MONTREAL — When Jay Ladin began teaching at Yeshiva University (YU) in 2003, he soon became a popular English professor in its Stern College for women.
Today, Joy Ladin – the same person – lives as a woman and still teaches at YU in New York, making her what’s believed to be the first openly transgendered employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution.
Ladin isn’t there because YU adopted a groundbreaking liberal attitude toward her sex change. On the contrary, she says it was only the threat of legal action that allows her to be “tolerated” there today.
Ladin, whose memoir Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders was a finalist for a 2012 National Jewish Book Award, will speak at the Jewish Public Library on April 24 at 7:30 p.m.
The 53-year-old Rochester, N.Y., native said in a telephone interview that she felt she was a girl from the time she was in preschool, but told no one.
“I was terrified that anybody might discover that I was not a boy. There was no real understanding of gender identity then,” Ladin said.
Out of college, Ladin married a woman to whom he confided his inner turmoil, and they had three children. They stayed together on the understanding Jay would remain Jay.
He kept up the guise of being a man until his mid-40s when he felt he could no longer live a lie. The marriage ended when Joy Ladin started to emerge.
Misunderstanding and prejudice still surround transgender issues, Ladin believes. In the Jewish community, if not always intolerance, there is a slowness to accommodate transgendered people, be it in schools and camps or in the synagogues, with their specific roles for men and women.
Ladin is not Orthodox herself, but has also felt a strong affiliation with Judaism. Today, she is a member of a Reconstructionist congregation in Amherst, Mass.
In 2000, Ladin completed a PhD at Princeton University and was looking for a permanent teaching position to support his family. Although Ladin was finding being a man increasingly unbearable, he took a job with YU because it offered the chance of getting on the tenure track. Ladin had no illusions this institution would accept an openly transgendered person.
Once tenure was secured, Ladin began the transition to becoming Joy, beginning a course of hormone therapy. (She will not say if she ever underwent surgery.)
“A lot of transitioning is not medical. The most important thing is becoming a real person, a full person, not constantly hiding who you are,” she said.
Incredibly, no one at YU noticed any changes – or, at least, did not remark upon her appearance, she said.
In 2006, after some time off, Ladin wrote to her dean that she would be returning as a woman.
“I got a very personal response. She said she wanted to talk to me over lunch. Then she told me that, sadly, I would not be able to come back, that there was no way the students and parents would accept me, but that I would be on full salary and benefits,” Ladin recalled.
“She was respectful, but said she did not want me to have any contact with anyone in the school community.”
The students were never officially told why Ladin was no longer teaching, she said. But they found out and “some of them started writing to me, they were confused, some were angry. They thought I had been treated in a way contrary to the values of Orthodox Judaism. To my surprise, some of them went to the dean.”
From most of her colleagues, Ladin heard nothing, but “a few were privately supportive.”
Ladin sent a lawyer’s letter. “None of us believed it would be possible for Orthodox Jews to accept someone like me at all… I thought I’d get a monetary settlement, but for reasons I still do not understand, I was allowed to return to teach in the fall of 2008, after a year off work.”
Nothing was said about the matter to her when she came back and what had happened was never discussed with the students, Ladin said.
“The school clearly did not want to talk about it, but they were completely respectful… It’s toleration of my presence,” she said.
“Unless someone brings it up, I don’t. Most people don’t want to talk about it, so it’s hard to gauge attitudes,” she said.
She did lose students. “Absolutely, I was very popular. My enrolment is much lower.”
Nevertheless, Ladin believes she has not suffered professionally. “I’m serving on the same committees as would anyone of my rank.”
Ladin is on the board of Keshet, an advocacy organization for the full equality and inclusion of LGBT people in Jewish life.
“There are more and more Jews coming out as transgendered, including children,” she said.
“In my ideal Jewish community, if you’re Jewish, you would be welcome…
“With good will and a lot of talking and honesty and give and take, we can work out a way of allowing the transgendered to be part of the community.”
Ladin’s father died without ever knowing the truth. She hopes other families can be more open. She takes hope from her elderly mother’s late-life acceptance.
“I think she did remarkably well when I came out. She said, ‘I’ve heard about this. Whatever you look like, you will always be my child and I love you.’”