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Transgender Jews May Be Nothing New

Transgender Jews May Be Nothing New

Photo: adamwphoto

There is always that question of what the shtetl Jews who populate the stories of writers like Sholom Aleichem might think about a transgender folk-punk band named Schmekel, which will be appearing October 29 at the Nehirim Queer Shabbaton, at the JCC in Manhattan.

Bands like Schmekel, which uses Yiddish as an alternative culture to help bulk up their Jewish identities, are part of a phenomenon dubbed ?Queer Yiddishkeit,? by Rutgers University scholar Jeffrey Shandler, in which queerness is juxtaposed with elements of Yiddish in order to upend the status quo.

While the state of the Jewish status quo is always in some sort of hysterical flux, evidence would seem to indicate that it?s come a long way, baby, when transgender masters of folk-punk-snark, Schmekel, play a show at an American Jewish community center.

And although Tevye the Milkman tried to rule his roost with tradition, he also suffered continuously under a barrage of tsoris from his elder daughters. It is, however, fairly safe to say that none of them ? not Hodel, not Tzeitel, nor Chava ? ever went on the record as considering gender reassignment.

But how would the shtetl respond to transgender Jews? Despite our distant perceptions of shtetls as little Yiddish universes living a naive and quaint Jewish existence, there is much that we do not know about the porous borders of Jewish shtetls.

We know especially little about the lives of gay, lesbian and transgender folk in Yiddish culture. With conservative cultural forces often dominating the Old World, the perception is that the shtetl closet must have been not only a walk-in, but also a live-in. Interesting fictional forays have been made into gay and lesbian shtetl life by writers like Elana Dykewomon and K. David Brody, both of whom provide readers with invented gay and lesbian shtetl scenarios. But invention from a long, historical distance, compelling as it may be, doesn?t offer what authentic testimony can. This is where the amazingly simple ethnography of the Yiddish press comes into play.

When, during the late summer of 1936, there was a flurry of articles about a number of butch-looking female athletes competing at the Berlin Summer Olympics, The New York Times reported that some of the women had, in fact, previously been men and had undergone ?minor operations? that transformed them into women. Close to that time, the Forverts also reported to its Yiddish readership on news of an American woman who had undergone a similar procedure. That November, the editors received a remarkable letter from a reader.

The tolerance of the denizens of Krivozer was a phenomenal thing. Berel-Beyle might have been run out of any other shtetl, but, to their credit, Krivozer?s Jews accepted Berel-Beyle for who he was and not only brought him into their regular synagogue minyan, but also married off one of their daughters to him.

Tales of transgender folks in those days or these are not always heartwarming. In fact, a great deal of Schmekel?s lyrics address the anguish and difficulties of being transgender ? albeit in an ironic and hilarious way, and accompanied by a kind of raw polka beat. And while some Jewish precincts might not be so accepting of Berel-Beyle and Schmekel, the JCC has a fine historical precedent in the simple shtetl Jews of Krivozer.

Eddy Portnoy is a contributing editor to the Forward and teaches Yiddish language and literature at Rutgers University.

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Eddy Portnoy

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