Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Timely Lesson: Let’s Rise Up; Together (INN D'var Torah)

(This post was written as part of the weekly IfNotNow D'var Torah series. It was originally published at:
This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim (literally, laws), is one of the most complicated Torah portions to study in depth. It is a wealth of laws as they relate to interpersonal relationships — Bein Adam LeChavero. Growing up I attended an ultra-religious school, and we would joke that on this week we need to wear ‘metal pants’ to school, to avoid being wounded by the wrath of our teachers — if/when we couldn’t keep up with the complicated studies.
This week, it felt like every transgender student has to start wearing metal pants to school — this time the regime is coming for us. The highest office in our country made a not so subtle announcement proclaiming “Trans lives don’t matter” and, wink wink, we will ignore Title IX of 1975’s federal human rights law when it comes to one of the most vulnerable communities in the country, transgender youth.
We are at lost. How do we fight back against a government that is pouring all its resources into undoing all we have accomplished in the past few years? How do we fight regressing, when we are still working on progressing? Once again, we can turn to our ancient tradition, and find inspiration to rise up and resist.
Second Temple period coins that were used to bring donate to the temple.
A part of this week’s Torah reading that is perhaps less known to most American Jews, is the special reading of “Shabbat Shekalim” — a special reading about the charity the Israelites ought to donate to the temple. This reading is added every year on the Shabbat leading up to the new month of Adar, the month of happiness, the month of the holiday of Purim.
One of my favorite rabbinical exegesis on this reading, is a interesting conversation between the divine and the Israelite leader, Moshe:
“On Parshat Shekalim Moshe said before the Holy one, Lord of the world, once I die I wouldn’t be remembered? The Holy One responded, I promise you, just like now (while you are alive) you are standing before them and teaching them Parshat Shekalim, and you are raising their heads (raising their spirits), so will it be each and every year when they will read it for me, you will be there at that time, and raise their heads.” (Midrash Tanchuma, 2:9:3)
What’s the significance of ‘reading’ this specific story, that the divine promised Moshe, that this will be how he will be remembered, and that with this he will raise the spirits of the nation?
In the Hasidic teachings of my great ancestor, Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer — Baal Shem Tov, and his disciples, there is a consistent approach to the power of reading biblical stories. Hasidism teaches that “Reading evokes the time” meaning, that reading a specific story, at a specific time, is not simply storytelling, but it is as if the story is happening once again. In that sense we can understand the relationship between the power of charity and the energy to ‘rise up’: it reminds us, and recreates the original deeds; it is teaching us the power of charity — it is what gives up the power to keep our heads up.
This past week we had an oppertunity to see the power of charity, and how that helps us to rise our heads up: As we were faced with yet another symptom of the rising tide of hate, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and discrimination against every minority in our country; motivated by the rhetoric of the highest office in land. This time the victims were the living and the death alike, the vicious attack on the Jewish Cemetery in St. Louis. Yet at this moment the power of charity and inter-faith solidarity rose in its full glory, with over $110,000 raised by Muslim women, to help rebuilt the cemetery.
This is what this Torah portion of interpersonal relationships, and its added portion of rising up through charity teaches us about current days. When we look on both of these ideas, together, The most effective path to resistance is when the persecuted in whichever way it is, gather to fight back, together.
When and if, all the Jews, Muslims, LGBTQIA, People of Color, People of less privileged socio-economic status, and so on, with the help of allies, gather to cry out loud: “WE RESIST” there is nothing we cannot accomplish!
Shabbat Shalom!
PS: Check out the Sefaria source sheet with some of the sources mentioned here:

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Personal and Communal Journey: Education, Columbia University, and Family

