I had the absolute joy of interviewing Ezra Furman, a friend and talented musician. I've known Ezra in some capacity for almost 5 years now, and the way we've gotten to talk about our Jewishness, and especially about tzitzit, has truly affected how I think about my position in the world. Listen to us discuss Ezra's first interactions with tallitot, her role as a queer Jew in rock and roll, femme tzitzit, and more. Check out her music on Bandcamp and Spotify, it's brilliant stuff.
Some definitions from our conversation:
Reconstructionist Judaism- One practice/tradition of Judaism, impossible to capture in a sentence. Further exploration of it found here.
With any questions or comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are Jewish prayer shawls and tzitzit are the knotted fringe at the bottom of them. For deeper definitions, check out the first episode. In today’s episode, I got to interview a friend of mine, someone who has inspired me and how I think about art and Judaism. She’s so very thoughtful and wonderful. Here is Ezra Furman.
Ezra Furman: My name is Ezra Furman. Pronouns are she/her and they/them. And I guess that’s it. I mean, you can ask things about me. I’m a queer Jew who writes songs and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Emma June: Amazing. I think that’s good. It’s a great-
Ezra Furman: All true. 100% true.
Emma June: All true. This isn’t two truths and a lie.
Ezra Furman: There might be a lie in here somewhere.
Emma June: Well, I guess I would love to start by hearing what your first memories and recollections of tallitot and tzitzit are.
Ezra Furman: Yeah. Well, surely in some prayer setting, which either… It would be one of two things. It would be at my parents… The synagogue we went to when I was a kid, which was Jewish Reconstructionist congregation in Evanston, Illinois. JRC. And I guess probably that’s the first time I saw them, but I might not have noticed them until I went to school starting in kindergarten at Solomon Schecter Day School in Skokie, Illinois. A private Jewish school where we prayed together every morning. And the adults were wearing tallit for sure. That’s a school in the Conservative Jewish movement.
I’m trying to think if I have a more memorable memory-memory. They were just around, and I knew it was my destiny to wear them when I was eventually bar mitzvahed. I would get-
Emma June: Was that the first time you wore one?
Ezra Furman: It was the first time I wore one. Yes. On my bar mitzvah day. And yeah, I got one… Yes. My parents got me one and I don’t know. I guess I was glad to get it. Sort of. It just was like business as usual. It was just like, “Yeah, this is what you do. I’m on board.” It didn’t mean… I think maybe the bar mitzvah, I kind of thought… It was at that Reconstructionist shul, JRC, and I kind of took it seriously that I’m gonna be an adult in the community now. That’s what I was told, and I was like, “I guess this means that I… I don’t know. Maybe I’ll serve on the board. Maybe they’ll ask me my opinion about services.”
And I think I was a little out of proportion, but it was this feeling of like I could feel it when I put on the tallit. Like, “Oh, this gives me a status. This gives me… I’ve gone through a milestone.” And I did feel the like, “I can be taken seriously, more seriously in this setting now.”
Emma June: Yeah. And-
Ezra Furman: And thinking about that really makes me… It really highlights… It’s just in itself a reason for egalitarian use of tallitot. Like it-
Emma June: What do you mean?
Ezra Furman: Well, just because like if I felt that, that means that in communities where women don’t wear tallit, they don’t feel that. I mean, they… Surely, they feel it in other ways, for other roles and things that they age into, but not in that way, and it might… You can deny that it has an elevated… It elevates men against women. You can say that, but I think you can feel that somebody who wears a tallit feels this special… It’s like a royal garb in a way, you know? Felt that way to me when I turned 13. That’s all I know.
Emma June: And do you wear one now?
Ezra Furman: I do when I… Yeah. When I pray. Which is when I pray in the morning, which is not every day, but definitely every… multiple times a week.
Emma June: Does it still make you feel royal?
Ezra Furman: No. I think that royal… I think that feeling was like everyone was looking at me wearing it, and I was told it meant something communally, and I think the bar mitzvah in general made me feel that way. And then, you know, less than a month later I understood that like oh, there’s no change in anything. Nothing’s different after I had my bar mitzvah at synagogue. I’m still a kid and those are adults.
I think when I wear it now, I feel like a bit of protection feeling. Actually, it’s like not even protection. It’s that feeling when you wrap yourself up in a blanket to watch a movie on the couch or something. It’s like it holds me in this specific setting, you know what I mean? Like to me, if I wrap myself in a blanket and watch a movie, the blanket is part of the scene. It’s part of the genre of thing that I’m doing. And so, it holds… It makes the experience more itself. And so, same thing, like when I’m praying with a tallit, it makes the prayer experience like that’s definitely what’s happening. I’m less likely to forget the mood and the associations I have with it, which is like prayerful, and concentrating, and open, and connective.
Emma June: That’s really the point of the tzitzit and the tallis, like in terms of the mitzvah of wearing it. So-
Ezra Furman: Yeah. How do you… What do you mean, the point?
Emma June: Well, I guess in my understanding, wearing tzitzit is like a reminder of your commitment to G-d and commitment to feel mitzvot, or to fulfill mitzvot, and I think that’s something you’re doing when you’re praying and when you’re praying every morning. And so, for it to feel like a-
Ezra Furman: Right, it reminds you what you’re doing while you’re doing it. I will say, like that is… I feel like that’s the tallit gadol does that. I think the tallit katan is extra special and I haven’t worn it much lately. But the tallit katan that you wear all the time… That seems more connected to the reminder function, because it’s always… It’s with you all day.
Emma June: Right.
Ezra Furman: And I… Just talking about it is making me want to wear it more often. There have been times I’ve worn it every day. I don’t wear it so much and I think it does have something to do with gender, me not wearing it lately.
Emma June: What? Yeah, what do you mean by that?
Ezra Furman: Well, every year I think I’m more secure in my femininity, and more… Just it’s a slow build of more and more always looking feminine. I mean, it’s been a while now that I always look at least a little fem, but yeah, and it’s like I feel better and better as I go on and look more feminine, and the tzitzit is like… It is a… I guess it’s become to me, it feels like a reference to not only my Judaism, but unfortunately to Orthodox Judaism. Not that I’m… I’m not trying to knock Orthodox Judaism in particular, but I don’t think it should only have that association. But for me, it does. That was just… I never saw people wearing tallit katan, I don’t think, except people who were Orthodox, until much more recently in life.
And to be reminded all day of Orthodox Judaism… and that’s a kind of Judaism that rejects queerness usually in different degrees for different people who call themselves Orthodox. But yeah, it’s just a… You can imagine how it might be a bit of a drag to always have that reminder on your body of one sect. One sect that is often hostile to queerness. So, it’s a complicated thing for me. I mean, because… and I wish it wasn’t a reminder of those kind of rejections, and I wish I had more association with fem people wearing tallit katan. And I know some people. I know some fems who wear tallit katan, for sure. But not that many. It’s more rare.
Emma June: It’s definitely more rare
Ezra Furman: And it’s difficult, because I… Tallit katan and in a way, like you said, the tzitzit thing in general is kind of the perfect example of one of my very, very favorite things about Judaism, which is being reminded all day of G-d, and honoring G-d, and how it’s not a thing where you go… At least for me, the way I do Judaism, and I think… Yeah, the way I do Judaism, it’s a thing you go into a house of prayer for and then that’s where you leave it. It’s like on every door post I say blessings before I drink a cup of water, before I eat anything, and after, and every time I go to the bathroom. There’s just lots of references to G-d, to the infinite, transcendent power, and I love it. I love that it’s in my mundane life. Because I think that’s where those reminders ought to be. I want to remember the big picture all day long.
So, philosophically, I would be the perfect person to want to be wearing tallit katan. But it is a little bit rough with some of its… It does have some negative associations to me.
Emma June: What has pushed you to wear it when you do? Because you mentioned, like sometimes you wear it and I feel like I’ve seen you in a tallit katan a few times.
Ezra Furman: Oh yeah, for sure. Yeah. Yeah. And I do still wear it sometimes. Hang on. Yes. I don’t know. I think… Well, the first thing that pushed me to wear it is I started… I first wore it when I was a teenager. I was maybe 15 and I decided, “I’m gonna try to be observant of all of Orthodox Judaism.” And yeah, I went to Reconstructionist shul, and like this was not something anyone else in my family, hardly anyone I knew was doing. So, yeah, I wanted to wear tallit katan and I did, and I’m interested in Jewish observance that pushes against what I would do if I wasn’t, if I didn’t think of them as kind of commandments.
I feel that’s part of the value of Jewish observance, is like it makes you do things that you wouldn’t do. And not only that, it pushes against who you already are a bit, and that is kind of one thing that matters to me about it. I want to be pushed out of my default mode. It has a lot of… It’s got that in common with my gender awakening, I think, because my default mode was to seem cis gendered and do what made other people feel comfortable, and do what didn’t make… You know, that felt the easiest thing to do. And I slowly learned that I had to do things that were not the easiest thing, or it was corroding my soul to take the path of least resistance.
Yeah, I think my default self is just like… My default mode is not good for me.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I guess I’m curious then how you… I guess I’m hearing you kind of connect some of these feelings of ways that you push yourself to be Jewish and to be trans. Like kind of it sounds to me like bring forward your best self or what feels like creating in that direction? I don’t know if I’m interpreting you correctly.
Ezra Furman: I don’t know about… Yeah. Yeah, best self, or… Yeah, I guess best self. That’s a fine way to put it. Yeah.
Emma June: Well, I guess then I wonder how you being trans and the ways that you’re choosing your femininity connect to wearing a tallis or a tallit katan for you. If at all.
Ezra Furman: There’s something about… Well, what I wish was different about wearing tallit is that it has masculine associations, and those… I’d like it to have fewer. I’d like it to be more gender neutral or in some ways associated with femininity than it is in my mind. I know it can be, and I love seeing women and feminine people wearing tzitzit, because it helps that shift for me. But it does… has a bit of a masculine push to wear these things. So, in a… I don’t know. In a way, it’s kind of… Well, listen. I mean, one factor to why I felt it really necessary to begin dressing feminine is that when you’re dressed a certain way, you can’t just hide it.
And one thing in my life that my Judaism and my transness have in common, and my queerness, is that they’re hideable. And if I meet someone who I know is not cool with either one of those things, I can completely hide them. I can turn them off. And in one way that’s a luxury, and in another way it’s something I just had to learn to not do anymore. And so, one thing I really have valued about dressing and looking feminine is that I can’t just hide whenever it’s convenient. I just am wearing what I’m wearing.
And I think it’s true about tallit katans also. I mean, you can hide. You can tuck those in. But… I mean, they’re still there. And if you do let them hang out, then it’s like you’re really being visible in a way that you can’t just back out of.
Emma June: Yeah. It’s a show of kind of unapolageticness.
Ezra Furman: Well, it’s… Yeah. It’s a commitment.
Emma June: Or confidence. Yeah.
Ezra Furman: It doesn’t let you assimilate at every convenient moment.
Emma June: Yeah. I know you’ve been having a lot of thoughts and feelings, especially around assimilation.
Ezra Furman: Oh yeah.
Emma June: As a Jew, as a trans person.
Ezra Furman: Yeah, yeah.
Emma June: I’m curious if you’re starting to touch on it, if there’s something particular about a tallis and assimilation, queerness, that’s on your brain?
Ezra Furman: Yeah, well, it’s… Tallis is one of the most obvious signals of Judaism and to wear on is to be identified by most onlookers. Yes. We have been talking about, we’ve had some conversations about this. I’m feeling very anti-assimilationist lately. And also, anti-separatist. By which I mean I think people with these invisible identities, such as Jewishness and queerness, should be really out there with it all. And to me, I think that is the best… It’s the best thing for us, it’s the best thing to have a sort of message. These groups, we have something to teach to humanity at large I think. And I think we just have to get it out there and not always translate it so much, actually.
