Trailblazing Transgender Orthodox Jew Speaks At Williams College

Apr 4, 2018

Professor Joy Ladin finds herself at the intersection of two identities.

“Both trans and Jewish identity are constantly multiplying and taking new forms,” said Ladin.

Ladin is the author of 10 books, nine books of poetry, a mother of three, and has been the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University since 2003. After receiving tenure in 2007, Ladin came out as transgender to the college, which, unable to fire her, briefly barred her from campus. A chorus of support from students and a letter from Ladin’s lawyers led to her return in 2008. She is thought to be the first and only publicly transgender person employed by an Orthodox Jewish institution.

“Both in the LGBTQ world and in the traditional religious world, there’s a sense that trans identities like other LGBTQ identities are kind of inherently secular, because they’ve become visible and validated and represented first in secular cultures, and have been much less visible in traditional religious cultures,” Ladin said.

Ladin’s work explores the interactions and overlaps between trans and Jewish identity.

“Are we just a problem that has to be dealt with, or do our voices and perspectives enrich religious tradition?" asked Ladin. "Or do we just kinda come from outside and make things a little harder than it should be?”

Rabbi Seth Wax is the Jewish Chaplin of Williams College.

“She is [a] professor of English, and is really a cutting edge figure in Jewish life and writing, particularly speaking from a trans perspective, and is a really important voice in LGBTQ inclusion in [the] Jewish community,” said Wax.

Wax invited Ladin to speak at Williams.

“She spoke about the concept of a hyper minority, and how trans folks- like other people who are minorities- can feel a sense of being multiple levels of minority depending on the community you live in, and she saw that God feels a similar thing in the descriptions of God in the Hebrew bible. That God wants to be a in relationship with the Jewish people, with people in the world in general, but there’s a lot of difficulties around that. That people don’t necessary understand God, don’t know how to relate to God, and continually turn away from and disappoint God. And that feeling of aloneness that she saw- she read- God feeling in the bible is something she felt herself,” Wax said.

Molly Berenbaum is a Williams freshman from Denver who attended the talk.

“As someone who’s Jewish, I think it was really fascinating and very important to hear from someone in this position within our community who’s working to expand not just tolerance but acceptance and sort of open arms welcoming of LGBT and other people who don’t fit the mold in whatever way in the Jewish community and I think that’s important,” said Berenbaum.

“There’s a wonderful organization called Keshet based in Boston, New York, Colorado, and San Francisco that advocates for the full inclusion for LGBTQ individuals in the Jewish community. We have so much to learn from people who identify as LGBTQ, there’s so much richness that’s yet to be unpacked in the Jewish tradition and our religious lives, that losing people who identify in this way would be a real loss for the Jewish community and for our  collective understanding of God, of each other, and who we are,” said Wax.

“The fact that we can't, no matter how hard we try, do anything but be who we are, that is kind of a religious experience in and of itself," said Ladin. "When you come up against the parts of yourself that no matter how convenient or good it would be, you just can’t change. That’s really you. That’s the way you’re made. And if you’re a religious person, in the way that you were made, you see the hand of God."