Berkeley, Calif. — Shortly before Emily Aviva Kapor began the transition from male to female, she sat down to discuss the process with her mother.
“I told her I was going on hormones, and she said the most Jewish thing to me,” 27-year-old Kapor recalled. “She said, ‘Well, at least you’re not getting a tattoo.’”
It’s a funny line that anyone with a Jewish mother can appreciate. But as it turns out, the most Jewish thing to say on the subject of gender identity probably would have been nothing at all.
For many years, those knowledgeable on the subject say, Jews and Jewish organizations largely met their transgender co-religionists with silence. Slowly, that is beginning to change. From November 2 to November 4, Kapor and nearly 30 other transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex and gender-nonconforming Jews from across North America sought to expand this opening-up process at a gathering here, billed as the first-ever retreat for such Jews.
“With transgender and gender-queer identity, there wasn’t a Jewish frame of reference in which to speak it,” said Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, director of West Coast programming for Nehirim, the LGBT group that sponsored the event. The result, he said, was “silence.”
On the other side of the equation, he added, “Jewish transgender people did not want to speak their names or their identities out loud — or if they did, they had to leave their communities and restart somewhere else, kind of like the witness protection program. So, there was silence from transgender people.”
The Nehirim Jewish Transgender Gathering, as the shabbaton was called, was “a space where people could be present in their full identities.”
Among those attending was Enzi Tanner, a 28-year-old African American who is in the process of converting to Judaism. Tanner grew up Pentecostal, was born again as a Baptist and later worked toward ordination as a United Church of Christ minister before deciding to convert to Judaism.
“For me, gender transformation and Judaism go hand in hand,” Tanner said, sitting outside the conference in his purple yarmulke, bowtie and suspenders. “Some things in my mind were always fixed: Gender cannot be changed; the only way to be Jewish is to be born Jewish. Once I realized that gender isn’t such a fixed thing, years later I met Jewish people and realized you didn’t have to be born Jewish to be Jewish.”