It was a chilly winter evening at the beginning of the Spring 2015 semester, after class, when I took the Columbia University Intercampus Shuttle from the Morningside Heights Campus, to the Columbia Medical Center in Washington Heights. At that point the driver of the 4:20 shuttle already knew me by name, as I was taking that shuttle on a weekly and sometimes bi-weekly basis. My maternal grandfather, may his memory be a blessing, was hospitalized for months at CUMC, up to his passing just two months after that. Over the 7 months that he was there, he wasn’t alone even for a single second, should it be a weekday or weekend, an ordinary day or a holiday, in rain or in snow. Between his 16 kids (kids and in-laws), and tens of grandkids and great-grandkids, the family took turns being with Zaidy. My mother was there about twice week, and every few weekends, and whenever I could I would take the 20-minute shuttle to the medical center to spend time with my beloved Mommy and Zaidy. After all, I was the only one in the family to live in Manhattan, and the only one in the entire extended family [1] to be part of the very university that became an integral part of our family life for months.
My (old) Columbia ID
That day I arrived at the Milstein Medical Building at the same time as my mom got out of the car that drove her from Brooklyn. The security at CUMC is adequately tight, and every time my mother came to visit, doesn’t matter how many times a week, she had to go through the security check-in. That meant walking up to the Visitors Counter, show a government ID, say whom she is visiting, and do a quick bag-check - she was no doubt used to it at that point. As always my mom was happy to see me; no matter what, her love - unconditional at the time - to the kid she saw as her oldest son was strong. We walked in through the revolving door, and out of instinct my mom approached the security desk. As she was pulling out her non-driver's license, [2] I pulled out my Columbia ID - which always gave me access to the medical center, no questions asked. Seeing my ID, the security guard asked me on my mom: “Is she with you?” and when I said yes, he just let us both go up without having to check in.
For my mom, this was the first time she faced firsthand what she knew for the last year, but never wanted to face it: her kid - myself, is part of the very same prestigious institution the family chose to take care of their crown - my grandfather. Mom’s first response, turning to the guard, was “Yup, my kid is just a showoff.” but as we entered the elevator to go up to the ICU on the sixth floor, my mother turns to me and said: “I see, you are doing something useful you’re your life.”
She said that in a tone of mourning rather than pride of her daughter's accomplishment. It is quite possible that she was the first mother to visit Columbia Medical Center because she believed in the effectiveness of the Columbia machine, and at the same time be upset, sad, and ashamed that her kid is part of that very same institution.
          I was only a young teenager when my cousin, [3] the now award winning actor, Luzer Twersky, left the Hasidic community. Luzer was the first person in my entire extended family [4] to commit one of the harshest sins possible in my family; going Off the derech - leaving the community. At the time our family went out of its way to demonize him and degrade him. I remember being told the worst things possible about him. From claims that he is mentally ill to claims that he is a criminal. The reasons why he left ranged from being insane to just a sinner who likes sex. We were told that it is certain he will end up a drug addict, in prison, or dead. Compassion to a family member that is going through a hard transition? none at all. At that point I pretty much believed it, while I was secretly watching his path hoping that maybe one day I will be able to follow in his footsteps. The possibility that in a few years he will have earned a few film awards, and have a fairly successful acting career, just didn’t cross my mind.
          Luzer wasn’t the only one that was demonized in that way. Every time someone left, the families and the whole community establishment rushed to explain it in any way possible - besides the possibility that they were looking for a better life outside the confines of one of America’s most isolated communities. We were told that everyone who leaves ends up either mentally ill, a criminal, or dead. As with Luzer, the community would get creative in creating a story of why they left, always negative, and usually along the lines of mental illness or desire to be sinful and lustful. Without question, up to about ten years ago, without any support groups or social media, that was what most of us believed. In addition, they were sadly right more times than not. Without a solid education or baseline knowledge of how to live as a civilized human being in the outside world, topped with family rejection leading to financial breakdown, very few people were actually successful after leaving. I don’t think anyone took statistics of these leaving prior to 2003, but from what we know, a lot of them sadly ended up in bad places physically, mentally, and/or emotionally.
          In 2012, when I was beginning my own journey out of the community, everyone in my life rallied around to convince me of my upcoming colossal failure. A lot of people were called in - so to speak - to ‘save’ my soul, and try to prevent me from moving forward. From my father who has a lot of experience working with “teens at risk,” [5] my paternal grandfather with whom I had a very personal relationship as my spiritual mentor, to my great-aunt, Rebbetzin Feige Twerski, a world renown kiruv speaker. The underlying message I got from all of them was that one thing is clear: there is simply no way I will ever succeed in life outside of the community. However, the biggest reason why that didn’t work in 2012 as well as it worked with others in 1992, was that I have seen success stories. Thanks to organizations such as Footsteps and Hillel, social media such as the Facebook group Off the Derech, and online projects such as It Gets Besser, I knew that success is possible. To my family and community however, my success, and the success of my fellow journeyers leaving the community, was seen as a threat of itself.
          From the first moment I started planning to leave the enclave I grew up in, I knew that one of the most important steps towards success would be education. Here once again everyone was enlisted to convince me that I will never succeed in academia. As a matter of opinion, I believe that they knew that education is actually the path to success, and wanted to do everything possible to ensure that doesn’t happen. I clearly remember a moment when I was studying for my GED in my father’s study at home, [6] and he came in and said, “I know you, and I can promise you, you will never succeed in college.”  In the end, as a direct result of these messages I started pushing myself to prove them wrong, and to work hard to get somewhere in life. I will admit that part of the reason I applied to NYU and Columbia was because even my parents recognized that these are top schools. Knowing that pushed me - at least a bit - to work hard on my SAT's, admissions essay, and so on.
My Columbia acceptance lette
I will never forget the look of shock, dismal, and disappointment on my father's face when I showed him my Columbia acceptance letter. Throughout the next year - while they were still talking to me - they constantly hated it when I mentioned being at Columbia, studying with leading professors, and later on making political connections. They didn't know how to deal with it, and even more how to convince the rest of my family that I am NOT successful.
To that extent, I have to admit, my mother saying “I see, you are doing something useful with your life,” while sincere, was a challenge not just to herself, but to the entire community’s basic belief system. However, I am proud to say, and to be just one of the living examples, that everything is possible. No matter what our communities and families are tell us, we can be successful. Nothing is off limits, not even the Ivy League, or the third best school in the United States of America.

