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Transgender and Jewish

When I decided to physically transition from female to male, I didn’t consciously consider how my relationship to Judaism might change as a result

Isaac Levy
June 23, 2017
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
This article is part of LGBTQ+ Voices.
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Jewish gender norms were a source of pain in my life since I was a child. Twenty years ago, when I was 10, I was given a handout of occupations in Hebrew class. The table was divided by men’s and women’s word forms, because Hebrew nouns reflect gender: e.g., moreh for a teacher who is a man, morah for a teacher who is a woman. In some instances, the gendered occupations didn’t merely have different spellings, but different meanings altogether. For instance, the men’s job options included “rabbi,” for which the women’s counterpart was listed as “rebbetzin,” a rabbi’s wife. I was infuriated that the language allowed for only male rabbis—also, apparently, a woman married to a rabbi couldn’t have her own career.

Years later, when I decided to physically transition to male from female, I didn’t consciously consider how my relationship to Judaism might change as a result. I certainly did not transition to acquire the social privilege, in and out of Jewish communities, that accompanies manhood—although that privilege has been an unwelcome side effect. If asked pre-transition, I think I would’ve expressed hope that my transition would bring me greater peace in my skin, myself, and that my connection to Judaism would likewise improve, buoyed by the rising tide. On some level, I assumed that my transition would not only fix the mismatch between my gender identity and my physical body but would also address my long-felt sense that I wasn’t right for Judaism—that there was no space in Judaism for me.

Female-to-male, or FTM, transition did wonders for my happiness and comfort; it was, without question, the right path for me. With regards to Judaism, however, transition layered new questions and confusion atop old ones.

I grew up in the 1990s in a socially liberal, Jewishly Conservative East Coast family. My loving parents were accomplished professionals who modeled an egalitarian heterosexual relationship, encouraged their male and female children equally, and chose which Jewish laws to observe per a mysterious rubric. We kept kosher at home but ate at non-kosher restaurants, where we ordered only vegetarian; didn’t write on Shabbat, but did drive; and kept our chametz in the house on Pesach, but in cabinets that were taped shut. An analytical and endlessly curious child, I was publicly proud and privately frustrated about being Jewish. When Christian classmates at my public elementary school told me excitedly about Santa Claus, I was unimpressed—and grateful that my parents didn’t tell me things that they knew were untrue. On the other hand, I couldn’t understand the idea that God would care whether I ate a cheeseburger. I experienced synagogue and Sunday school teachings as arbitrary, enforcing the capricious rules of an unseen force. I found few adults who could answer my barrage of questions to my satisfaction.

I also had longstanding discomfort with being seen as a girl: At age 7, I’d gone through a long phase of insisting others call me by a gender-neutral name and even ordered stationery with that name from the synagogue book fair. For my bat mitzvah, when I chose the verse that would adorn my personalized tallit, I carefully selected one that made no mention of God and was gender-neutral. My cousin, by contrast, chose a verse from Proverbs 31, a paean of praise to womanhood that Orthodox men traditionally sing to their wives on Friday evenings. I wore a somber gray skirt suit and selected a black-and-blue invitation whose sample, in the stationer’s catalog, was for a bar mitzvah boy named Daniel. I received Shabbat candlesticks from the synagogue sisterhood, like all my female peers—except mine were unwanted. When a relative asked what gift I might enjoy, I chose a Kiddush cup: what I would have received from the men’s club, had I been born male.

During high school and college, whenever I ventured out in public, I never knew what androgyny-based hostility I might encounter. Sadly, this uncertainty was part of my Jewish life, too. The clergy knew my family and was, thankfully, unfazed by me. However, my Conservative childhood synagogue was enormous, with a transient membership, many of whom did not know one another. The synagogue required men to wear kippot and left it optional for women—but regardless of synagogue policy, in my family, kippot were only for men. When I attended, on an increasingly infrequent basis, for family events or during college breaks, I was repeatedly confronted by new ushers perceiving me as male and informing me, with varying degrees of reproach, that I’d forgotten to don my kippah. I responded awkwardly, muttering, “I’m not male,” which inevitably led to frantic apologies (“I didn’t know—it’s just your hair is so short, you see…”).

