Like many women in midlife, Joy Ladin tenses up as she approaches a mirror. But upon seeing her reflection — a bob of wavy hair, a long skirt, a bold necklace — Joy feels grateful. For more than four decades, Joy lived as Jay, a woman trapped in a man’s body, a woman wearing a beard, a woman who could never don a dress without repercussions, a woman who was so distanced from her body that she felt “far away, or far below, or somewhere within,” the loving family with whom she lived. During these years, a fleeting glance at her face would traumatize her.
“As Jay, I didn’t see myself,” says Ladin, a 52-year-old professor of English at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, who after decades of struggle and shame, including contemplation of suicide in her mid-40s, transitioned to a woman between 2006 and 2008. “I was always surprised by my face in the mirror. It never seemed to be my face,” says Ladin.
As the first openly transgender person employed by an Orthodox institution, Ladin gained some fame — and notoriety. For a time, the university forced her to take a leave of absence. When she returned, enrollment in her classes dropped off, and has yet to return to its former highs. But her personal history has also made her a celebrity of sorts. And during this past year or so, since publishing her poignant memoir, “Through The Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between The Genders,” Ladin has told her story in at least 18 Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew College in Boston, and other organizations in Georgia, Minnesota and Illinois.
For many audiences and readers (myself included), Ladin provides the first recognizable model of a transgender Jew, or transgender person for that matter. And if, like me, you have not have devoted much thought to what motivates a man to seek out a woman’s attire and attributes, or have briefly briefly wondered if such behavior might be merely an ostentatious quest for attention, then Ladin’s story offers a transformational experience — not just of her transition to womanhood, but also for the reader/listener’s understanding of this topic.
Her character and charm make her well suited for her pioneering role. “Joy is uniquely eloquent and empathic and able to connect with people,” says Idit Klein, the executive director of Keshet, a national organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews. “She’s funny. She’s endearing. And she really sits where change is happening in the Jewish world.”
This is change we can believe in: Two transgender rabbis have been ordained since 2006. In its three years, the Brooklyn-based band Schmekel, composed of four transgender and “100% Jewish” musicians, has drawn attention with its bawdy lyrics and lively mix of klezmer and punk. Last fall, a group of transgender Jews gathered for their first Shabbaton in Berkeley, Calif. In the past two years, Klein says, a growing number of Hebrew schools, day schools and Jewish camps have inquired “how they can be inclusive while still maintaining their particular traditions for girls and boys.”
Meanwhile, Ladin has been learning to be herself. Her marriage to the woman she loved since college at Sarah Lawrence has ended; she now has a girlfriend, and is continuing to focus on part-time parenting of her three children, ages 10, 13 and 19. It has been a rough road, and the kids “still shout Daddy in public. They are holding onto the truth of me being their father,” says Ladin with a small laugh. In these public spaces, Ladin says she doesn’t particularly wish to advertise her trans-status, but is happy her children are not “not slinking away.”
At Stern, Ladin says, students mostly don’t engage her in conversations about her status. She’s appreciative to be treated with respectful distance even by young women raised in communities where, as Ladin says, “I’m seen as an abomination.” But, she says without discussion, there’s “no way of moving forward.” She’d like, for example, to talk about how she’s also religious, though not Orthodox.
Ladin, who conversed with God even through her darkest hours, remarks that now, at last, she feels delighted by the gift of life. As a man, she felt as if she “never actually had been awake,” she writes. Now she prays at home each morning, using a siddur, incorporating her own prayers too — thanking God for being created according to divine will; thanking God for the blessing of seeing herself in the mirror.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.