The not translating is really important. Like don’t say like, “Oh. Well, this thing is our version of the thing that you do.” Just like… Just talk the way we talk to each other and let that talk be heard and in the world as itself. I think… Yeah. Talk in our own voice, in our own accents, and I also think… Yeah, then the anti-separatist part of it is like I don’t think we should… You know, we can have a retreat for a weekend, but I think we should live in the world and impact it, and be impacted by it, and keep our accents, and keep our weird names, and wear the weird stuff we wear.
Emma June: Yeah. One thing that I really… Oh, how do I want to phrase this question? Well, like one thing that I have seen you do that I have taken as a public display of certainly Jewishness, and femininity, and queerness, and all of these things, is performing and performing in tzitzit or performing in a kippah or both, and like in a dress, and like raging. I mean, I guess like I wonder what it means to you to perform on stage as a queer Jew in all of that, and in the garb that makes that visible to your audience full of people you don’t know?
Ezra Furman: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I like to. That frontier is a place where my queerness is way out ahead of my Jewishness. The visibility of my queerness is… I’ve made that obvious part of who I am in public. And my… And then I’ll talk about my Jewishness sometimes in interviews, sometimes… Yeah, sometimes I wear tzitzits hanging out of a skirt or something. Sometimes I wear a kippah. A kippah often falls off when performing, because I tend to thrash around a bit, you know? So, it’s… It can get askew. I would actually kind of like to use that effect more. Someone with an askew kippah could just be like… could become a new symbol of rock and roll abandon.
But yeah, so that’s something I notice. Why is it… I don’t know if it’s been harder to push forward my visible Jewishness, but like it… Maybe it feels like there’s more of an existing tradition of visible queerness in secular music than there is visible Jewishness. I’m not… There’s also something about being Jewish has an association of like not coolness, which-
Emma June: Yeah.
Ezra Furman: And a jokey… Like it’s a joke in Hollywood movies if a Jew in a black hat or tallit shows up in a movie. Sometimes that’s just the punchline is there’s a person who looks Jewish here. And then he talks in an Ashkenazi accent. It’s hilarious by itself. Which really just pisses me off. But yeah, it’s because we’re deep in Galut, you know? We’re in exile. We have been outsiders in other people’s countries so, so much, that we internalize their disgust and ridicule into… Yeah. We turn it into like a, “Hey, isn’t this… Maybe we can have fun with it.” But it’s like it is an embarrassment. We have this built-in shame about our beautiful culture. And we don’t think of ourselves as beautiful, or sexy-
Emma June: Or rock and roll.
Ezra Furman: Yeah. Cool. Whatever. And it’s because nobody… I don’t know. Nobody does. Nobody has… I mean, it’s also, there’s more to say about that. Like rock and roll pushes often in a not religious, pious direction. It’s impious and irreverent, and religion is pious and reverent, so that’s a thing too.
But it matters so much sometimes to… I mean, people see me being visibly Jewish on stage and they’re like, “Yo, that matters. Nobody does that. That makes me feel at home to see you and looking like that and treating that as something to not apologize for.” That dynamic is also really big for looking queer on stage. I mean, that’s like… It’s shaped who even comes to my shows and it’s like part of what my work means to people when it does mean something to people. It usually… My fierce and not apologized for queerness is a part of that content of the work and impact of it.
Yeah. I think it’s worth recounting that we met each other… I believe we met each other first time in person was at that show in Cambridge, a few days after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Emma June: It was. Yeah.
Ezra Furman: Yeah. Yeah. And all that week I was wearing tzitzit and wearing kippah and just… I don’t know. I mean, I think I tried to say something about it. I mean, I was just like in a state of such heartbreak that week, and trying to make it through lines like, “I don’t think all this showing up at synagogue a quarter past seven,” from my song Maraschino Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill, from the album Transangelic Exodus, available at your local online record whatever, for the low price of… et cetera.
Yeah, that was when… We talked after that show for a while.
Emma June: Yeah. I introduced myself to you. I mean, we had talked online some before, but I was in my own stupor following that shooting and like really didn’t know what to do with myself, and I think day of saw that you were performing and it wasn’t sold out, and knew that you were a queer Jew and was like-
Ezra Furman: It’s time.
Emma June: Well, I’ve always wanted to meet her, and today’s the day, and I went, and I went in my tzitzits and-
Ezra Furman: That’s right.
Emma June: And like I remember you saying something on stage along the lines of like, “This has happened. I know it has happened. I know what I’m wearing, and what I look like, and I need to say that I’m Jewish and I’m upset, but I really can’t speak to it.” And you were like, “Just know that every time I’m singing, that’s… and screaming, that’s me speaking to it.” And I think I remember just also then screaming and feeling like this is what I needed from the world. It felt like such a gift. And then, yeah, afterward we talked about both being in tzitzits and-
Ezra Furman: You gave me some… You gave me those Yiddish-
Emma June: And that feeling.
Ezra Furman: … iron-on patches. Or sew-on patches.
Emma June: Yeah.
Ezra Furman: Yo, but I don’t know, I really noticed that me being trans and me being Jewish can be publicly visible and I make them visible on purpose. And I feel like it is teaching me something about the… how minority communities can thrive. I’m trying to like discern some message in it about that. And that what I’ve discerned, I think, or started to discern is like just more visible is good. I don’t know. I mean, it’s always hard to argue that when it comes with the threat of violence, as it really does.
Emma June: It definitely does.
Ezra Furman: Yeah.
Emma June: I think… I mean, I don’t know, I guess I just think it’s always a personal choice, but it is a powerful one when you can make it and feel able to make it.
Ezra Furman: Yeah. But I do see a benefit of like speaking, not teaching people who don’t know about it, not explaining yourself, just being yourself without… with minimal explanation. And let that be what acclimates people to it.
Emma June: It makes a lot of sense to me. I think I feel-
Ezra Furman: Does that make sense?
Emma June: … pretty similarly. Yeah, at least in that I want… I think I want to bring people into my world, not to have to… Or sorry, not bring people into my world, but like have them become a part of my world because they stick around. Understand things because they try.
Ezra Furman: Glimpse your world. Yeah.
Emma June: If they don’t already know immediately. And not to make that actively hard for anybody, but just not to cater-
Ezra Furman: Yeah, but not spend your energy on like walking them through it.
Emma June: Right.
Ezra Furman: Yeah. Did you see that movie, Disclosure?
Emma June: I still haven’t. No.
Ezra Furman: That documentary? Oh, yeah. I mean, something I liked about that is I think it was all… The interviews were all with trans people and the filmmakers were all trans, and you could tell. You know, you could just tell in the interviews that they were… These were trans people talking to each other.
Emma June: Yeah.
Ezra Furman: Like just in the jokes they could make and the things they didn’t have to explain. Yeah. Good documentary. Recommend it to all listeners.
Emma June: Like another question I have and something I think I’ve talked to a bunch of the people I’ve interviewed before about is just like kind of trying to find… We’ve kind of talked here about how… I don’t know, like a tallis is traditionally masculine, and also in general thought of or created to exist on this binary that we don’t exist in, and like in order to wear a tallis, I think, or other ritual objects, I think sometimes we have to be creative about how we make ritual our own.
Ezra Furman: Yeah.
Emma June: Or there’s like an active struggle with ritual to feel included in it. At least some of the time. And I’m curious if there are ways that you’ve felt creative or kind of in charge of making the practice of wearing a tallis your own?
Ezra Furman: Well, I mean, I feel like I must point out that like in the Bible, there’s nothing in this commandment that suggests that it’s only a commandment for men. I don’t really understand how it became a men-only thing. I mean, I guess it’s… There must be a similar answer to a lot of things that are men only in Jewish practice. But like I guess I just say that to say that to me it seems wide open for all to claim, and to degender, because it just got gendered along the way and it doesn’t seem thematically… It doesn’t seem necessary at all for it to be gendered. Like even religiously. Although I’m no great scholar of halacha. I will admit that.
As for me, there’s just… I don’t know if I’ve been so creative with it, but I just enjoy the way it interacts with my non-masculine self. Like I just… It’s just fun to be like… I’m like wearing a short dress and the tzitzit are trailing out of it, or I’m wearing the tallit katan over my bra, and you know, when it’s something like this with… I’ve seen very little precedent for that kind of thing. Every little detail like that takes on a sort of power. It’s like this is such a tiny percent of the way… I don’t know, of the people wearing tzitzit, this is such a… No one’s doing it like this.
And that makes it feel like just the way that I wear it, it actually… I don’t know, it’s like dropping a little… I can’t think of the right metaphor. I was gonna say like food coloring into a cup of water and like the whole thing turns pink. It feels like it transforms the whole practice for me and how it resonates, and that demasculinizing of the mitzvah of tzitzit, which I think needs to happen, I can feel myself doing that. And even if it’s only for my own associations with it, I can feel the needle move.
That’s kind of cool. Really talking about this really makes me want to wear a tallit katan more often.
Emma June: It’s very cool.
Ezra Furman: Again. It’s like some things, you don’t want them to be dysphoria triggering, but you kind of should admit when they are, you know? Be kind to yourself. You can’t talk yourself out of dysphoria for a political reason. Yeah, and I’m actually at a point… I don’t know. I’m way delayed on actually doing something about this, but I really want to have some more femininity in my tzitzit life, and I think if I had like… Yeah, just I think if the four-cornered garment was more like kind of feminine, and maybe it could even be sort of a kind of like a bra or something with tzitzit on it, I would be so much more psyched to be fulfilling that mitzvah.
Emma June: Yeah.
Ezra Furman: It would be like, yeah, hiddur mitzvah really, for like in a really big, impactful way. Hiddur mitzvah meaning like making the mitzvah more beautiful-
Emma June: Right.
Ezra Furman: Which is a concept I guess in the Talmud…. Jewish practices.
Emma June: I know, I mean, there are so many… Not that you particularly want to wear it this way exactly, but I just had kind of the image of like Orville Peck’s mask.
Ezra Furman: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Emma June: Like the fringes from that, but like almost like a flapper bra, I guess, and then-
Ezra Furman: Oh yeah, yeah.
Emma June: But with the tzitzit on the corners of it.
Ezra Furman: Oh my God. It would be so dope.
Emma June: I don’t know, like why haven’t I seen anything like that? That’s ridiculous.
Ezra Furman: Yeah, there’s so many possibilities. Yeah, when you think of how fringes are used in fashion, it’s just like there’s so many possibilities.
Emma June: Where is my cowboy bra tallis katan?
Ezra Furman: Right? And it’s like you think it’s because like, “Oh. Well, the demand is so small. Who wears? What percentage of the population is interested in wearing this kind of thing?” But like if there was more of it, I bet so many people who have never worn any kind of… any tallit katan, would be like, “Oh, hell yeah. I’d love to adorn myself in that. It’s dope.” You know? And then we could just be doing what Chabad does, getting more people to observe mitzvahs. Just… You know. Some-
Emma June: Just with our aesthetic beauty.
Ezra Furman: … queer gorilla tactics.
Emma June: Yeah. I mean, it’s just a… I think it really… It’s like a… What is the phrase? Like, “If you build it, they will come.” If you make it, then people will see it and want it. But if it doesn’t seem like an option, then how could it be an option?
Ezra Furman: Right. Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah.
Ezra Furman: Let’s go into business together.
Emma June: Yes-
Ezra Furman: With a Chabad house rabbi.
Emma June: Oh, G-d. I don’t know if I can do that part.
Ezra Furman: Yeah, you might be right. That might not be a… We might not be birds of a feather.
Emma June: But I’ll open an Etsy shop.
Ezra Furman: All right. All right, do it then.
Emma June: Okay. I will. Watch me. I just have to learn how to sew.
Ezra Furman: Yeah. I definitely don’t know how to do that.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, these things seem possible. Very possible.
Ezra Furman: I’d be a loyal customer.
Emma June: Well, I think… I mean, that’s what I have in the way of questions for you, but do you have any I guess other lingering thoughts or things you wanted to make sure you said or shared that haven’t come up?
