Last chance for the Magical Princess Harriet Kickstarter!

Harriet

The Kickstarter for Magical Princess Harriet is on its last day. One month ago I launched this campaign hoping that others would be as excited as I was about the idea of a Jewish fantasy novel with a transgender protagonist, and the response has been truly phenomenal. In only 29 days ninety people have contributed a total of $3,180, enough to ensure that Magical Princess Harriet will in fact see the light of day. I am so deeply honored that so many people believed in this enough to help make my vision a reality.

If you are still interested in pre-ordering the book and having your name appear on the thank-you page, you can donate to the campaign here. Thanks again!

My Talk at Presser Shabbat

I had an amazing experience this Shabbat speaking at Germantown Jewish Centre for Dorshei Derech’s Stefan Presser Memorial Shabbat.  The outflowing of warmth and support was simply amazing, and it was great to have my first experience talking publicly about this journey in such a safe environment. I really wish I could also post my partner Emily’s amazingly eloquent and heartfelt words, but I can’t because they were completely extemporaneous, which makes them all the more remarkable.

Stories don’t come easily to me. The fact of the matter is that only now, when I’m thirty years old, am I finally starting to learn how to tell stories about myself the way that most people seem to be able to do naturally. I’m used to hiding behind the words I use, holding them up up as a sort of mask, a surface I use to comment on the world while at the same time distancing myself from it. For me, words have been a survival mechanism and a safety blanket, a way to hide the fact of my profound disjointedness, to fill in the holes I feel within myself. These holes are many and various, but as far as I can see, they all seem to be bound up in the impossible conflict between what I need to in order to fulfill my responsibilities toward others and what this strange thing I call myself seems to need in order to survive.

The first gap I have trouble hurdling when I try to explain myself to others is that I did not grow up as a child with a strong sense of gendered identity. I didn’t play sports or go in for roughhousing, but I wasn’t into Barbie dolls, I didn’t play dress-up in my mother’s clothes, and the only princess I wanted to be like was Princess Leia from Star wars. I didn’t distinguish much between my male and female friends. My closest friends were always girls, but I always had more male friends than female, and if the boys sometimes seemed a little weird or I sometimes felt a bit more comfortable and emotionally secure playing with the girls, that didn’t seem so unusual. If it had occurred to anyone to ask me in second grade what I felt like on the inside, I probably would have told them “a robot,” and felt that answer made perfect sense.

In rather simple and obvious terms, what happened next was adolescence and puberty. My family moved from Athens, GA to Geneva, IL when I was in the middle of fourth grade, and suddenly finding myself in a new social environment forced me to wake up to the realities of living in a world where people were either male or female, whether they wanted to be or not. In Athens, I’d been permitted to go about life in my own quirky way, more or less insulated from the world around me by my tendency to get lost in worlds of my own imagination. Suddenly it had become very important to know the right way to act in order to “fit in,” and what I quickly discovered was that I didn’t.

At the same time, my body was starting to change, and that in itself came as something of a horrible shock. I imagine that many adolescents, once they’ve gotten over the initial awkwardness of puberty, learn to accept the changes they are going through with a certain amount of hopefulness as they find themselves maturing into the adults they are in the process of becoming. For me, the growing awareness of my developing body was like waking up to find oneself dressed in an ill-fitting set of clothes it is impossible to take off.

At some point or other in middle school I picked up the knowledge that some people are born intersexed and surgically modified at birth to conform with one gender or the other. For the longest time, I secretly believed that this is what had happened to me, because it was the only way I had of making sense of the overwhelming sense of wrongness my body gave me. I used to spend a great deal of time imagining being suddenly transformed into a girl. I’d walk through strategies in my head for dealing with having to exit the boy’s bathroom without being seen. Somehow in my mind this would always happen while I was in the bathroom at school, probably because of the sheer misery of anxiety public restrooms caused me and continue to cause me to this day.

Eventually the discomfort I felt settled into a kind of routine I thought I could live with. I told myself that the feelings I had around my body were probably completely normal for boys. I was convinced that all people born with male bodies were aware on a subconscious level that nature had played a terrible trick on them, and that this feeling was the real reason for all the sexism and misogyny in the world. I comforted myself that at least I was more aware of this than other “boys” and was therefore better able to control and mitigate the sense of resentment I felt at not being lucky enough to be born female. Sometimes I would console myself that in being “male” I was living up to a heavy but necessary responsibility that had been placed on me, and that perhaps in some future life I would be rewarded by being born a woman.