An ever-practical relative asked, “Why not just put on a kippah beforehand and avoid the risk?” Donning a kippah under the pressure of the ushers’ scrutiny felt like being rushed toward a conclusion about my gender identity long before I was ready. My childhood synagogue, once a place of warmth and belonging, became anything but a sanctuary.

Nor was this focus on division, on separation and classification, solely a matter of synagogue policy: Rather, it seemed written into the liturgy itself, into the heart of what Judaism regarded as most praiseworthy, awesome, and divine. Prayer after prayer expressed gratitude for the division between the workweek and the Sabbath, holy and profane, light and darkness. Where, I wondered, were the prayers to the G-d of the liminal, the border-crossers, the uncategorizable? I no longer felt comfortable getting near the Torah scrolls, because the cantor summoned people to the bimah as so-and-so, son/daughter of so-and-so … and I didn’t know whether I was a son, daughter, or something else altogether. One had a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah; there was no way to be a gender-neutral “child” of the Commandments.

Even G-d was shoehorned along gender lines, either the Shekhinah or, far more frequently, the Lord. These metaphors for aspects of divinity made it harder to view myself as b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of G-d. Even if I thought of G-d as both female and male, simultaneously the Sabbath Queen and the King of Kings, there was still no neutral option, no way of escaping human gender categories. The deification of division seemed to me its own form of idolatry, prioritizing the policing of boundaries above the expansive, category-defying nature of both God and humanity.

Merely showing up for Jewish events could be nerve-wracking—as when I arrived at the bar mitzvah of an adult friend who was converting in an Orthodox shul, complete with mechitza. I hesitated at the back of the sanctuary, uncertain where to sit, increasingly self-conscious as a succession of people approached and directed me to sit down. “Where?” I asked, genuinely confused—and then listened with wry resignation as each divergent assessment was proffered with complete confidence: “The women’s side, of course,” or, “Over there, where all the men are.”

In Jewish contexts, I felt simultaneously on display to other people and hidden from G-d—the latter of whom might appreciate gratitude for myriad delineations, but apparently not for creating people like me.

I grew up before cultural phenomena like Transparent and the proliferating terminology we now have for gender and sexual diversity. As a result, my discovery of my identity was gradual, a process I jokingly refer to as “the BLT sandwich”: I first realized I was attracted to women in middle school, but I didn’t yet know how I felt about men—so I figured I must be bisexual. By high school, I’d realized that I was almost exclusively attracted to women, and came out as a lesbian. Meanwhile, I grew increasingly masculine in appearance over the course of high school, to the understandable confusion of my parents: I couldn’t explain to myself why appearing male felt so important, so how could I explain it to them?

I found Judaism’s presumptions of heterosexuality and binary gender identity especially exasperating during this time. If the idea behind the mechitza was to enable focus on prayer by removing potential sexual distractions, then seating a bisexual or lesbian woman—as I assumed myself to be—among other women didn’t make sense. Per that logic, moving her to the other side of the wall doesn’t work, either: It might distract any heterosexual men praying there. When attending simchas at Orthodox shuls, I wondered guiltily whether those around me would balk if they knew that I was attracted to women. I angrily envisioned a dystopian synagogue transformed into a maze of cubicles, each bisexual person carefully isolated from one another and everyone else.

In college, when I had my first intimate experiences with women, I realized for certain that I could not continue living in a female body. It had become increasingly difficult to inhabit my naked body when I was alone—but in the presence of another person, it was unbearable. I began with social transition: going by a unisex nickname, coming out to friends as transgender (the “T” in the sandwich), and using male pronouns. Within a year of college graduation, I started testosterone treatment, which essentially spurred male puberty: Over the ensuing months, my voice dropped, muscles and body hair grew, my brow became more prominent, etc. I remain grateful for the loving support of my immediate and extended family during this process.