This post was inspired by an inquiry by my dear friend Shulem Deen, regarding what we (the OTD community) were told growing up about what happens to these who leave.

[1] For context, just my grandfather’s father’s kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, and great-great-grandkids, make up about a hundreds of college age people. I almost certain that I am the first of them to go to college.
[2] Non-driver’s license is the most commonly used form of ID in communities were driving for women (and sometimes even man as is the case with my family) is considered taboo, and pretty much unacceptable.
[3] Luzer is my second cousin on my father’s side, and later first cousin through my ex wife. Just like in royal families, the royal Hasidic families – namely descendants of Hasidic rabbis, marry each other all the time, so there is a lot overlap in family trees. Even in my own marriage, my great-grandmother, and my ex’s grandmother were first cousins.
[4] The family of my paternal great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Eluzer Twersky - Luzer’s namesake.
[5] Teens at risk didn’t usually refer to drugs, or at risk of joining the neighborhood gang. Usually it meant boys that have smartphones god forbid, talk the girls, or just don’t want to study 10 hours a day at religious schhol.
[6] As depicted in this video:, produced by the It Gets Besser Project.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Birth: A Personal Story

“They (the scholars of the Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel) took a vote and decided that it were better for humans not to have been created than to have been created. Now that they have been created, let them investigate their past deeds. Others say, let them examine their future actions.”

