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Joy Ladin's Through the Door of Life

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Joy Ladin's extraordinary memoir Through the Door of LIfe: A Jewish Journey Between Genders begins with a short chapter I wish I could excerpt in full. Instead, I will link you to it; it was published in Zeek, as the essay A Blessing Over Progesterone. Here is how it begins:

Every day I say a blessing in Hebrew over my medication: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who has kept us, preserved us, and brought us to this time.” That blessing is traditionally said at the beginnings of holidays, on the eating of new kinds of fruit, and at any joyous occasion at which Jews want to heighten their sense of gratitude by becoming mindful of the singularity of the moment and the precariousness of the lives that have brought us to it. It is not said on the taking of medication; it is specifically not to be said over daily events, for which there are different blessings; and it is never said over a disease.

The medications I take — progesterone tablets, which I swallow whole, and sweet circles of estrogen that I dissolve under my tongue — are synthetic versions of the powerful hormones that naturally define and regulate many of the physiological characteristics of normal female bodies. I don’t have a normal female body. Born without the capacity to produce more than trace amounts of female hormones, for decades my body instead has produced testosterone, masculinizing my face, bones, muscle, hair, and skin. Though there are few aspects of my physical form unravaged by testosterone’s effects, thanks to my medication, those effects are diminishing. For the first time in my life, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who has begun to resemble — me.

Every trans person has a coming-out story. Most of these stories involve struggle for acceptance -- from oneself and from others -- and often these stories are heartbreaking. Joy's struggle takes a very particular form: she dealt with the impact of her transition while teaching at the women's college of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy. She writes:

Orthodox Judaism, like most traditional forms of religion, considers the things transsexuals do to fit our bodies to our souls to be sins. In my case, those sins included wearing women's clothing and taking hormones that destroyed my fertility. I was also violating customs and conceptions of gender that, while not mandated by Jewish law, are held to with religious conviction by many Orthodox Jews[.]

That conviction is so strong that Joy feared that even receiving tenure at Stern would not be enough to keep her in her job once she transitioned. And transition was necessary. "My gender identity crisis had destroyed my marriage, shattered my family, and turned me into an unwelcome stranger in my own home," she writes. Upon receiving tenure, she moved out of the home she had shared with her wife. "My children were grief stricken, angry, and baffled by the double blow of losing their happy family and the strange transformation of the father they loved."

When she explained to her dean that she was beginning the process of transition, she was forbidden from setting foot on campus. But she was allowed to return to teaching in 2008. After much negotiation (including which bathrooms she would be permitted to use), she returned to her life as an academic.

Finally, September arrived, and with it, my first happy day in a long time. After years of hiding and pretending, I was finally going to stand before my students and colleagues as the person -- the woman -- I knew myself to be. More important, after centuries of intolerance, an institution representing Orthodox Judaism was about to welcome an openly transgender employee...

My office was heaped with the same stacks of papers, the same teaching anthologies, but the name beside the door said "Dr. Joy Ladin." It was a miracle. I -- the real me -- was here, in plain sight. I walked through the halls, waiting for my transition to matter to someone. It didn't. Teachers rushed to and fro, students talked on cell phones or swayed back and forth in prayer. People had more important things to do than think about my gender.

All of that is how the book begins.

After this beginning, we leap back in time. We see a man standing in the shower, listening to his three beloved children screaming happily with their mother, "the woman he has loved and been loved by since he was seventeen." He knows he must be burning with happiness at his beautiful family, but he can't feel it. He is numb. He speaks to God -- he prays aloud -- first saying thank you, then admitting his exhaustion. "And then, as the pain of the distance between himself and the life he is living overwhelms him, he prays a prayer he knows can never be forgiven: 'If it's okay with you, and it would be okay for them, please let me die.'"

Oh, my heart.