This was the point at which I began to be perceived by strangers as unambiguously male. My daily life became far easier: I was no longer greeted by mumbling salespeople saying, “Hello ma’am, erm, sir, uh—” as they abruptly changed their minds midsentence; no longer hassled in public bathrooms and trying to “hold it” until I could get home; no longer met with stares, aggression, and suspicion. Meanwhile, I reveled in my sprouting beard, even my balding head and back hair—all of it a delightful, unprecedentedly joyous experience of embodiment, a confirmation that physical maleness was right for me. Transition is a highly individual process, in terms of which changes a person needs and has access to. I also needed surgeries to tolerate my body, and I was lucky to be able to afford those over the subsequent few years.

Post-transition, with my more binary identity and male presentation, that Jewish awkwardness morphed into a wholly unwanted sense of access. A distant cousin said that he’d discussed what he termed “my situation” in detail with his rabbi, who had deemed me man enough to count for their minyan. Far from being flattered by this purported confirmation of my manhood, I was infuriated: by the sharing of my private medical history with this stranger; by the rabbi’s arrogance in holding himself up as a judge (how would the rabbi feel, I wondered, if I analyzed his genitals—by conversational relay!—to see if they measured up to my standards?); by the knowledge that my presence enabled the uttering of holy words that would have gone unsaid, were I (still seen as) a woman. I informed the relative that I had zero interest in attending a minyan where my mother or sister—or any other woman—was unwelcome.

As a man, I find Judaism’s sexism especially galling. I have new insights into the flimsiness of rationales for gendered policies, and how they function to keep women from access to both the Torah and congregational authority. I used to wonder privately whether testosterone was as mind-bending as some Orthodox rabbis claimed, rendering men incapable of focusing at the sound of a woman’s voice: pre-transition, how would I have known for sure? Now, my blood testosterone levels have long been in a typical adult-male range. While my sex drive increased with testosterone—as is typical for males from puberty onward, when testosterone production kicks into high gear—I remain able to focus my attention. I am distinctly unimpressed by men who blame their own lack of self-control on women and am exasperated that my testosterone-lowered voice renders me eligible to read Torah to men. Previously, my kol isha (woman’s voice) would have been, purportedly, too much of a distraction … except, of course, for gay men.

Another part of my post-transition discomfort with Judaism had to do with my body—specifically, my penis. Our culture’s increasing knowledge of transgender issues has introduced the notion that gender identity and expression exist on a spectrum. Many people have yet to learn, however, that physiological sex is also far from binary, and chromosomes are not the final word. The Talmud does mention some such situations, but in a limited way that both reifies existing gender binaries and, by definition, cannot reflect recent scientific discoveries. We now know more about maternal hormones’ effects on the fetus; an individual’s chromosomes (which can be XY, XX, XXY, XYY, and more); internal reproductive organs; external genital tissue; secondary sex characteristics like beards and breasts; hormonal changes over the lifespan, etc. These components of sex do not line up, lockstep, into two battalions of males and females. Sexual characteristics can be mix-and-match, G-d assembling packages of mishloach manot, tossing in a gift here, a sweet surprise there.

When one has studied these intersex—formerly and misleadingly called “hermaphrodite”—issues, circumcision begins to feel even more fraught. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, for example, is a genetic condition wherein an XX (“female”) fetus is exposed to high levels of masculinizing hormones in utero. As a result, the newborn’s external erectile tissue—i.e., what would be a clitoris, had the masculinizing hormones not taken effect—can be the same size as a male infant’s penis. Depending on how the condition manifests, the skin below may be fused, as in a scrotum, or separated into labia; the person may or may not have a vagina; the location of the urethral exit can vary. Even prior to my own transition, I was uncomfortable with male circumcision: I knew a small penis and a large clitoris can be visually indistinguishable, an overlapping Venn diagram. When distinctions are made, they can be a matter of millimeters in an infant, as intersex educators have pointed out—which seemed too slim for comfort, variations on a theme rather than a clear divide. Removing a foreskin was analogous to snipping off the tip of a clitoral hood, and none of the Jews I knew were enthusiastic about the latter.

