Through the Door of Life

Through the Door of Life - 614 eZine - Vol 6, Issue 5

A Yeshiva University professor’s painful and inspiring journey of transitioning from a man to a woman

Professor Jay Ladin made headlines around the world when, after years of teaching literature at Yeshiva University, he returned to the Orthodox Jewish campus as a woman and changed her name to Joy. In her memoir Through the Door of Life, Joy shares with readers her emotional journey of transitioning to a woman, the immense struggle of living as the “wrong gender” (including the pain caused to her children), her life-long conversations with God, and how she has wrestled with the larger moral and religious questions that have arisen in her life.

How did growing up as a minority (being Jewish) affect you in terms of transitioning from a man to a woman?

Growing up Jewish gave me a generally positive experience of being an open member of a minority group that was in stark contrast to the shame, hiding, and sense of utter isolation I experienced as a deeply closeted trans kid. Being Jewish connected me to other people through celebration, family, history, shared difference. It also gave me shared language of story and symbol, a way of connecting with my fellow Jews. By contrast, being trans made me feel different from everyone else on Earth, forever pretending to a humanity that wasn’t really mine. My male body cut me off from the female friendships and community I longed for, and, because I knew I wasn’t really a boy, none of the relationships I formed as a male felt honest or authentic. Jewish culture and tradition generally reinforced the gender divisions that caused me such pain. But in one respect, at least, being Jewish helped me survive: by shaping and grounding me and supporting my relationship with God. Because my family wasn’t religious, I was able to experience Judaism on my own, without transphobic voices to tell me that the God I spoke to all the time hated people like me. That sense of connection to God through Judaism has stayed with me and sustained me all my life, even though Judaism barely speaks to transgender experience.

In the book you share many links between Jewish tradition and your journey. Were these links something you sought out, or did someone help you find them? How important were/are these links for you now?

As my last answer suggests, for the most part, I had to create the links I found between Jewish tradition and my transgender identity—although, teaching at an Orthodox Jewish university before and after my transition to living as a woman certainly added to my perspective. (You could say I work at the corner of transsexuality and Jewish tradition.) Because I’ve been reading, thinking about, and loving the Torah, the Hebrew bible, on my own since childhood, I have accumulated a lifetime of links between my life and the words of the Torah. There isn’t anything unusual about that (that’s the way religious Jews are supposed to relate to the Torah), but the transgender connections I’ve made are unusual. There are a growing number of trans Jewish leaders who are making and writing about these linkages, but I didn’t find their work until my memoir was largely complete.

Why did you decide to teach at Yeshiva University? It would seem that there are many academic institutions that could have provided a unsupportive environment for you to go through this process, and that Stern was a particularly unsupportive place to be.

Honestly, I decided to teach at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University because that was the only school that offered me a job, or even an interview, that year. But I was delighted to get the offer, excited by the prospect of teaching students wrestling with the connections and conflicts between modernity and Jewish tradition. I was still living as a man—I was told when I joined the department that I was adding much-needed testosterone to the mostly female English department faculty—and had no plans to transition. In fact, I thought that teaching at an all-women’s college would be the closest I would ever come to the sort of female community I’d longed for all my life.

There aren’t many institutions, academic or otherwise, that are supportive of gender transition, but there are many where my transition would have caused less controversy. But I loved teaching at Stern, and had no other prospects when it became clear that I would soon be physically and psychologically incapable of continuing to teach as a man. I knew that I either had to get early tenure at Stern—I did, just in time, in spring 2006—or try to find a job with a brand-new gender identity that would only make a tough job market tougher. Poets struggle to find tenure-track jobs; transsexuals struggle to find any jobs.

Though I wouldn’t say Stern has been supportive of my transition, I was invited back to teach after a year of post-transition “involuntary research leave” and, since returning, have been promoted to full professor. I feel respected and valued by my English department colleagues, and, alas, no one shies away from assigning me to academic committees. And while some students keep their distance, many of my students have been quite wonderful, bonding with me despite (in a few cases, because of) my gender identity.

You’ve discussed that much of the focus on Judaism is on stability and continuity, which was necessary because we were persecuted. Did this focus on keeping things the same ever make it difficult to connect to Judaism?

That’s a fascinating question. Thanks to a terrific Hebrew school teacher, I had a great grounding in ancient Jewish history, which is a history of displacement and upheaval. The Torah (in the limited Five Books of Moses sense) is all about change—in the universe (“Let there be light!”), personal identity (“Your name will no longer be Avram, but Abraham”), family relationships (remember Joseph and his brothers), and, by the end, national history. In fact, there’s nothing but change. By the end of Deuteronomy, no one has reached the Promised Land, and then we start reading about the birth of the universe again. Things aren’t much more stable in later books, either, from the series of military and political disasters that make up the Book of Judges and history of the Hebrew monarchies, to the kaleidoscopic emotions and perspectives in Psalms, to the wildly disparate versions of the future presented in the Prophets, to Ecclesiastes’ insistence that nothing, really, endures. The emphasis on stability comes later, in the laws and traditions accumulated over millennia of exile. But Jews and Judaism have never stopped changing, which is perhaps why we sometimes hysterically insist that we should never change.

