I wandered around the room, filled with at least a thousand Jews, all hugging friends, donning tallises, chatting with family, the whole room buzzing in the moments before the cantor began the familiar holiday prayer melody. I was looking for a good seat, close to the bimah in the center of the room.
It was 2015 and I had come to Los Angeles to spend Rosh Hashanah with my parents, but I didn’t join them at the West Valley synagogue we have attended since I was little. The last time I went there, people stared, startled by the transmasculine person in front of them in juxtaposition with the memory of the little girl with a thick braid. Their website declared the congregation “welcoming and inclusive,” but I didn’t experience it that way. So I went to another shul in the city, alone. Besides, I was at services not to socialize, but to do some deep work on a question I could not seem to resolve.
I had recently scheduled a consultation with a surgeon after learning that my insurance covered top surgery, making the distant $7,000 procedure now a doable $200. I was also giving serious thought to starting testosterone. As the possibilities approached reality, I struggled to grant myself permission to make any of those changes.
It was easy to be supportive of friends who took steps to feel more at home in their bodies. I, however, felt unable to settle on definitive answers to my questions: Am I still genderqueer if I take hormones? Do I want to be a man? Will surgery allow me to feel more at ease in my body? Is my desire just the pressure of social construction that pairs masculinity with a flat chest? Or will top surgery be a relief, a verification, a home?
Wrapped warmly in my tallis with the prayer book open on my lap, I prayed along with the congregation. I relished the long hours for introspection. I wandered among my fears. I worried that transitioning meant I would be fired from my job, which had no clear legal protections from discrimination. I also entertained the excitement about my new chest and the possibility of a beard.
During the Grand Aleinu, I rose from my plastic chair, found a spot on the aisle and lowered myself to my knees, then on all fours, and then touched my forehead to the floor.
Silently, I pled, “Please, give me the strength to give myself permission to change. Please, give me the strength to commit to my journey.”
There was a deep pause, and then the cantor resumed. I rose to my feet.
Others could advise me or share their stories. But there was no one in this world who could make these decisions for me. So that Rosh Hashanah, I waited for the shofar gadol, a loud, clear affirming blast. Tekiah, you are on the right path. Shevarim, you can make medical decisions about your body. Tekiah gedolah, you can make changes to be more yourself in the world.
Rabbi Alan Lew writes in “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared” that teshuvah “is the central gesture of the High Holidays.” Rambam teaches that the Jewish concept of teshuvah is “forsaking transgression (averah) and removing such thoughts from one’s way of thinking and resolving firmly never to do it again.”
Let me be clear: to be transgender is not a transgression. Rather, the transgression is that which introduces distance between a person and God. Not loving myself, due to internalized transphobia, and trying to keep myself from self-knowledge was the averah, the transgression.
To experience gender dysphoria is incredibly uncomfortable. There’s the physical discomfort, like the years of wearing a binder that bruised my ribs, and the mental discomfort that comes from uncertainty and fear.
Rabbi Lew writes that the soul’s journey during the High Holidays “is a journey from denial to awareness, from self-deception to judgment. We will learn our Divine Name.” My teshuvah that year was to let go of transphobia and learn my Divine Name, Gabriel, which I had taken on but not fully embodied. It would be the physical healing of my body from top surgery, the drains and the ice packs and the pain medications. And then it would be the healing of my soul, which would take much longer.
Rabbi Lew continues: “At Rosh Hashanah we begin to acknowledge the truth of our lives.” I was frightened to look deeply at the truth of my life, and, yet, I knew sitting in shul that there was more that I wanted from this life. It was mine to acknowledge and make choices about what I should do. “Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And we know that we can stand the truth. It is already here and we are already enduring it.”
It was 2019, and Rosh Hashanah was coming soon, next week. My wife and I, married just three months, walked hand in hand through the orchard. I pulled a small wagon behind us, already starting to become heavy with the Jonagolds, Galas and Honeycrisp apples we pulled off the branches. In the distance, Mt. Hood rose above the fertile valley.
Four years after that moment alone in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, I felt a sense of completion of the teshuvah I had done on my gender. I had put to bed the discomfort of dysphoria and found a new home in my body, in my gender and in my life. Instead of a shofar blast, I heard a kol d’mamah dakkah, a small interior voice that affirmed my choices and allowed me to follow through. By that time, I had my top surgery, was several years on testosterone, was seldom misgendered anymore. My brain was free to focus on other concerns.
Giving myself permission to make such an important life change allows me a model now for other life changes. The uncertain future is difficult to deal with, but I have done deep work and know that I can go to that depth again. My soul has been on a journey, and I’ve come out, stronger, on the other side.