Peeking through the door

If you’re “friends” with me on goodreads, you’ll know that I’m tearing through a book that I learned about through the podcast “On Being”. The book is Joy Ladin’s “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders”.

To start with the podcast, which aired June 20, and the program was titled “Gender and the Syntax of Being: Joy Ladin on Identity and Transition”, where I started.

I listened to this interview, fascinated by the notion of someone living and working in the Orthodox Jewish world of Yeshiva University, and coming out as transgender. These ideas put two completely separate experiences of mine in an odd juxtaposition – my work with HIV-infected people, many of whom struggle with sexual identity, and some of whom have been transfer, and my life of the past 20+ years, of increasingly observant Judaism. I was so interested in what Ms Ladin had to say about the Torah (Bible) in relation to her transition and identity.

But, the other juxtaposition that made the listening, for me, even more pointed, was that, the very same day I listened to that interview, I also listened to the preceding week’s show “Sarah Kay’s Way with Words“. And the chord that struck me between the two interviews was that both of them were talking about the evolution of a woman’s sense of identity as a woman – Joy Ladin in terms of reinventing herself without a framework of experience (or cultural support), and Sarah Kay from the more traditional path that most of us women travel through adolescence. She talks of the lessons she learned from reading her early poems aloud at the Bowery Poetry Club,:

“one of the things I learned was that, as a girl, it was OK to be silly, which doesn’t sound like a terribly important lesson, but at the time, being a girl, for me, was a whole lot of pressure. There was a whole lot of things I thought I needed to do in order to be a girl, to be a successful girl.”

And, that struck me as so interesting in opposition to Joy Ladin’s description of learning how to do something as simple as how women talk:

“That’s a social part of gender. Among other things, gender is a way that we recognize one another and interpret one another. So those guides say, look, if you want to be interpreted as a woman, here are some things you want to do. And one of them was women speak with their hands much more than men do.

Obviously, all of this is culture specifics. So I thought, OK, speak with my hands. What do you do? Can we be more specific? So at a certain point, I would be talking at great length as I am now and I’d think, wait, I haven’t moved my hands and I would just sort of flutter them and then I’d forget about them again [laugh].”

In both interviews, there are many moments of laughter, which I love. Both women, all three really, since the host Krista Tippett is as much participating in the interviews as her guests, are getting at core issues about a woman’s identity in this time and this society.

And, my fascination with this book is leading me to so much greater understanding of my patients’ experience, for which I’m deeply grateful, and I’m also grateful to see how someone can struggle with the words of the Torah and see “modern” issues in the ancient text, and come out with a meaning that is consistent, and allows one to move forward.

It’s easy to say – transgender is unnatural.  It’s easy to find texts that say, “It’s forbidden.”  Isn’t that what the same-sex marriage question has been for so long?

It’s also relatively easy to throw out the rules, and say, anything goes!  All the old texts, and restrictions are human invention, so there’s no need to follow them as our cultural understanding of what is or isn’t “normal”.

The hard part is to say, Wait – I believe in the laws, and I believe in some notion of enduring Truth, and it’s up to me individually, and us collectively as a society to figure out how our modern understanding can co-exist with ancient codes and structures.  And, for that desire to engage in that struggle, I appreciate Ms. Ladin’s book immensely.

I haven’t finished it yet, and I have some other thoughts on it, so there may be a part 2, and even a part 3 to this post, but this has gotten long enough for now.

You can find the book here:

Through the Door of Life by Joy Ladin

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