Transgender Jews Seek Place at Table

Conference Aims To Break Communal Silence on Issue

Speaking Up: Transgender Jews celebrate shabbat at a California synagogue.
Speaking Up: Transgender Jews celebrate shabbat at a California synagogue.

By Chanan Tigay

Published November 14, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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Ladin recently found herself in that uncomfortable situation. Her ex-wife felt that, to reflect their history together, it was important to use Ladin’s former name in heralding their daughter’s entry to adulthood. Ladin understood her desire, but disagreed.

She told her ex-spouse, “I think that my present is more important than her past.” But then Ladin’s daughter weighed in, declaring Ladin said, that she didn’t “want to change her identity just because I changed mine,” The family arrived at a “livable compromise,” she related: Ladin would be acknowledged by both names.

When the moment of truth arrived, Ladin said, “the rabbi did something really great…. He just read it really fast. Even I couldn’t sort out the words. He made my female name and my male name unintelligible, minimizing the discomfort of my ex and myself simultaneously.”

“I think we did the best that we could in a difficult situation,” Ladin said.

Kapor, whose mother was pleased she wasn’t getting a tattoo, hopes to create a “gender-queer Halacha” and thereby nudge Jewish law toward a rendezvous with modernity on such issues. A former student at Jewish day schools, Kapor has begun studying independently for the rabbinate in service of this goal.

Still, while the Talmud addresses those with physical differences, the question of how a person experiences his or her own gender — the focus of much transgender thought today — has little precedent in early Jewish thought. As the sun descended on a Friday evening, participants gathered for Kabbalat Shabbat and sang many familiar tunes, sometimes altering the traditional words. Reuven Zellman, assistant rabbi and music director at Berkeley’s Reform-affiliated Congregation Beth El, led the traditional chant, “Hinei ma tov u” with a subtle twist: “Hineh ma tov u ma naim, shevet tranim gam yachad” :“Behold how good and how pleasing, transgender people sitting together.”

Zellman clearly knew his audience. Indeed, several participants said it was essential in their situation to maintain a good sense of humor. But for Bauer, the gathering was very serious business.

“Bringing respect and safety to transgender folk is a matter of life and death,” Bauer said. “There are so many people in history who have killed themselves; there are so many people who live lives as dead people, if you will, without ever getting a chance to be reborn into their new identities. Not holding this gathering would be like looking at a population in peril and saying, ‘We don’t care if you live or die.’”

Contact Chanan Tigay at feedback@forward.com


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