I found myself in the bizarre position—with all my bodily and genital dysphoria, and my desperate longing to have been born male—of thanking G-d that I had not been born male, because then I, like my brothers, would have been circumcised. An XX adult taking testosterone, like me, experiences permanent genital growth: What was a clitoris lengthens and swells in girth. My clitoral hood enlarged, becoming a sensitive foreskin that also heightens the sensation of the phallus’ flared glans. Here’s the secret about having a foreskin, from one Jew to another: It feels incredible. So here I am, hineini, reveling, for once, in a body that has withstood such pain: reveling because when my partner takes my foreskin in her hand, my pleasure is so huge that it eclipses all the painful memories, the line of treatments needed to render my body habitable. Then, amid long-sought happiness, that most stereotypically Jewish of thoughts: Should I be feeling guilty about this?

My experiences with my post-transition Jewish genitals felt surreal, like an X-rated New Yorker cartoon. I went to buy a dildo for those occasions when my partner wanted something even larger than my testosterone-enhanced endowment and wondered whether to buy a circumcised or uncircumcised model. The former is what I would have had if I’d been born male, but the latter is the larger version of what I do have, and have no plans of giving up. Sometimes I could only laugh at such situations: Where was the Jewish guidance on dildo purchases?

Another unanticipated twist in my relationship with Judaism came with the 2016 election. Externally, my social privilege seemed unquestionable, given my presentation as a white, affluent, educated, non-kippah-wearing, straight man. Internally, however, I felt newly and hugely vulnerable, as a transsexual person and as a Jew. What laws might be passed under this new administration, with its ludicrous focus on birth certificates, that would strip me of the hard-won “M” on my driver’s license and American passport?

My immediate family also has German passports and dual citizenship, thanks to a reparations program for descendants of German Jews who were stripped of German citizenship during the Holocaust. My own application for a German passport, however, was stalled amid bureaucracy because Germany’s criteria for changing the sex marker on official documents does not match that of the U.S. Amid the surge of anti-Semitism following the election, family members discussed moving to the EU. I wondered if, should the time come for such drastic measures, I would be the lone member of my family stopped at the border. This anxiety was simultaneously unprecedented and yet somehow familiar, for my whole life as a Jew had prepared me to be the question mark at the dividing line—my body subject to other people’s readings and interpretations, to lengthy debates over its validity and classification.

But Judaism also gave me invaluable texts and tools for navigating an exhausting, decade-plus personal evolution. These included a panoply of metaphors and analogies from which to borrow; a love of words and wordplay (perhaps there is no more essential attribute, during transition, than a sense of humor); searingly beautiful rituals; and an unwillingness to accept doctrine at face value, to discount diverse perspectives. Some days I felt like Jacob, my body marked and aching, named anew after the struggle; other days I was Esau, conscious of my recent hairiness, longing for what should have been mine at birth, robbed and raging. Sometimes the only time my body felt acceptable to me was at Havdalah, where inhaling spices required only my blessedly nongendered nose.

Growing up, perhaps naively, I held Jewish spaces, by virtue of their sacredness, to higher standards than the secular world. I expected that, if there was going to be any place where I would be welcome as created in the image of an all-encompassing G-d, Jewish places would provide that acceptance. I was repeatedly disappointed: I found that at best, the Jewish spaces I encountered were merely a microcosm of the secular world’s gender issues. At their worst, Jewish spaces did me far more damage, by making me feel unholy: a rulebreaker; an outsider where I wanted desperately to belong.

Even my worst secular gendered interactions did not carry the emotional heft of Jewish ones: the wretched sensation that my existence poses an ongoing threat to the categories Judaism holds dear. No one would give me a second glance in a synagogue these days—but I don’t go. Even if I were to attend a progressive, egalitarian congregation now, it is hard to forgive years of being a scrutinized specimen. I am hopeful that I may yet reconcile with Judaism, and I continue wrestling with Judaism because I am a Jew, despite the pain and alienation that have been inextricably entwined with my Jewish experience. Judaism is big enough to withstand both my deep love for it and my rage. I want to reclaim what I believed as a child, a belief my gendered experiences in Jewish communities destroyed: that I, too, am created b’tzelem Elohim.

Isaac Levy is a poet, essayist, counselor, and advocate for marginalized communities.