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Monday, 24 March 2014

THE YOUNG STUDENT: PAINFUL LOSSES


This article originally appeared in Tri-Quarterly: Tri-Quarterly
I am twenty-three. I’m only out of college for a couple of years. I used to be frum (observant) but now I am off-the-derech (irreligious; literally, “off the road”). 
 In college, I was an observant Jew. I wanted to be part of Chabad, so right at the beginning of my college experience, I moved to a frum neighborhood and became integrated into the Chabad community. I boarded in a Chassidic rabbi’s home, and I worked for a frum family and for a Jewish educational organization. Basically, my life was the Chabad community. But then, over the past year, I became unhappy with how fake I had to be, to be a part of Chabad. It wasn’t just the queer thing—I’m gay, and that had to stay under wraps—but  also I was questioning how I wanted to relate to Judaism.
Accepting the fact of being gay has always been a challenge for me, but it’s even more so for me as a religious person. In college, I realized I probably wasn’t going to be straight, although I really hoped I could be bisexual and get married and go about having a normal Jewish life. But that didn’t happen.
In the last few months when I was staying in the basement of the rabbi’s house, I came to the decision that I didn’t want to be shomer shabbos [observant of the strict Sabbatical laws] anymore, but my roommate found out and called her rov [rabbi]. Her rov told her to tell my rebbetzin [rabbi’s wife], who called me. She was like, “Call me!” That’s never a good thing to hear from your rebbetzin!
She said she knew I wasn’t keeping shabbos, and she wanted to let me know what that would entail. She explained that it meant I couldn’t cook in anyone’s kitchen, and that consequence was the natural outcome of my decision to be less observant. She said people would not be able to trust me to keep their standard of kashrus [kosher]. I decided it would be simpler to keep things as they were. Even after I left the rabbi’s basement and moved to my next home, I kept everything [shomer shabbos] for the sake of the children I took care of. I didn’t want to have my relationship with them compromised in any way. I am their caregiver, and I feel I need to stay frum for them, because they have gone through a lot of trauma already.
Unfortunately, last week I had to go to another state to take care of my sister, but those kids all call me and I read them bedtime stories over the phone—kosher stories from kosher publishers. Hopefully, I will be back soon and be able to work with them again. I definitely want to keep a connection with them, because their mother passed away almost five years ago, and their father is very sick, too. Two of the kids have special needs, and there are a lot of challenges in their home. Mostly, though, there is the trauma of losing their mother.
I was originally hired because they needed a female presence in the house. It was funny to me that I, of all people, was that person. It was a natural thing for those five little kids to see me in the role of Mommy. It was really important work. I was terribly important in their lives, and so, after a while, I couldn’t come out to them, not as gay and not as not-so-frum anymore, either. It would change our interactions. It would be another huge loss for them, and I just can’t do it to them. It would be cruel.
They still don’t know I am queer. No one knows. I hope not, anyway. It would have a very negative impact on the way I am perceived and the way people decide to interact with me. Orthodox Jews view being gay as a challenge you are meant to overcome. That view is so pervasive. I haven’t seen any gay frum people interacting with regular frum people, but I do know it happens. Just not in front of me.
I’m horribly afraid of rejection. Those people in the community mean a lot to me. I would be devastated if I lost the love of my rebbetzin’s family, and I don’t care if they are homophobic. I know if they knew I was gay, they wouldn’t receive me the same way, but they are like parents to me! I don’t want to lose them. And I really love the children who lost their mother. I want to be a part of their lives, and I would really hate for that to be taken away from me or for me to be taken away from them. We have formed a really significant bond, and it would be horrible for all of us if that were severed.
Even if the families were accepting, and they didn’t give me the whole “Overcome this challenge” speech, they wouldn’t want me around their kids because, in their minds, being gay is contagious, and it sets a bad example for the kids. People have hidden beliefs when they are Chassidic. There’s a ton of esoteric concepts, and it wouldn’t just be as obvious as “Your actions are influencing my kids.” It would be “Your neshomah [soul] is influencing my family, your soul is flawed. You are full of klipah [spiritual impurity], and it would drag down my home.” I don’t want people to be disgusted by me like that. I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to be judged.
In the frum community there is always a lot of pressure to get married and have a large family. To me, it felt very bad. I was seeing someone, a woman, but I couldn’t bring my partner to a shabbos table and have the same happy and enthusiastic reception. If I had brought a gay girlfriend to my rebbetzin, if I had been out about it, she would probably have taken me aside and given me a big talk about halacha [Jewish law] and challenges, and my needing to make sane decisions about my future, and since she has daughters, she would have been freaked out that I’d stayed in the same bedroom as her girls. She would have been horrified.
It was weird having a girlfriend while I lived in the frum community. I was very closeted, but half an hour away, in [the local gay area], I was super out. I certainly wasn’t very smart about it. I had my girlfriend come over for visits as my “friend,” and then, one shabbos, when my roommate was out of town, it was different. I had her sleep over. After the meal, we were just out walking, but my girlfriend had a tiny pride button on her coat. I made her hide it. And then, after shabbos, we were hanging out late at night, when everyone was sleeping. We were just sitting in my car, and she leaned over and kissed me, and I had a fit! It was 3:00 a.m., but I was so afraid we would get caught. She laughed at me. Who would see? I was so paranoid, I started coming up with a list. “A jogger!” I said. “Someone who works in a bakery!” Who knows? That’s how it is when you could lose everything. I was very clear about it. I knew I could lose my job, my finances, my housing, my friends, my community, my adopted family. And I couldn’t afford to lose all that.
