Abby Stein on Columbia University’s campus in New York City (Katie Booth/Women in the World) On a temperate afternoon in late December, Abby Stein sat in a café on the Upper West Side, surveying her glass of water with a mixture of amusement and surprise.
The following is excerpted from the site above. Read three more stories there, this one is mine:
Hannah Simpson, 31: “The only breach in decorum and protocol was that people started applauding.”
Hannah Simpson has a winking penchant for wordplay — trans-inspired wordplay included. “I like to joke: there’s a place in religion for you as a transgender person,” she said with a grin. “It just might not be the sect you were assigned at birth.” Later, she noted: “I’ve never had a bat mitzvah before, and when I do, it’s going to be a bat mitzvah with ears, capes, and utility belts optional.”
On a dreary day just after New Years, Hannah was chipper and sunny-eyed, a walking emblem of LGBTQ pride. She wore Star of David earrings painted with rainbow stripes, and in her bag, she carried a rainbow-splashed Israeli flag, which she sometimes dons as a cape. Hannah also brought along two knitted yarmulkes: one stitched with rainbow threads, the other modeled after the transgender flag in pink, white, and blue. She likes to trot these yarmulkes out before journalists and other interested parties, though she doesn’t wear them very often; traditional Judaism dictates that this particular religious garment is only mandated for men. “It’s one of those things where [sometimes] I do feel like I should be wearing a [yarmulke] and I sometimes don’t,” she said. “More often than not, I don’t these days, because I’m not obliged to, and it’s weird for me to make that act that is very traditionally masculine.”
It has been two years since Hannah started living her true self. From the time she was a small child, growing up in suburban New Jersey, Hannah knew that she was a woman. Existing as a male was, as she likes to put it, an experience similar to writing with her non-dominant hand: instantly and instinctively, she knew it didn’t feel right.
During the second year of her studies at Touro College medical school in New York, Hannah decided that she felt ready to begin her physical transition. She has since withdrawn from her studies on a temporary basis; several encounters with administration and staff, the details of which she would prefer to keep private, made her feel uncomfortable and unwelcome on campus. By comparison, Hannah’s post-transition integration into the Jewish world has gone relatively smoothly.
Hannah’s family belongs to a progressive synagogue in New Jersey’s Bergen County. Her parents are active in the congregation — her mother volunteers as a lay cantor, her father as an usher — and Hannah has carried their emphasis on community involvement into her adult life. She works with a support group called Jewish Queer Youth, and is active in Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ congregation in Manhattan. This past December, she staffed an LGBTQ Birthright trip to Israel. Hannah has also found acceptance beyond LGBTQ Jewish communities. When the cantor of Hannah’s childhood synagogue found out that she had transitioned, he promptly offered to officiate her (as yet non-existent) wedding.
It seems appropriate, then, that the most public proclamation of Hannah’s identity took place in a synagogue. In 2013, while Hannah was still presenting as a male, she was asked by an egalitarian congregation in Boston to give a sermon on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Hannah had already begun the early phases of her transition and decided that this speech — to be delivered on a day that celebrates fresh starts and new beginnings — would present the perfect opportunity to come out.
When the congregation’s leadership saw a draft of Hannah’s speech they balked; there would be elderly members in attendance, they told Hannah, and perhaps she could edit out any parts of her speech that would cause offense. “They eventually changed their mind and came to their senses, and I gave the sermon,” Hannah said. “And to my surprise the only breach in decorum and protocol was that people started applauding.”
Though she is interested in Jewish liturgy, Hannah is not particularly bothered by the fact that sacred texts give virtually no attention to people of non-binary gender identities. “It is not so much that I can find the trans experience in the liturgy. I think it is the opposite: I can find the liturgy reflected in the trans-experience,” Hannah explained. “Gender diversity I really don’t think was on the ancient radar.”
Perhaps the best example of Hannah’s efforts to draw parallels between her own life and the Jewish tradition lies in the name that she chose when she transitioned. The biblical Hannah was a barren woman, who pleaded with God when she could not bear children and ultimately became the mother of the prophet Samuel. “With her fervor and passion she changed God’s mind,” Hannah explained. “I am a transgender woman and … I am actually taking an active step to argue with God, to assert myself. And hopefully I will find my fulfillment through that.”
As our interview drew to a close, Hannah pulled a miniature, electric menorah out of her Poppins-esque bag of knick-knacks. Every year during the Hanukah season, she teaches children and young adults how to make this very 21st-century version of the holiday’s traditional candelabrum. Though Hannah has woven her trans identity into so much of her Jewish life, it is important to her to extend her involvement beyond activism, beyond the LGBTQ community. Or as Hannah puts it: “Being a trans Jewish person is also just being a Jewish person.”