One late night when I was 17, I had a vivid stress dream about running into Michelle Obama at a mikveh and hearing her tell me I didn’t belong there. I had never been to a mikveh, but I was vaguely aware of niddah and concepts around family purity, as well as of other reasons why someone might go before or after a big life transition. I knew that, for the most part, the mikveh was a girls’ thing, but I knew little else. Dreams don’t often trouble me, but there were questions: Why was fitting in at a mikveh a concern? Why wouldn’t I belong? Why was Michelle Obama my icon for Jewish womanhood?
This was a few weeks after I began to go by a new name — when I would lie awake at night wondering if there would ever be a time when I could recognize myself in the mirror, when I wouldn’t cringe hearing my own voice when I spoke. This last point was incredibly difficult, because singing was a large part of how I related to prayer, a way in which the words my ancestors used for generations could inhabit my body. I could never hit the baritone range I wanted to, but still, it felt right. I loved singing, and got pretty good at leading prayer. That was how I felt connected to God; it was part of who I was.
It was the middle of summer, and I felt like a freshly cracked egg being cooked on the dashboard of a locked car. Rosh Hashanah was coming up. I remember sitting curled up in the bathtub, knees pulled to my chest, staring straight ahead, feeling like somehow the start of this new year would permanently alter something. While starting to transition socially had brought a lot of joy, the prospect of that transition threatening my relationship with Hashem and tradition terrified me.
I was raised “just Jewish,” attending the Conservative, Reform and Renewal synagogues in my hometown at varying points. From the ages of 10-17 (when the pandemic hit), I would spend a few hours each week either studying or teaching Torah, with a heavy side helping of Jewish magic and mysticism, with my rabbi. This was an incredible gift, and my rabbi never told me that I couldn’t be transgender (in fact she was pretty supportive). But in my moments of crisis, my once joy-filled learning came back to haunt me.
Not least among my concerns was altering something that was divinely created. I knew that my transition would involve, at the very least, changing my very, very Jewish name: My former name was actually the same as my Hebrew name, and it felt like a deep betrayal to let go of it. Kabbalah claims that parents are given prophecy temporarily when naming a child. Was I erasing prophecy? Then there was the issue of medical transition, related to the notion of our bodies being “on loan,” so to speak, from Hashem. If I pursued a medical transition, I sure as hell wasn’t getting my deposit back from God. I had even convinced myself that, in some interpretations, gender-affirming surgery could be comparable to making unnecessary incisions in my skin for the purpose of tattooing, expressly prohibited in Vayikra.
The road ahead looked rough — and was made rougher by the fact that on some level, I felt like I could never be “man enough.” Women rabbis have told me that they, too, often felt compelled towards the same mitzvot I did, not out of a need to affirm gender, but rather from a desire to experience the wholeness of Judaism, which by default often ends up framed through a masculine lens. Also in the back of my head was the false notion that the feminine spiritual innovations made by women members of the clergy were somehow “less” than masculine-coded traditions. Involved in the journey ahead were the twin jobs of unraveling misogyny and transphobia.
Early in my freshman year of college, I heard about a project in the works at Svara, a queer yeshiva. The Trans Halakha Project was, at that point, a survey to see what rituals trans Jews had adapted. I stared down the questions and realized that I hadn’t once considered that my spirituality could be trans. Rather than trying and failing to imitate a masculinity I didn’t understand and was technically not obligated to fulfill, there were people like me forging a path forward.
Aspects of my transition that once felt at odds with my spirituality could be reframed. There was joy to be had in being allowed a share in creation. When injecting my weekly HRT, I would recite the following from Rabbi Eli Kukla:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam Ha’Mavir L’Ovrim
Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of Time and Space, the Transforming One to those who transform/transition/cross over
There were even blessings for a change of name (even though I did ultimately decide to keep the one I was given at birth).
Aspects of masculine ritual that I adopted didn’t have to be justified! I can recite the traditional Birkat Hashachar blessing that thanks God for not making me a woman each day simply because it is currently the prayer language that makes the most sense to me right now. I could also thank God for making me as I am, or for not making me a man. I can alternate between feminine and masculine gendered verbs in Hebrew, and who’s gonna get me, the prayer cops? I can wear tefillin and a tichel. Trial and error is allowed in order to find what makes you feel comfortable.
Through all of this, I reached a moment when everything made sense again. After about seven months on HRT, I had gone to Rosh Hashanah services for the first time since starting my medical transition. My voice inhabited my body, resonating in a way it hadn’t before, and finally sounded right. Songs of praise filled my whole chest, and there wasn’t any room for concern as to whether I deserved to seek divine connection given my faults. It felt like coming home.
At that moment, a lot of worries stopped feeling so pressing: whether I was called to Torah with ya’amod or ta’amod, whether I was meeting an arbitrary yet somehow universal masculine standard. This isn’t to say that I’ve given up on defining how my spirituality relates to my gender; rather, I have accepted that this process won’t ever end. Each choice is a personal and private thing, and it is something that I get to do every day.
I eventually did get to immerse myself in a ritual mikveh. Three other trans Jews were with me.