Anyway, when I had already been part of the Chabad community for a while, my rebbetzin sent me away to a religious seminary. The seminary rabbi gave an explanation for why people are gay. That was so uncomfortable! It was the worst explanation ever! He said, “If either the husband or the wife in a marriage is repulsed by their spouse, it can cause the child born from them to be gay.”” If the husband isn’t into his wife, then the son is going to be attracted to men. Wow! I kept on hearing these dumb explanations: “It’s a choice!”” “H-shem [G-d] doesn’t give you challenges you can’t handle.” I davened [prayed] so long and so hard to have this problem go away, but nothing changed. I couldn’t handle it, but I still had the challenge!
Also, in the seminary, trans people and sexuality in general were always made fun of and looked down on. They were discussed as disgusting things to be shunned. One person asked, “Which side of the mechitza does a trans woman sit on?” and Rabbi B [an internationally known rabbi] said, “That’s like a person who wants to be an elephant.” He turned it into a joke. It was so upsetting. Anyone who happened to be part of the queer spectrum would have been pushed far away from Yiddishkeit by Rabbi B’s response.
Even then, I knew Jewish trans people. All queer people have so many struggles, and trying to fit into the frum community is difficult for them, but it’s infinitely more challenging for trans people. As a result of the seminary rabbi, I became alienated and distanced. I felt like I wasn’t going to fit into the Chabad community, no matter how I behaved, or that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Eventually, I felt suicidal and ended up in hospital for a while, trying to work through my feelings about queerness and Judaism. The rabbi in whose house I lived at that time wasn’t too excited about my being sick, and his family barely spoke to me after that. It was part of the reason I had to move out of that house. And afterward, I was different, not as involved in Chabad life, but still connected.
So many people in [the local gay area] have had bad experiences with religion and want nothing to do with it. So, in that area, I can’t be out about being Orthodox! I don’t fit in anywhere. All I want is to fit in and be normal . . . frum and gay. And not stigmatized. I still don’t know how to reconcile these two parts of myself. Before I had to leave to take care of my sister, I hung out with people who used to be frum. We got together on Friday night. We made kiddush, we made a seuda [meal] on shabbos day, but we went out on dates right afterward.
Even now that I don’t eat kosher, I’m completely unwilling to eat treif [nonkosher] meat. I don’t keep shabbos, but I wouldn’t ever light after licht bentshen [the time to light candles on Friday evening]. I still daven shacharis and mincha [pray the morning and afternoon services, about an hour’s worth of prayer] every day. My partner is upset at how religious I am, and at me being shomer shabbos. It feels like I can never satisfy both parts of myself.
My partner and some of my non-frum friends ask me why I don’t just do all the mitzvos, or do none and trick the people I work for. I couldn’t do that. My rebbetzin is very honest herself. Most frum Jews are very careful about that, but she is special. She asks me to be honest about my level of observance, to understand what I could lose by not being frum. She innocently trusts me to say the truth about whether or not I am shomer shabbos. I can’t betray that trust. Now that I am living with my sister, my rebbetzin calls me up and asks me to keep shabbos and go to shul [synagogue].
I wish I could come out to her, but once, my roommate was at a shabbos meal with me, at my rebbetzin’s house. One of her little girls was playing with my roommate’s ring. The girl took it off my roommate’s finger and then put it back on again and said, “Harei at mekudeshes li [“Behold! You are consecrated to me,” the traditional words at a Jewish wedding ceremony]. We are married now!” My rebbetzin laughed and then frowned and said, “How would that even work with two girls? It’s impossible!” My rebbetzin made being a lesbian into a joke! It’s crazy, because she knows women who are lesbians, even women who are lesbians in the frum community. She had a very close friend who turned out to be a frum lesbian.
I know two lesbians in the local Chassidic community. One of them is the head of an organization for gay frum Jews. When I didn’t know anyone frum and gay, I somehow found the book Keep Your Wives Away from Them. I looked at all the contributors’ info, and then I searched the names until I found a phone number for one of them. I called her up, and she was really understanding. I was in seminary at the time, so we met clandestinely. I met her wife, too, and we had a whole conversation about being queer and frum. She gave me the contact information for a frum lesbian in my community. It was all word of mouth.
When I went to the frum lesbian’s house for a shabbos meal, it was the most authentic meal I’d ever been to. It was beautiful! Then, when I returned to my rebbetzin’s house, I realized how closed down I had to be in her house, and how much I didn’t want to be like that. My rebbetzin’s home is open and inviting, as long as you fit their picture.
In my experience, there has only been one rabbi who was compassionate to my whole situation. Because of his accepting attitude, I came out to him. I wanted to ask him what I should do. I told him I struggled with attractions that are inappropriate, and he said, “To women?” He said it’s not the most important thing to get married and have a family. He said there are other things you can do as a Jewish woman. He also referenced a gay man who got married and had a kid. He didn’t freak out at me, but he still had this idea that if I really wanted to, I could change. He was a baal teshuva [returnee to Judaism], and he was supposedly a hippie before he became frum, so that might have affected his worldview.
Maybe hippies really have it right. I’m a big fan of Ve’ahavta lerei’echa kamoicha [Love your neighbor as yourself]. There aren’t any strings attached to that. There’s no “so long as your fellow Jew is . . . ” It’s not, Love these Jews but not those Jews. That’s the whole point. My rebbetzin really stressed the idea of the community waiting for everybody to be back from the Bais Hamikdash [Temple] before davening for rain. We wait for everyone, and everyone is important, no matter who they are or what their level of observance is, no matter what their challenges are. That was inclusive instead of exclusive. I want the community to be like that. You can’t be afraid of other people, and exclude them, and have this negative view, and really be holy. 

