Getting to know Joy Ladin, this year’s most visible transgender Jew, is an exercise in challenging assumptions about the relationship between the political and the personal.
This week, by way of marking Transgender Week of Awareness, I contacted Joy, poet, writer and professor at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, and author of Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders. Fresh on the heels of Joy having been named in The Forward 50, we spoke about visibility and invisibility, Hebrew names, gender binaries, Women of the Wall, deception, and Jewish institutional inclusivity.
Being a transgender in any culture is a challenge. But in Judaism the binary constructions are everywhere: kosher/treyf; pure/impure; sacred/profane.
Yet in this liberalized age of challenging binaries, including gender ones, there is something strangely old-fashioned about the type of transgender individual that seeks a radical transformation from visibly male to visibly female, with all the stereotypical gender signifiers that that can entail.
As personal anguish over losing the husband she had married washed over her, Joy’s wife had repeatedly said to her, “What’s so bad about being a man?”
And with a hyper-politicized sense of what twenty-first-century gender should mean, one might reformulate her ex-wife’s question as this: “What’s wrong with just being? Why the need to engage in a radical, binary transition from man to woman?”
Getting to know Joy -- through her gripping, spiritually uplifting, painful, touching and funny memoir, and through talking to her directly, a soft-spoken, thoughtful and extremely articulate woman, one realizes that politics can be a poor approximation of actual experience.
“People would say to me, how can you choose to adopt essentially ‘femininity’ when femininity has been associated with so much oppression of women?” Joy acknowledged. “I get that,” she added. “But I also think that there is a lot of hatred of femininity that’s not always liberatory. For me, femininity is liberatory.”
Part of Joy’s memoir describes a trip to the Kotel with her wife and children while she was still living as a man. The gender segregation at the site was a painful reminder that her body did not match her identity. Following her transition, she returned to the Kotel, as a woman.
In light of the ongoing struggles of Women of the Wall and others to create a more egalitarian environment at the Kotel, politics wasn’t far from my mind as I was speaking to Joy. But I soon realized that for her, the issue is much more complex.
“It’s pretty clear that the way the Wall is handled is not just. It offends me as a human being. But it’s also true that my identity is affirmed when I enter a space that’s identified as a female space. I always feel that my sense of myself is on sufferance: at any minute, others might say, ‘you’re not real.’”
Being transgender poses many obvious challenges. Transgender individuals can be seen as a threat to dearly held norms of gender appropriateness. And the web of others with which transgender individuals have intertwined before transition can be painfully ruptured. When Joy and her ex-wife attend parent-teacher interviews, for example, the perception that they are a (divorced) lesbian couple can be upsetting for an ex who identifies as straight. And so on.
Perhaps most disturbingly, transsexuals in particular are sometimes viewed as being deceptive. This can make the most mundane activities -- like visiting a ladies restroom -- a dangerous experience.
Joy is on the advisory board for the Schusterman Foundation’s Jewish Organization Equality Index. She explained that for Jewish institutions seeking to become more inclusive, policies need to be laid out from the start. Both LGBTQ individuals as well as others need to be consulted on their respective assumptions, needs, perceptions and desires.
At her daughter’s recent Bat Mitzvah, for example, the rabbi was faced with a demand from Joy’s ex-wife that the girl be called up to the Torah by the Jewish name chain she was given at birth (the traditional daughter of mother’s name and father’s name). But Joy was adamant that uttering the male Hebrew name she abandoned when she transitioned (her new Hebrew name is Tikvah, meaning hope) would amount to a public humiliation. As a hasty compromise, the rabbi added the words “Tikvah” and “formerly” into the existing name chain, and spoke the whole thing so quickly as to barely be audible.
Joy stresses that policies of inclusion should be thought through in advance of eleventh-hour moments where passions run high.
The journey of acceptance and inclusion in many facets of society will no doubt be a long and winding one. But experiencing a tiny corner of Joy’s journey via her story reminds me that the best form of political change arises from listening to the experiences of others, even when those experiences challenge deeply held political truths.