Ezra Furman: Well, I guess I like thinking about… I think we all walk around with like a cloud over our heads, and you can control what’s in that cloud. A cloud of… You know, this is like why I listen to music in the car on headphones. To walk around with something that makes my neutral life have… It’s a different content. I think that’s what… I think that’s the essence of the idea of the mitzvah of tzitzit. And you know, even if you’re not wearing tzitzit walking around all day, I just want to bless you, listener, whoever you are, that you’ll have a kind of a tzitzit-like thought, or mood, or intention in your heart as you walk through the world in these uncertain days. That’s my blessing to you, that maybe anything could be a tzitzits, and you know, it can be whatever you want it to be.
Emma June: Amen.
Ezra Furman: Amen. Thanks for talking with me on the podcast.
Emma June: Thanks for talking to me.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project sponsored by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of the episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/Episode10. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot com/E-P-I-S-O-D-E-1-0. As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in the world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at email@example.com. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. A huge thanks to Sarah Resnick, my producer, and to Home Despot, the incredible musician behind the music. And thank you for listening. This episode contains the last interview I have recorded. While episodes will no longer be regular, I will still be open to recording more and will release episodes on Fridays when available.
This project is so joyful. I’m really excited to see how it changes from here. Truly, thanks for all your support.
I had the honor of tying tzitzit for Adrian Marcos in the Sephardic tradition. Then I had the honor of getting to interview them. What a blessing! Adrian is a Mexican-Filipino American who just graduated from university with a degree in biology, English, and religious studies.
Some definitions from our conversation:
Top Surgery: Surgery performed on the chest as part of gender reassignment, especially to remove breast tissue and produce a "masculine" appearance of the chest.
Siddur: A Jewish prayer book
Aliyah: the honor of being called up to read from the Torah
Minhag: Jewish religious custom
With any questions or comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are Jewish prayer shawls and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the bottom of them. Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing someone who’s tzitzit I actually got to tie in my work at ADVAH. I reached out to see if they’d want to talk and here we are now. This is Adrian.
Adrian: Hi, I’m Adrian. Pronouns they/them/theirs, and I guess I’m gonna be interviewed today.
Emma June: Yay. Thank you so much for talking to me. I guess we’ll jump right in with kind of the first question I’ve been asking everyone, which is what are your first memories of tallitot? What are your first memories of tzitzit? Are they the same? Are they different? Kind of what does that bring up for you?
Adrian: So, my first memory with tallitot was probably during my first Yom Kippur, which was about a year ago. And that wasn’t like a religious thing or anything, like me putting it on wasn’t religious. It was just because I got cold. I was recovering from top surgery and I was dumb about a lot of things, so I’m just like, “Let me grab this and wrap up and be warm.” But I guess my official getting to wear a tallit for the first time was I think when I got the ones that you tied the tzitzit for, and yeah, that was more of an actual experience, because I got to say the brachot and put on… Like, knowing that I was putting it on to fulfill the mitzvah instead of just trying to stay warm during services.
Emma June: Yeah. Have you worn your new tallis to services?
Adrian: Yes. Yeah. There was a guy who’s like, “Oh, where’d you get that?” And I told him where I got it from. So…
Emma June: Wow.
Adrian: It’s fine.
Emma June: So, you’re talking about wearing a tallis to services and I guess I’m curious what it means for you to wear your tallit?
Adrian: It makes me feel more a part of the tribe, because I have something, like I have a tallit of my own instead of having to borrow one, or like look at the ones at the little gift shop we have at my synagogue, and be like, “One day I’ll be able to afford one of you.” It’s mine. I don’t know. It kind of feels like an affirmation of I am Jewish enough to wear this now kind of deal.
Emma June: Yeah.
Adrian: So, it definitely makes services a lot more personal for me, because it’s different when you’re bringing the Torah around. Like if you don’t have a tallit, you touch it with your siddur, and like it’s different kissing the spine of a siddur, compared to kissing the tzitzit.
Emma June: Yeah. Could you talk a little bit about what it feels like to kiss the tzitzit? Like why that’s special?
Adrian: It’s just there’s less distance, if that makes any sense. Like you know, siddur, siddurim are kind of big, so like there’s more distance between you and the Torah, where as like with the tzitzit, at least for me, what I do is like I’ll wrap it around my finger and then I’ll touch the covering for the Torah scroll, or if I’m like up for an Aliyah, then I’ll use that and touch where the yad is pointing and then I’ll get to kiss it and it’s like… It’s my item, or like an extension of me, rather than the siddur is like it’s a hard, kind of like not very flexible, at least the ones at my synagogue. They’re very hard and not very flexible. So, it’s like more rigid and everything.
Emma June: Yeah. That’s really beautiful. I’ve never thought about it that way before. Wow. Well, when I… So, part of how we got in touch is because you wanted your tzitzit tied with the Sephardic tying, and I was curious if you could talk a little bit about what that in particular means to you?
Adrian: So, I’m pretty sure it’s been like implied by this point, like I converted to Judaism, and the Minhag of my synagogue is like Ashkenaz, but I am half-Mexican, half-Filipino, so like I have more… I don’t really have ties to that area of Europe. I have the more… I’m more tied towards Spain, so I’ve been kind of looking into the customs of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, because like all the stuff within the Ashkenaz world doesn’t quite mesh with me.
So, having a tallit with the tzitzit tied in the Sephardic style just makes me feel more connected to my roots and allows me to connect more to the way that I practice.
Emma June: Totally. That’s really special.
Emma June: Wow. Yeah. I feel very touched by that and by the opportunity that you gave me, actually, because I’m part Sephardic and I had never tied them that way before. Well, I guess something I’m also curious about is like how you approach a tallis, like as a trans person, or how you identify with or don’t, or how you… Oh my gosh. I’m doing a bad job asking this question, but the question is really like how you approach choosing and wearing a tallis, like from the gender that you occupy.
Adrian: So, it’s taken a lot of self-reflection, and a constant reminder to stay off of Reddit, because… Like don’t get me wrong, r/Judaism is… It’s really cool. Tons of information there. But it’s like it has its bent, and as a Reform Jew, I’m just kind of like, “Okay. I should not come here for any Minhag answers.” So, like I’ve kind of approached wearing a tallit and I also… I just got like a tallit katan, which is like the shirt one. There’s a better way to describe that, but it’s the shirt one. And I’ve started to wear that on and off, and I approached it kind of like the same way I did when I started testosterone. It was like it wasn’t that I was trying to become a guy. It was like me trying to become more comfortable in my own body.
So, when I’m wearing a tallit or if I’m wearing a tallit katan, tzitzit, it’s not because I’m trying to present as a guy, or because like, “Oh, I think I’m a guy, therefore I have to do this mitzvah.” It’s… No, I’m a Jew, and I want to try out this mitzvah, because as a Reform Jew, you’re supposed to try out all of the commandments, all 613 of them, and then see which ones work and which ones don’t for you personally. So, maybe I’ll wear a tallit katan full time at some point, maybe I won’t, but this is helping me discover, inform how I practice my faith and everything.
Emma June: Right. Could you talk more about what it feel like to wear a tallit katan for you?
Adrian: Yeah, so yeah, I just started pretty recently, and I’ve gotten a lot of questions, because people will see the fringes and be like, “Oh, what’s that for?” But it’s also mainly from my family, because I live with my grandparents and they’re Catholic and I’m not, and it’s the first time… There’s like no Jews on my side of the city. I live on the older side of San Diego, so I’m pretty sure I’m the only Jew there.
But it’s like you’ve got the physical reminder that you’re wearing something. It’s more than wearing a kippah, because after a while, you kind of forget it’s up there until you go to do your hair. And then your hand gets caught on the clips and you’re like, “Ouch! Okay, that’s there.” With the tallit katan, it’s like for me, I have one that’s like a shirt, so you can wear it in place of an undershirt, so you feel it against you. And you kind of have to be more mindful about how you move, because a tzitzit could get caught, and then you’re like, “Oh!” That happened a few days ago and I was like, “All right, I gotta keep that in mind.”
But it’s also kind of like a weight. The fabric itself is super lightweight, but it’s like there’s enough of the garment there that you’re kind of reminded that it’s a presence around you, so like how G-d is… or like if there is a higher power, could be everywhere, but at the very least it’s kind of surrounding you, or at least observing, so you have that connection, if that makes any sense.
Emma June: Right. No, it does, and the commandment wants the tzitzit to be tied to something with four corners, and I feel like thinking of corners and being surrounded makes a lot of sense together. Totally. Yeah. Do you feel like there are… I guess I really think that it’s a really interesting place to exist, like at kind of this intersection of wanting to wear or own yourself in being Jewish and then kind of having to deal with a lot of ritual objects that are made for particular genders, or are supposed to look a certain way.
Emma June: On really binary genders. And that… I guess I feel like, oh my gosh, we have to be so creative to be able to make a tallis our own as trans Jews, and I guess I’m curious if there have been any moments in your life with your new tallis, or with your tallit katan, or whatever, where you’ve felt really like, “Oh, I’m figuring something out here. I’m doing something special.”
Adrian: It was definitely like the first time I put on the tallit katan, just because traditionally it is such a… It’s like a male-only thing. It’s kind of like me trying to figure out, “Well, why do I want to wear this?” And it’s not because, like I said, it’s not because I wanted to be a guy. It’s just because I wanted to explore the mitzvah and maybe explore the connection to G-d. Like I don’t… I personally don’t think that wanting to do a mitzvah has to be tied to gender, especially because like I’m not binary, so no gender, and if I want to do a mitzvah, I should be able to do a mitzvah. I shouldn’t have to have extra bits down there to do it. You know? I’m a Jew, regardless of what’s in my pants or what’s not in my pants. You know?
Emma June: Totally.
Adrian: So… Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah.
Adrian: There’s a part of me that has that imposter syndrome. I think it is because I did convert, where like I’ll look at my tallit katan and I’m like, “Am I really… Should I really be wearing this? Am I allowed to wear this? Should I be doing this?” And I’m like, “I’m not Jewish enough to do this,” type of deal. And then I have to stop myself and be like, “Yes, I am Jewish enough to do this, because I’m a Jew.”
Emma June: Yeah.
Adrian: I don’t need anyone else’s approval to do this. I just need my own approval.
Emma June: Right. And like if Jewish people can’t wear these things, who can?
Adrian: Yeah. Exactly.
Emma June: Totally. I’m really with you with that. I guess are there things that I haven’t asked you or that you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I have all of these thoughts about tallitot,” that we didn’t even touch on?
Adrian: I guess just how tallitot are advertised, you know, because I’ve been like… Up until I found ADVAH Designs website, I’d been looking at this website, like Ben’s Tallit Shop, and I’d look at it and I was like, “I’ll probably get a tallit from here.” And then it’s like boys, and men, and boys, and men, and I’m just like, “Or maybe not,” because I’m not a guy, but if you go looking for “women’s” tallit, or tallitot, they’re just like silk shawls, and I’m like, “But that’s not what I want either.” So, it was like trying to find a tallit that was gender affirming, and that’s what I found with ADVAH Designs, like it was colorful, but not like uber “girly” if that makes any sense.
Emma June: Yeah.
Adrian: It’s like I just kind of wish it wasn’t men’s tallit and women’s tallit/things that could pass off as just silk shawls type of deal, like tallit should… Like even women’s tallit should look awesome, you know?
Emma June: Hell yeah. It’s definitely something, like working with people who buy from ADVAH, a lot of people come in. We don’t label them in any gendered way, but people will be like, “Oh, which ones are your women’s tallit?” And we’re like, “There’s no such thing. Anyone can wear any of them.” And people get very flustered and they’re like, “But this one has purple in it, so it’s gotta be a woman’s tallis.”
Emma June: It’s pretty shocking how attached and ingrained all of that is.
Adrian: Yeah. That’s why I ended up getting the two that I did, because one looked like the trans flag almost and then the other one was like a darker… At least to my eyes, it looked like a darker, “more mature” version, so it was like I will get both. And they’re not… Wearing them, I’m like, “Oh, this doesn’t scream uber masculine, but it doesn’t scream uber feminine, either.” It’s just like one has a lighter color palette, so maybe I’m feeling a little lighter that day. Whereas the other one has a darker color palette and maybe I’m just really tired, but I still want to go to services, so I’ll wear that one.