NB. These photos are only used for illustrative (or humourous) purposes and do not represent the people described in this article.

Monday, 20 January 2014

ESHEL RETREAT



 I am aware that this shul is my favourite shul in the whole world, much as I am aware that I am the most comfortable in my skin in this place, year after year.
The huge windows next to me look out over a frozen lake and up towards a mountain of fir trees. Snow falls in huge fat spiraling flakes, mesmerizing, exquisite. The singing swells, luscious, many harmonies rippling through the room. Snow light pours in through the windows above the aron kodesh.
Yes. I am at another Eshel at the Isabella Freedman Center, the fourth one I have attended. The people who fill this room are my friends and my extended family. Some wear zaidener bekishes and black hats. Some wear pressed jeans and designer shirts. Some have wigs and some have scarves and some do not cover their hair at all. But we are all family, whether we look the same or practice the same or speak the same or believe the same things or are the same age or come from the same parts of the world because, for once, we are in a room that is filled, exclusively, with Jews who are connected with Orthodoxy and identify as Lesbian or Gay or Bisexual or Transgender or Queer.
There’s nothing like it.

The sense of unity alone is something to live on for months.
The sense of delight and pleasure and exhilaration and discovery…
The sense of belonging…

There is a session on LGBT blogging and I sit next to the writers of Frum Gay Married and the Jewish Pink Elephant. We talk about why we write our blogs and what have been some of the outcomes. We cry. We laugh. We talk and talk and talk some more and at the end, there are questions and comments. Many of the people say thank you. Thank you for letting our voices be heard. Thank you for being there when I needed to know I wasn't the only person frum gay person in the world. Thank you for validating my experience. For reducing the loneliness.
This year, there are a larger number of Chassidic women, and for that, I am grateful. I am feeling like this blog is worth the effort and time it takes. I am feeling like slowly, slowly, people within Chassidic and yeshivish communities are finding Eshel and beginning to connect. Cousins discover each other. Neither knew the other was part of this community. 
Old friends from yeshiva see each other across the room, and their eyes widen. You too? 
A young couple sit in a hidden corner, holding hands, smiling shyly at one another. families carry their children through the admiring crowds of adopted aunties and uncles.
Eshel. Community for those who have none. Family for those who might have lost theirs. 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

GITTEL'S DAUGHTER: The child of an Orthodox transwoman



 NB. The author of this interview is not related to the author of the previous post. It is purely coincidental that they are appearing around the same time.