Honestly, it’s a great tradition for a transsexual.

What did your children think about you writing this book? What is your relationship with them like now?

I think it will be a while before I really hear what my children thought about my writing the book. My youngest, who will be nine next month, didn’t know I was writing it till it was published, and has been very insistent about reading it and discussing it with me—only the parts about her, of course. It’s given us a way of talking about feelings and situations for which even adults struggle to find language. My 18-year-old son never showed much interest in the writing I was doing, but he has said he’s glad that I tell people how hard transition has been for him and the rest of the family. My 12-year-old daughter, also a writer, has been most conscious of it. She’s read and discussed sections of it with me, and talks often with me about LGBT issues. But I’ve tried to protect their privacy at least a little by leaving out their names, and by not marketing the book in the area where they live.

I have different relationships with each of them, naturally—their ages and personalities are so different—but all of them have been angry at me about the way my transition broke up their family and complicated their own social identities. All of us wish we had more time together; divorce law doesn’t treat transsexuals kindly, and the settlement left me seeing them only two or three times a week. But they are strong, smart, articulate people, and each of them has talked to me about their feelings about the divorce and my transition, and each has found ways of remaking the parent-child relationship I ruptured when I moved out five years ago to live as myself. All of us regret that separation, and all of us have learned that our love is stronger than all the pain, confusion, and anger that came between us.

Throughout the book, you talk about how you often saw yourself as a failure in most aspects of your life, yet you are successful in your academic career. Did that ever give you a sense of accomplishment? Did your poetry ever give you moments of peace?

Poetry has sustained me since I was child. Before transition, the only time I felt really alive was when I was writing, existing in a way that had nothing to do with my body. Much of Transmigration, the first book I published under my true name, was written as an alternative to killing myself; I would get through suicidal despair by writing poetry. No matter how I feel, writing poetry makes me feel better.

My relation to academic work is more complicated. I like the work of academic analysis and argument, and I love teaching—I consider it my other vocation, along with writing—but I’ve never really defined myself in terms of the scales of academic accomplishment. Nothing that I achieved when living as a man felt completely real or true to me, though I did and still do feel proud of some of the academic writing and most of the teaching I did then. I think the biggest issue was actually my identity as a poet; I’ve always felt like a poet playing at being an academic. I admire true scholars and scholarship, and have never felt like I measured up to those standards. And, while I have learned a lot from reading others’ literary scholarship, I tend to see myself as addressing other audiences when I write.

You chose a field (poetry) that can either be considered freeing or isolating. Why did you choose this field? Do you like the fact that much of your work is done alone?

I don’t think I chose poetry; I just started writing it as soon as I learned to write. I’m not sure why. Poetry wasn’t read in our home, and it wasn’t taught much in school, but I felt that I was doing something freeing and fabulous and important every time I arranged words into what I considered a poem. I know poetry can be isolating, but it never felt that way to me, perhaps because I felt completely isolated by my transgender identity. When I wrote, I felt not just the hope but also the certainty that I was connecting to others through language. I’m not sure why, given the way I grew up, but poetry was the one part of my identity that felt completely true, alive, and there.

I heard you say in an interview that you do not bring up your transitioning to your students at Yeshiva. What is your reason for this, and does it feel hard for you not to disclose it?

I think that teaching should be about students, not about teachers. I think that personal disclosure by teachers can sometimes facilitate teaching—it can foster trust, and model ways of connecting life to academic study—but I think all teachers need to tread carefully here. Students are a captive audience, and if we want to turn classes into talk shows centered on our lives, we can. I want to be there for students; I don’t want to push them into being there for me. I not only want, but also have an obligation to be the best teacher I can for all my students, even those who might be uncomfortable with my gender identity. I don’t feel any obligation to lie any more, to pretend to be other than I am as I did when I taught as a man, but I want my classrooms and office to feel safe and welcoming to all my students, regardless of how they might feel about my life.

This discipline does feel hard, because it’s unsettling not to know how my students see me in terms of gender (man in a dress? former man? woman? something else?). And because I think it’s important for me to really be present with my students, and to show them that what we are studying really is connected to life, I’m always trying to figure out what, if anything, I should say. Many aspects of gender transition are relevant to things I teach: gender in literature, being true to oneself, representation and self-representation, etc. But I think that I’m right to err on the side of caution, to say less about myself than might be pedagogically ideal rather than say too much and risk making students uncomfortable. And the truth is, I’m as out of the closet as anyone can be. My transition has often been discussed among students and in Jewish media; between Google and my memoir, students can find out more than anyone wants to know about me.

About the Author

Joy LadinJoy Ladin
Joy Ladin, author of Through the Door of Life (U. of Wisconsin Press, 2012), is a David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University and the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. Her return to teaching as a woman after receiving tenure as a man made headlines and sparked discussion around the Jewish world. Her essays and poems have appeared in many publications, and she is the author of six books of poetry. Her work has been recognized with a Fulbright Scholarship, an American Council of Literary Societies Fellowship, and a 2012 Continuing the Legacy of Stonewall Award, among other honors.

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