Emma June: Yeah. And it’s interesting to me, at least, that like a way that you can express how you feel Jewishly is through this kind of clothing item, and how… Yeah, like I often feel that way about clothing with my gender, and it’s really cool to reframe it and think about it with Judaism, too.
Adrian: Yeah. We have a lot of the older people at my synagogue, they think I’m a guy, and like I haven’t corrected them, but they’re all older and everything, so again, I also present masculine, like I’ve got the butch haircut, I wear jeans and trainers, and my voice has finally cracked, so I don’t blame any of them for thinking that I’m a guy, but getting to wear a more neutral looking tallit kind of adds to the androgyny, so it kind of like helps me balance out. It’s like, “Oh yeah, they’re gonna call me he today,” and I’m about 95% okay with that, but I know that I’m not a he, and here’s my tallit to show the world that I’m not 100% a he today.
Emma June: Yeah. That’s really awesome. I’m smiling. You can’t see. That’s really awesome. Is there anything else still on your mind?
Adrian: Do you wear a tallit?
Emma June: I do sometimes. I wear the one I got at my bat mitzvah to services sometimes, but I don’t feel super connected to it, and I wear a tallit katan occasionally, as well. I think I wore it more a few years ago, and I’ve been feeling like, “I don’t know how to wear this.” I don’t know. Yeah, I think I’ve been feeling a lot of confusion about what I’m wearing and when, and I think about it a lot, because I work with tallitot.
Emma June: And I guess part of the thing happening with this podcast and this project is about me not having a lot of answers and feeling like nobody talks about it, and just wanting to know, like what other people are doing and how they connect to a tallis and how they get creative and get out there. It’s been really amazing to hear a lot of people talk, and definitely to hear you share, because I think people… I think that our trans Jews are really creative and also really confused, and curious, and unsure, and that’s also kind of heartening, even though it’s hard.
Adrian: Yeah. It’s like you mentioned, like no one really talk about, is like when I was looking, I just… I wanted to see if there were other non-binary people out there, like other non-binary Jews who wore a tallit katan. I was like, “I cannot be the only one who wears one.” And I found… It was like a handful. Not even a handful. It was like less than a handful of blogs on Tumblr, and I threw the question at one of them. I was like, “So, how did you come to the decision to do this? You do wear one.” And they’re like, “Yeah, I do. I just haven’t lately because I have cats and they seem to think my tzitzit are toys.” And I was like, “That’s fair.”
But yeah, just knowing that there are other non-binary Jews out there, like that makes me feel a lot better. It makes me feel a lot less awkward about wearing one, you know?
Emma June: Definitely. Definitely. Yeah. And it’s… It can be scary, too, like it really marks you in the public eye if they’re not tucked in.
Adrian: Oh yeah. And it’s like the area, so where I go to school, there’s an Orthodox synagogue like right down the road, like probably… I won’t say like a 10-minute walk. Maybe like a 10-minute run from my main campus, and I’ve driven past it, and I’ve seen people wearing tzitzit, but they’re all men. They’re all guys. So, that, it’s just there’s no representation, if you know, like no one who’s AFAB, or looks fem, feminine, or anything like that. It’s just it’s all Orthodox guys wearing their tzitzit. I’m just like, “I’m a Reform Jew and I want to do this representation, please. Someone?” You know?
Emma June: Yeah. It’s definitely, like where I live, I live in Boston, and there are a number of… I know a handful of queer Jews who will wear tzitzit, and it sounds really, really brave of you to be doing that without knowing other people doing it. Truly. And really self-aware and awesome. Because I think I tried it because I saw somebody I knew doing it and then I said to myself, “Oh my G-d, you can do that?”
Emma June: What? I never thought of that! But-
Adrian: There’s… Sorry, you go.
Emma June: No, no, no.
Adrian: There’s this… It was a post that I saw on Reddit and it was like it was about a girl who had posted about wearing a tallit katan, and I thought it was cool. She’s like, “You know, I have every right to wear this.” And all of the comments, at least on the Reddit post, were just negative about it and I was like, “Oh. Okay.” It’s like it was before I finally decided to bite the bullet and buy a tallit katan for myself. It was definitely a gut punch. It’s like, “Oh, this AFAB person is being kicked to pieces.” And then I’m like… It took me a few weeks to be like, “But it’s Reddit. Like… It’s Reddit.”
Emma June: Yeah. It is. And it’s still like an attitude that exists in certain parts of the Jewish world.
Emma June: Even if it sucks that it does. Yeah. Wow. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of that.
Adrian: No problem. I’m happy to ramble.
Emma June: Me too. I really love hearing people ramble, so I really appreciate it.
Adrian: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to just talk about it.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project sponsored by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of the episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode9. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-9. As always, the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in the world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at email@example.com. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. Thanks to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, talented musician behind our intro. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
This week I have the pleasure of featuring my friend, Liel Green. They interviewed me in the third episode and I'm so glad you get to hear some of their personal thoughts, too. Their thesis project "Anticipatory Illuminations:" The Performance of the Jewish Sabbath as Queer Futurity is about the badass world-building power that queers have to transform the present and mess with time through the ways they love, feel, and live & how Shabbos and diaspora are part of that magic! Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy~~ they would love to share&dream&scheme with you!
Some definitions from our conversation:
Bimah: the elevated platform in a synagogue or sanctuary where Torah is read and services are led from.
JRFREJ: Jews for Racial and Economic Justice has pursued racial and economic justice in New York City by advancing systemic changes that result in concrete improvements in people’s everyday lives.
Frum: religiously devoted, living life by following Halakha.
Binder: a compression vest or shirt worn to flatten the chest, often worn by trans men and trans masculine people (but also people of many other identifications) in order to reduce body dysphoria.
Olam Ha'ba: the world to come, post-Messianic world
The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions: novel by Larry Mitchell
Tourmaline: Black trans artist, activist, and filmmaker known especially for her work highlighting and honoring Marsha P. Johnson.
Hiddur Mitzvah: the mitzvah of making Judaica and Jewish practice aesthetically appealing.
Etrog: yellow citrus fruit used to celebrate Sukkot, often very expensive.
Shokeling: in Yiddish, to shake, a style of swaying and moving whilst praying.
José Esteban Muñoz: queer theorist, famous for his books Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics and Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity.
With any questions or comments, email me at email@example.com
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are Jewish prayer shawls and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the end of them. For deeper definitions, check out the first episode. A small warning, this episode joyously uses a slur for gay men, and this episode features my longtime friend Liel Green, who will introduce themself.
Liel Green: Yeah, so my name is Liel. I use they/them pronouns. I’m currently based in Northampton, Massachusetts. Yeah, and I’m currently working on a project that I’m feeling very excited about with queer and Jewish futurity, so building queer Jewish futures, and what are mechanisms in queerness and in Jewishness that help us imagine futures that kind of say that queers and Jews and the intersection between the two where people of and for the future. Yeah, and then I think a lot of that is gonna be connected to what I’m gonna say today on this podcast. Yeah. And anything else about myself? I really like wearing glitter on Shabbos. Yeah. Those things feel all very connected.
Emma June: Awesome. Can I ask quickly, is your project an academic project?
Liel Green: Yes, yes. Well, it’s an academic project that I’m really excited about making less academic, and about kind of opening it up to be more than just that, so stay tuned for that.
Emma June: Great. We will with great excitement. Okay. Well, as with most people, I think an approach that I really like to take is to just kind of begin at the beginning and remember back to what your first memories are of tallitot and tzitzit, like where you saw them, how you felt about them, what you learned about them.
Liel Green: Yeah. I think definitely the first person that I have a memory of specifically wearing a tallit is my mom. She’s a cantor, and so just at services or ritual events, I think she was the person wearing the tallit, and so yeah, definitely kind of have very warm and fuzzy memories of kind of running around and hiding, me and my twin kind of like hiding underneath her tallit while she’s kind of like on the bimah, which was a little enclosure. This may be a little embarrassing for her, but yeah, and I think my dad. My dad sometimes wore one, too, so we would be kind of like more in the pews, and kind of just like playing around with it, and we’d try it on and stuff. But yeah, definitely my mom.
Emma June: Whoa. Can I ask what setting your mom was a cantor in? Like did a lot of people and a lot of women wear tallitot? Or was she kind of alone on the bimah?
Liel Green: Yeah. I’d say that she was… I think she was probably pretty alone in that at the congregation where she worked when I was growing up. It was a Reform congregation, so I don’t think that many people, in fact, maybe some men who grew up more traditionally or just knew that that was a thing that they were supposed to do in like a compulsory sense, were doing that. Yeah.
But yeah, I think I had a pretty mishmash religious growing up experience, so my mom was a Reform cantor, and so I kind of… When I was younger, like when I was in middle school and high school already, I kind of stopped going to that specific… To like the shuls that she worked at more frequently, but so grew up in Reform congregation, and then I went to a conservative Jewish day school, and then in high school I was briefly part of an Orthodox youth group, and then joined the Jews For Racial & Economic Justice Youth Brigade, and then was kind of introduced to the circles and community that I’m more comfortable and a part of now.
So, definitely different… You see different people wearing tzitzits and a tallit in each different sphere. But definitely seeing my mom on the bimah… Yeah, I think it was more symbolic, or I think for her it’s like part of her practice, but it wasn’t necessarily a norm for all the women to be wearing it.
Emma June: Yeah. Do you wear a tallis or do you wear tzitzit?
Liel Green: Yeah, I do, and I think… I think it definitely varies for me how often or when and it really depends on where I’m at. You know, which physical location I am in. Yeah. I think there’s days where it has definitely fluctuated. I think usually when I daven, I always wear a tallit. And yeah, in my brain I’m also kind of going back and forth between tallit and tallis, and them having… I feel like I’m pausing before I’m saying those words. My mom says tallit, so I think I grew up with like the Hebrew, and then kind of when I got involved in more from circles a bit, and which in some ways is actually the way that I feel most comfortable davening, kind of switched to tallis, and then… Yeah, so I think I’m just going back and forth in my head a bit, but it’s all true, and all different, and not a thing.
Yeah, so I think whenever I daven, I do wear a tallis, and in terms of tzitzits, I… Yeah. I think it kind of depends on how brave I’m feeling or where I am, or I don’t know. Yeah, I think it depends on a lot, but there have been points where I’ve worn them every day, and there have been points where I don’t wear it, where I kind of employ them as something special for myself. Or if I know I’m gonna be around other people wearing it, and it feels kind of safe or also kind of like… I don’t know. More of a communal thing. It feels good to wear things with other people. I kind of love having matching outfits and that’s…
Emma June: Yeah. Can you talk some about what makes them feel special for you?
Liel Green: Yeah. Yeah. I think when I wore my first pair of tzitzits, it was before I started wearing a binder, before I really started thinking more significantly about transness. Yeah, and for me, like wearing tzitzits was like my first binder, and I feel like that’s kind of like a common thread that I’ve heard of that or have read amongst queer Jews, specifically transmasc Jews. But I think it works for a lot of different people in different ways and is a fun way to play with gender. Yeah. I think that yeah, I put it on and it really… I think it’s a significant that it goes over the chest, and that it definitely brought up a lot, or definitely I looked at myself in the mirror and was like, “Whoa, this is how I want to look.” Or I felt really… I feel like I felt really cool, or I was just like, “Yes, this feels really good.”
The same way that I feel like when I was in kindergarten, I had this like black sweater from the boy section with like a white star on it, and I remember just wearing that, and I had this cute pair of sunglasses, and I’d put on those specific items of clothing and just like feel really cool. And I feel like it kind of brought up the same… I don’t know. I feel like there was a moment of emergence. I feel like there’s… I like to think about different items of clothing or just like different experiences as like portals, and I think that wearing tzitzits or wearing like a tallis is definitely like a portal moment. Moments of emergence, of transformation.
