Abby Chava Stein, author of "Becoming Eve." (JTA/Debra Nussbaum Cohen)
Abby Chava Stein, author of "Becoming Eve." (JTA/Debra Nussbaum Cohen)

Leaving Orthodoxy: personal stories of gender and Hasidism

Books coverage is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.

For most of us, our gender is such a given that we may not be able to imagine the experiences of those for whom it is a source of struggle.

Two memoirs from the tail end of 2019, both of which are written by former members of Hasidic communities, help attune all of us to the inner worlds of people whose gender identity is at odds with their assigned sex.

In Becoming Eve,” Abby Chava Stein recounts the experiences leading to her becoming the first openly transgender person to emerge from the Hasidic world.

Stein was born in 1991 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to a respected rabbinic family descended from the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidic Judaism). As the family’s first son, Yisroel Avrom Stein was expected to assume a leading role in the community. And on paper, Stein’s first two decades looked much as one would expect: by the age of 20, Stein had been ordained as a rabbi, and had become a husband and father.

But Stein’s interior life was at odds with the fulfillment of these roles.

From her earliest years, Yisroel felt that she was a girl. At the age of 11, she composed a bedtime prayer asking God to allow her to awaken in a girl’s body.

Stein’s unhappiness led to acting out in school and depression. It also led to a spiritual search, which would include finding mystical texts that actually spoke to the disconnect she was experiencing.

Eventually, Stein felt that she could no longer be part of her community, and her marriage also came to an end. She moved to Manhattan, was accepted to Columbia University and began living as a woman with a new name.

One thing distinguishing Stein’s experience from that of most transgender people is that the above occurred without access to the outside world, as most Hasidic communities forbid television, the Internet and secular media (and Stein was doubly isolated because, although born in Brooklyn, she was a native Yiddish speaker not yet fluent in English).

Stein assumed that she was the only person to experience this split between her biological reality and her identity. Finally, already married, she got use of a smartphone and did a search in Hebrew, and found out that she was not alone.

RELATED: Hasidic-raised trans woman to speak about her journey

Mimi Lemay’s What We Will Become also focuses on gender identity, but from the perspective of a parent.

Lemay’s middle child, Em, identified as a boy at a very early stage, and Lemay and her husband, Joe, struggled with how to respond. As it became clear that the child was suffering emotionally from being pushed to live as a girl, they eventually decided to support Em’s gender transition — at the age of 4.

Em entered kindergarten with a new name, Jacob, that he had chosen. Lemay records her own initial lack of confidence in the move. Concerned that adopting a male name would make it harder to shift course if Em chose not to live as a male, Lemay attempted to convince Em to take the name Yonah, which doubles as a male and female name. But Em was set on becoming Jacob.

Lemay intersperses this narrative with chapters recollecting her own earlier life. Lemay grew up in Hasidic communities in Israel and the United States, and spent a number of years in a seminary program in the isolated Orthodox community of Gateshead in northern England.

Frustrated by her teachers’ attitudes towards women and worldly knowledge, and scarred by a broken engagement, Lemay opted to return to the U.S. to attend college. Once outside the insular ultra-Orthodox world, she gradually shed her life of observance.

Both Stein and Lemay contend with two seismic shifts in their lives. One is coming to terms with gender-related issues, and the other is a struggle with Orthodox Judaism. In fact, Stein began a blog titled “The Second Transition” — with the first transition being her exodus from Orthodoxy, and the second being her gender transition.

These two dramatic changes are closely linked, however. Stein writes that “to live an authentic life, I would have to leave the community — the most egregious offense imaginable.” And, writing of herself in the third person, Lemay notes how “that world, one of rarefied ultra-Orthodox Judaism, began to collapse in on her when she discovered the price she would have to pay to live an authentic life.”

Both Stein and Lemay experience living in the Hasidic world — in which members submit themselves both to Jewish law and to their communities’ expectations — as incompatible with expressing their true selves, and, in the case of Lemay, with being the parent she needs to be.

Lemay comes to see leaving Orthodoxy as what created the possibility of responding to her child’s needs: “My Jacob, my son, could not have survived the world that I escaped. His light would surely have been diminished or worse, put out.”

For such communities, conflicts between collective standards and individual needs are inherent challenges, to which they may respond with flexibility, rigidity or sheer denial. And the family is often the arena in which these questions are played out.

When Stein finally comes out as transgender to her father, he informs her of the possibility that he may never speak to her again. Lemay’s relationship with her mother carries much tension and pain, but also the possibility of evolution.

Although not part of such a community, I am left with the mystery of how I would respond as a parent to a child like Yisroel Stein or Em. It’s a question that is impossible to answer, but reading both of these books has opened my heart further.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.