On Rosh Hashanah we recite, again and again, the commitment to atone for past transgressions and return to the path of proper behavior. The idea of returning, of teshuvah, might be viewed as transitioning from one mode of behavior to another. Some transitions are relatively simple; others are hard, even painful.
For Dr. Joy Ladin, the transition — from living as a man to living as the woman she always believed she was — was complex, painful, and eye-opening. That she was able to do so, in her mid-40s, has awakened her sense of gratitude to God.
In years past, fearing that no one would accept her or love her if she adopted what she believed to be her true identity, “I felt on Rosh Hashanah that whatever I’d done, it was not as bad as what God did to me,” giving her the body of one gender but the identity of another, she said. “But God doesn’t live in time, and now it’s the greatest miracle.”
With her gender transition — which she has described as “extreme teshuvah” — her feelings of resentment have morphed into feelings of gratitude. She is “trying in every part of her life” to express that gratitude and make that life worthwhile, whether through writing, speaking, or teaching. Her goal, she said, is to help people be “the best we can be.”
Dr. Ladin will discuss her personal journey at virtual Selichot services at 9:15 p.m. on September 12, sponsored by Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom. Her presentation, “Extreme Teshuvah: Gender Transition as Spiritual Renovation and Model for Our Own Journey,” will follow a communal Havdalah.
Dr. Ladin received her Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2000, her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1995, and her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College in 1982. In 2007, Dr. Ladin received tenure at Yeshiva University. “I was hired years before I started the transition,” she said. But when she announced her intentions, “I was placed on involuntary research leave.
“It was heartbreaking. I loved my students.”
While “I hung on by my fingernails,” she also acknowledged that it was common in those days for an institution to “freak out” in the face of such a situation. With the help of an attorney and a barrage of student letters expressing outrage, calling her treatment “a betrayal of Jewish values,” she was reinstated in 2008.
Dr. Ladin, who holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, is the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution. She has also taught at Cardozo Law School and has a weekly show through JewishLive.org called “Containing Multitudes,” in which she engages guests in conversations about identity, religion, and literature. Recordings of episodes can be found at JewishLive.org/multitudes, and new episodes are recorded live on Tuesdays at 2 p.m. Dr. Ladin also has written a memoir, as well as six books of poetry.
On Selichot, “I will talk about what I learned from the process of gender transition,” like teshuvah, “an example of completely reassessing your life, of facing up to what you’ve tried to avoid and who you really are, and reckoning with the way your life is bound up with other people’s lives and bringing that into balance.” This is far from theoretical for Professor Ladin. Before her transition, she was married. She has three children.
“I wrote a whole book about it,” she said of that chapter in her life. Her 2012 work, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders,” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards. Calling the experience “a terrible thing to have to do,” she said that one of the most profound things she learned was that while Moses, in Deuteronomy, gives the people a choice between life and death, this is not a no-brainer. “It’s not simple. Something can be complicated and hard but still necessary.”
Dr. Ladin said that the 12-Step program for addiction recovery tells you to “act like the person you wish you were, in order to become that person.” That involves asking yourself questions like “Who am I really? Who would I be if I were really true to myself?” In her own life, she said, even when she was a young child she realized that she never got to live as the person she wanted to be. “I had no idea who I was. I was afraid of rejection, so I hid. There are different consequences to different paths. I felt that I was always lying and hiding.” When you do that, “you don’t know if people really love you. You develop what therapists call attachment problems. It’s how I grew up.”
Dr. Ladin came out to his fiancée when they were sophomores. The fiancée still wanted to get married, as long as her spouse looked and acted like a man. Thinking that such a plan was “revolutionary,” Dr. Ladin didn’t realize until her mid-40s that this actually was a form of abuse. “I thought it was a great deal,” she said, until she started falling apart.
During her Selichot talk, Dr. Ladin will give participants writing exercises, or prompts. “The writing you do will be a teshuvah process,” she said. “Some are right out of my own experience, like, how can you change your life? When did you feel most alive? What can you change to make you always feel alive?”
The program is open to the public and will take place virtually. For more information and to register, go to www.cbsteaneck.org.
Who: Dr. Joy Ladin
What: Talks about “Extreme Teshuvah: Gender Transition as Spiritual Renovation and Model For Our Own Journey”
Where: On Zoom, for Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.
When: On Saturday, September 12; Havdalah at 9 p.m; talk at 9:15; services at 11.
How: To register, go to .cbsteaneck.org