And I’m not sure, I think the initial time I wore it, like wearing it for the first time, I don’t really know if I was super aware of what that portal was or what emergence was happening, but it definitely felt significant. Yeah, and then I got a binder for the first time and then wore my binder with the tzitzits. That was kind of like the immediate step, that you know, after trying the binder for the first time, you’re like, “Oh my God.” It was wild. Yeah.
Yeah, and then put the tzitzits on top of it and I was like… It felt extra affirming, or… Yeah. I still think it feels extra affirming wearing both, because I think it’s ritual. Yeah, and what ritual does is I think ritual transforms, or like ritual kind of performs the world that you want, the experience that you want, you’re like actively creating for me, like you’re actively creating your like your Olam Ha’ba, your world to come, or just like the future world that you desire in ritual, and I think that’s like for me, like thinking about portals, thinking about transformation, thinking about all that, are very connected.
Emma June: Right. And they come together in this. On this one object. Yeah. Well, I think it’s really amazing and inspiring to me the way that you let clothes matter instead of pushing them aside as kind of like a frivolous thing, and I think that kind of a tallis or a tallit katan as an object is one way of Judaism affirming the value of clothing, and of layers, and-
Liel Green: Yeah. Layers.
Emma June: … and accessories in certain ways. And I’m curious if you could talk about how maybe those things relate to being trans? If that question makes sense.
Liel Green: Totally. Actually, I just got up to grab a book. It’s called Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, and I’m just looking for a quote from it that I feel like I would really like to read if that’s okay.
Emma June: For sure.
Liel Green: Just one second. Yeah, so it’s this book that’s called The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, and it’s like this kind of fantasy story with really gorgeous illustrations that’s about how the faggots and their community, so like the faggots, and the fairies, and the women who love women, and the queens all basically, you know, are like… lead a revolution against the men, who kind of represent everyone in power, everything in power, everything that is an oppressor. And so, it’s kind of about this coalition of the oppressed revolting against the oppressors, but they’re doing this in a really beautiful way that’s about building chosen family, and strong community, and feeling a lot of pleasure, and having a lot of sex, and just like really tapping into all that is pleasure and all that is love, and what can kind of come out of that when you do let yourself feel desire and be vulnerable with other people.
And that was written by Larry Mitchell in the 1970s, I believe. Yeah, 1977. And then there’s a recent edition that was released in July of 2019, so super recent, that has a preface by Tourmaline. Yeah. And so, there’s a quote from Tourmaline’s introduction that’s responding to… So, the initial quote that Tourmaline is responding to is a quote that says, “The queens display infinite weirdness to the world. For them, style is the path into the unique self, and so to transcendence. They long for everyone to reveal themselves wherever they are.” And then Tourmaline writes, “It took me a long time to come back to the power and logic of image, art, fashion, aesthetics, and not least of all, glamour. The faggots helped me find my way back. The faggots reminded me that superficiality, style, messiness, and play are not bad things. They’re transformative ways of being. Our glamour is not superfluous to changing the current order. It is instrumental.”
So, those are not exactly my words to answer your question, but they’re definitely how I feel.
Emma June: Are there ways that you feel like you’ve found to feel glamourous through tzitzit?
Liel Green: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. I think it definitely… Yeah, and it’s this kind of really deep glamour. I think about the idea of hiddur mitzvah, which is… It’s making a mitzvah even holier, even more beautiful for your aesthetic, I think is the more… most basic explanation. How I, I think, understand it, and I think that that idea can manifest, can also be super classist, or can kind of… You know how like Judaica is super expensive.
Emma June: Yeah.
Liel Green: Or you know, you’re always looking for the nicest thing, or like the nicest etrog. And a lot of that, that leads to just like those who have more money can afford the nicer things, which means that they’re like performing the mitzvah in a holier way, and I think that there’s been really awesome queer interpretations of hiddur mitzvah to kind of just be like… to kind of move it away from that idea and kind of say like what are we… How are we superfluous and how is that divine? How are we extra? How are we glamorous? And how is that holy? And so, I think that… Yeah, that definitely feels a bit glamorous, wearing a tallis or tzitzits. And I think that that glamorous is euphoria. I don’t think it has to look a specific way. I think it’s like… You know, people talk about gender euphoria, and I think it’s gender euphoria, and I think there’s just an added layer of also like I’m euphoric and I’m divine, or I’m connecting to the divine, or I’m figuring out how to connect to Hashem through me performing gender, or just like wearing the things that I want to be wearing.
Yeah, and I think… I don’t know. It’s interesting. We were talking a bit before and you were talking about how you got a tallis like when you were bat mitzvahed, and how I think you were saying how you didn’t really like it. Is that what you were saying? You want to put your words in that?
Emma June: Yeah. I just feel pretty unenthusiastic about it.
Liel Green: Yeah. Totally. Yeah. I definitely resonate with that. I think I got to choose a tallis and I think at the time, it was one, like I didn’t really have… I couldn’t just choose from any of them. I think I had a specific pool that I could choose from and I’m very grateful to have this used one, and it’s definitely a gorgeous tallis, and I don’t think I would ever in my life wear it right now. It’s kind of blue, and it’s one of the smaller ones, and it has like… It has these plastic colorful circle tassels on the bottom.
Emma June: Oh, wow.
Liel Green: Yeah. I think it’s pretty glamorous, for sure. Not my style, but I think I did like it in sixth grade. But then I went to a Jewish school for middle school, elementary school, and we also kind of got to choose our own tallises, and yeah, and it was cool because… So, like I had the one that I got from my family, and then I was able to kind of choose another one, and granted, they weren’t as nice, and a lot of people kind of got… They got the white ones and then just tie dyed them, so that was also like the sixth grade move, for sure, to tie dye them. But I picked one that I actually… It’s the one that I wear and the one that I actually really like.
And it’s kind of bigger and more masculine, and I think at the time… I don’t know. It’s really cool when your like past self is very in tune with your future self. I think that’s something that I feel very grateful for those moments. They feel like moments of alignment. And that was… So, the one that I wear now, that I actually feel real comfortable wearing, and I think a lot of that is also what am I trying to emulate and who am I trying to emulate, and what feels authentic, and what doesn’t, and what aligns with my gender and the way that I… Even when I stand, or move, when I daven, as opposed to the ways I don’t feel comfortable doing that, and in some ways wearing a tallis makes all that feel a bit safer, to try things within that… the space of the tallis.
You know, you’re able to kind of… There’s a certain, I feel in some ways a certain suspension of whatever I need to be suspended. So, like suspension of things where like… things that I don’t want kind of are not in that sphere, and also like my body feels a bit suspended in air. Or different space. And doesn’t feel as heavy or as aware, and is able to kind of… and some of that is like my body’s literally hiding, and I think that feels good, and also… So, I think like wearing a tallis and kind of like… It kind of can add or enhance my body, and I think in some ways it could also… So, in terms of glamour or like accessory, I feel like an accessory, and also I think it has the potential to also kind of detract or take away in a way that feels really good sometimes. In a way that’s kind of healing, like you don’t always want to be aware of your body.
Yeah. I think that I was sitting next to one of my friends who’s trans and we were just talking, and then I remember they said something about how mindfulness is really hard for them, like mindfulness stuff. And I don’t think I really connected that, and then I was like, “Oh yeah, I wonder why that is.” And then they were like, “Oh yeah, it’s because I’m trans.” And I think like I… Yeah. I don’t quite… I don’t have quite the same relationship to mindfulness, but I think that sometimes deep, embodied things can be really hard, kind of bring up a lot of things and I think that a tallis, like as davening is a deep… at least for me is a very deep, embodied action… I like shokeling a lot. It feels like I’m kind of like moving towards something that I want to go towards when I do it, and I think that wearing a tallis kind of makes me feel safer to do that.
Emma June: Wow. Is there something… Do you have like a… I mean, maybe one you have is already, but like a dream tallis?
Liel Green: Yeah. I don’t think my tallis is my dream tallis. I’m very open. I feel like it’s like a gameshow, like, “What’s your dream house?” Like, “What’s your dream tallis?” I love that. My dream tallis. I think like a lot of… Honestly, I will say the ADVAH tallises are really nice. So, I think maybe it would be… Maybe my dream tallis is even in stock. But I don’t know. I think a lot of color, a lot of warm colors, for sure. I like the kind of wovenness. I like the bigness of it, too. I like when I can fit underneath it. I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I’m too big, so it’s nice to feel something bigger than me on me.
Yeah. I’m not sure. It’s a really good question. Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah. I guess I’m just… I feel really excited to do the work of imagining like what would feel, like what feels like the way we can have the most access to ritual objects that kind of… I don’t know. I’m hearing you say like I picked out one that was really not good for me now, and one that is pretty good for me now, but you know, like I don’t know, it feels like unless… I know some people, I guess mostly people who are rabbinical students, or who are just coming into their Judaism now, or something… maybe are buying tallitot at this point in their lives, but I know that a young me was not thinking deeply about my future self in a way that now I’m kind of… I know I think about it like, “Well, I already have one. I shouldn’t have another.” Except that I don’t love mine and I’m curious, I guess all I’m saying is I like the imagining, and that that’s how we get to create what doesn’t yet exist.
Liel Green: Absolutely. Yeah. I think… Yeah, a lot of the work that I’m doing right now is visioning queer Jewish futures, so it feels very appropriate. Yeah, and I think like a big thing for me is like… I don’t know. I think of myself, I think back to myself as like a queer child and a Jewish child, and I think those things were very linked, like… I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to be older. It’s a thing that I’ve felt and I still definitely feel, and part of that is just having been in community with older people and kind of always feeling like the youngest there, or always wanting to feel more integrated, and a lot of that is probably just like a lot of internalized adultism, and I’m very aware of that and very excited to do the work to kind of like amend that.
But I think that like my… I always wanted to be older, and I think that’s also a way that a lot of queer children have felt, because I think it’s like the future is a place where we feel liberated, where we could do the things that we want to do and be the way that we want to be, and wear the things that I want to wear, and all that good stuff. And for me, like me imagining myself older felt very, very Jewish, or I had this like… Yeah. I really, like until… I don’t know, maybe middle school, or even like mid-high school, I feel like when I would think about myself in the future, I’d think about myself with a girlfriend, holding her hand at shul on a Friday night.
Emma June: That is so cute.
Liel Green: Yeah, and that was like for me, like the hottest, most romantic date, was like a Shabbat date to shul, was like what truly made me swoon. And that was like from as young as I could remember, that’s like what I wanted. Or you know, like to wear a tallis, or to… You know, it just was like that was kind of how I saw myself in the future, and I think that, and I still kind of feel that way, and why I do the work that I do, or I’m interested in doing the work that I do is the desire to kind of stop feeling so far away from my future self. I think I hold myself against the standard of what I wanted to be in the future, who I want to be, how I want to look, knowing that how I will look will change significantly, or like I would like it to change significantly.
And you know, who I want to be in a relationship with, how do I want to be in a relationship with people? And feeling a lot of frustration and a lot of hurt around how I’m not quite where I want to be yet. How I’m not quite at the future that I want and so the work that I feel myself doing personally and academically is the work of collapsing time, and I think that Judaism and queerness have really powerful technologies for doing that. It’s the work of collapsing time so that one, that’s on a basic level so that I could feel that the future that I desire, the future self that I want, the future world that I want is… It only exists in this present. There’s like fragments of… For me, it’s Olam Ha’ba, the world to come, that are in the present and kind of letting myself soften into that and kind of feel that, like what does it feel like to have the future that I want already here?
I think like Shabbats really offers that presentness in Olam Ha’ba in a very literal way, and I think that ritual objects can… I was talking about portals, and emergence and transcendence before, but I think that ritual objects are definitely portals to Olam Ha’ba, to this future world. And so, I think that my thinking, imagining the future… Yeah, and as a child imagining the future was… It was like my queerness and Jewishness would be able to be liberated and kind of like in full fruition, and I think that clothing, and different objects, and I also like just collect a lot of little things. I feel like I have a lot of little knickknacks and little… I just keep a lot of twigs, and pipe cleaners, rhinestone gems, and just like random things I kind of find on the street and shove in my pockets, and it feels like a very childish thing that I still do, just like collecting things, but I feel like those are like… I think objects can really help transport you and I feel like kind of treasures from the past and from the future, which for me are sometimes the same thing. They are very intimately connected. So, I think that wearing tzitzits and wearing a tallis can feel like that.
