Transgender? Judaism’s got a blessing for you
'People tend to like having things in nice, tidy boxes'

Transgender? Judaism’s got a blessing for you

Two Israeli men who are officially a child’s biological fathers, a male rabbi born a woman, and a genderqueer rocker talk about life as they know it

Rabbi Elliot Kukla. (photo credit: Nic Coury)
Rabbi Elliot Kukla. (photo credit: Nic Coury)

This is an era of gender revolutions, and the Jewish community is racing to keep up. Enter Yuval Topper. Topper, who comes from an Orthodox family, was born female, underwent a sex reassignment surgery to become male, discovered that he’s gay, married a gay man, and in 2011 became the first Israeli transgender man to conceive and give birth to a baby.

Last week, following nearly two years of struggles, Israel’s Interior Ministry begrudgingly recognized both men as the child’s biological parents — another big first.

Granted, it’s a lot to take in. But Rabbi Elliot Kukla, a leading Jewish educator on LGBT rights, says this is nothing new.

“There’s a growing number of trans-male Jews who are getting pregnant and having babies. Finding ways to sanctify and welcome men who are having babies into the community, which is something previous generations of Jews could never dream of, is increasingly becoming part of modern Jewish life,” Kukla tells the Times of Israel.

The past decade has been hugely transformative for LGBT Jews. But while lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have become fairly well-integrated into most aspects of non-Orthodox Jewish life, inclusion of transgender Jews is still in its early stages.

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have begun programs for transgender inclusion, the Conservative Movement is discussing creating more open policies, but transgender Jews are still struggling for acceptance and understanding.

‘Finding ways to sanctify and welcome men who are having babies into the community is increasingly becoming part of modern Jewish life’

“People tend to like having things in nice, tidy boxes, of men do this, and women do that, and challenging these notions can create anxieties,” explains Kukla. “To make room for transgender Jews round the table, we have to expand some of our notions around gender and sexuality. For starters, normalizing the fact that people can have different life-cycles and choices, ones that don’t necessarily conform to the binary reality of male/female, mother/father… to my understanding, gender is a lot more complex than that.”

In 2006, Kukla became the first openly transgender man to be ordained by the Reform movement. In 2007, he wrote the first blessing sanctifying the sex-change process to be included in Kulanu, the manual for LGBT inclusion. He is also the co-creator of Trans-Torah, a body of existing and new Jewish sources that speak to the experience of being a Trans-Jew, which includes texts for a Pre-Surgery Mikveh Ritual, Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Wedding Services, A Blessing for Chest Binding, and more.

As awareness grows, the rituals are being adopted by mainstream synagogues as well: Kukla says he was recently contacted by large temple in Los Angeles that wanted to hold a re-naming ceremony for a teenager coming out as a transgender man, two years after celebrating his bat mitzvah.

“The experience of being transgender is one of transition, and change, and often of loss,” Kukla explains. “One may lose family, friends, connections with the environment… Having the welcome of the tradition gives a sense of continuity through the generations, of belonging.”

Judaism remained a constant in Itai Gal’s life, even as nearly everything else changed. Gal, 28, a transgender man, was born in Israel and grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, in a Modern Orthodox community. He underwent sex reassignment therapy in his early twenties, and during his transformation congregations such as Bet Simchat Torah (New York’s LGBT synagogue) provided a welcoming space.

Gal, currently studying for a masters degree in Jewish education, is observant “but in a way that gives me freedom to make decisions based on my own life experience.”

Gal — whose stage name is Ricky Riot — is also a member of the all-transgender, all-Jewish, folk punk band called Schmekel.

“Mixing traditional klezmer scales with punk sensibilities, Schmekel [which means “little penis” in Yiddish] challenges listeners to think critically about Judaism, queerness, and the sounds that accompany both,” states the band on its homepage.

The band’s four members were born female but now identify themselves on the masculine side of the gender spectrum: the band’s drummer, Simcha Halpert-Hanson, identifies as genderqueer and thus outside of a recognizable gender.