The above quote is perhaps one of the most challenging teachings of the Talmud, one that has been for generations a great conversation starter in philosophy, psychology, and the catchy ‘meaning of life discussions.’ Personally, this made a lot of sense throughout my childhood, as I was struggling with identity in all of its forms. Of course, if as a little girl everyone is treating you like a little boy, you wonder why you were born. As I got older, and closer to realizing that if I want to succeed in life I have to forge my own identity, the second part ‘let them examine their future action’ seemed about right.
Today, on my 25th birthday according to the Jewish calendar, I want to share an article about my own birth, inspired by my upcoming speech at “Beingwith.” It is part of a paper I am currently writing for a class at Columbia, and a really rough draft of a chapter in my upcoming book.
A Child Is Born:
I was born on October 1th 1991, or - the way I knew it growing up - the 24th of Tishrei 5752, at 11:10 pm. It was the final day of the Jewish high holidays season, and the last day of a 9 day straight holiday; Simchat Torah. I can assure you that if any Jewish mother can choose a day, or more exact a night, to go into labor, that night would be one of the last on the list. After nine days of non stop holiday meals, nine days of inability to wash clothes in a household of 7, including five kids under the age of 8, everyone wants to be home cleaning. In addition, no one was expecting me at that point, I was due more than three weeks after that. As my mother would later tell me, she “was just not ready,” and that from birth “I was always doing the unexpected…” At the final celebration of the holiday season, my parents had to drop off my five older sisters at my grandparents, as they rushed to Beth Israel Medical Center, just over the Williamsburg Bridge.
Being born three weeks early also had its physical consequences. As a result of underdeveloped kidneys, I had a tough case of “Newborn jaundice”, resulting in 3 blood transfusions, 2 of them within the first 24 hours. For the first time after five births with no complications at all, my mother left the hospital after two days alone, leaving the baby - myself, in the NICU. For the second and third transfusions my parents managed to secure blood from a Jewish blood bank, the first transfusion however, came from the general blood bank, oy vay. Years later during my teenage rebellions, my mother would constantly joke that “It has to be they put in ______ (add whatever specific rebellion it was) blood in you.” Now she probably (if she would talk to me) jokes that I got female blood, who knows.
By the time I was born, my parents already had five kids, all of them girls. To my father that was more than a bit challenging. These who are familiar with the Hasidic community know that having a first born son is what every new father, and - more times then not - mother, dreams of and hopes for. The traditional celebrations for a newborn boy are always more than for a newborn girl, and there are additional celebrations for a firstborn boy. However, even not as a first born, every Orthodox jew hopes to have at least one son, something called in Yiddish literature a “Kaddishel” - someone to recite the traditional prayer of remembrance after one passes away. In my family, as in most rabbinical (and royal) families, a son also means securing a continuation to the dynasty, someone that would one day take over the father’s seat as the rabbi and leader of the community. Naturally, after five girls, my parents, and specifically my father were close to giving up on a son. My mother always says in a half joking-half serious manner that “Everyone pitied your father” what a poor guy, only has girls, and five of them.
My father would often tell me, that when I was born, his excitement was in some ways bigger than that at the birth of my oldest sister. After all, my parents started expecting less than a month after they got married, while my father was barely 18 years old. Got to admit, for a couple that only met once before they got married, and grew up in a strictly gender segregated society, that is really quick. Yet after five girls, the need for a boy was stronger than ever. Most guys his age were already bringing their small boys to shul, and here he is in some ways effectively childless. In my community there is also a custom not to figure out the assigned gender of a baby prior to birth, and there is another custom (relating to the laws of Niddah - family purity) that the father shouldn't be in the room while the mother gives birth. It is only left to imagine how my father felt during the birth of each kid, waiting outside, hoping to hear the three words “It’s a boy,” and time after time, five kids, he gets “It’s a girl.” Until that day, 24th of Tishrei 5752, the doctor finally came out and said it’s a boy; the happiness is skyrocketing.
Little did he know at the time that he had a sixth girl. Even less did he know that after struggling for more than 20 years, this kid will build up the courage - forced by life itself, and openly proclaim I AM A GIRL, always was, always will be. My father did indeed have a boy, four of them to be exact, but for that he will have to wait another year (my oldest brother was born in January 1993).  
At the same time, little did this newborn girl know that she will live through a challenging life, a life where she will constantly hear that she is a boy, and how much that means to her family and parents. A long path to self determination awaited her. Even less did she know that she will experience giving birth (emotionally) to her own kid, before she will have a chance to live her own life.
A Kid Is Born:
It was an early winter morning in 2012 when I was standing in the dim lit corridors of Good Samaritan Hospital Maternity Ward, waiting for the doctor or nurse to come out from the room my ex was giving birth to our child. I was barely an adult, a year after I got married in an arranged marriage, and here I was about to turn a parent. My mind was swarming with all kinds of thoughts, which I believe only other parents can relate to. Will I be a good parent? Am I really ready to raise a child? Is the child gonna be healthy? How do I make sure that I am giving this child the most happy life possible? Will my (ex)wife recover quickly and easily? I can go on forever. Was I ready to be a parent? I guess as much as any other young parent in my community. I knew that our families will be there to help, and that was at least a bit relaxing. Every two minutes I got a phone call from my parents waiting to hear the good news (my in laws were at the hospital). I was walking nervously up and down, jumping between prayer to questioning myself whatever I actually believe in prayer (these were my final days as a believing Hasidic Jew).
After about half an hour the doctor comes out from the room. As he is pulling off his gloves he turns to me: “Mazel Tov! It’s a boy!!!” From all possible responses to hearing the news, I am turning to the doctor and ask: Are you sure? I am thinking to myself: my own life taught me that an assigned gender at birth is not always accurate. The doctor looks at me as if I just got released from the psych ward. Of course it is!? he replies, and walks off.
The weeks and months leading up to my son birth, were exciting, yet extremely challenging. Of course they are all the thoughts and conversations about how to raise a kid, the childbirth itself, starting a family, and more. However personally I was struggling with something more: What if my child is like me. At that point I didn’t even know what “Transgender” really means. From the few peeks I took on the internet, I had just figured out that they are some people who are not the gender they were assigned at birth. All I knew for sure was that the doctor who told my parents “It’s a boy” was wrong. Now here I am getting ready to raise a child on my own, and everyone is ready to gender the child before it is conceived. According to our custom, we did not ask the gender of the child before birth, but gender was hanging all over it. From family and friends bullshitting about how you can tell the gender by the way the mother carries the child, to questions relating to the nursery in our home and clothes. All I could think of is: we might all be wrong.
To be continued…

