Marking Gender Transition in the Mikveh

One Transgender Jew Writes a Ritual for Another

Ritual Writer: Max Strassfeld, the author, poses with his son.
Courtesy of Max Strassfeld
Ritual Writer: Max Strassfeld, the author, poses with his son.

By Max Strassfeld

Published August 09, 2013, issue of August 16, 2013.
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A number of years ago a friend asked me to co-write a ritual to mark his gender-transition to manhood. I say “friend,” but it would be more accurate to call him “queer family.” I am also a transgender Jew, and he is as close to me as my brothers are. Even so, I was hesitant.

While there are several rabbis in my family, I am an academic and not particularly skilled at creating ritual; however, I grew up immersed in a strong, tight-knit Jewish community and am currently finishing up my doctorate in Jewish studies. Out of loyalty to him, I overcame my initial reluctance and promised to try and write something.

At the time, transition rituals for transgender Jews were scarce, although they are becoming more common.

Today there are rituals for many aspects of transition, from taking hormones to changing names. My friend requested a ritual specifically to precede his top surgery, a common procedure undertaken by some transgender men and genderqueers — people who don’t identify as solely male or female — to flatten the chest so that it appears more masculine. While there are traditional Jewish blessings for surviving an ordeal (for which surgery can certainly qualify), these did not seem to fit the moment.

Before my top surgery, for example, I was certainly scared, particularly since I had never undergone surgery. But as a transgender Jew, surgery felt like my bar mitzvah: It represented both a trial that I had to survive and a blessing marking a new stage in my life. I knew I wanted to write a ritual that could capture the complexities of what surgery represented.

My friend’s only guidelines were that he wanted the ritual to center on the mikveh and that he wanted my co-author and me to be the witnesses to his immersion. Since the mikveh is a space that is segregated by sex, we realized from the outset that we were going to have to tackle Judaism’s investment in dividing the world by gender. In general, the broader Jewish community does not always accept the variety of ways in which transgender Jews self-identify. That means that transgender Jews, particularly those of us who do not “pass” as male or female, enter into a sex-segregated space with some trepidation.

My two friends and I represent three very different versions of masculinity: I don’t identify as male or female but I use male pronouns, my transitioning friend identifies as a transman and my co-author is a nontransgender man. I was not sure that the three of us would even be allowed together in a space defined by the boundaries of sex.

After weeks of feeling stymied and feeling myself unable to write a word, I turned to the Talmud for inspiration, focusing on Berachot, the tractate on blessings, and decided to write my section of the ritual using the Shehechiyanu prayer. The Shehechiyanu is a blessing that praises God for helping us to arrive at the present moment. It can be interpreted as a blessing for being alive, but more generally it is used to mark happy occasions, the first days of holidays or new experiences.


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