diaTribe Review: Celebrating Judaism beyond the binary in "Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community"

This is a guest post by Amy Gavel, Jewish Educator and coordinator of NOAZIM, Mount Zion Temple’s 20s/30s group.
After a nasty kidney stone a few years ago, I staffed the Mount Zion 11th grade trip to New York with a raging bladder infection. You may have noticed that public bathrooms in NYC are few and far between, and women’s restrooms always have a line. You may know a bladder infection can make finding a bathroom a matter of extreme urgency. In utter desperation, I often found myself noting, “oh, urinal” on my way into the first available stall and had frequent opportunity to recite asher yatzar, the blessing for after using the facilities. The experience was a dramatic reminder of the binary bathroom divide, and that in our culture there is a gender line we know we aren’t supposed to cross.
Written “for transgender . . .Jews,” allies, and “those for whom the very thought. . .is deeply disturbing,” an outstanding community of authors join together in Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community, edited by Noach Dzmura (North Atlantic Books, June 2010). I was lucky to have a copy provided to me for this review, but you can order it at www.amazon.com ($11.53) or walk into Common Good Books at 165 Western Ave in St. Paul where they have copies waiting for you.
I loved so many things about this book!
The structure
Divided into three sections Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim, each chapter opens with an intelligent introduction guiding the reader into the essays and bridging the topic and Jewish text. The editor’s note to each essay provides a linking thread. In the first section, we are invited to fulfill the mitzvah of G’milut Chasadim – acts of loving kindness – by reading with compassion. The Avodah section explores experiences of worship. At first feeling like slightly uncomfortable disorder, ending with Torah became the most fitting way to travel.
The Stories
Few things can bring me to tears but Kate Bornstein succeeded by sharing a single narrative moment in which she remembers her dying mother asking, “Who are you?” and answering truthfully, “I was her baby, I always would be. I told her I was her little boy, and the daughter she never had. I told her I loved her.” Her mother exclaimed, “That’s good. I didn’t want to lose any of you, ever.”
As a person born with all of the eggs my ovaries would ever hold, who became a girl and continues to become a woman in an ever-evolving revelatory process, I found deep resonance with Rachel Pollack’s response to the question “How can you claim to be a woman?” “We do not claim anything,” she wrote in her essay Abandonment to the Body’s Desire, “We know our gender as a revelation.”
From Eliron Hamburger’s essay, Lech Lecha I have a new understanding of Jewish text. To better understand the textual question “Where are you” in the binding of Isaac, the author returns to when Abraham is told lech lecha and concludes that “walking one’s path, authentically . . . .is the only assurance for teshuvah.” Lech lecha is commonly translated as “go forth.” Hamburger teaches another translation is “go toward you” – i.e. toward yourself – and shares, “I spent the first thirty-six years of my life being a Jew and the last ten years becoming Jewish.”
The Honesty
In addition to celebration and joy, Balancing on the Mechitza wrestles with the hard stuff. “According to the Torah, God has a deep aversion to the transgendered: “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear women’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God” (Deut. 22:5). Orthodox scholar Joy Ladin continues, “That was it. It didn’t matter if I cross-dressed or not. . . . The law in Deuteronomy wasn’t cutting me off from God; it was showing me that God and I had something in common. We could abhor me together.” (73) I found myself achingly hoping the miracle for which Ladin prayed would be granted.
The Challenge
When I arrived in the Torah section, I was ready for it. The editor’s own An Ancient Strategy for Managing Gender Ambiguity celebrated the way I encounter Jewish text and I reveled in the multiplicity of possible analyses. Then Rachel Biale’s Beyond the Binary Bubble offered specific examples of inclusive transitions, challenging me to think about the role I could have as a non-trans Jewish person to be midwife to that transformation. After all, my female self running through a door that wasn’t intended for me isn’t that different from climbing up on a mechitza and taking a fresh look at the Jewish world. Turns out, it’s an interesting view.
I hope you’ll read the book and join me.
(Photo: eco.monster)