M: My birth father is a lesbian. Her name is Gittel (names have been changed to protect the privacy of all of the individuals in this interview). I don’t see myself telling just anyone this story.  Usually people have a harder time hearing I am not religious than that my birth father is transgender. They’ve heard of Off-The-Derech but they haven’t heard of transgender. But I should start the story at the beginning.

I grew up Orthodox in a large city in the United States. I have an awesome family. I’m nineteen and the oldest of seven. Even though my step-dad is not my biological father, he feels like my father. My mom remarried when I was three years old and I had a very normal childhood. I didn’t think there was anything different about me. I went to religious school and youth group and I was very social.
 Growing up, we always referred to my birth father as “Daddy”. My brother and I never asked where Daddy was, but in 5th grade, I wanted to send my daddy a letter. I showed my mother that I had a letter but my mother said she had to discuss it with a psychologist first. Afterwards, I never brought it up anymore. It wasn’t an issue. That year was hard for my parents. I used to yell at my dad, “You’re not my real dad.”

Later, in 10th grade, I had an advisor, because I had a tough time in school. There were a lot of talks with my parents. My dad was really pushing me to go to classes, and at some point, the advisor said, “You don’t have to listen to him. He’s not your real father,” and I responded, “YES HE IS.”  He treats me like his daughter, no questions asked. I was three when my mother married him, and they had another five kids together. He treats me the same as the other kids.

When I was younger, and also when I was in high school, my mom always said my birth-father wasn’t ready to be a father. I honestly thought he was mentally ill. I thought he was locked up somewhere. So I didn’t think too much about him. When I was about fourteen, or maybe fifteen, I found pictures of my dad, because my mom had cut up pictures of me and him (baby pictures) and removed them from the album. I put these pictures in my purse and carried them around with me. I don’t know why. I wasn’t missing anything. I was always told that I looked like my daddy, so there was that. I would prefer not to look so similar. I would prefer that there wasn’t such an obvious relationship. It’s funny, because my brother was told that he looked a lot like my step-father. But he’s also Gittel’s son.
 Not long after I opened my first Facebook account when I was sixteen, I got a message from someone saying, “I know your birth father. I know he hurts.” A whole lot of stuff, giving me information that I clearly didn’t want to know! I showed it to my mom, and I asked her if I should read it or delete it, and she said she would prefer that I delete it. I messaged this lady saying please don’t message me again. But then she messaged me again with even more details that I didn’t read.  Who does that to a sixteen year old? It’s not something you message someone about on Facebook! I thought, for a little bit, that maybe it was my birth father, using a fake account, trying to get to me.  Then I figured out it wasn’t.

Just before I turned seventeen, when I had gone out with my friends, my parents called and said they wanted to talk with me. I was freaking out. I thought I did something wrong!  Then, when I came home, they told me that my grandfather wants to fly me to the Belgium to spend a month with him. I said, “You scared me! I thought something serious happened! You called me to come home!?” But then they told me they wanted to tell me why my original parents got divorced.
 My parents were worried that when I traveled to Belgium, my birth father would find out that I was in Europe and try to contact me and they wanted to be the ones who told me the story. Until then, all my life, my mom always told my brother and me that the reason she got divorced was because my birth father wasn’t fit or ready to be a father.

That night, when she started talking, first she brought up an article about Joy Ladin, an Orthodox transgender woman, that we’d read a year or so earlier. I don’t remember exactly what my mom said when she began to tell me about my birth father, though I know she never said anything negative to me. That was difficult, too! My mom hates keeping secrets. We are extremely open and talk about everything so I am sure it was even harder. Afterwards, my parents told me that if I had any questions I could ask, but I didn’t have any. My mom wanted to know how I felt. How should I feel? She just told me that my birth father is now a transgender woman and a lesbian!
 When they told my younger brother [who is the son of my birth father], the only thing he wanted to know was “What happened to the tallis and tefillin?” I love him.

Hearing this story resolved some mysteries for me. When I was about twelve years old, I guess, I found an old cassette tape that my mom had recorded ten years earlier, to send to a friend. On it, she mentioned that she had seen my birth father walking around London with lipstick and she thought she might have to get a divorce. When I heard that, I thought my birth father must be a gay man, so I never talked about finding the tape or hearing what it said with anyone. And then, when my mother told me about Gittel, my birth-father, it clicked in my mind.
 That night when I learned about Gittel, I needed to get out of the house, to talk and share with my friends. My mom told me not to tell my younger siblings. She told me I could talk about it with a friend, so I went out in my friend’s car, running errands. It was already night, and I told her, “My birth father, he’s a woman.” She said, “You don’t tell me that when I’m driving, M! What’s wrong with you?!” 