We see Joy as a boy (these historical passages written, for the most part, in the third person -- a fine distancing technique, and a painful articulation of the extent to which that boy's childhood never felt like her own) discovering at an early age what she was...and knowing she wouldn't be welcomed by her parents if they knew. We see her learning to pass as a boy (learning to be a boy is, she writes, a separate problem.) We see her meeting her beloved in college; telling that beloved who and what she is; and agreeing to a life in which she will hide. Thus began a pattern which would continue for years:

I would be consumed by gender dysphoria and unsuccessfully seek professional help; my wife would offer me a choice between becoming myself and being loved. It was a horrible choice but not a hard one, and with practice it got easier -- almost as automatic as averting my eyes from girl-things as a child. I didn't know what life as a woman would be like, but I knew what life was like without my wife's love.

Later, Joy writes, "My wife knew something was wrong with me, but she believed -- she wanted to believe, and I worked hard to enable her to believe -- that the problem wasn't a threat to our life together, that it was a character flaw or a neurosis, a willful refusal to allow myself to be happy. Happiness was right there, all around me, like a fragrance, if only I would let myself breathe. // But for me, being a man meant holding my breath. If I couldn't breathe as myself, I wouldn't breathe at all."

This memoir is characterized both by emotional honesty and by linguistic precision. Here's one moment from the book which moved me deeply. Joy is teaching about persona poems. She writes:

I wish I could stop talking about personae in poetry and tell my students the truth -- not just the truth about me but what the truth has taught me about the image of God. I wish I could tell them how hard it can be and how necessary it is to embody that image, to find it in oneself and to find the self that can make God visible in the world. When you look in the mrror, I want to say, you see your own faces; when I look in the mirror, I see the mystery of God's creation. Look at what makes me so hard to look at. If you can see the image of God in me, you'll see God everywhere.

The image of God manifest in Joy comes through so clearly on the printed page.

As a boy, Joy came near to suicide many times. She describes the taste of Clorox flooding her mouth (although, ashamed, she found herself unable to swallow the toxic substance.) She doesn't draw the direct parallel, but it's clear that she imbibed more than her share of toxicity in other ways. And the tough stuff doesn't magically end when she transitions. Joy is open about the suffering which she knows her choice to live as herself causes to her wife (ex-wife, now) and her kids.

Part of what I love is that she writes about this journey through a profoundly Jewish lens. She writes, referencing the end of Deuteronomy:

Three thousand years late, I had finally reached the steppes of Moab. There, before me, were life and death, blessing and curse. The choice was finally clear, but now I could tell which was blessing and which was curse, and for whom. How could the death of our lives together be life to me? How could a life that was a curse to them be a blessing to me? Easier, infinitely easier, not to make any choice, to deny, as I had so long denied, the possibility of choice, to choose, if I had to choose, to simply fade away...

But that wasn't the choice I made.

Later in the book she compares herself to the patriarch Jacob, disguising himself in goatskins to fool his blind father into giving him the blessing meant for his more obviously masculine twin Esau. But mama Rebekah, she writes, knew who Jacob really was; Joy feared that once the truth was out, her mother would never speak to her again. The scene where she describes the phone call in which she came out -- and her mother's (thank God) loving and accepting response -- made me gasp with relief.

Joy describes learning to walk again, learning to talk, learning to buy clothing, learning to make choices about her hair. I don't know why it never occurred to me that coming out as trans in this way would involve a kind of second adolescence -- complete with the acne sparked by a new inrush of hormones, anxieties about one's body and one's clothing choices and one's movements, and the horrifying fear that perhaps one isn't lovable after all. Joy describes, too, the overwhelming inrush of feelings: having chosen to be herself, to become, all of the defense mechanisms which had kept emotion at bay come tumbling down.

"You sparkle," said an old friend, the first time she saw the new -- the real -- me. "You're sparkling," my therapist confirmed. "It's like a layer of pain has fallen away, said a rabbi who had known me for years. I couldn't see that sparkle -- I felt too awkward, too raw, too grief stricken -- but I knew what they meant.