Yeah. It’s like me from the future, but in the present, so it’s just me, so it’s like collapsing that time. Does that make sense?
Emma June: It does. I just feel touched, so I’m being quiet, which is… You know, a great response as an interviewer.
Liel Green: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Emma June: Wow. That’s just very… I feel very moved by the idea that putting on this object can bring you in touch with your past and future selves or collapse you into oneself.
Liel Green: Yeah, and I think of that in also very… in the literal sense of like fabric, kind of the fluidity of fabric. Yeah. I think there’s something there too, and something about weaving as well, or like webs, and there’s just… There’s something that’s being connected or that’s in alignment, I feel. I don’t know. Those are kind of just fragments. I feel like there’s something there too.
Emma June: Yeah. I mean, even just like the fabric of time, if you’re talking about time.
Liel Green: Yeah. For sure.
Emma June: I know it’s an English phrase, but-
Liel Green: The fabric of time.
Emma June: A tallis is the fabric of time.
Liel Green: Yeah. The old American idiom.
Emma June: Deeply rooted. Anyway, yeah, that’s really special, or like a really… Oh, words are hard. It’s pretty early. Yeah. Well, I guess I’m just wondering if there are any lingering thoughts you have or questions I didn’t ask you that you want to answer?
Liel Green: Yeah. I think just like aesthetics can be something that are so difficult. I think that there’s definitely a lot of pressure to not… So, there’s like two levels of pressure where I feel like there’s pressure from like larger, mainstream, hegemonic society to kind of like care a lot about how you look. That really matters. And there’s all that stuff, and it feels really toxic sometimes, and it’s really hard, and it’s hard to situate yourself into that when you don’t look the way that you’re “supposed to” look. And then I feel like there’s kind of counter pressure to not care about how you look and to not really value aesthetics, or to kind of like… it’s this kind of like natural beauty that’s really emphasized. And then, and I think when you’re… I’m in a place right now where I can’t necessarily wake up and walk out the door and feel 100% with how I look. I kind of feel like I have to put a lot of effort, not a ton of effort, but just like I need to do some things to kind of be able to walk out the door and feel represented, and feel in alignment, feel like I look the way that I want to look to myself and to others.
And I think I’ve definitely kind of felt shame around that. But I don’t necessarily have the kind of, “Yeah, I can just backpack around,” and you know, like not shower, and feel great, and look hot, and like… You know, like wear whatever I want to wear and not care and I’m still beautiful, and you know, like I haven’t really felt that. So, this is kind of like a rambley thing, so maybe don’t put all of this in. I just think that aesthetics for trans people is really, really crucial, and I think that’s like… Yeah, as someone who identifies as transmasc and specifically more butch, it’s something that I really learned and love so much from femmes in my life, something that I really owe to the femmes in my life is kind of teaching me about glamour. You know, the glamour that I was talking about before, teaching me about how much pleasure I can get from putting glitter on my face, from like even wearing a t-shirt that feels really good.
Yeah. I think that’s something that I feel so, so in debt to, and so… It feels like so much of the love I’ve received from the femme-identifying people in my life is these valuable pearls of wisdom around how to be too much. And that I’m allowed to be too much. And that too much is actually like what makes you feel enough. And a lot of that I think is connected to aesthetics, and is connected to accessorizing, and sometimes I feel like wearing tzitzits makes me feel too much. Whether that’s too Jewish. I think a lot of times it’s definitely too Jewish, especially in kind of more… I’m definitely around a lot of queer Jews, but it’s not… I think it’s a tension that I’ve definitely felt, where the community that I feel more personally and politically comfortable in are not the communities where I’m necessarily able to daven in the ways that I want to daven.
And so, I definitely feel like sometimes I have to like tone down the way I daven or tone down certain aspects of my femme-ness. And a lot of that is like no one is telling you to do that, but it’s definitely self-imposed pressure. And I will blame Christian hegemony for some of that, as well. I will always blame Christian hegemony for a lot of it. And-
Emma June: Absolutely.
Liel Green: Yeah. So, I think that I lost my train of thought… Yeah. Yeah, I think I’m just trying to figure out how to be unapologetically Jewish and unapologetically queer, and what does that look like together? And then in some ways, I don’t quite know what that looks like, because you don’t necessarily have that… You know, performance study scholar José Esteban Muñoz talks about in his work about the queer future, how queer futurity is that we don’t necessarily know yet what queerness looks like. It’s not quite here, but it’s present in these fragments of futurity, of the future, which I was talking about before. I’m definitely inspired by his work.
And so, I think that unapologetic queerness and unapologetic Jewishness, they’re not quite here yet, but I think we see them, we feel them in present moments, and I think those are the moments where you’re kind of transported into the future, or the future is collapsed into the present, and into the past, and I think that’s the power of ritual objects, is feeling those fragments in the future. And so, I don’t know, maybe in the future everyone’s gonna wear tzitzits and like a tallis. I have no idea, but I think seeing ritual objects as… You know, you think about the word artifact, you think about something super ancient, and I mean they are extremely ancient. I think that’s part of their spiritual potency, is the ancientness of it.
And also, I think there’s artifacts from the future, as well.
Emma June: Wow. Well, thank you for sharing so deeply, and personally, and thoughtfully with me today, Liel.
Liel Green: Yeah. Absolutely.
Emma June: It’s been a real pleasure and I can’t wait to do it again sometime.
Liel Green: Yes. I’m so excited for the future.
Emma June: It’s imminent.
Liel Green: It’s imminent. It’s emerging.
Emma June: All right.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of the episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode8. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-8. As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in the world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. Thanks to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, talented musician behind our intro. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
I interviewed Simcha over a year ago now, but their interview has stuck with me ever since. Their thoughts about being trans masculine and wearing tzitzit, wearing a tallis, and existing in Jewish community are so powerful. I can't wait for other people to sit with this one, too. Apologies in advance, my mouth was to close to the microphone and sometimes the sound quality is less than I would wish for!
Some definitions from our conversation:
Mechitza- a partition in some synagogues to separate men and women.
Flagging- displaying visibly (but perhaps discretely) that you are queer, especially to other queer people.
Mitzvah/mitzvot- a "good deed," an act prescribed by Jewish law.
Frum- strictly observing Jewish law, can be a noun or an adjective.
Peyos- the grown out sidelocks often worn by observant Jewish men, sometimes also worn by others.
Bocher- a young (unmarried) man, often associated with the phrase "Yeshiva Bocher," a young man studying Talmud.
Yeshiva- school for studying Talmud.
Adam HaRishon- Adam, of Adam and Eve. The first man on Earth.
Beged- the cloth part of a tallis or tallis katan.
Golus- the state of being in exile, Yiddish pronunciation.
With any questions or comments, email me at email@example.com
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are Jewish prayer shawls and tzitzit are the knotted fringe at the bottom of them. For deeper definitions, check out the first episode. Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Simcha Halpert-Hansen, who will introduce themself.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Hi. My name’s Simcha Halpert-Hanson. I use they/them pronouns. First year student at Hebrew College. Live in Boston. Play drums.
Emma June: Amazing. Well, welcome. I’m really excited to talk to you today and I guess the place I would love to start is just what your first memories of tzitzit and of tallitot are and if those are the same memory or if those two things carry different memories for you.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Well, first I guess I’ll just start with like a brief story about how I chose not to wear tzitzits for my b’nei mitzvah. And then I’ll go into the choosing tzitzits. Does that work?
Emma June: Yeah. Sounds great.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah, so when I was in seventh grade getting ready to do the whole child of commandments thing, I was really interested in what authentic Judaism, “authentic” looked like, and since I understood that at least I thought the options for my gender was to be a girl, then I decided that it wasn’t fitting for me to wear tziszis, and so I, unlike all of my other peers, did not. I did not have my mom buy a tallis for me and was somehow allowed in the synagogue to not be wearing a tallis at the service. So, just mentioning that because it was like a really gendered decision that I made and was trying to live into the gender that I was ascribed, even though it felt like inauthentic and uncomfortable for me.
And then later, when I was 21, I realized that I was trans and decided to start wearing tziszis… and got a tallis katan, specifically. That little… with the shirt. And I remember when I put it on, I started crying, and I remember applying the tziszis to my face, and to my chest, and like this feeling… Feeling very, very whole all of a sudden in a way that I wasn’t aware of that I was missing.
And yeah, so I don’t quite know what was going on in that moment in a broad way, or like why I was crying, but I could that imagine probably it was like reconnecting with ancestral or tradition that got broken up a while ago. And later that year, I went to… trip. Or maybe it was the next year. I think I was 22. Birthright trip to Poland and then to Israel/Palestine and decided then I would buy a tallis. So, I went to go get one on the spot and made sure it was really, really big, because I wanted to… Kind of again living into this version of what I thought was “authentic” Judaism. Wanted to really be covered up like in this blanket that is the tallis. I specifically did not want to be wearing those kind of tallisim that I grew up with in the Reform movement, just like these shawl things. My brother had one. I remember a few times using it for dress up, and I didn’t want that to be what I used for praying, so I got a big one.
And the last thing I want to say is that actually recently, as in this holiday cycle, I had an insight on… that I might stop wearing the tallis gadol, the big tallis, and instead of related to actually being… the fact that like when you in Ashkenazi tradition get a tallis gadol when you get married, or maybe I’ll say you get it when you settle into some kind of life agreement or long-term agreement with someone. Someone else. Or multiple people. And so, I wanted to… I kind of had this insight that I possibly might try going that route, or embracing that tradition, like if you go to more traditional shul, Orthodox shul you’ll see obviously a mechitza space and there’s men on one side, and men don’t wear… Whoever is not married is not wearing a tallis. And I’ve spoken with actually queer or gay men, cis men, who grew up Orthodox, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah. You can’t… If you wear a tallis, on… so you don’t have to make sure you don’t wear one.” All so they won’t know.
So… I thought I might kind of signal that to the universe.
Emma June: New way of flagging.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Pretty much. Yeah. And so, I’ve just been wearing a tallis katan instead.
Emma June: Wow. Do you wear… Can I ask about like how often you wear your tallis katan?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Yeah, totally. So, I started wearing it as I said when I was 21, and then I kind of went in and out of places in my life where it felt safe to be myself around frumkayt and times where it really didn’t feel safe, and so I would kind of vacillate between years, periods of time, like periods of years where wearing, and not wearing it, and not being observant, and I two years ago stopped being observant, and then actually just really very recently, as of like last month, or September, rather, felt this new something shift and felt another opening to… It’s kind of safe. Maybe it’s safer now to be engaging with that, so I’ve been wearing it again all the time.
Yeah. Yeah. I have kind of an ambivalent relationship to it now, but then I did when I was younger, or even three years ago. But I do wear it every day.
Emma June: Yeah. Can you talk at all to what you feel like brings about that ambivalence?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. To be totally frank, the ambivalence is not really specific to… Well, the ambivalence is maybe specific to the tallis katan and not the tzitzits themselves, right? Or indicating reminder or the tzitzits are an indicating reminder of our relationship to the mitzvahs. So, halakhah ostensibly, or feeling bound to that. I’m like… When I put it on, it’s like I feel very daft, and like I need to be following what it is that I’m preaching to myself with this garment. So, I, because of honestly being a survivor of a lot of different forms of either community-based harm, partner-based harm, became really disillusioned with I guess Jewish people observing Judaism, and kind of didn’t feel, don’t feel like a… There’s something that’s broken for me around the… There is a relation. I see a relationship between Halakha and people, right? Like we are the people that enact it. And we are the people that enact Judaism style like in general? I don’t know, the Meztorah, the tradition, and I guess like in interfacing with all the ways that we as humans enact also in the same breath that we kind of pull, show love, like pull in, like reach for each other, the same hand can be pushing away and breaking or severing relationship and connection through various means.
