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Outside the Gender Binary

How nonbinary Jews navigate gendered spaces

by
Marie-Rose Sheinerman
January 14, 2021
Courtesy Eri Solomon
Eri Solomon at the Western WallCourtesy Eri Solomon
Courtesy Eri Solomon
Eri Solomon at the Western WallCourtesy Eri Solomon

At the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, observance is a spectrum—and Ariel Ya’akov Berry, a first-year rabbinical student, happens to fall on the more traditional end. Despite attending a Conservative rabbinical school, Berry is often perceived to be modern Orthodox, wearing peyot, a large kippah, and tzitzit every day, and opting for modest, yeshivish clothes. Berry also openly identifies as gender nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns.

“Part of the reason I ended up deciding to be a rabbi was I wanted to be the role model of a rabbi I didn’t have,” Berry said. “I wanted to be that possibility model for people, to see you can be this level of observance while still being openly and proudly queer and nonbinary.”

That may be Berry’s dream, but not everyone shares it. Despite aligning in many ways with more traditional practice, Berry felt they would not be able to openly be their full self in a modern Orthodox yeshiva. And despite the overwhelming support of fellow students at JTS, a recent conversation with a professor left them feeling “very uncomfortable … like I was being told, ‘while I respect your choice to identify in a certain way, ultimately you are a man.’”

Still, Berry attends Orthodox shuls relatively frequently, particularly since the pandemic narrowed accessible synagogues to those in their immediate neighborhood. “For me it’s very complicated when choosing where to sit,” they explained. “I want to respect the space that I’m in because I am a guest in their community, so I usually sit in the men’s section … but it’s very complicated.” It’s doubly complicated, Berry added, since their belief in egalitarian prayer creates a self-awareness of the “privilege” they access by performing male roles in an Orthodox space.

Existing in the Jewish world as a nonbinary person raises myriad questions. How do you interact with the Hebrew language, where gendered tenses seem inescapable? How do you enter spaces that draw a physical binary, like a shul with a mechitza, a traditional mikvah, or the Western Wall? How do you approach practices, like the bris (ritual circumcision) or niddah (Jewish law surrounding menstruation), that deal directly with male or female anatomy?

“It’s very complicated,” was a common refrain I heard while interviewing nonbinary, practicing Jews. None of those questions have one-size-fits-all solutions—and why would they? As Joy Ladin, the first trans professor at Yeshiva University, put it, “Nonbinary is not a noun … nonbinary just says, you know ‘male’ and ‘female’? That’s not me.” Nonbinary as a category “is as diverse as Judaism itself,” said JB Levine, a prayer leader from Houston who identifies with the term.

Although many nonbinary individuals also identify with the word “trans,” many others do not—and the two modes of identity present distinct challenges and opportunities in terms of Halacha, or Jewish law. In reflecting on their experiences with gendered Jewish spaces, Sandra Little said, “Being nonbinary, and not trans, it wasn’t that I felt ‘I’m in the wrong group,’ but more like, ‘This just doesn’t apply to me.’”

But while “trans” has recently become enshrined in much of the Jewish world’s shared vocabulary, “nonbinary” has yet to be. “The mainstream Jewish community is slowly waking up to the reality of binary trans people, and in my experience has not fully awakened to the power and the gift of the existence of nonbinary folks in our communities,” said Laynie Soloman, an associate rosh yeshiva at SVARA, a self-identified “traditionally radical yeshiva.”

One obstacle to such an awakening is the reality of rigidly gendered grammar in the Hebrew language. “We don’t really have a Halachic or spiritual vocabulary that is nongendered, in part just due to the nature of Hebrew,” Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Yeshivat Maharat said, “and that forces us to think in particular categories, and that’s a real problem.”

Yet the work to make space for gender neutrality in Hebrew has been underway for years, one leader told me, and hundreds of Jews have already made use of the result.

In 2017, Eyal Rivlin, a Hebrew instructor at UC Boulder, noticed at the bottom of an incoming student’s email signature a preference for they/them pronouns. He wrote back to the student, Lior Gross, asking how they would like to be referred to in Hebrew. Rivlin recalled, “They said, ‘Well, I don’t know … what do you think?’” With that, he and Gross began an in-depth exploration of the possibilities for nonbinary forms in Hebrew, and a year later, the fruits of their labor were published online as the Nonbinary Hebrew Project. Reflecting on the project now, Gross described it as an evolving system, not a finished product—and their role in it as that of a facilitator of communal collaboration, not that of a creator.

Today, the project links to 18 different ritual applications of its grammatical system, including a gender-neutral way of calling someone up to the Torah (avoiding the male “ben” or female “bat” forms with “mi’beit,” or “from the house of”), a gender-neutral ketubah, and gender-neutral Friday night blessings for children.

For some, these new options have become vital tools. Ari Langman, a mid-pandemic convert, took on the “mi’beit” form in their conversion certificate. “We have ‘modeh ani’ and ‘modah ani,’ the masculine and the feminine, but what about people like me who are neither?” said Ze’evi Berman, a cantorial student at Hebrew Union College, referring to the daily morning prayer. “I use ‘modet ani,’ and I’m bringing that to every community where I’m leading.” For Jewish communities to be authentically welcoming, Berman believes, they must work to normalize such forms. “In the same way that in English we don’t default to ‘he’ being the gender-neutral pronoun anymore, I think we still have a ways to go in Jewish liturgy in not defaulting to the masculine when referring to a large group of people.”