Instead of “he” or “she” Halpert-Hanson is referred to as “they.”

Though Schmekel’s lyrics often relate to the painful and difficult experiences of transition, they keep their sense of humor.

The band. Detail from the back cover of Schmeckel's upcoming album, 'The Whale That Ate Jonah.' (photo credit: courtesy)
The band. Detail from the back cover of Schmekel’s upcoming album, ‘The Whale That Ate Jonah.’ (photo credit: courtesy)

“Oy vey! If they find out that I’m trans/ They don’t recognize me with tzitzis and pants / Even though I have a beard and spectacles / They won’t hold my hand if I don’t have a schmekticle,” goes a song from Schmekel’s new album, “The Whale That Ate Jonah,” to be released this October.

While there’s growing awareness and understanding of transgender and gender variants on the liberal end of Judaism, says Gal, Orthodoxy remains a problem.

“Not everybody is privileged enough to be in this liberal Jewish community, where they have to worry about things like people using the right pronouns. There are still young people whose families disown them, or tell them they are not who they say they are, and send them to correctional programs,” says Gal.

For Topper, born as the only daughter to an Orthodox family of six in Jerusalem, Orthodoxy’s strict gender roles proved impossible.

“From early on, he was always unhappy,” his mother recalls in a TV interview with the Israeli channel Keshet.

Feeling chronically misplaced, at age 12 Topper convinced his parents to transfer him to a secular school — it was a relief, but something still felt wrong, he said. This nagging feeling persisted even after he came out of the closet as a lesbian at age 16.

“This was hard to accept,” continues his mother. “Being a religious family, we were worried about the community’s response; also, when a parent is happy with his own way of life, he wants the same for his kid.”

At age 18, Topper realized that what he wanted was to be a man. With his parents’ insistence, he began seeing a therapist, who explained the essentials of transgenderism. At the age of 20 he began hormonal treatment, and a few months later, in 2008, followed up with breast removal surgery.

“When they took off the bandages… I saw my chest was entirely flat: it was one of the most amazing moments of my life. The first days I just wanted to jump for joy, that I really did it, that it was really over,” he wrote in his blog.

With hormones, his sexual orientation changed, and he began taking an interest in men. The year of his operation he met Matan Topper-Erez, his future husband. In 2010, they married, twice — first in a private ceremony for the family and again in a civil ceremony in Toronto. Neither was acknowledged by the State of Israel.

Topper’s decision to get pregnant was one of simple practicality: In line with the rabbinical courts, the State of Israel does not officially allow same-sex couples to adopt. Only one parent may adopt, then the other may file for secondary custody, and all this with the caveat that adoption be recognized as being within “the child’s best interest,” an often discriminatory clause. It was much easier to simply stop taking testosterone for a while.

Yuval Topper-Erez (left), husband Matan and their son. (photo credit: courtesy)
Yuval Topper-Erez (left), husband Matan and their son. (photo credit: courtesy)

On December 28, 2011, Topper gave birth to his first-born son, Liri.

But that was just the beginning of the couple’s struggles: Israel’s Interior Ministry refused to register Matan as Liri’s biological father so long as Yuval Topper was also registered as a man.

Only last week, with the direct intervention of Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee MK Miri Regev, did the Ministry give in.

Though the decision to recognize both men as the biological parents is largely touted by the media as a groundbreaking precedent, the couple clarifies that it was more a bureaucratic sleight of hand.

“Yuval has not been recognized simply as a second father as the [news] publications mentioned. Rather, his sex had been changed back to female, he was registered in the baby’s birth certificate as the mother, and then his sex was changed back to male,” Matan Topper-Erez tells the Times of Israel. “This complex process was not what we would have wanted… We accepted that solution, however, because the baby was already over one and a half years-old, and I was not registered as a parent.”

Previously, Matan officially couldn’t even take his son to a doctor.

Liri, who’s now 18 months old, has not been circumcised. He will be a different kind of Jew, Topper says: “We’ll let him decide for himself what he wants to do with his body.”

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