Joy Ladin said she learned to be a better advocate for herself as a transgender Jew from her Orthodox students.
In 2006, when she went on an involuntary leave of absence as she transitioned from Jay to Joy, she thought the forced leave was inevitable and likely the first step toward losing her job.
“I did not disagree when people told me that my students would not accept an openly transsexual professor,” she said in a phone conversation with NJJN on May 8. “I felt most of the world would not accept me if they knew I were trans. It was not limited to the Orthodox Jewish world,” she said. “It was heartbreaking. But not surprising.”
Instead, she said, “a number of students, including some I would call extremely conservative and pious, said they felt it was a violation of Judaism, and that no Orthodox institution should treat a human being the way I was being treated.”
She ultimately resumed her teaching post in 2008.
“I had grown up thinking I was on the pale of humanity and internalized the idea that it’s okay to push some people out or to erase myself,” she said. “My students taught me to be a better Jew, and I realized the profoundly transformative set of values at the heart of being Jewish.”
Ladin will serve as scholar-in-residence at Bnai Keshet, Montclair, Friday-Saturday, May 13-14.
She is the author of five books of poetry, numerous essays, and Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders, a 2012 book detailing her transition from living as a man to living as a woman.
Ladin said she always had a strong sense of God’s presence. In fact, growing up, she said she knew three things about herself: that she’s a poet, not male, and Jewish.
When she started reading the Torah as a child, she told NJJN in a phone conversation, she said she identified in an unusual way with God, who seemed to be struggling with similar issues. “Like me, God was not visible or comprehensible to human beings. And like me, God wanted to be loved.”
It’s not that Ladin had delusions of grandeur; it was more that, feeling dissociated from her male body, she said, she felt invisible — even to herself.
God offered comfort when the rest of society did not. Transsexuals “often feel complete isolation from humans, and the social structures that bring everyone together leave you outside. Then there’s only one person to hang out with, and that’s God,” she said.
Ladin grew up in a nominally Conservative synagogue in upstate New York. She describes her Jewish identity at that time as “feral,” borrowing the phrase from a friend. She was deeply attached to Judaism, but not well educated and, she said, in some ways at that time she “made up” Judaism.
Ladin is no longer feral. A member of Congregation Ansche Chesed on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she is working on a book of trans interpretation of Torah, supported by grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and Hadassah. One of her interpretations — of the story of Jacob and Esau — appears in Through the Door of Life. In it, she reveals how she identified with Jacob and Esau as two facets of her pre-transition self: Esau, the hairy masculine man whose father will readily bless him, and Jacob, the feminine farmer who hides under a fake skin of fur to trick his father into giving the blessing. “Under the skins of masculinity — the pants and shirts I hated, the roles and games I forced myself to play — was something too smooth, too soft, too feminine to be loved like the male ‘twin’ I pretended to be. Like Jacob, I found deception heartbreakingly easy. As long as I kept my hair short and wore pants and shirts, no one could see the girl cowering beneath,” she wrote.
“I’ve always felt there’s a lot in the Torah that speaks to the trans experience,” she said, discussing with NJJN the possibilities for trans interpretation, but “it’s an aspect of Torah that is easy to overlook.”
Ladin thinks some Jewish communities are ready to welcome trans Jews into their midst, and commented on how far the Jewish community has evolved since her youth. She describes it as moving from “‘Wow, you are just weird and we can’t have you here,’ to ‘No, you can be here.’”
To those who are quick to condemn the Orthodox world as unevolved, she urges taking a closer look. She insists change is happening “just under the surface.” She pointed to organizations like Eshel — formed by Rabbi Steven Greenberg to create community and foster Orthodox acceptance for LGBT Jews — and Jewish Queer Youth. She asserted that Orthodox rabbis are working “quietly, privately” with congregants offering counseling and support, and she lauded the Israeli Orthodox rabbis who recently published a document urging tolerance for homosexuality. Ladin also noted that at Yeshiva University, gay and lesbian students “are no longer expelled or driven out” and an underground support group has been established by their straight peers and allies. “This is a huge shift,” she said.
But whether in the liberal or Orthodox arenas, she said, these changes are not enough. She believes tolerance must be followed by “lots of education” and plenty of discussion in safe spaces. At Stern, she said, she was allowed to return, but “there was no effort to understand me or transsexuals. There was no community discussion about gender so people could explore their own feelings.” As a result, she said, “I am very alone at Stern.”
She offered instead a vision not only of individuals “who are concerned with how we feel,” but of a “community that feels like part of us.” To get there, she said, “will take a lot of work.”