But using gender-neutral forms is a deeply personal choice, and many nonbinary folks have consciously chosen not to adopt them. Berry, for one, exclusively uses the masculine in Hebrew. Eri Solomon, an organizer with the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action who identifies as both nonbinary and trans, chooses to keep “almost all blessing structures as they are written.” “I really love and enjoy tradition,” Solomon said, “so I’m not necessarily someone who in my daily practice does a lot of substitutions or edits around gender-neutral language.” While they tend to use “mi’beit” in their home community, when coming to a new shul, they usually opt for the masculine “ben” if asked up for an aliyah. “What is interesting is that also outs me because I [sometimes] pass as a female, so I actually really like it,” Solomon said. “It communicates really effectively that I’m trans. They might think I’m a trans male, which is not accurate, but they’re getting some kind of understanding that I’m trans.”

Levine took a different approach entirely: “I started to wake up every day and be like ‘Is today a ‘modeh ani’ day or a ‘modah ani’ day?’” And in Israel, the options are even more varied: Nonbinary folks tend to opt for “crossing over” (using the masculine and the feminine forms in the same sentence or in alternating sentences), only using the past or the future tenses, or sticking with the plural forms, according to Gross.

“The best thing that can happen to our tradition is multiplicity,” said Soloman, the SVARA educator. “From the beginning, our tradition has found sacredness in multiplicity; for any instance of rigid binary frameworks, we can find powerful multivocality in our tradition.”

This “multiplicity” becomes most prominent in discussions of ritual and anatomy. Sky Karp, a senior at Smith College, plans to go to the mikvah before getting top surgery, transforming a space that traditionally divides people around their gender into a space for celebrating gender fluidity. Lara Haft, a rabbinical student in Jerusalem who identifies as nonbinary, believes in keeping niddah: “Some mitzvot are about gender and some mitzvot are about bodies,” they said. “I feel really lucky that I have a body that menstruates … Hashem gave me this mitzvah on my body. We shouldn’t call it a women’s mitzvah, we should call it a people-who-menstruate mitzvah.”

With the most central of Jewish rites of passage, bar and bat mitzvahs, gendered language is baked into the name. In recent years, however, some communities have made strides to undo that. Last year, Eli Berman became the first b’nei mitzvah at Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life, and with the support of their parents, performed original Yiddish music for the community as part of the ceremony. Syd Bakal, a junior at Yale, said that their Reform synagogue in the suburbs of Chicago, Beth Tikvah Congregation, is now shifting to “use the term ‘b mitzvah,’ and not gendering it until either the kid or the family comes forward and says here’s what we want that ceremony to be called.” To their knowledge, Bakal had been the first person in the community to come out as nonbinary. “If [a b mitzvah] had been an option when I was 13, it’s definitely something I would have done,” they said. Karp felt similarly: “I feel so jealous of all these nonbinary kids now who get to have these gender-neutral b’nei mitzvahs.”

Still, for some who came to identify as nonbinary later in life, looking back on a gendered ceremony from childhood can be important. Rena Yehuda Newman, the editor-in-chief at New Voices Magazine, stressed that they would never want to erase the memory of their bat mitzvah. “My gender history is a part of who I am,” they explained.

The mechitza is perhaps the most physical manifestation of a gender binary in Judaism. For some who identify as nonbinary, it’s a red line. “Even though I really love some traditional things that I wouldn’t find in a Reform service, I cannot put myself in an environment with a mechitza,” Bakal said. “There needs to be more talk about what that means and what that looks like for nonbinary people.”

Others, like Haft, may prefer egalitarian spaces but still choose to pray in a minyan with a mechitza around once a month. “Part of being an observant Jew … you have to be in the game, you have to be playing ball,” they explained. “For me it’s important to be in community with Am Yisrael.” Haft added that although debate surrounding the mechitza “is a fight that should be fought,” it’s not one they’re personally interested in fighting.

For many, the multiplicity within nonbinary Jews’ relationships to gendered practices can be traced to the multiplicity of gender in Jewish texts. From the language of the creation of Adam in Genesis, to the story of Yosef and Dinah’s souls being switched at birth, from Mishnah Bikkurim and Kabbalah, to Micah Bazant’s zine reclaiming the Talmudic concept of the “TimTum,” references to breaking the gender binary are scattered through millenniums of Jewish writing. But despite all that, there’s a danger to overinvesting in ancients’ understanding of gender and applying it to our own, according to Jericho Vincent, a rabbinical candidate who teaches genderqueer Torah: “A lot of people really love to jump on that and say our ancestors were so progressive, that they built into Jewish life recognition of how there could be genderqueer people,” they said. “I always have a mixed reaction to that … we should celebrate our ancestors when they get things right, but if we give them too much credit, we miss an opportunity to hold them accountable.”

Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a fall journalism fellow at Tablet and a history concentrator at Princeton University on a year off as a rising junior.

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