Hi. My name’s Jasmine. I’m 24 years old, nominally Jewish, and a transgender woman.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m writing this piece — but I think it’s to dig into that word “nominally.” I’d like to figure out why I’ve always felt on the margins of Judaism, and why I assume this is probably the case for lots of other LGBTQ youth out there.
I grew up in suburban Jersey, about 17 miles from New York City. Technically a liberal town, but still, not a queer person in sight. The Reform synagogue around the corner was dominated by straight jocks. I somehow carved out a place for myself in the music scene and the peer leadership programs there.
The disconnect between my Jewish faith and my role in the social Jewish community was apparent to me from early on — but then again, just about everything felt a bit off until I realized I was trans. But with Judaism in particular, I felt that the social roles of men and women were particularly pressed. I understood that, as with many religious traditions, the traditional family unit was at the core of the community.
When you are raised as a gender different from the one with which you identify, everything is fuzzy. All of your memories are clouded with the sense of removal — never really being present. Your inner life is one of escape and fantasy. You spend your life straining those connections to the real world which nourish you — be it an obsessive hobby, an addiction, or perhaps a toxic relationship — and you avoid everything else with thoroughness.
From the ages of 20-23, I avoided Judaism. With thoroughness. I didn’t go to services, I dropped out of the Columbia University Hillel, I stopped all my song leading, and I even quit identifying as Jewish. Above all, I no longer felt like I was a member of the Jewish community.
In part it was because my queerness was looming over me and I just needed to figure it out. But more distinctly, I felt that there just wasn’t space for me in traditional Judaism. In retrospect, I feel that’s because, by and large, it didn’t feel like a space for flaunting queerness. Yes, there were gay Jews here and there, but what do you wear to Shabbat? What’s the “look” of Judaism? It’s straight. It’s cis. It’s not exactly chock-full of drag queens and undercuts.
While I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, I had to get out of the Jewish bubble and into mainstream secular culture to figure out who I really was. There was a breathing room I felt in New York City that seemed to shut off as soon as I walked through the doors of Jewish spaces.
Now let me pause here. I’m not trying to knock my undergraduate community in particular, especially because I know they’re actively LGBTQ friendly. And I’m certainly not pointing fingers at individuals, because the Reform community at Columbia was nothing but warm and supportive during my short time with them.
What I am pointing to is the fact that while spaces can say they’re open to all, queer Jews may still be seen — even subconsciously, by the well-meaning among us — as a threat to Judaism. Being openly queer implicitly acknowledges one’s membership in secular culture, an entity which seems to be constantly at odds with the insular nature of the Jewish community. The bounds of that community are maintained by the cis-heteronormative family unit, and raising a traditional Jewish boy or girl is often done with the intention of protecting that insularity from “deviance” — be it interfaith marriage, Midge Maisel’s marvelous comedy routines, or queerness.
So that’s my thesis. You like it? Well, I’ve spent the better part of the last two years grappling with it. In the fall of 2017, I began the master’s program in choral conducting at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. While my Judaism remained on hold, I became immersed in the rich academic study of liturgical music and a practical training in choral leadership — which basically meant a whole lot of church.
I spent much of my time reflecting on my Jewish experiences compared with the Christian ones around me, and by the time I came out as transgender in my second year, I was thoroughly unsettled by this foreign tradition and yearning for my place in Judaism. As good as Christianity might be for some, it just isn’t my home — but seeing all these people around me feel at home made me want to seek out a home for myself again.
My first LGBTQ seder this past April was nerve wracking. An undergrad who had tried to hook up with me repeatedly was sitting across the table, methodically avoiding eye contact. I knew nobody next to the two friends I came with. All I could think about was home — all those seders feeling uncomfortable, how being misgendered and being with my family and being Jewish were all wrapped into one. My friend squeezed my hand when she saw me getting choked up. We began with the reading:
“Tonight we gather for a Queer Seder: a commemoration of slavery and a celebration of hope for collective liberation and exodus from our own Egypts, which still leave each of us in chains. The experience of being in Egypt doesn’t belong merely to our ancestors but binds us together as a community that celebrates joy, but also, all too often, experiences hardship.”*
I couldn’t fight the tears any longer. And I couldn’t pretend to be someone I wasn’t any longer — a Jew, a part of this tradition of warmth, generosity, and tikkun olam.
As I sat through the rest of the seder, I realized that this was my personal Egypt. I had finally emerged from a torturous period, which I now know defines so many queer people’s early lives: mental health problems, crippling social anxieties, and the fundamental feeling of not belonging. Even if I don’t belong in Judaism as a whole, I belonged in Judaism that night, at that seder.
So yes, I’m nominally Jewish.
*From the LGBTQ+ Seder Haggadah of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.
Header illustration by Fernanda Sanovicz