and spiritually transformed ourselves. At its core, our ancestral sacred memory holds this moment of painful and yet redemptive, physical and spiritual transition. In Modern Hebrew, this same verb root is used to form the word, ma’avar, which means to transition genders.

Kukla uses the form of the birkhot ha-shachar to say “Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of Time and Space, the Transforming One to those who transform/transition/cross over” and “Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God Ruler of Time and Space who has made me in Gods image.” He refers to a Midrash saying that the first human being was intersex while noting that all bodies, in all forms, are created in God’s image. The ritual concludes with the reciting of Shehechiyanu, the prayer for significant moments in one’s life.

Catherine Madsen and Joy Ladin have also written a post-mikveh ritual for male-to-female gender transition.

Crasnow notes: “In these rituals, the tradition of immersion in the mikveh has been transformed to frame gender transition as a miraculous act of perpetual queer becoming, and of queer Jewish world-making, in which the ritual participant becomes God’s partner in the task of creation.”

Some trans mikveh users create their own ceremonies. L. Lee Butler, 33, a librarian in Washington, D.C., decided to go to the mikveh when he was living in Boston and had just started testosterone. “I felt it was good and important to mark that transition in my transition,” he said with a laugh during an interview. “I did the priestly blessing in the repetition of the Amidah, which was language I’d been meditating on about being in God’s care. That was in 2006 and there’s been a lot of growth in places to look for alternate ritual and in specific ritual around transition since then.” At that time, Mayyim Hayyim was “theoretically very open to gender stuff but didn’t have any infrastructure,” Butler said. He decided to become a mikveh guide to be there for other trans people, and worked to help Mayyim Hayyim put best practices in place. “I did a lot of work talking with them about how, in a space that tends to be very gendered, to be welcoming and supportive of gender nonbinary and trans people,” he said. “I guided trans, cisgender guys, and gender-nonconforming people and helped with life transitions, preparing for weddings, and High Holidays.”

To use the mikveh is to be vulnerable. “Having someone who has been in the same place as you and isn’t surprised by what your body is can be really comforting,” Butler noted. “You want to create a welcoming atmosphere, and that extends to people’s bodies—chosen differences in bodies, such as piercings or transition surgery, and unchosen things in bodies, such as visible disabilities.”

Lisa Berman, mikveh and education director at Mayyim Hayyim, notes that there are many ways to be welcoming. The facility is wheelchair-accessible. All the literature uses gender-inclusive language wherever possible. (Hebrew is a gendered language, so Mayyim Hayyim offers traditional prayers like the Shema and Shehechiyanu in a feminine version as well as the traditionally masculine one. There’s no nonbinary version, but blame Hebrew for that.) There are two baths, and people of any gender can immerse in either one. Witnesses are optional. And when a person immerses, the mikveh guide holds a sheet over their eyes and lowers it only when the person is under the water to ensure that they’re fully immersed. They raise the sheet again before the person comes up. (Berman’s list of ways the mikveh works to welcome multiple populations is reminiscent of the ways truly inclusive Jewish camps are intentional about welcoming LGBT kids, non-white kids, and single-parented kids. Inclusivity works best when it’s conscious and crosses populations.) Most important, says Berman, “We don’t make assumptions. Guests come to us for lots of reasons. We say, ‘How can we make this as comfortable as possible for you?’”

Mayyim Hayyim offers generic immersion ceremonies that say “for a joyous life transition,” and “for a challenging life transition,” and “for the beginning of a journey,” all of which can be used for gender transition. But the mikveh has also created more specific ceremonies, borrowing from the work of Kukla, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, and RitualWell, as well as other experts in Jewish trans issues. “We created something we hope works for many individuals, making it broad as possible without losing its integrity,” Berman said.

Butler, who attends an Orthodox shul, had other concerns about using the mikveh. “It was empowering for me, as someone who’s more halachically oriented and often wants things to be done correctly, to learn that a mikveh is like a Torah scroll: It can’t take impurity onto itself. There is no way, even if you do something wrong, to make it tamei or screw it up for the next person. It’s not this fragile thing; it’s this holy thing that can be entirely itself, regardless of what you do when you have incidental contact with it.”

Not every trans Jew’s mikveh experience is life-altering. “One reason I’m truthful about my crappy experience is because there can be so much pressure for everything to be so beautiful and meaningful,” said Duncan Betzalel, 35, a sleep technician in Seattle. So many people are all, ‘It was transcendental and spiritual and I was a new person!’ I’m happy for those people, but when you hear that over and over you think if my experience wasn’t that, am I doing something wrong? You’re not. For me it was nerve-wracking and I didn’t enjoy myself at all. I was living in Jackson, Mississippi, which doesn’t have a mikveh. You have to go to Memphis or New Orleans, three hours away. I was nervous about going to an indoor mikveh because I was trans and Reform, and it was likely to be full of women, and here I am with my beard. I decided to use a natural body of water nearby, but I didn’t count on—well, being trans, you have some dysphoria, and while it hasn’t been a huge issue in my life, most people are not comfortable naked in public whether you’re trans or not. We were going to use a reservoir but it was too cold, so we used a swimming pool that was kept as a kosher mikveh. It was still uncomfortable, being naked in the open air in someone’s yard I’ve never met. And there’s nothing spiritual-feeling about going into a swimming pool. It feels like a swimming pool! It was a negative experience, but I’m still grateful I did it. Not everything in life is puppies and daisies. I’ve been several times since then, to actual mikvaot, and it’s been much better.”

Of course, many mikvehs aren’t welcoming to trans and nonbinary Jews at all. Butler noted, “A woman once said to me, ‘We want to be open!’ and I said to her, ‘Well, are you willing to have a woman with a penis immerse on the men’s side?’ And she said, ‘Uhhh, I don’t KNOOOOOOW!’ I said, well, you need to figure that out.” Until they do, queer Jews who don’t live near mikvehs they can use often use kosher bodies of water outdoors (Crasnow reports that Walden Pond is a popular spot). A queer mikveh documentary in the works will look at other options; it’s currently in the fundraising stage.

“There can be real power and beauty in reclaiming ritual,” Mel King concluded. “I got married a couple of weeks ago and went back to Mayyim Hayyim with the friend I went with the first time. She became a mikveh guide after that and it feels as though it’s come full circle. I went in remembering the beauty and power it held for me the first time, but I was feeling so overwhelmed by the wedding process. And I’d forgotten what it looked like inside because I’d remembered the feeling more than the space. So when I was there again, I was having a dual experience of re-remembering and also being in it. I immersed and had my time in the mikveh room just standing there and feeling the light, and I really felt the marking of time. Everything slowed down. Life had been going at a breakneck pace, but suddenly I felt on my way to being a husband, and I was so grateful.”


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.