In general, things don’t bother me. Things flow over me. It took me a long time to tell most of my friends. I had thoughts about what it meant about me, about the way they would view me, but part of my reluctance was sheltering them, for sure. One of my closest friends still doesn’t know because I know she wouldn’t be able to deal with it.

Apparently, there had been a court order that Gittel couldn’t contact me until I was eighteen. My mom didn’t think the court order was a good choice. But for me, I do feel like it was the right choice. Where I grew up, the schools I went to, the friends I had…my life would have been very different if I had known about my birth father being a transgender woman. If I knew when I was younger, I would have dealt with it, but I feel it was very healthy finding out when I was older and had an open mind. As a younger person, I went to a very religious school and I am sure a transgender parent wouldn’t have been accepted.

When I turned eighteen, Gittel [not her actual name] messaged me on Facebook. When she messaged me first, she had opened up a fake Facebook account in her previous name that was obviously not real because it had no pictures or messages or friends or anything. I think after that first contact, she just friended me with her real Facebook, but there was no conversation. No chat. Still, that was the beginning. Just after that, Gittel and Zahava (her partner) invited me to their son’s bar mitzvah on Facebook, though the event was a year away. I didn’t think I would go, but I was trying to figure out if I wanted to go or not. If it’s something I would be interested in being at. So I didn’t respond right away. I just left it.
 Then, a few months before the bar mitzvah, they contacted me again, asking if I wanted to come to the simcha (happy event), so all of a sudden it was real. They offered to fly me in to Belgium! I thought a lot about it, for such a long time, discussing it with my mom and my friends, and then I decided that it’s important for me to go and get to know them and decide if I want a relationship with them or not.  And I decided to come to Europe, but it was clear to me that if I was coming to the Europe, I would have to go see my grandfather, because he wasn’t doing so well at that point. And also, I didn’t want to spend too much time with my birth-father’s family. I wanted it to be short. I wanted it to be manageable. I had a lot of people telling me, you can come stay with me, take all these telephone numbers, find somewhere else. People were surprised that I would stay at their house. Zahava (Gittel’s partner) actually offered for me to stay elsewhere but it seemed silly to me.
When I was planning the trip, everyone asked me, “What does your mom think?” But she didn’t speak. At some point, I confronted my mother and she told me, “I have two worries. 1. You might become not religious. 2. That you might stay there and not come home.” That was never in my plans. I know myself. I knew I wouldn’t stay in Europe. I don't even speak French! My mom still has very positive feelings towards Gittel’s family. She had a relationship with them. My mom tried never to say anything negative to me about Gittel or about them. My mom is awesome. She’s really cool.

I can’t put my finger on what ended up turning me off to religion. I never really connected with it.  Then, about a year and a half ago, I came to terms with not being religious. It is still very difficult for my mom though, since she doesn’t like the influence I have on my siblings. We fought. But at one point, she asked me if I no longer keep shabbos and kosher, and I said I don’t. Then the fights calmed down, after it was all out there. It’s good to get everything out in the open and not keep secrets.

Anyway, since I had been friends with Gittel on Facebook for almost a year, I knew what to expect when I finally met her. It was a good ease into it. I had no expectations for anything so I wasn’t surprised. I think I try to avoid expectations, I don’t know if it comes from a healthy place or not. I know Gittel was very surprised to see me in pants, not because she told me. She’s frum and the pants bothered her.

She says a lot. She says she feels like I was raised well. And that I lucked out not to grow up with her. I know that she tried to follow us as much as possible online to find out about us. But there aren’t any pictures of me or my brother around the house. I was always told that it’s painful for her not to be part of my life and that she would like to have a relationship with me and my brother. I was in touch with Gittel’s cousins, and her family used to tell me that “my father” loves me, or that “there’s someone out there that’s in pain and would like to have more of a relationship with you.” But the fact is, there aren’t any pictures of us in Gittel’s house. We aren’t Zahavah’s kids. I wish (there is a long pause while M cries) she kept one picture of us from when we were little kids on her desk, something.
Gittel doesn’t exactly feel like a parent to me. But if people ask me about “my mother”, I don’t correct them. I’m nineteen, though, and I don’t feel like I need a new parent. I already have two parents. Gittel is a relative of mine who I know cares about me. I do care about her too, but I don’t have words to describe what kind of relation she is to me.