And just feeling really disenchanted with that reality. Even though it’s a very human thing to be doing, this… I guess the kind of again, like a specific harm that I’ve gone through in community settings has been… It’s just been hard to navigate of like, “Do I buy this? Do I believe in this? Do I feel connected to it?” I think maybe it’s more of the question, like, “Do I actually feel connected to this thing?” I have also been in a relationship with many Jews who adhere to something Jewish and can also be an act of harm. I don’t know.
Emma June: Yeah. That makes sense to me. Yeah. I guess it makes me curious, like what it means to you to keep wearing the tallis katan through some of that doubt, or like through some of those hard feelings, because you said that you started wearing it again.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Yeah, I think I get the sense that I’m in some kind of cycle, or new cycle, or something spiraling up of healing around that particular theme, which has been with me for the past three years or so. And so, I think I’m just… I kind of just was like had a sensation one day of it already being on my body, and feeling like a sweetness towards it, and so to follow that sweetness. And I think that I am trying to in the… After, whatever, after part of feeling sweetness, and it’s like then you have the relationship, or like after the honeymoon. And I think I’m in this place of just trying to reorient all of it into a different spot than I had previously located it, which was very much feeling connected to it through feeling connected to Jews. And that there’s… I think there’s learning for me in wearing it every day around how to heal up that… Around how to heal up that relationship for myself, to find a ground in it that’s just specific to me. And specific to G-d. Yeah, because of all of that has gotten kind of… The connection… Yeah. To me, it’s like the connection with people gets severed. The connection to G-d gets severed.
And so, yeah, I think now it’s just like I practice it, like I’m choosing to try to connect. Instead of maybe taking it for granted.
Emma June: Wow. Yeah. Okay. Cool. Okay. I’m just… It feels really powerful to me to hear people talk about their… Like how they feel spirituality and relationships to G-d. Because I feel like people don’t… It’s not something that often gets shared and I’m asking really personal questions about it, and it means something to me to hear how people experience the world. Yeah.
I’m curious. This is a slightly different path of questions, but I’m curious about how or if, but I believe how wearing a tallis katan and your trans identity connect for you? You mentioned around the time that you were coming out or coming out to yourself that you put on a tallis katan. So, I’m just curious if there’s more to say about it.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. I don’t know. I guess… I don’t really think about… I’m gonna flesh out some really kind of not so cooked thoughts, or present some not so cooked out… But I’m still kind of mulling over myself. Lately, this year, I’ve been feeling a lot more into I guess embracing the inherentness of my masculinity a lot more. And which means for me that I guess it… What it means is that there’s a large part of me that is… I’m not sure if it presents itself to others as traditionally male, or I know it’s actually… Sorry. It definitely presents itself to others as traditionally male. I’m not so sure it presents itself to me as traditionally male. I don’t really feel or see myself as a cis dude, for example.
But I am read like that pretty often and also treated like it pretty often by not just straight people, but plenty of folks in the queer community, and it has… I don’t really like it, but I’m also… I don’t like it, and also I’m like trying to work with it in a different way, I think, this year, or trying to be more awake to it this year, and there I think are ways in which possibly during my childhood this hinted at I didn’t feel like I could wear it, right? When I was a woman. Or girl. Whatever. When I was… I was kind of never a girl, but like when I was being ascribed that. I did not feel like I could do it. It didn’t feel… I didn’t feel like I was living into a core component of myself anyway, and to put something on that, even though I, like outside of my religious life, was totally dressing like a little punk rock boy, I didn’t feel like I could break that particular gender construct.
And then it wasn’t until I came out to myself and then embraced my maleness like step one, being like, “Oh, I am not a dyke. Cool.” It’s kind of like tiers I guess of masculinity, and that was tier one. And then I felt like I could put it on, and so possibly this is possible that in this next iteration of self, or tier of masculinity that I’ve reached, that it’s feeling… Kind of presenting a gender… I mean, it was clearly presenting a gender affirming experience for me initially, and it possibly is presenting one now, though it still kind of conflicts with components of my masculinity that are more secular.
So, I don’t know. Yeah. I vacillate back and forth with it.
Emma June: Yeah.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Like I used to have… I used to be… I used to look, present a lot more frum, in that I had peyos, and I’d wear my tzitzits out, and I really looked like a bocher for all intents and purposes, like a little Yeshiva student. Boy student. And I wasn’t really… I wasn’t on purpose going for that. I was just kind of living into what felt like emistic or truthful for me, and now, and it happened to coincide with like traditional Jewish masculine norms, and now I’ve kind of reached some different norms with masculinity and they somewhat bolster that and somewhat are not the kind of image I’m going for.
But then you get into the… I get into the obligation piece, or the piece around… I feel a little bit strange trying to live this life and not be doing the things that the sect deems appropriate.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting to me I think, like there are a number of commandments in Judaism, or mitzvot in Judaism that involve clothing. And those commandments and mitzvot are fairly gendered. They’re very like wear this thing, or shave this, or don’t, or whatever they might be, and so it really can tie feelings of passing, or clothing, or… I don’t know. Just like being visibly Jewish and being visibly trans, or visibly affirming your gender or not, like they can get really tied together.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson For sure.
Emma June: Which is really fascinating to me.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Yeah, I mean as I said, I just… Yeah. I feel like I flag a lot of things I’m not really trying to do. And I’ve done it in the past, or when I’ve been more visibly Jewish in the past, and yeah, like varying degrees of comfort with how that’s getting read into normative narratives, like… Yeah, narratives of gender. Mostly not comfortable.
Emma June: Yeah.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson But also, just as I said, like trying to be like, “Okay. You know what? Maybe there’s some way that I need to surrender to how I’m being seen.” That sounds like a cop out, but maybe there’s something I’m not seeing that other people are. And how they’re treating me. I mean, obviously the world is a broken place and people are mostly not woke, but also we reflect things around us. For better or for worse.
Emma June: I guess another kind of… Well, something I’m curious about is if you feel that you get to, or that you want to, or that you’ve wanted to embody just the mitzvot for men in Judaism, or if it’s felt like… And particularly I’m curious around tallisim, like if it’s been like I will now follow these rules for men? Or if there’s felt like some kind of dissonance or struggle because you’re trans?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah, totally dissonance. Like mikveh doesn’t factor into my life, for example, but I wish it did, and it’s just not safe in most of the places that I’ve lived in and that would be like a non-male thing. I think… I try to light candles every week, right? And that’s a woman’s mitzvah. And I don’t think about… I don’t really think about these mitzvot around their gender lines. I’m aware of them, but I don’t love putting myself into a position where people are reading me as the dude, like when I’m in…, or expectations around Kiddiush, or like leading a space. I don’t know. Yeah, I try not to. I really try to discourage that reading of me. And it’s…it happens anyway. I don’t know.
But I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out how to answer your question. Like when I don’t light candles, I then think about how while I kind of embody, I guess inherently embody multiplicity in gender, and so it’s okay that I lit this candle I think, because… Sometimes this thought has occurred to me. Mostly, honestly it hasn’t. Just like I miss candle lighting and I could say “Bshir L’Yom HaShabbes” y’know I could say the Psalm for Shabbat instead and that would be like my way for accepting the Shabbat’s in, or just internally accept it. But there have been times too when I’ve just chosen not to light candles and have deferred to other people in the room to do that. And just rather would say amen, and think about… In those moments, I’ve thought about my own multiplicity and that I’m straddling some really queer boundaries around gender mitzvot and that inherently, yeah, I’m just like… If it’s a binary in the vision of the Torah than I’m adaptive one, live on one side and then live on the other, and that is just like hell the Creator created me.
So, there’s like no way around it.
Emma June: Yeah.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson I don’t know if that answers your question.
Emma June: Definitely. Wow. Well, do you have any remaining thoughts left unsaid? Things you’re thinking about? Questions I haven’t asked you?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Nothing is coming to mind. Just trying to think about stuff around… More stuff around gender and tzitzits. But no. Can’t think of anything. Is there anything else that you were curious about or had on your list of questions?
Emma June: I guess there’s one that I’ll just… I’ll ask and see if you have anything to say, and if it’s… It’s just about feeling like because of the gender binary, I think there’s a way that some people in the trans Jewish community may respond to something like a tallis, or to tzitzit, as something that’s not for them, or not for us I should say, and to me it’s a… I don’t have a personal answer that feels great, but I do think it’s a chance to be creative with our tradition, this tradition we’ve been given, and to find ways to push our tradition. And so, I guess I’m just curious if there have been any particular ways or moments that you’ve felt creative with a tallis?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson I definitely feel like awesome when I’m in a group of queer Jews who are wearing tzitzits or tallisim, because it’s like you’re literally wearing the mitzvah around your body, and it indicates to me that I’m not alone, I guess, in my own… I just feel like it’s so rare for me to meet other trans Jews who are also… or I know there’s plenty of folks out there, but to get to be certainly… share physical space with those people, really rare. And it just indicates to me that… Yeah, that I’m not alone, and that also there is like sacred work that is being done in which trans folks are claiming this thing.
I think it’s so powerful that we are claiming something that’s not… We’re literally not like even a part of the imagination. Well, there’s components of us that are part of the imagination around us, but certainly not really in the Torah, or one could argue. Not extensively. In the ways that you see like… I mean, I just think of the Adam HaRishon, like it can create trans into the first being, for sure, but I don’t know if we really make much of an appearance outside of that moment.
So, I feel like I just personally feel really bolstered when I see trans folks in particular wearing tzitzits, and also when I see women, cis women, wearing tzitzits. And yeah, I know if we’re doing, actually having, attending a Netzitzot tying party, which is like a… It’s like tzitzits for women, like the beged is more for more feminine-leaning folks, so it’s like the shirt part of it is not as straight lines. It’s like form fitting. And I went, and it was so lovely, because it was like… It was mostly cis women, and there was like me and one or two other transmasc folks, and it was just great to be in a room with people who, like again, like that mitzvah’s not written for them either, and to be sharing space with people who are taking it on, and choosing it, and trying to reform, and recreate, and reshape, helps me to… I guess for myself, in thinking about is this for me or how do I take this, I just inherently… I guess like the gift, a gift of being a trans Jew is holding complexity and nuanced intention just inherently. I think anyway Jews have that gift, because we’re like in golus, like in exile, and in this kind of like in-between space of not being redeemed or whatever.
So, I think that our people kind of like on a consciousness level holds attention really well, or have to, and then adding trans on top of that equals even a more plumbing the depths of that tension, holding, and… Yeah, like I know inherently that I don’t exist in the tradition, or like trans folks don’t exist, and yet I’m here, and yet trans folks are here. So, it’s like… Yeah. I don’t know. It’s just like something… There’s something kind of… Some kind of… I don’t know. Maybe mystic orientation or reality to the fact that we are here and are like claiming stuff that’s not for us. And this wisdom of tension holding, and it’s just being like holding that space, and kind of I guess… Maybe it just pushes us to have more amunah or something. More faith in the fact that in either G-d or like… I don’t know, the mysteries of this universe that we can’t answer. Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, that is a very beautiful note to end on, I think.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Cool.
Emma June: Thank you so much for joining me today.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Thanks a lot, Emma. It was sweet talking with you and getting to think more about it.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode7. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot C-O-M/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-7.
As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in the world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge thanks to Sarah Resnick, my producer, and to Home Despot, the incredible musician behind the music. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
This week I interviewed Binya Kóatz, whose wisdom on wearing tzitzit as a transfemme was truly inspired and inspiring! Unlike the other interviews I've released so far, this one was recorded quite recently, and so references current events (like coronavirus and also the High Holidays). This conversation has really stuck with me in the weeks since we had it and I'm so excited to be able to share! Please know that this episode contains sexual content. Also, for a peek of what Binya looks like in her tzitzit, see the below photo.
