“When you see injustice,” Rabbi Edward Zerin (of blessed memory) once told his granddaughter, Shuli Elisheva, “run into the streets and ‘shray khay-vekayam’ — scream from your bones — and don’t stop screaming until there is justice.”
As Shuli relayed this anecdote to me today, just a day after burying her grandfather, I couldn’t help but think about the powerful testament it is to the kind of person he was. In addition to being a Reform rabbi, therapist, poet, author of over 10 books, native Yiddish speaker, deep thinker and bringer of endless joy, he was also an unbelievably righteous person.
But this isn’t the only poignant and justice-filled tribute that Shuli, a professional Yiddish empowerment coach, has recently shared of her grandfather.
On April 2, Shuli tweeted a thread sharing the loving, empathetic and Jewish values-centered response her 102-year-old Grandpa Ed (as she calls him) had when she came out as transgender. (Yes, you read that correctly. A 102 year-old man was able to love and support a transgender person — what’s your excuse, transphobes?!!) The thread has since gone viral, garnering over 87K likes and nearly 19K retweets at time of publication.
My grandpa just died at 102. How did he react to me telling him I'm transgender?
— Shuli Elisheva (@ShuliElisheva) April 2, 2023
In the thread, Shuli shared that though she hoped Grandpa Ed would support her gender transition when she came out via email in 2020, she wasn’t sure what the then 99-year-old would say. “My grandpa was born in 1920. 1920!!!! Talk about a generational difference…” she tweeted.
And though his response ended up not being quite perfect — Grandpa Ed referred to her with the wrong female name — his response was still lovely. “Thank you very much for sharing with me the story of your journey Who You Are. For me, you are one of my grandchildren, and I send you my love as always,” he wrote.
Still, the thread goes on, Shuli felt anxious for her grandfather to see her presenting as a woman. (The last time they saw one another face-to-face, Shuli wore a beard.) Because of the pandemic, the meeting ended up happening at a Zoom party for Grandpa Ed’s 100th birthday. His response was, again, beautiful: “‘Who’s that beautiful young lady????’ my 100-year-old grandfather asked, with a grin, referring to me. ‘Is that my granddaughter Shuli???,'” Shuli wrote in another tweet.
In a bittersweet turn of events, however, Shuli was never able to meet her Grandpa Ed in person as her true self. (The pair did email frequently over the last few years, with Grandpa Ed rejoicing in reading Shuli’s articles about being an Orthodox Jewish trans woman in Unorthoboxed Magazine and seeing her post about her gender affirmation surgeries online.) Grandpa Ed passed away last week at 102 years of age and, due to the ongoing COVID-19 risk, it was never safe enough for Shuli to visit him.
Still, through her viral thread, Shuli has been able to find some comfort in her grandfather’s passing.
“Grandpa would be so proud to know that his legacy of compassion, justice, and open-mindedness is already spreading to millions of people, less than a week after his passing,” she explained to me, adding, “In fact, I read this thread at his funeral, as part of my eulogy, and my family agreed: Grandpa would be so proud.”
She also knows that her grandfather’s ability to love and support her was influenced by his Jewish faith. In addition to “fervently” believing in “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice you shall pursue) and “uvacharta bachayim” (choose life), “[Grandpa Ed] approached all controversies as a ‘machloket leshem shamayim’ (a disagreement for the sake of Heaven), as a constructive opportunity for deeper understanding and growth, rather than knee-jerk reactionism. And as someone who grew up victimized by antisemitism, he knew the importance of standing up for yourself and fighting for your rights as a misunderstood minority.”
Though Shuli’s experience coming out to her grandfather was overall a happy one, she knows that not all in the trans community will be accepted and loved by their families — regardless of generational difference. For them, her message, undoubtedly in the spirit of her beloved Grandpa Ed, is clear. “It’s hard, and it’s scary, and (not but) the winds of change are moving us forward,” she said. “While there is so much hatred in this world, there is also so much love. Try to have hope for a better future. And even in those darkest moments, when everyone around you denies who you are, always remember who you are, and be proud of who you are.”