In an interview, Joy Ladin begins several responses, “When I started living as myself…” For the Stern College professor, poet and author, the boundary between then and now, between living a lie and leading an authentic life, is her transition from man to woman.
Ladin, who received a doctorate from Princeton, joined the faculty of Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University in 2003, then as a bearded, kipa- and tzitzit-wearing man. In the spring of 2007, after receiving tenure, Ladin told the dean that she would be returning to the school — but as a woman. Ladin was given a paid research leave, and told not to set foot on campus. But after her lawyers demanded that she be allowed to return, the school agreed, while setting forth certain conditions, like which bathrooms to use.
In September 2008, Ladin returned to teaching. The tabloid press covered her first day. But in the halls of the English department, when the sign outside of Ladin’s office door was changed from Jay Ladin to Joy Ladin, no one made much of it.
The David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English, Ladin is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She is the author of six volumes of poetry, including the just-published “The Definition of Joy,” and has recently published a memoir, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders” (University of Wisconsin Press).
Compelling seems like an overused word when it comes to memoirs, but hers is unforgettable. At turns painful and life-affirming, the story is written in a voice that is poetic, precise, soulful and breathtakingly candid, but possessed of humor, too. It is also one of those books that alters the reader’s — this reader’s — understanding of a complex subject, in this case the meaning of gender and, also, humanity.
Many transgender memoirs have been written, and Ladin jokes that penning a memoir might be part of the transition process. For her, writing became an essential tool to learn a new language, to be able to articulate the sense of self that she never before experienced.
When she began writing and showed a first chapter of the memoir to a friend who is a lesbian, the friend told her that she wrote like a man, and Ladin was both devastated and furious.
“I realized that the language that I had to talk about what was inside of me was inadequate,” she recalls. She then began revising.
“My training was as an academic. I didn’t know I had a self. I didn’t know how to talk about my feelings. Nothing of me had been seen.”
“The writing gave me a voice of the person I was trying to become before I became that person,” Ladin explains. She has strong presence, choosing her words with great care and holding a listener’s gaze intently.
Other memoirs leave out a lot of the difficult stuff, but Ladin didn’t want to do that. “Happily ever after was not life as I know it. There are many other people involved.”
Ladin was married and the father of two daughters and a son, when she began to transition. But she had felt deeply disconnected from her body and gender for as long as she could remember, and had an accompanying sense of shame. She describes feeling like a ghost, inhabiting a body that didn’t feel like her own.
“Yom Kippur was always awful for me — I had this sense of wrongness; I wasn’t grateful to be alive,” she explains. “I would make teshuvah and then feel like the same miserable person. “
Throughout, she felt a strong connection to God, and notes that it’s common for trans kids to have intense experiences of God.
“I really did feel for a lot of my life that God was the only relationship I had where I was known,” she says “I couldn’t have made it without that sense of being seen. It was very hard to be loved, but I did feel loved by God. “
She continues, “I didn’t believe in God, I didn’t have faith in God — It’s hard to know what those things are, I just felt God.” She adds. “I never stopped talking to God.”
She did understand the huge amount of pain that the changes would cause her wife — who felt Ladin was killing off the man she had loved for more than 25 years — and their children. Ladin contemplated suicide. But she chooses life.
For her, the transition is an experience of rebirth. In midlife, over the last five years, Ladin has been learning how to walk, talk, order in restaurants, shop for clothing, make friends. For the first time in her life, when she looks in the mirror, she sees someone who resembles herself, the self she never thought she had the wherewithal to become.
Ladin understands that people who knew her as Jay often just don’t know what to say, so they say nothing and avoid her. She’d much prefer conversation, even that they just mention that they don’t really know how to react. She says it’s not unlike seeing someone in a wheelchair; people often avoid the person rather than interact as they would with anyone else.
She has faced some rejection, but overall has been met with compassion, acceptance and generosity of spirit.
At Stern, she doesn’t feel completely seen or understood, but understands that she’s there to teach. “My job is to be the best teacher I can be for all of the students,” she says. She has been sought out there by students going though all sorts of difficult experiences.
“They know that I’m on public record as having a life that fell apart,” she says. “There are moments when I feel that what I’ve gone thought enables people to make deep connections to me.”
She speaks of how we understand human beings in the image of God. “When you really see someone as human, you really see God,” she says, and then adds, “If you can see God in me, you can see God everywhere.”
During the school year, she divides her time between her home in Western Massachusetts, and New York City. Her partner is a woman. As for her age, she says she is 51 or 5, “depending on how you want to count.”
In May, Jina Davidovich, a 2012 graduate of Stern College, organized a panel discussion with contributors to the anthology, “Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires,” edited by Miryam Kabakov, and Ladin was one of the speakers. Davidovich had hoped to host the event at Stern, but after meeting some resistance, decided to hold it in the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) office, where she had been a campus fellow. Many of the attendees were Stern students and alumni.
Kabakov says that she wanted to include Ladin, who doesn’t identify as Orthodox and lesbian like the other essayists in the book because “she has such presence. She’s so much a part of the Modern Orthodox world — and people on the outskirts have the ability to affect change.”
For the past two years, Kabakov, who is co-director of Eshel, an organization “that aims to build support for LGBTs in traditional communities,” has been on a national tour for the book, with events like the one at Stern drawing large numbers of LGBT people and others.
“What I’m discovering is that there are a lot of very frum, even chasidic, people out there in the world, who don’t relate to the gender they were assigned, who know that they are trans, but don’t know what to do about it.”
She explains that trans people have a very hard time in the Orthodox community. Transitioning can be considered mutilation, which is against halachah. “There are a lot of trans people in the frum community who can’t fully actualize who they are.”
“Joy represents to people the world of possibility, what could be, if only they could live in the body they wanted to live in. It’s very powerful for people to see.”
Joy Ladin will be reading from “Through the Door of Life” and speaking about her experiences, along with Daniel Smith, author of “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety” as part of The Jewish Week’s Literary Summer, “Redefining the Self,” on July 25, 7 p.m., at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 7 W. 83rd St., Manhattan. The program is free but reservations are recommended, firstname.lastname@example.org.