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A kids’ guide to gender and sexuality arrives in Yiddish – and hopes to reach Hasidic children

Hasidic children will learn about LGBTQ allyship, gender expression and the diverse world of identity when “You Be You: The Kid’s Guide to Gender, Sexuality and Family” arrives in Yiddish Jan. 31.

The author, Jonathan Branfman, first published the book in English in 2019. His goal was to make a resource that offers stigma-free information as accessible as possible. With that end in mind, he collaborated with over 20 translators from different backgrounds to make a book that addresses the reader, aged 7-11, in the language and culture they are most familiar with.

Branfman, a visiting assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Cornell, wanted a Yiddish edition from the beginning since former members of the Hasidic community had told him that there was a lot of misinformation about the LGBTQ experience within their milieu.

“Many Hasidic people who are LGBTQ deal with discrimination and internal stigma,” Branfman said. “And then on another hand, there’s a really exciting secular revival of Yiddish happening. And many of the people who are involved are feminist and or queer.” Both groups, he figured, would benefit from the book.

“Some married people very much want to have children. That might be true for cisgender or transgender or genderqueer people, as well as heterosexual or gay or bisexual or asexual people. They all could be good parents raising happy, healthy children.” - Translation by Chana Pollack Illustration by Julie Benbassat

To translate, Branfman enlisted Lili Rosen, a translator and Yiddish consultant for films like “An American Pickle” and the TV show “Unorthodox.”

Rosen, who is formerly Hasidic, says she is “kind of an outsider” to the Yiddishist and secular world, but had long been thinking about ways to articulate newer concepts of identity in Hasidic Yiddish. The problem, in many cases, wasn’t a lack of precedent for some of these concepts, but finding words that don’t have built-in baggage.

“Halachically the Talmud recognizes genders outside of the gender binary,” Rosen said. “But at the same time, there’s no question that they were marginalized. They were treated as less than.”

In the end, Rosen and Branfman decided to “Yiddishize” words widely used in English wherever possible (nonbinary becomes “nisht-tsveyig;” cisgender, “tsis-minig”) and borrow wholeale other words from English, like genderqueer and gay. When it came to describing intersex people, and their understood Halachic designation “androgynous,” Rosen honored its place in tradition by rendering its first appearance as “interseks (androgynous).”

“Romantic love is when people are attracted to each other and love each other very much and like spending lots of time together, and most likely enjoy kissing each other.” - translation by Chana Pollack. The book goes on to explain other kinds of love and relationships, including asexuality. Illustration by Julie Benbassat

The Yiddish translation is also the only non-English language edition to change some of illustrator Julie Banbassat’s images. A depiction of a wedding now appears with the bride and groom in traditional Hasidic dress and an image of a Black Jew, also present in the original, has had his clothing changed to appear Orthodox and better reflect the diversity of the Jewish community. Branfman also took care to note in the Yiddish translation that while some couples go through a more secular form of courtship, others see Shadchens or Shadchanim to make a match.

For the Yiddish edition, a couple getting married are dressed in traditional Hasidic wedding clothes.

For the Yiddish edition, a couple getting married are dressed in traditional Hasidic wedding clothes. The Yiddish text reads, “You may have heard that every boy and girl must get married…” Image by Julie Benbassat

“The book really aims to meet readers where they are, and then broaden their perspective,” Branfman said.

Branfman plans to donate books and is partnering with organizations for former Hasidim to try and get copies into the hands of young Hasidic readers and their families. He expects the internet and social media will also help spread the word.

Rosen, who says she grew up with dangerous ideas about “the sin of having a body,” believes the book is an essential resource.

“One of the problems is that children are not given the tools, they’re not given the language to understand their own bodies, and understand how to relate to their bodies and how other people should be relating to their bodies,” Rosen said.

She believes this lack of language leads to a missing sense of bodily autonomy, which, she contends, can be a factor in sexual abuse. Perhaps even more often, it leads to a hatred of one’s body and desires.

Putting the book out into the world, Rosen hopes it can reach a Hasidic child, who may feel alone and come away validated, seen or understood.

“I think it’s no exaggeration to say that it could be a lifesaver,” she said.

The Yiddish edition includes identity groups that Hasidic children would be familiar with, like Satmar and Sephardi. “Everyone has many identities at once. You could be a deaf Afro-Jewish-American cis-heterosexual boy, a Sephardic-Satmar bisexual gender-queer lesbian trans man and so on.” Illustration by Julie Benbassat

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