I was born cis-gendered; I can only imagine what Joy describes. But I know what it is like to find one's home, to find a kind of spiritual acceptance of which one had barely dared to dream, and to come away sparkling. (That's the word I often use to describe how I am after a few days on retreat with my Jewish Renewal community.) And Joy describes her journey so poignantly that I can't help but place myself, if only for a moment, in her new shoes.

Joy writes about needing, literally, to find her new voice in order to continue teaching, the work she loves and the only space in which she had reliably been able to feel intimacy and connection. She takes voice lessons in order to be able to speak again. Once again, I find myself thinking: this is so clearly, and beautifully, a memoir written by a poet! She is delightfully attentive to metaphor and meaning.

The scene where Joy confronts God -- "You have no idea how it feels to have your children reject you" -- and then after a moment corrects herself (if anyone understands that experience, surely it is God, from Whom we so often turn away) -- is one of my favorites in the book.

The scene where she remembers a 2002 visit to the Kotel -- perhaps the most painfully gendered space in Judaism -- makes my innards twist. I know how much it angers and frustrates me, as a liberal Jewish woman, to be denied the opportunity to pray as I would wish to pray at the Kotel (see Morning prayer at the Western Wall...almost, 2008), or to read about the harassment Women of the Wall receive when they try to participate wholly in Jewish life at that supposedly most-holy Jewish place. I can only imagine what it's like to visit the Kotel and be consigned to the men's section when one's whole being is screaming to be on the other side of the mechitzah. Joy writes:

As my son and I walk closer, I feel sicker and sicker. To approach the sacred, I have to erase what, despite all the repression and resolutions and lies to myself, I know and have always known I am.

That's in 2002. There's also a 2008 visit to the Kotel, which is poignant for all the ways in which that earlier trauma is healed (Joy is now living as a woman and can't imagine otherwise) and also the ways in which she's conscious of new and different forms of suffering. (The so-called separation barrier or security fence, which seems to be successfully keeping Israelis safe from suicide bombings, often divides Palestinian villages in half, keeping families apart.) Joy writes:

According to both religious traditions, Jews and Muslims are children of Abraham.

I certainly am. I sacrificed my true self again and again for more than forty years, and for more than forty eyars I never heard a whisper of an angel telling me to stay my hand.

But that doesn't mean the angel wasn't calling.

I still remember hearing Leslie Feinberg, author of Stone Butch Blues, speak at Williams when I was an undergrad, probably in 1994. Leslie read from the book and then spoke with us about hir life. About the fear of being pulled over, presenting as a man, when hir driver's license was still legally required to say "F." The talk was eye-opening and heartbreaking. I find myself thinking of it again as I read Joy's memoir; thinking about all the ways in which our collective task of creating a healed creation, in which no one need fear living as who they know themselves to be, is not yet complete.

"I need to feel my heart becoming equal to whatever road I'm on, no matter how steep," writes Joy in one of the book's final chapters. She's ostensibly talking about cardiovascular health during a walk on a winding rural road, but the truth of the line rings clear in all four worlds. Later, she notes, "According to my voice teacher, the only way I could find my female voice was to realize that there was no difference between what I was and what I wanted to be." Sound spiritual advice, too.

Another favorite passage: the one where it is revealed that a student (who shares my name) knows Joy's story. Joy writes:

Rachel knows -- knew -- probably has always known -- that I'm trans. When she's talked about poetry, God, dating, she was talking to me, the real me, the transexual me, the woman she knows was a man.

She sees, has seen, has perhaps always seen, me.

Bare walls, discarded computer equipment, crushed ceral, love of poetry, love of God, and all.

For what more can any of us hope than to be truly seen for who we are, and loved not despite ourselves but in and through who we ultimately are and can't help but be?

This is a brave, unflinching, beautiful memoir. If you think this is the sort of thing you would like, by all means, go and read. (And if you think it isn't, nu, try it anyway, because it's really good.) On Amazon; on BN; on the publisher's website.

 

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