This was the attitude that got me through high school and college, and to be honest it’s almost scary how easily it translated into my new life when I converted to Judaism. I was not raised to believe in any kind of God, and I’m too avid a historian to believe in “Torah mi Sinai” as a matter of fact, but the language of religious obligation carried and still carries a great deal of resonance for me. The idea of a God who commands certain behaviors, not because they are necessary or even comprehensible from a human standpoint but for His own inscrutable reasons, makes a certain kind of sense when even your experience of your own body is of something unnatural imposed on you from the outside.

That was my life for the longest time: Being what I wasn’t for the sake of those I couldn’t live without. It wasn’t all bad, by any means. I had a partner whom I loved. Eventually I found a new community and a new spiritual language in Judaism–a language and a community that inspired me enough to make me want to go to rabbinical school. But at the same time there was always that dissatisfaction at my center, that sense that unhappiness was an essential part of my life–which made me feel very confused sometimes, because one of the religious obligations which I understand myself to be commanded to observe requires that I take pleasure in my existence and in that of the world my creator has placed me in.

So what changed things? I’d like to say it was some profound spiritual insight, but in fact all it really took was meeting someone–one person–who had felt the same way I did and had been courageous enough to do something about it. I ask myself sometimes how it could be that something as simple as that could have been the catalyst for such a profound change. You can spend your entire life staring up at the sky and dreaming of flying, but so long as it remains completely outside the realm of possibility you can learn to live with the sadness, carry it with you wherever you go, always there but never acknowledged because you know if you mentioned it to your friends they’d simply laugh and assume you were joking. But then one day you see your first airplane and your whole life changes, because somewhere inside of you a tiny piece of that sadness is transmuted into a faint hope that, though you will never have wings, you may nevertheless someday get the chance to fly. And from that day on it will never be enough simply to live with that sadness anymore.

The situation I find myself in after coming out is that of having to constantly negotiate and renegotiate the terms between the tradition I’ve fallen in love with and the self that seems to be constantly threatening to spill over the boundaries within which that tradition operates. It is not so much the violation itself that I fear as the possibility of finding myself in a place where the tradition cannot support me nor I it. In seeking out the lesser-known corners of the Jewish tradition for language that seems to speak to my situation, I’m never entirely sure whether it’s the tradition’s boundaries I’m stretching or my own. And somewhere throughout the process, silently watching from the wings, is the God who made me in this particular way but then left me alone without comment to search for my own answer to what that means.

A recent incident may serve to illustrate what my dilemma looks like in practical terms. I was contacted by a local rabbi who operates a small, independent religious school for children. She wanted to put me in contact with a family that needed a tutor to teach their daughter Hebrew in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah. I sat down with the family and had a great interview. They seemed very happy with what I had to offer and we arranged for a date for the first lesson. This was the first job I’d ever managed to get as myself, and for a little while I felt super confident.

But then about a week after the interview I received a call from the rabbi who’d recommended me for the job. There was an issue–the daughter had asked the parents about the irregularities in my appearance, and whent hey’d talked to the rabbi about it she’d had to confirm that I was a trans-woman still in the process of transition. The mother called, we talked. She was more or less sympathetic to my situation, but felt like she had to balance my right to have my identity respected with her daughter’s desire to have a “female” teacher, someone who had had a “Bat Mitzvah rather than a Bar Mitzvah,” someone “she could look up to as a role model.” In the end, several days later, I received word that they wouldn’t be requiring my services after all.

I make no judgment about the validity of the mother’s concerns. Twelve years old is a delicate age, as I remember all to well. No one, especially not a child, should be forced into a situation that makes them genuinely emotionally uncomfortable. At the same time, this situation illustrates the kind of difficult balancing act I find myself in every day. I wanted to become a rabbi in order to make myself useful to my adopted people, to fill a necessary function and feel like I was one of the folks working to help keep Jewish communities tightly knit and alive to the wisdom of our traditions. In order to fulfill this function it is necessary for me to be truly present for those I live and work with. I don’t have the option of burying myself deep inside and going through life in an emotionally deadened state. But at the same time, being who I truly am is frequently distracting and often actively disruptive in the places where I am needed. It’s a dilemma I haven’t solved yet, and I don’t expect to any time soon.

My experiences being transgender in the Jewish community have been mixed. It has certainly been the case that throughout this process I have been the recipient of more acceptance and earnest goodwill than I ever would have dared to hope. I believe that many people, both here at the GJC and at the RRC, have been able to pick up on how happy I have been to be able to be more myself and have been ready to respect where I am on this journey. This is one place where the “live and let live” attitude of progressive Judaism has been an enormous benefit to me, which is ironic, as I always seem to find myself arguing for a more structured halachic approach.