Some definitions from our conversation:
Shtetl: Yiddish word for small village
Neo-Hasidic: a contemporary revival of Kabbalist and Hasidic teaching
Kippah: Jewish head covering
Yiddishkayt: Yiddish word for Yiddish culture, and for taking an interest in said Yiddish culture
Tzedakah: Hebrew word meaning "righteousness" that often gets translated in English to "charity," although it also contains a sense of ethical obligation that the English does not quite capture.
Niggun: A song sung, often in religious contexts, without words. Uses repetitive syllables (yai-dai-dai, etc.) to follow a tune.
Satmar Hasidim: A group of Hasidic Jews who live in Brooklyn, NY.
Chatsi chatsi: half and half
Yontif: Yiddish for holiday
Shacharit: the morning daily prayers
Mincha: the afternoon daily prayers
Maariv: the evening daily prayers
Daven: to pray
Shekhina: a rabbinic word denoting the presence of G-d
Shem Emet: true name
Aretz: the land, here meaning Israel
Diasporism: a movement of Jews believing that the Jewish "homeland" is, in and of itself, the state of diaspora
Tzimtzum: a drawing in
Ha'Ari: The Ari, a famous Kabbalist also known as Rabbi Isaac Luria, from the 16th century.
Kabbalah: a school of thought based in Jewish mysticism. A kabbalist is one who studies Kabbalah.
Haredi: a term used to describe many sects and groups of Orthodox Jews
Shomer Shabbos: following the halakha/traditions of Shabbat (ie. not working, not spending money, not using electricity, etc.)
Mikveh: a ritual bath used historically by women during moments of transition and around menstruation, has grown and expanded in its usage.
B'tselem Elohim: the Image of G-d
Tikkun Olam: literally "repairing the world," a Jewish framework for social justice
Chabad: an Orthodox, Hasidic movement known for their ubiquity around the world.
Kollel: an institute for full-time study of Talmud
Elul: the Jewish month before Rosh Hashana, a time of reflection on the year before it.
With any questions or comments, email me at email@example.com
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are Jewish prayer shawls and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the bottom of them. For further definitions check out the first episode. In today’s episode, I interview Binya Kóatz. Before she introduces herself, I just want to warn everyone that this conversation is PG-13 in terms of sexual content. And without further ado, Binya.
Binya Kóatz: My name is Binya. Binya Kóatz. My pronouns are I use either she or they pronouns. I live on Ohlone land in the Bay Area. I am originally from the old country of Queens, New York. Born and raised there. And yeah, I guess some things relevant for this podcast are that I’m first generation. My mother is French Moroccan Sephardi and my father is Argentinian Ashkenazi, and they met at an Indian restaurant on Sixth Street in Manhattan, so little diaspora baby. I really love Torah and Hashem and I wear tzitzit every day, so that might be the reason why we connected around this podcast.
Emma June: I would say so. What are your first memories with tzitzit?
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. My first memories with tzitzit are… I remember, my first memories seeing tzitzit, I mean I’ve seen them all my life, growing up in Queens and growing up Conservative Jewish. Nobody in my shul wore a tallis katan that I know of, but just around on the subway and around the city, you’re gonna see tzitzit flapping in the wind. And it wasn’t really till I came to the Bay that I saw my first people who weren’t cis dudes wearing tzitzits. I remember a couple of people. I remember Sasha, who’s in the shtetl here in the Bay, in Oakland, and Mimi Farb, who is just like a really close and dear friend and sister of mine, and I remember going on a Friday night to Chochmat HaLev, which is the rad, queer, trans-led, the rabbi’s trans, synagogue in Berkeley, because that’s what we’ve got out here in the Bay, and going there on a Friday night and it’s like an ecstatic, neo-Chasidic, like klezmer-y kind of service. So good. And just seeing Mimi with her tzitzit hanging out of her short shorts, dancing around to L’cha Dodi is like one of my first memories, that was about four years ago, of seeing tzitzit on a non-cis person, non-cis dude’s body. Yeah.
Emma June: And how soon after did you start wearing them?
Binya Kóatz: I started wearing them… It was maybe… It was probably only a few months. I was like primed and ready to go. I was like I had just gone to svara the summer before that, the queer yeshiva, and I went to the queer Talmud camp in the Bay, and just was like, “Okay, I guess this is my whole life now.” Because just this combination of really coming out, and really finding Jewish community, and being a nerd, and having… I took the bait hook, line, sinker, and was like, “Okay, my whole life is gay Torah,” and I came to the Bay and found all these queers so in love with it and building such stunning community out here, and then just seeing queers with tzitzit coming out, I was like, “This is fem. This is amazing. This is beautiful. It looks good. It is rad. It’s not a kippah and it’s something to be visibly Jewish”
Because I didn’t want to wear my trans girlhood. I know many a trans girl who rock a kippah, but that’s not for me. And so, I was just primed and ready, so it’s probably only a couple of months and I was in my then partner’s house in San Francisco and giddily opened a… I was like, “Ah! I got the package! I got the package!” And we opened it in their room, and I just put it on and twirled around. It felt so beautiful.
Emma June: Wow. Have you been wearing them every day since?
Binya Kóatz: Basically, every day. There was one time when my luggage got lost or delayed on this terrible Air Canada flight, where I… and I think my other tzitzits were like… I keep two pairs, so both of them are from netitzot, and I just switch off a week each and then wash them by hand every week, and I think one… It was like the one I had was way too dirty to wear, and the other one was lost in Air Canada somewhere, so I think I may have gone a couple of days without it.
And there have been a couple of times where I couldn’t wear it because I was in some sort of closet for some reason, but almost every day for the past three and a half years or so, four years, I’ve had a tallis katan on my body.
Emma June: And what does it mean to you to wear one?
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. It’s a great question. Yeah, I started talking about it a little before. It’s like it’s very important to me to wear my Judaism openly, proudly, and queerly. I want to be seen and held in all that I am. And these tzitzit are a very beautiful visual and tactile way for me to connect to my yiddishkayt and my- and to Hashem. They look so stunning under, like coming out of a skirt or a dress, and that’s how I’ve worn them almost these whole four years of wearing them, three and a half years of wearing them. And so, just fashionably they look great, and it feels great to be doing such a fashionable mitzvah, and to be feeling so hot in something I’m obliged to do, and having that connection with my style, and sexiness, and Hashem, and love of G-d.
And you know, just from the actual mitzvah of it, like to remember myself as a child of G-d and with what’s obliged to me, I just know the ways that I can kind of… I’m a person who can dissociate a lot and just the tactile feeling of wrapping a tzitzits around my finger and bringing myself back into my body and back into my attention and feeling back into my obligation in whatever moment that is, and whatever thing is being called for me to do. Whether it’s like be present in my body, because Hashem is giving me a beautiful moment, and it’s like a shame to, a shonda to let that pass and to not be present with the world G-d has given me or an obligation to be doing a different act of tzedakah or of protest, or action, or praying with my feet or something like that, that my tzitzits can deeply bring me back into my body.
And then I think the last really beautiful thing that I love about them is just the way that they in themselves, not only do they look good on a gay body, but I think that they are a very queer and queer celebratory garment in themselves, because it is like the whole thing about them is that the holiest part of them is the fringe, and so you have this whole garment that its main point of existence is it’s fringey, and so I think that that’s saying the fringe is holy, the queer is holy, and so it feels really beautiful to have that on my body.
Emma June: I love that. Wow. Oh, I got tingles. What you were just saying… Okay, I had a lot of trains of thought, but one of them is that I was talking to a rabbi about tzitzit once and he described them as flirtatious.
Binya Kóatz: Ooh!
Emma June: Which I had never thought of before, and hadn’t really thought of much since, and fully came to mind when you were talking about feeling sexy in your tzitzits.
Binya Kóatz: Yeah.
Emma June: And it feels like an exciting way to imagine being Jewish.
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. It’s pretty cute, you know, if you’re with someone. There’s like a couple of moves that people can do, like push your hair behind your ear or something like that, or like softly put their hands on yours. Another one is like start twirling with your tzitzits, right? Like that’s definitely a cute way, and better yet if y’all are both wearing them, and you have… They get all tangled up with each other. But yeah. No, I’m definitely… I don’t know exactly how much permission I have to tell about, but they’ve definitely been flirtatious and or sexy throughout my life. I mean, I wear them when I rise and when I wake, right? Or when I go to sleep and when I wake. And so, they’ve definitely been in flirtatious scenes with me and in beds with me with other people in them and stuff like that, and they… It’s very nice to have four little extra strings with you to play with with a cutie.
Emma June: Well, and that really kind of gets at to me how both intimate and public wearing tzitzit is, and I was wondering if you could talk about times that you feel really proud to be wearing them, but also times that you maybe want to hide that you’re wearing your tzitzit.
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. That’s a good question. Yeah. Proud that I’m wearing them. Well, in the Bay, nobody really knows them, so it’s like only the people who… There’s no large Hasidic community, like nobody else is really wearing tzitzits. It’s very few people. I’m sure the percentage of… It’s probably the highest percentage queer tzitzits per capita or whatever that stat is in the world. I would guess, yeah.
So, like I don’t… Most people don’t recognize it. They just… The comments I rarely get are like, “Oh, that’s cute, those little fringes on your dress,” or whatever. They think it’s part of the garment. There’s been one guy who came up to me to… who had grown up around Orthodox Jewish community and came up to me to hit on me on the street, and it’s like, “Oh my G-d. I did not know you could be Orthodox and trans.” Or, “I did not know that those two went together,” or something. And he was very… And that was an interesting interaction. It didn’t end up going anywhere. He wasn’t my type.
But very rarely get seen and then just in queer Jewish community, it’s like appreciated, and loved, and whatever, which feels really beautiful. So, like walking into a… We have our niggun collective here, which is our monthly niggun circle, or “walking in,” back in the time when the world did that, when you would walk into a place, that was definitely like you check out who’s got the cute new undercut, the cute new piercing, and the fly ass pair of tzitzit coming out of their whatever gendered garment they have.
In New York, it’s a little different, both because… Part of the reason I’m in Cali is to be able to come out a lot more than I was in my home community back home. So, there’s like a general… My tzitzit are a really big part of my queerness, and the whole essence of me, of taking me in as trans girl, in a dress, with tzitzit coming out, that is a lot of points of information to be seen at once in a community that would know what all of those means and has connections with what types of body and people they see those little fringes coming out on. And so, there have been times where I’ve tucked them in, and luckily I’m half Ashki, half Sephardi, and there’s Sephardi custom to wear them in your body, close to… not showing, in order to have them closer to your body and because it’s more of a relationship and a reminder between you and Hashem, rather than the physical outward reminder of being able to look down and see your tzitzits, you know? You have in some Sephardi tradition and most Ashki.
And so, I have both, so like when I need to do one or the other, I do one or the other, but yeah, walking through Brooklyn I don’t always, or like in the subway, I don’t… Seeing a trans girl with some fringey stuff in a dress, if you don’t know what that means, is one way of getting publicly noticed. But like being noticed that you are, especially in moments when I felt less able to pass, like to be noticed as trans and to be noticed as wearing tzitzits, that’s just like a huge thing and a lot of attention that not always you want. But I was very happy one time, I was wearing them on the subway and on the subway, I think on the A train, and then this very hot dyke was checking me out and then turned out and then came to sit with… asked me, “Are those tzitzit?” And then came to sit with me and turned out that she had left the Satmar Chisidim and grew up Hasidic, and then left it to come out, and then we had a whole talk about that, which was pretty dreamy.
But yeah, so that’s… I definitely feel a difference in the Bay versus New York, where… with how I want to be seen, how I think I’m gonna be seen, and who’s gonna know enough to see me anyway, you know?
Emma June: It’s interesting, because I hear you say that, because I think if I were imagining before hearing you talk about it, I would have guessed like, “Oh, in New York, there are tons of queer people, tons of Jews, and tzitzit are really legible.” And I would have assumed that it was like something that felt freer there, and that’s really not what I’m hearing from you.
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. Legible. Freer versus legible is definitely a big question, right? You get this a lot in the… I have Southern trans friends, too, and in places where they’re… Outside of big cities, where there’s a lot less visible transness, if you just do enough to… There’s basically, there’s like… