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Abby Stein on February 27, 2018. (Ovrim/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-4.0)
Ovrim/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-4.0
Interview'When I discovered the word 'transgender' I literally cried'

Hasidic rabbi who can’t ‘pray the girl away’ transitions to female activist

Abby Stein was a mischievous yeshiva boy who had an arranged marriage – and son – in her enclave in Brooklyn. Her newly published book, ‘Becoming Eve,’ details her unusual journey

Main image by Ovrim/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-4.0

NEW YORK — Each night, five-year-old Abby Stein lay in bed and prayed: “Holy creator, I am going to sleep now, and I look like a boy. I am begging you, when I wake up in the morning I want to be a girl. I know that you can do anything, and nothing is too hard for you, so please, I am a girl, why can’t I look like a beautiful little girl?”

Stein, now 27, writes about reciting that prayer in her just published memoir “Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman.” The book gives readers a frank look at what it was like to come of age misgendered in one of the world’s most gender-segregated societies. More so, it’s about Stein becoming the woman she is and about her finally being able to embrace Judaism on her terms.

Born and raised in the Hasidic community of Williamsburg, New York, Stein is a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Her parents hoped their sixth child would become a great and learned rabbi. They also thought their sixth child was a boy. But Stein knew otherwise.

She writes about how at age three she sobbed through the ritual haircut that established her payos (side locks), how after she turned six she could no longer play with or speak to girls with whom she longed to play with dolls and trade pink Hello Kitty stationary — in Yiddish, of course.

As she grew she turned ever more inward, looking for solace and answers in her faith — both of which proved elusive. One particularly affecting passage of “Becoming Eve” describes how at 18 Stein met the woman she was to marry and how that, as much as she respected Fraidy, she knew she “also wanted to be her. Not her, exactly, but I wanted to be the woman — I wanted to be the wife.”

‘Becoming Eve,’ a memoir by Abby Stein, talks about coming out as a trans woman in the Hasidic community. (Tawni Bannister)

Stein’s memoir describes the crushing depression that came with trying to suppress her true self, and how she hoped that perhaps after marriage her “feelings would magically go away… I guess it was my own version of ‘praying the gay away,’ although it was more like ‘praying the girl away.’”

And while much of the book occurs before Stein started the process of transitioning. Stein was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in 2011 and readers learn that Stein divorced her wife, with whom she shares a son, in 2013. With the help of the Footsteps organization she left the Hasidic community.

Today, she is a vocal activist on behalf of the LGBTQ community, a sought-after speaker at universities, synagogues and community centers, and was named by Jewish Week as one of the “36 under 36” Jews who are affecting change in the world.

The Times of Israel sat down with Stein for a candid conversation that touched on many areas of her life — except for her son, who remained off limits.

Let’s talk about the title for a minute, “Becoming Eve.” Chava, or Eve, is also your middle name. According to the Bible, Eve is not only the first woman, but because she ate the forbidden fruit and shared it with Adam, also a catalyst for the couple’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Genesis also describes her as the “mother of all the living,” a nurturer.

I’m not going to deny it; it is a very catchy title. But it’s more than that. I felt like I was Eve. When I changed my name I chose Abby because I related to it and it comes from Avigayil, which is the name of one of the seven female prophets, so it’s a source of joy for me. I chose Chava because my family could relate to that.

I am at home with my name.

You’ve appeared in several magazines, including InStyle and Vogue. Describe the debate that comes along with not wanting to objectify your identity but how appearing in these magazines has helped your advocacy work.

You might have seen the Vogue [article] where they ended up using the [photo] where I’m wearing shorts and a bra. The idea of the piece was to showcase the fashion of women who have left the Orthodox community. The photo shoot lasted between four and five hours, and towards the end the photographer said she wanted it to be a bit more provocative. I agreed.

The way I look on it is, if it had been just another picture of me modestly dressed, a lot less people would have been interested in it. The photo got people’s attention and that is what we activists need. I’m not naïve. I know it is slightly objectifying, but the first lesson of activism is in order to get a message across you need to grab people’s attention. You have to make a scene to get people listen to you.

Ultimately, the way I look at it is sometimes we have to do things that we don’t find ideal if we want to affect change. So when it comes to fashion, is the bit of objectification that might happen going to achieve the goal?

Abby Stein formerly lived as a Hasidic man before coming out as a trans woman and becoming an ordained female rabbi. (Tawni Bannister)

In the book you write about the color pink and putting on makeup. How do you address those who think cosmetics and womanhood go hand-in-hand?

In the beginning, when I first came out, there were photographers who wanted to film me putting on makeup. That’s a thing with women in general, but specifically with trans women. Everyone wants to see a trans woman putting on makeup. It took me a while until I started saying no. It’s not just that it’s objectifying, it’s also saying, “Oh look she’s a woman because she puts on makeup.” That’s wrong in so many ways.

Personally I love makeup, but not every woman wears makeup, and makeup isn’t what makes you a woman. I’m very clear in the book that this — makeup and fashion — is not what makes you a woman. I wear it because I like it and it’s empowering to some extent and when I do it’s beautiful because it’s my choice.

What would you have thought a few years ago if someone told you that you’d be giving talks across the country and world, participating in political protests?

Because my family is part of a rabbinic family, I grew up exposed to public speaking in the community. However, I wasn’t expecting to continue public speaking after I left. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in listening to my story and I just never imagined I would have a stage like this.

When I published my coming out story on a blog it had a few hundred views. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. I did it mostly because after two months of coming out to friends and coming out to my parents I was getting bored of constantly having to come out to people. So I thought I’ll write a blog, everyone will read it and we can move on. That’s not what happened, the post went viral and it was overwhelming.

Now, I feel very comfortable with my story and public speaking. My biggest struggle in the beginning was switching into English. English is my third or fourth language if you count Aramaic.

I had some stage fright the first few times I spoke before audiences, especially large ones. Now I’ve spoken before mass audiences, like the 2019 Women’s March. Sometimes I actually miss the adrenaline that would pump in when I’d get ready to speak. Now I feel like if I’m going to feel anxious Obama would have to be in the audience.

Abby Stein, a transgender activist and onetime Hasidic rabbi, speaks about transgender in kabbalah at Limmud FSU in Oakland, California. (Ekaterina Efimova)

You write about some of the pranks you got up to in yeshiva. Amusing as they are to read, it’s also clear these were more than teen antics.

I put those stories in the book for a few different reasons. I think people have an idea that there isn’t any teenage rebellion in the Hasidic community. So the stories show I was just a typical teenager who liked to make trouble. I had an advisor in my yeshiva who called me the kosher rebel.

Also, doing things to cause trouble was a way for me to feel, “Now it’s not just me who is in trouble but everyone is in trouble. It’s not just me who doesn’t fit in, now everyone is out of place.” I had this urge to take what I was feeling internally and put it out there into the world. It was this feeling of, “I don’t belong here because I’m a girl, and I want everyone to know that.”

In one of the book’s more emotional passages you recall your first love, Chesky, and the moment you told him, “My soul is connected with yours” – your way of saying I love you. Talk about how this moment illustrates why language and vocabulary are so essential to you.

I remember, when we were sitting in the forest cuddling. I had this feeling of wanting to say something. I wanted to say, “I like this person, I want to touch them, I want to spend time with them.” I felt like I was trying to drag the words out of my own mouth. When you want to say something but there are no words for it, it’s like torture.

I was conditioned that there certain things you are not allowed to express. You just have to bury them, go along with it and just live life

As a child I was conditioned that there certain things you are not allowed to express. You just have to bury them, go along with it and just live life. There were all these sexual feelings I had and all these things I felt about gender that I couldn’t express.

When I found the word “transgender” for the first time, I literally started crying. I had gotten used to the idea that there were certain things I couldn’t do anything about — like I could never transition. Then words and language showed me I was wrong and it was exhilarating. It saved me.

Abby Stein orders from a kosher takeout restaurant in the Hasidic neighborhood of Williamsburg, New York. (YouTube screenshot)

As of now you don’t have a relationship with your parents, and 10 of your 12 siblings don’t speak to you. Even so, there isn’t any bitterness in your book. For the most part you describe your home as loving, warm, safe and cozy.

A lot of books that have been written about the Hasidic community fall into one of two traps. They either overly exoticize it or overly demonize it. Obviously for me, the negative parts of growing up Hasidic outweigh the positive parts. However, it was really important for me to focus on the positive parts. My mom is an amazing cook, we had beautiful holidays, and we had a beautiful family life.

I know from some people in my family that if it were up to my mom she’d still be in touch with me

Although now when I think back, and you can quote me, I think my father was an asshole. He never did anything at home. He never changed a diaper. Literally, I don’t think he knows how to make toast. Like, even before my mother went into labor she would prepare him meals and put them in the refrigerator and the freezer. I mean he had 13 kids and didn’t do anything. I could go on. Still, I think a big part of my parents cared about me while I was growing up and loved me in their own way.

My mom was really a mom — she really cared. For example, I did a college prep program at Columbia for a whole a semester. My mom knew I was going to college. It was something she deeply disagreed with, but she always left dinner for me to have when I came home. She did that from real love. Even today, I know from some people in my family that if it were up to my mom she’d still be in touch with me. My mom, she’s an angel.

Illustrative: Abby Stein sits in a synagogue for a web interview. (YouTube screenshot)

You wrote that “blind faith is beautiful for those who possess it, but I’d lost it at age 12 and never got it back.” How do you think of faith now and how did you find your way back to embracing parts of Judaism?

I let go of the word belief when I left the Hasidic community. I don’t believe in anything now. There are simply things I understand and things I don’t understand. How do you believe in something you don’t understand? To me, doing that suggests that you have let go of your own knowledge.

As for Judaism, there was a time when I felt I didn’t want anything to do with it. Then I came to the realization that there are so many beautiful parts of it that I can enjoy. I think Judaism has some really important and amazing messages. My favorite parts are the life cycle and the year cycle. I now see Jews, specifically progressive Jews, as a force that is doing so much good. That is very important to me.

What were your views on Israel growing up in the Hasidic community and how did they change when you left, if they changed at all?

It’s complicated. Growing up in the Hasidic community, you have to understand there is rarely such a thing as “your views.” Anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment within the Hasidic communities is strong, meaning they oppose the idea of Israel, or a Jewish state anywhere, before there is the coming of the messiah. The Satmar community, near where I grew up, believes there shouldn’t be a State of Israel, period. Although neither of my parents grew up Satmar, they were heavily influenced by it.

Growing up in the Hasidic community, you have to understand there is rarely such a thing as ‘your views’

However, even the most anti-Zionist among them call it our “Holy Land” and believe very strongly that it is our land and have an extreme connection to it. As I started to grow older I started to question that, and a lot of things. I declared myself to be super Zionist, but without the knowledge of what that really means. Then when I left, I started to get exposed to more and more progressive views. Believe it or not, my first exposure was at the Columbia University Hillel.

I have a great affinity for Israel, I feel very connected to it. My great-great-grandmother is buried on the Mount of Olives, I’ve studied there the past few summers and have a lot of relatives there. However, we have to talk about the issues. I can’t talk about the Palestinian side of things because I’m not Palestinian, but the Palestinians have a right to live there. There is enough space for everyone. I also think if Israel’s entire survival depends on military superiority, it’s not going to survive.

So I’m involved with J Street and IfNotNow. As for BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement], I just can’t get beyond so much of what they do; it’s counterproductive and too much of what they do is about delegitimizing Israel.

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