The other side to this, however, is that while in itself permission to simply be who you are is an enormous gift that I have no intention of taking lightly, it is only part of the equation. Always in my life up to this point, being for others has meant giving up who I was in order to be who they needed me to be. Now, to draw on Rabbi Hillel, I have been slowly, painfully learning how to be for myself. What still eludes me is how to be for others *as* who I am.

In order to get to that place, and in order to be the rabbi I need to be, it is vital to find a place for transgender identities that can live within Judaism, not simply as an exception falling within the range of tolerated difference, but growing out of our texts and traditions in an organic and essential way. For me, and for many transgender Jews like me who are active in the Jewish community, this is a project that we undertake every day out of necessity, but its eventual success depends just as much on the participation of people in communities like this one throughout the Jewish world.

What is it like?

One of the purest, most honest, least judgmental questions I’ve been asked about my situation is, “What is it like?” In the short time that I have been more or less public and forthcoming about my gender identity, I have learned to cherish questions like this because of how blessedly free they are of the false assumption of knowledge. It’s hard to ask a question like this, difficult to muster the humility required to simply ask a question without simultaneously guarding ourself from the vulnerability of not-knowing by hedging it round with assumptions and presuppositions.

Questions like this truly represent the doorway into the realm of the ethical, by acknowledging the limits of the self and opening up a little corner of the shared space we call the world for the Other, a little patch of ground we do not lay claim to so that the they might find a home. In asking questions like this of others, we come ever so slightly to imitate God who, though theoretically commanding an unbounded perspective that embraces the universe in its totality without restriction, nevertheless makes space for hir creations by addressing them with the beautifully open-ended איכה–”Ayeka? Where are you?”

A Letter to Colin

Just a bit of teshuvah from the Yamim Noraim:

Dear Colin,

You know better than anyone how angry and resentful I get whenever anyone tries to suggest that we’re two different people. Imagine my surprise when, in this season of reflection and repairing personal relationships I found that the one person I really needed to talk with was you. To be honest, the real reason I get so angry when people talk about you as a different person is that I’m afraid what they’re saying is that they love you and they hate me because I’m the reason you’re going away. I feel bad that the people who love you are going to miss you, but I can’t help but feel resentful too. After all, I’ve been here all this time, watching them lavish this love and affection on you without even being aware I exist. It hasn’t been easy.

I know none of this is your fault. You didn’t ask to be the one born on the outside, any more than I asked to be the one born on the inside. It was hard work, but you put on a brave face and did what you thought you had to do, even if you didn’t always know why. What those people who are angry with me don’t realize is that without me, you’d never have been with them for as long as you were. They didn’t know, and couldn’t understand, what a terrible, frightening place the world was for you. They didn’t realize that all the love and attention in the world wasn’t enough to fill the big, empty space inside you that seemed to be getting bigger every day, no matter what you did. They weren’t there all those times when the only thing holding you back from throwing yourself over the edge was me and my stubborn determination to be born.

I know it hurt sometimes to have to go on living just because you happened to have been born with me inside you, but I hope it wasn’t all bad. I hope that because of me you may have experienced a little of the joy and excitement about life that was so difficult for you to feel. I hope you’ll be happier being a part of me than I was being a part of you.

Most of all I hope we can let bygones be bygones. I know things haven’t always been so great between us. There have been times when you’ve tried to get rid of me. Please believe me when I tell you than I don’t resent you for it. That said, now that things are changing we need to settle our differences and move on. As difficult as it may be for both of us to accept it, neither of us can live without the other, and I’m not sure about you, but *I want to live*.

Please try not to worry too much about the people who loved you. I realize that for much of your life the only thing that kept you going was your concern about how they would feel if you were gone. Those are admirable feelings, and they really do reflect the best of what you had to give. But I promise–I love them too, just as much as you did. After all, wasn’t I there all along, helping you take care of them when you didn’t know what to do? I know they’ll miss you, but in time they’ll come to understand why you had to step aside to let me out into the light. Some of them may even learn to be proud of you for the courage it took to do something like that. In the end, I hope there will be a time when they will recognize the best of what you were in me. I know I’ll try my best to make that so.

In conclusion, my strange conjoined brother, I want you to know that whatever your failings, I forgive you for them. How could I do otherwise? They are mine too. But more than that, I want you to know I love you. There have been times I wouldn’t have been able to say that, but now, this year, on Yom Kippur, I find that I can, and I give my thanks to God for that gift. I wish you all the peace that was never yours.