I think that the frum community, where they live, people mostly accept them. I don’t see how they could live in New York or Israel or in some of the other really frum places. I wish it were different. Here, where they live, there is more acceptance than in other places. The hardest thing for me is actually that Gittel and Zahava and their children are frum, more so than any other thing. I don’t know why.
I’ve said this and I believe it: Gittel made a choice that affected her relationship with us [her children], but I’m happy about the choice she made. It’s better than growing up with a miserable father. It enabled me to have a normal childhood. I did luck out.

I wouldn’t change my life. I am happy with who I am and what I am, even though there is this corner of my life that doesn’t fit into my world. If I could erase this part of my life, I would. Not Gittel but the challenge of her. But really, I am at peace with everything I have gone through in my life.

Now, I relate to Gittel as Gittel. I have a mother and a father and a Gittel. To someone who doesn’t know, I refer to her as my biological father or my birth father. But I, myself, I don’t know how to refer to her. She’s just Gittel to me.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

ORTHODOX TRANSWOMAN 2: Finding Connection


NB. None of the photographs in this interview are mine, and they are purely for illustrative purposes. None of them depict the actual person being interviewed.
 Hello. My name is Orah. I was married but now I am divorced. We had three wonderful kids who are older now. One is still in school and the other two are in college. They talk with me and I talk with my mother too, who says “I would sooner cut off an arm than lose my connection to you.” I have a brother, though, and he has lots of kids and grandkids. They cut me off when I transitioned (from male to female), because they are black hat yeshivish. They think being a transwoman is a terrible thing. They think anything is better than what I am doing. It’s evil, so they say. They believe it’s a choice and a bad one. It’s not a choice and it’s not evil but that’s how they feel. I talked with many rabbis about it. They don’t get being transgender at all. They think it’s a yetzer hara (evil inclination) thing, just like my brother’s family.
 My oldest memory is sleeping over at someone else’s house as a little kid. They had no boy’s sleeping garments, so they gave me girl’s pajamas to sleep in and it just felt right. I slept in a little girl’s room that felt right too. I have an image of the garment being yellow and trying to do the buttons.

I had a cedar closet in my basement growing up, and my mom had all her old clothes in there. I used to hang out in there and try on her clothes and use her makeup and I did that fairly often. I didn’t think it would ever be real, being a girl. I just felt like doing it and I also felt bad not doing it. At that time, I had a cousin who committed suicide after being committed to a psych hospital. I am not really sure what happened to him, but I was afraid if I said anything, I would get locked up, just like him.
My family didn’t understand me, even what they saw on the outside, so I was very careful, but I also felt tremendously guilty.  The more I acted like a girl, the more trouble I got into. If I let my hair grow too long, I got picked on more. I was very girly when I was growing up and I didn’t want to do the boys’ stuff and couldn’t, actually. I just wanted to do the girls’ stuff. I was …different. I liked playing with GI Joes because they are dolls. I remember my parents taking away all my stuffed animals but I don't remember why.  My whole life I was different.
As a kid, I was called “faggot” more times than my actual name. It’s so ridiculous, because I was not attracted to men and it started when I was about 10. I am attracted to women, but as a woman is attracted to women. I had to change schools more than a couple of times. In the end, I needed to “man up” out of desperation. I was tired of being beaten up. A lot of trans people go into the military to learn how to man up and become tough.  They go to great lengths to over-compensate. Even the marines, Special Forces, people with badges and medals and stuff, combat soldiers, every type of person you could imagine are trans. They do it to hide and often they don’t care if they die in the process. I went into religion.
I’m a baal teshuva (returnee to Judaism), and partly, this was because of a conversation I had with my rabbi. I discussed my transgender nature with him and I was told that if I became more frum, I would be at a higher spiritual level and closer to G-d, and that would help me get rid of my problem. Of course, it didn’t work. That was very painful for me, making the effort to be closer to G-d, to be more frum, in the hope of being fixed, and then being let down. I just wanted to be like everyone else.

Before we got engaged, I told my fiancĂ© about myself. She is also a baal teshuva, and she somewhat understood and was okay with it. In those days, I didn’t know what it was called. I thought I was alone in the universe. I didn’t use the internet and in recent years I used it for work, only. I often read the Wall Street Journal, but they weren’t really publishing anything about LGBT issues, especially about the T (transgender). It was a huge relief to me when I did finally meet some LGBT people.
After some time going along like this, I spoke with a therapist, to see if I could be fixed but she said being transgender can’t be fixed and that I'm  not broken. She asked me how long I had been feeling like this and I said, “Since I was three years old!” She said it’s not my choice to change who I am, but I do have some choice. We discussed my choices between being miserable and dying of stress as a man, or being myself, as a woman.