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Intersectionally: Queer and OTD/XO Pride - A Personal Reflection

Some pictures from this year's Pride
When a journalist from Yahoo Style emailed me asking if I would like to answer some questions about Pride Month for a slideshow presentation, I was kind of excited to do it. In the past year since I started this blog (I know; hard to believe, but it is almost a year!) I have realized that it is way more important to talk about these issues (-facing transgender individuals leaving fundamentalist religious communities) than I originally thought. I heard from more and more people who struggle - each in their own way - to live a self-determined life, and decided to do whatever I can to help out. That is a big reason why I agreed to all these media interviews, and why I keep on doing them. I did cut down a bit in the last few months, but how could one pass on an interview with Yahoo, and even more, a style magazine… However, to be honest, when I saw the questions, I was even more excited. For the first time I had an interview just about pride and LGBT identity, without having to exoticize my background. Super.
Or so I thought.
I started answering the questions determined to talk just about my Queer identity, and leaving my background, and OTD/Footsteper/Ex-Orthodox identity behind. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud with both of these identities, it is just that every so often I feel that the media tends to focus more on my past, even when trying to focus on the future. After all it is Queer Pride, not OTD pride. As you can see by reading the article, I almost succeeded; up to the final question. I managed to give my favorite secular summer song, my favorite Pride food and dress, etc. Then I was asked to “Talk Like A New Yorker” AKA, say something in juicy NYC slang. Here I failed.
I love NY, and even more so New York City. I am proud to call NYC my birthplace, my hometown where I grew up, the city where I go to school, and the city where I live. However, that is all geographically; culturally, I grew up somewhere else totally. How can I quote New York slang, when I barely knew the English alphabet growing up?
The cover photo on the Yahoo Style Article
First I thought I will turn to my all time favorite all knowing being, Google, and just find some juicy New York slang that I can relate to, so I don’t have to out myself, but then, I realized something bigger. I realized that I am wrong.  
They are no separate identities. I have one identity, that is named “Abby Stein” (and sometimes using my middle name Chava), an identity that doesn’t need labels. That identity is proudly combined from a range of details, but it is One. I found a new respect for the term “Intersectionality” - that so magical word.
Intersectionality - an obvious concept that came to light thanks to WOC during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and coined in 1989, has been, is, and always will be, the backbone of social justice. I never doubted the importance of consciously considering every aspect thereof when we try to create a better world, for everything the world contains. However, for a long time I perceived it as the study of interrelated identities and how they affect each other. One has to be blind not to see that the same people that expressed the strongest racism, also express the strongest sexism, homo/transphobia, classism, and so on. Yet, they were all different social justice issues, that we have to deal with. Now I know that they are not different; they are one.
It is impossible to tackle racism or homophobia without tackling sexism, elitism, and ya, antisemitism and Islamophobia. These are not 'related' issues, but one and the same.  
On a personal level, for the first time I knew without any doubts; If I want to succeed in tackling the issues facing Trans people leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy and other fundamentalist communities, I have to tackle the issues facing the entire OTD community. These two identities are not interrelated, but one and the same. At the same time, we, the entire OTD community has to come together and support the LGBT community, and vice versa. Not because we are both fighting for social equality and self-determination, and they “Sometimes Intersect”, but because they are one and the same. The same goes when it comes to sexism, racism (even more within specific (read: Jewish) communities), ability, classism, and so on.
I know that for so many people reading this, there is nothing new here. But at the same times, way too many social activists think that maybe they can tackle one issue at a time, maybe they can still help some people with what’s ‘easier’ first, so to speak. So here is what I learned: NO YOU CAN NOT!

On a lighter note, a lot of people have been asking about my observations of the similarities between leaving the Ultra-Orthodox community, and transitioning on the gender spectrum. The more I think about, the more I realize how much they are intertwined. On that, in an article coming soon!
With Xo and Rainbow love,
Abby @ The Second Transition