Joy Ladin says she did not fully understand the Psalms until she became a woman.
In rereading the Psalms, she found a wealth of metaphor for change that gave meaning and spiritual strength to her own transformation from a man to what she describes as her authentic self.
The celebrated poet, Yeshiva University professor and “only openly transgender person probably at any Orthodox institution in the world” speaks about her work, her books, and her journey Oct. 3 at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Her decision to undergo a sex change drew attention from the press, the LGBT community and the Orthodoxy worldwide. Ladin began shedding the skins of an inauthentic life as Jay Ladin, married father of three, in 2005. That spurred her firing, then subsequent rehiring, at Stern College for women. Ultimately, it led to connections with other transgender Jews and a wider discussion about understanding and embracing those who buck gender norms. She has met many observant transgender worshippers who know they can take their halachic questions to their rabbis, who keep their confidence.
Some saw her as an abomination, but “many, many, many more” rejected that belief. In fact, reporters doing a story about her for the New York Post nearly gave up trying to find a rabbi who would produce a suitably outraged quote.
“The Torah says all human beings are created in the image of God,” she said. “That’s a radicalism that’s built into the Torah – that call to respect the humanity of all people.”
As a child, Jay Ladin felt relieved to encounter God — another loner who didn’t fit in. By the time he had reached adulthood, assumed a sort of costume of mannerisms, voicings, interests.
“The realities of my life, my career, my family seemed like shadows on a distant wall,” she writes in her memoir, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders” [University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95].
By his 40s, “There was no relief anymore, no moment when I was unaware of my estrangement from my skin. Living as a man, “I was the only guard, the only prisoner, the frozen ground and the barbed wire fence. Give up, I told myself. There is no escape.”
There was that and more.
The stability, tradition and continuity Jews look to their faith to provide are the natural reaction to all the persecution they have endured through the millenia, she said. But at its core, Hebrew text swells with change – dramatic, healing, sometimes terrifying, always necessary.
For Joy Ladin, Judaism compelled the journey of becoming.
“I was always amazed by the imaginative leaping that the Psalms could do,” she says in a videotaped interview. “Changes in perspective, in pronouns, in time and space and imagery seem effortless in the Psalms.
“It was something I didn’t understand in the way I do now until I got far enough along in my transition that I began to see a kind of lack of identity, which is what I’d always experienced when I was presenting myself as a male.”
A former Fulbright scholar, Ladin, 51, has taught at Princeton University (where earlier she had earned her Ph.D.), University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Tel Aviv University. She holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University.
She was a finalist for the 2009 Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for Poetry. She has authored five books of poetry: Coming to Life (2010), Psalms (2010), Transmigration (2009), The Book of Anna (2006), and Alternatives to History (2003), as well as a critical study, Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickenson and Modern American Poetry (2010).
And she is soon to release The Definition of Joy.
“I really like teaching women-only classes,” she said. “My experience is that young women find it difficult to be participatory in a mixed class. (At Stern), there is an ease they have that contributes to the classroom dynamic.” They are a source of learning, and surprise, such as recently, when after analyzing Walt Whitman, concluded that he is quintessentially Jewish.
The university has encouraged her continued writing. And her students are not aware that she was once Jay Ladin.
“It feels good to me to be known as who I am now,” she said.
“Book Talk with Joy Ladin” takes place at 12 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3 at the Graduate Theological Union First Floor Lounge, 2465 Le Conte Ave., Berkeley. Hosted by the Center for Jewish Studies and co-sponsored by Starr King School for the Ministry, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion, and Women’s Studies in Religion. For more information contact the Center for Jewish Studies orWomen’s Studies in Religion.