Being transgender sucks. No one wants to be trans. No one wants that life. They just have to, because that’s who they are. A lot of frum trans people will never transition, because the post-transition life won’t work for them…they are too old, too responsible, they have too many kids, too many angry and hurt relatives, too, too, too, too.  They know how transitioning will affect their lives, so they don’t transition [to live as the other gender], but it’s killing them to stay as they are. I know someone who told me that every day when she is driving to work, she thinks about driving off the road and killing herself. Every single day! That’s because she can’t be who she needs to be, because she has a large family,  children who need her to be their father, and she knows it would hurt them. She chooses not to do anything. She buys clothes but then can’t deal with what that means for her, and then she throws everything away, out of fear, and then she does it again and again, over and over. It’s sad.


When I was younger, I delivered heavy stuff and I would carry 170 pounds up and down a flight of stairs with  ease. I was strong as hell. But gradually, over time, I became sick and I had a heart attack, a stroke, so many issues. I almost died countless times.  I’ve had so many surgeries at this point that I’ve lost count.  I have recovered to a point. After everything, I realized that if I didn’t transition, I might lose my chance. Incidentally, now that I have transitioned, my health continues to improve!
On April 19th, 2012, I began my formal transition. I have been me for over a year now. It feels peaceful. It just feels right. That’s all. I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of person, not fancy at all. My youngest asked me why I did all this just to wear jeans and t-shirts. Well, I’m not a flashy dresser. I’ve never been into clothes. I look old and I’m kinda fat, queen size all the way, but I look and feel younger than I did. I feel like G-d did give me an answer my years of tears, but not the way I thought it would happen. Nowadays, I go to the gym every day and I am getting my body slowly into good shape. It feels like my life has turned an important corner.  It is  also affirming because I have no issues using the gym as myself.
My ex-wife does not know about my transition. My kids kept it from her and so does lots of other folks including her Rabbi. My ex has a habit of discussing private issues publicly. I am the pink elephant in the room that no one talks about or sees. It’s ironic to me that I was always more religious than she was. I hid who I was so well. Too well.

I have part custody of my kids, but most of my children are out of town. My kids are miraculously okay with my transition. They don’t understand it but they know it makes me feel better and more healthy. They would prefer if I hadn’t transitioned, but they understand that I do need to do it. They saw me at my sickest and now they see me improving almost daily. One of my kids lives with me and he’s a great kid. Some of my  kids have gone to the not so local LGBT center and to trans groups and to PFLAG and they are accepting. My oldest is another story. He still lives with my ex. He is accepting but quiet about it.  They have had quite an education from what happened to me. It was a big transition for them too. I am proud of them.
 
 Being trans is similar to being a baal teshuva. You are born again and can reinvent yourself and start over. It’s a second chance that most people think they will never have. It’s a gift. I am very glad I had the chance to start my life over again in this way. I am finally growing and changing; I spent my life doing what was expected of me. 
Unfortunately, I found quite a bit of rejection in the Orthodox community. Friends called me an abomination. Friends.  I did as much research as I could, consulting rabbis and Jewish books, because I wanted to find out if there was any way I could justify transitioning but there wasn’t. The gemorrah says transitioning is NOT an abomination. But that was all I could find.

 I was also told that I was not welcome by my relatives. They don’t want me to be around as myself. The old me is welcome. They said if I am discovered, it will wreck shidduchim (marriage matches) for my brother’s community. They told me I’m better off just hiding. That’s what happened when I confided in a few of my best friends too. I got total rejection. They told me not to visit. Recently I have some dialog with my brother and what he say is hurtful but he means well. He thinks, no he knows he is doing right, by trying to convince me of going back.  Going back isn't an option. Going back is a death sentence.

have found quiet acceptance or perhaps tolerance, from a few people in the Jewish community, in Eshel. At Eshel they are so nice and kind.

Even trying to find transpeople who are Jewish (but not religious) backfired because everyone I spoke with was anti-religious. I couldn’t find anyone in the Jewish community at any level of religious observance. Even the reform lesbian rabbis are completely non-accepting. But reform LGBT people are generally very nice, and even a conservative rabbi was very kind to me. I ate at his home more than once.  He is not lgbt yet his family was very kind to me over yontiffs. I sat with his wife in shul over the holidays. That was acceptance. But I also felt that it was hard…a little too little and a little too late. So painful.

