Abby Stein’s new book, Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman, is a rare peek into the cloistered world of New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community – and it’s not pretty.
Stein is an author, activist and rabbi and holds the title of having been the first transgender woman to have been ordained by an Orthodox institution, since she came out after she became a rabbi.
In her new book, Stein reveals how the Hasidic community makes it difficult to leave by limiting educational opportunities. Steeped in heartbreaking detail that’s normally inaccessible to outsiders, Stein tells a universal tale of searching, overcoming and believing in one’s self. Stein speaks in a unique manner, because she didn’t learn English until she was 20.
“We never went beyond long division. After eighth grade, there was no general education – no science, social studies or history outside of some Jewish history. Part of it is done through a belief that you have to study all day – especially men – but also in order to keep people in the community,” she says.
Multiple pages describe the minutiae of how this community manifests and measures piety. For example, the status of Stein’s family, who are direct descendants of the Baal Shem Tov, meant father and son wore a colour of socks that set them apart. Ultimately, Stein came to fantasize about wearing stockings like her sisters.
There was also the matter of Stein’s mother’s modesty. Her family wore beige hose, with visible seams to prevent being mistaken as bare-legged. Stein’s father’s family’s women wore black hose, which they viewed as more modest. But if Stein’s mother switched to black, it might suggest that her own sisters were less modest. At some point, grey is suggested as a compromise, but ultimately rejected.
“I grew up with a black and white form of Judaism, both literally and metaphorically,” Stein says, while maintaining that she’s grateful to have parents who managed to talk with each of their 13 kids every day.
“I tried not to demonize or exoticize the Hasidic community. I had an amazing life, a happy childhood, a loving family – not a given. I tried to capture that.”
Leaving her community means that her family may never speak to her again. However, she has discovered relatives that were kept secret because they were not ultra-Orthodox.
Although she eschews categories, she describes herself as spiritual and cultural. “I’ve been in a closet and rejected lots of labels. Probably the closest thing to a label that I could think of is secular-liberal-Hasidic,” she says.
“Growing up, we used to make fun of cherry-picking Judaism, but now I actually think that cherry-picking is the most Jewish thing you can do. It’s not actually cherry-picking, it’s doing full Judaism your own way, and I think that’s beautiful. I can hold on to what I want to and redefine it my own way.”
When asked if she misses anything about her old community, she responded by saying: “Full-heartedly no. The things I liked, I do. All the food: gefilte fish, matzah balls. People see pictures I post and say ‘you’re missing it.’ I say, ‘What do you mean? I’m not missing it. I’m doing it. I belong to a beautiful community on the Upper West Side. It’s better than it was growing up.’ ”
Stein is now using her rabbinical abilities to compile her own curriculum and source sheets for the online database Sefaria, and to lead scholar-in-residence programs.
She co-founded Sacred Space, a group for spiritual women and non-binary people, and belongs to T’ruah, which is made up of progressive rabbis who work for social justice. The only way she would ever envision herself in a pulpit again is if she ends up creating something new.
Stein’s unique brand of messaging is evident when she explains why it’s not enough for synagogues to “tolerate” the LGBTQ community. “Tolerance is for lactose and nuts,” she says.
She believes individuals should be celebrated, “not only because it’s morally right, but because it’s beautiful and empowering and will improve our congregations.”
Abby Stein will speak in Toronto at the Koffler Centre of the Arts’s Books & Ideas Series on Nov. 21 and at Temple Emanu-El on Nov. 23.