Transgender Jews get a boost from advocates new book

As a transgender Jew by choice, it’s not surprising that Noach Dzmura is interested in fringe Judaism.

And given his prolific résumé (Dzmura was the 2006 winner of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s prestigious Haas-Koshland Memorial Award), it’s also not surprising that he is the editor of the newly published anthology, “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community.” A mechitza is the barrier that separates men and women in Orthodox synagogues.

Noach Dzmura

Dzmura, 47, was almost finished with his master’s degree in Jewish studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union when the book’s publisher sent out word that they were looking to venture into new topics of interest, including Jewish and LGBT themes. Dzmura completed a book proposal in two days.

Although Dzmura was not yet Jewish himself when he was transitioning from female to male, at the time no book existed on being both Jewish and trans; the only writings about it were online.

So when putting the book together, “I thought of all the stuff I would like to have seen in a book as a Jewish transgender person,” Dzmura said.

Transgender people are those who are living as the opposite gender from the one they were born with. While Conservative Jewish law dictates that one must have sex reassignment surgery to be considered the opposite gender, Dzmura said that many transgender people choose not to have such surgeries for a variety of reasons.

The book includes essays by many Bay Area contributors, including Rabbi Reuben Zellman of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth-El, Maggid Jhos Singer of Coastside Jewish Community, and  Rachel Biale, author of “Women and Jewish Law.”

While a large number of the book’s contributors are from the Bay Area, not all of them are transgender; for instance, Biale’s essay focuses on what the Jewish community can do to be more welcoming to transgender people.

The book’s essays are divided into three themes: Acts of Lovingkindness, Service and Torah: Teaching, Instruction and Law. Dzmura said he chose these “three pillars of Judaism because they are something that’s easily understood by a lot of people.”

Dzmura will soon be teaching as an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco in its Jewish studies program, and he also works as communications director at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

While Dzmura hoped to provide a resource for transgender Jews, he just as much hopes that the non-transgender community will read the book as well.

“No matter how savvy or knowledgeable a person is about Judaism or transgender lives, there are not many people who are very savvy about both of those things together,” he said.

Indeed, the book offers much to think about to the layperson. For instance, Dzmura spoke of one essay by Lynn Greenhough, a contributor from Victoria, British Columbia, who is married to a transgender man and has been active in her community’s chevra kadisha for many years.

Dzmura said that issue is one that is near to his heart, as well. Greenhough outlines the challenges in ensuring a transperson is prepared for death in a dignified way by noting that transpeople often live as their new gender without undergoing surgery. Usually women attend to a woman’s body and vice-versa to ensure modesty, but who should prepare a transperson’s body for burial?

The book also offers ways that transpeople have marked their transition with a Jewish ritual, creating them from scratch since not much has been written on the topic.

Dzmura said that his main goal with the book was to get the Jewish community thinking about these issues, and how it can be more welcoming to people who identify as transgender.

“Gender-neutral restrooms and saying hello when someone walks in the door, no matter what they look like are two things that activists have asked people to do,” he said.

But physical changes to an institution only go so far.

“Welcome comes out of relationship,” Dzmura added. “You can’t get a list and tack it on your wall, you can’t go through a training course and be welcoming. When I am in transition, my Jewish community is in transition too. We do this together.”

“Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community,” edited by Noach Dzmura (North Atlantic Books, 250 pages, $16.95)

 

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."