I really wanted to stay frum but I felt I didn’t belong. I tried for months and months and I did research and I went to Canada and I met Nicole Nussbaum. She was totally rejected, over and over again. I also know Joy Ladin.  From her I learned that tolerance is not the same as acceptance. Joy is a wealth of transgender knowledge and is a mentor and a friend. 
I don’t want the spotlight. I just want to be myself. I don’t want to be an advocate. I just want to help people quietly. I’ve found that my religion has rejected people, and families have rejected children who are LGBT. There’s a lot of room for improvement. In my home state, you can be fired from a job  if they think you are gay and there are no rights, whatsoever, for transpeople. Trans rights are not protected. They can kick me out of a restaurant if they don’t like the way I look. All my paperwork now says who I am, and that’s good. When I was traveling with my old paperwork and with my old picture (appearing like a man) it was scary. What happens if I get pulled over? I used to be afraid to use a public restroom! I used to have a map of safe, single use bathrooms at gas stations  and coffee shops when I traveled so I wouldn’t have any issues. Surprisingly, I was pulled over once with my old ID but the cop did not give me a ticket. I wondered if he was lgbt himself? Also in my home state, lesbian partners cannot legally marry. So, if I wish to marry another woman I can't do it here.
Now, things are a little better for me. I blend, I am part of the furniture. I go to the dollar store and the grocery every week and people know me by name, and at the bakery people say hi. I know some people from PFLAG, I go to a health club and use the locker room and don’t have any issues there. That feels awesome. Things have changed a lot in the past while for the better. It’s a relief. But it was very scary for a very long time.
It DOES get better
The suicide rate is incredibly high in the trans community and I have known people who have killed themselves. It’s terrifying. Being Jewish and frum, I was used to being stared at because of my yarmulke. I used to get stared at with my black hat. It isn't New York here. Orthodox Jews are not a common sight.


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The only frum places I feel are safe for trans frum Jews are: some  Lubavitch placesNCSY and Eshel. Eshel is awesome. I only went once and I was sick that shabbos but I made friends there.

At first, after transitioning, I wanted to go to shul, so I drove to a different city. To get there, I ended up driving on shabbos, all so I wouldn’t be so isolated and alone. I had the times wrong for the minyanim in the shul where I wanted to go though. So then, I went next door and they had a Kiddush. I didn’t know, but it wasn’t kosher! (reform shul). I drove to shul to be with Jews and I ended up eating treif! What am I doing? I stopped feeling like I belonged and like I was wanted. I gave up. I gave up on my Judaism. It was a tipping point.
 Until then, I studied Torah almost daily for most of my adult life. I know halacha. The following Shabbos, though, I tried to do all 39 melochos (types of work forbidden on the Sabbath). I was mad at G-d. Why does he put me in a situation where I will be rejected? Does He care??? Then I look at other people who were born with horrible illnesses… I am thankful for what I have, but I can’t get myself to pray any more. I am not angry with G-d. I heard from a transwoman who is frum that there is a prayer she read on a bumper sticker,' G-d protect me from your followers.'
I mostly miss my Jewish community. There was a TV show called Cheers, and it has a theme song which includes the lyrics, “People want to go where everyone knows their name.” Well, I used to go to shul and everyone knew me and I would go to learn and everyone knew my name but then, when I transitioned, I became invisible, not part of anything. I miss my community. There isn’t a trans community per se, because they are scattered all around. Online there is. But that’s it. It’s not much of anything. It's frustrating! I sometimes travel to lgbt groups an hour drive away to go to a board room size room.
It’s too late for me to ask anything of the frum community. But if I could, it’d be this:
Please don’t be so concerned about the gashmius, the way people look. I wouldn’t ask this for me. I would ask for the younger people. The emphasis would be on that  possessions that aren’t important. There are kids who are absolute jerks and they get into good yeshivos, and there are sweet kids who don’t get into good yeshivos because they can’t learn well. If you are a little different in any way, you are terrorized and it is accepted by the frum community. You get made fun of. There is an INTENSE pressure to conform. And anything that makes you different, you are told to hide it. It hurts so many folks who cant conform. It is sad.


The criteria should be: is this person a good person? Is this person kind? Those are legitimate criteria. How much gemorrah you learn is meaningless if you aren’t kind, if you can’t connect.

My future has potential to be happy.  I  am a work in progress.  I would like to find that  special someone to be my partner in life. I finally feel good about the future. I know I  have a future. Will I return to being Frum at this point I think not. Will I be Jewish? Yes of course.  My advice  to other trans folks is being trans is a full-time job. Do your homework and make allies. Save your money. Get a gender therapist. Don't give up.  You are not alone. Ask me questions via this blog.



NB. None of the photographs in this interview are mine, and they are purely for illustrative purposes. None of them depict the actual person being interviewed.