Sincerely,

Leiah

A Proper Name

Nouns are interesting. Grammar tells us there are essentially two different kinds of noun. A common noun refers to a class of things, such that multiple distinct things can share the same noun without contradiction. A proper noun, on the other hand, has a single, unique referent–the same name can’t refer to more than one person. One strange effect of this is that even if two people seem to share the same, in a certain sense their names are not the same, even though they sound and appear identical. When I’m talking about Emily, my partner, it is clear that I cannot simultaneously be talking about Emily, my good friend. By saying “Emily,” I have to be talking about one or the other–or about some different Emily altogether. I cannot use “Emily” to refer indeterminately to any of the people I know who share that name.

I have an idea that if God can be said to use language at all, then for God all nouns must be proper nouns, because a being with complete knowledge of every individual part of creation would have no need to group individual things into categories. Each thing would be known intimately and distinctly, as just what it is.

Deciding on a name for yourself is one of the most significant experiences a person can have. What adds to the solemnity of the process is the realization that you are making a decision about yourself that most people never get to make. Nearly all of us go through their lives with the names given to them by parents. If their name changes at all, it is usually through an external process that doesn’t really have much to do with them. Many women still take their husbands’ last names when they marry, but it wasn’t so long ago that in formal situations at least the effects of marriage on a woman’s name were even more extreme. Recently I saw a document in a museum addressed something like “to Mrs. Robert Smith, Sr.” Reading that made me sad. Here was a person who had her own, personal name so completely buried beneath her relationships with the men in her life that all that was left was the “Mrs.”

In contrast, it has been my privilege to choose a new name for myself not once in my life, but twice–an embarrassment of riches to be sure. The first time was when I converted to Judaism and had to choose a Hebrew name. I never really went by that name except when I was being called to the Torah, but I do remember thinking long and hard before deciding. It was one of the hardest choices involved in my conversion. Nevertheless, I was always haunted by the sense that I had somehow missed an opportunity in choosing my Hebrew name, that I had been tested and in some way too subtle to articulate had failed.

The decision to begin transitioning felt like a chance to make up for a missed opportunity–for many missed opportunities, to be honest. The one thing I was determined on was that the name I chose would be mine, personal and proper, in Hebrew and English. In the end I settled on Leiah, and there is a kind of rightness in that decision that makes me feel confident, that crystallizes my sense of myself in a way that all good names should.

The decision process behind “Leiah” is as murky as my own idiosyncratic spelling of the name apparently is to many people. For the record, my name is pronounced “Lay-uh,” just like the two literary women it’s based on.

I’m going to get the embarrassing part of this out of the way first and admit that one of the sources of my name is in fact Princess Leia, the character from Star Wars. It has never been a well-hidden secret that I am a complete geek, and I’ll own up to that. In my defense, Leia was one of my feminine role models growing up. Strong, confident, much more intelligent and self-possessed than any of the men around her, she was everything I would have liked to be. When I was growing up there were precious few depictions of strong, capable female characters in media targeted at kids, and Leia stands out to me for that reason.

The other source of my name, of course, is the biblical matriarch, Leah (which in English I have trouble not reading as “Lee-uh,” but I digress). I’ve always felt that of all the women of Genesis, Leah really doesn’t get the kind of respect she deserves. Married to Jacob solely because of a deception carried out by her father, who didn’t want to see the younger sister married before the elder, Leah is the epitome of what the bible calls “the unloved wife.” The names she gives her children speak to the deep yearning she felt for the love and recognition of her husband, who despite the broad and rather public hints never seems to have been able or willing to see her as anything other than an afterthought. The historical irony is that despite our tendency to forget about her in favor of her more charismatic sister, she, not Rachel, is theoretically the mother of the Jewish people, as after the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, the two remaining tribes–Judah and Levi–were both descendents of Leah.

Of course, neither of these names–Leia or Leah–is mine. For all that it sounds the same, my own name is different, singular as all proper nouns are, something uniquely mine. This, and the fact that it is something I have chosen for myself, make it precious to me. It’s a good name, and I have the feeling that as long as I treat it well, it will do the same for me.

Untitled

Did you already know who I was
When you called on me
Late that night?
Of my knowing there
Could be no question,
But did you?
And if so, what blindness
Could have reached out to touch
That quivering mass of feathers, too delicate
And twitching muscle, nerves, poised
To leap,
Unable now to answer, save
For the bare fact
Of its becoming?