My hometown is very Catholic, which seems like an odd place to raise a Jewish family. I’m sure that from the first moment that my mom stuck her head out of our kitchen window and broke the suburban silence by shouting for her children to “come in and eat!”, all the members of my family, to different extents, have butted heads with our community. The entire school district consisted of one set of elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. If you moved to town before kindergarten, like I did, and stayed long enough, you would get your diploma with the same group of people that you napped with. Diversity was also a theory in my town, rather than a practice. A lot of people liked the concept of diversity without ever having to see it.
I learned this lesson again and again. I learned it when in middle school chorus they chose a Hebrew song for the “winter concert” to supplement the carols, and when I corrected the teacher on her Hebrew pronunciation, she shushed me. I learned it when my freshman biology teacher assigned an exam on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a day my school couldn’t afford to give off, and wouldn’t let me make it up. Years later, I remembered an interaction in 2nd grade where a little boy asked me why I killed Jesus and I responded by asking who Jesus was.
Most of all, I learned it verbally sparring with various atheists who’d determined after their Christian religious educations that not only were all religions just like Christianity, but they were all pointless. What they didn’t know was that Judaism is just as much a culture, a shared history, as it is a religion. That you can be Jewish and an atheist. And while I was not, I fiercely defended my faith against accusations of being a backwards mindset.
This matter wasn’t helped by the fact that I had attended an orthodox synagogue since I was ten. There are many denominations of Jewish practice, and while my family was of the conservative denomination, there were no conservative synagogues where we lived, so my parents went up in traditionalism. My mother got backlash about that from her peers, who saw her raising (then) three daughters and asking how she could put us in such an oppressive environment, where we were second class citizens. She responded in typical New York fashion – by telling them they had no idea what they were talking about.
Since I’ve come out as transgender three years ago, I have never gone back. They didn’t force me out – in fact, they don’t even know. But my tumultuous relationship with my faith, sexuality, and gender formed a hidden rift between me and that synagogue that I’m still healing from.
When I was 13, I had a dream about kissing a girl, and woke up in a fright. My first thought was to wonder if I was gay, and my next two thoughts were about my parents, and about Hashem. While I had a feeling that my parents would be fine with whoever I decided to date, I’d been taught that religion and gayness didn’t mix. I had never learned this in my synagogue. I learned this from the predominantly Christian narrative surrounding me of damnation for the sin of same-gender attraction. Jews don’t even have a concept of Hell like Christians do. We have certain mysticism associated with the soul’s journey after death beyond Heaven, but I had been strictly informed by my teachers that Jews do not believe in Hell. Nevertheless, I was terrified.
I repressed these feelings for two years. I went through school talking about how attracted I was to boys, I went to my Jewish sleepaway camp and kissed a boy just to prove to my bunkmates that I wasn’t as gay, and I never spoke of what I was feeling. However, it was at that camp that I learned a lesson that would eventually help me to accept my sexuality.
Rabbis would often come and visit the camp for a weekend and speak to us. Many times their wives would come along and hold small lunches as well. At one of these lunches, I learned about how Hashem tests us. I learned that we have free will, that you can pass or fail a test, but if you come upon a crossroads and recognize a test, and make the right choice, you’ll know. You’ll just feel better than you did before.
I decided my sexuality was a test, and that if I repressed it enough, I would feel better. I adopted a narrative, this non-Jewish narrative, as my own, and determined there would be dire consequences if I didn’t repress. Yet, I was still miserable. Freshman year turned into sophomore year, and that summer, I went to a pre-college and met other gay people, Jewish and not Jewish, who helped me realize that I’d read this all wrong. The test had never been to repress my sexuality; the test was to accept my sexuality in a world that wanted me to hate myself. I always learned that Hashem was about love. That He was a caring father who loves His children. My old hypothesis didn’t work out, so I decided why not give this a shot?
I came out my junior year of high school as bisexual, and started dating a girl a few months later. We were the second same-gender couple our high school had ever seen. For a while, I was at my happiest. I realized I had passed the test the way Hashem had wanted me to. But it didn’t last very long.
That relationship turned out to be startlingly unhealthy. As my dependency increased, my mood decreased, and I got very depressed. I made the connection between my mood and the relationship, but wrongfully assumed that Hashem was punishing me for dating a woman. For months, I thought I could never be happy with who I was. To make matters worse, I began to question my gender. I’d never felt like a woman. I’d waited and wished for puberty to turn me into the woman I knew I was supposed to be, and when it came, the feelings didn’t subside. I was afraid my girlfriend wouldn’t love me if I came out as a man, and I was also afraid of the change and the backlash that coming out would bring.
My senior year, the relationship ended, and I tentatively came out as nonbinary. It didn’t really work in an environment where everyone had known me since I was five, but it was a start. I had no idea what the Jewish perspective was on transgender people, but I knew I couldn’t pretend to be something I wasn’t any longer. I stopped going to synagogue because they separated members of the congregation by gender. When I called the wife of my Rabbi before I left for college, she reminded me to only date Jewish men at school. She didn’t know that I was one.
Throughout my freshman year of college, I worked towards coming out as a transgender man. However, the more towards male I transitioned, the more a portion of my gender dysphoria centered around being previously prohibited from male Jewish traditions. I never had a bar mitzvah. I could never read from the Torah. I missed the orthodox environment that I loved, but I felt as though I could never go back to a synagogue unless it was very modernized. While that’s something some enjoy, it was never for me.
Nevertheless, as I moved closer to the man I was meant to be, I felt myself moving closer to Hashem. When I got upset and drew into myself, I found myself having long dialogues with Him. Why did you make me this way? Why must I be tested again and again? I know you have a reason, but I’d appreciate a sign. At this point I was over my fear of damnation. I knew that Hashem was doing this out of some kind of love, and that His choices made me kinder, gave me more empathy and an open mind. But sometimes that didn’t feel like enough.
I did the male traditions I could on my own, like fasting during the fast of the firstborn son and not lighting candles on Shabbos. Then, last summer, I decided I wanted to go back to services. I was on the track to getting testosterone and finally medically transitioning, and at this crossroads in my life, I wanted to again be closer to my religion. There was a reform synagogue walking distance from where I lived on campus, and I asked to meet the Rabbi. He brought me into his office, and before I could finish speaking, I started crying. Through my tears, I told him that I was used to an orthodox environment, but I wanted to come back to services, and I just wanted to be a man there. He told me in his synagogue that was possible.
It wasn’t perfect, and certainly not what I was used to, but it was something that I was missing. In the months that followed I went home to see my parents, and researched what little information there was on the Jewish perspective on hormone replacement therapy. I was taught that Jews have a law again permanent body modification, such as tattoos, because we believe that our bodies are borrowed vessels for our souls. I was afraid HRT fell under that category.
What I found was an essay from an orthodox rabbi which said that in the event of health, most things are permissible. If the hormone therapy alleviates mental health struggles, it can be forgiven. This eliminated some of the doubt in my mind, and a few weeks later, I got my testosterone.
I’m living as a man, I’m seven months on testosterone, and I’m still Jewish. I still have a relationship with Hashem, and it is ever-growing and ever-changing as I grow and change personally. The trials He gave me were difficult, and I’m sure they’re not over. I want to go back to my synagogue, but I’m not sure I’m ready. Nevertheless, I feel that one day I will, when the time is right. •
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Remy Davison likes to say he’s from New York, but secretly grew up an hour outside of it. He currently studies design in Pittsburgh, and is learning how to balance that with his passion for writing and theatre. Just try to stop him from double texting, having late night discussions, or talking about Star Trek. Tumblr | Instagram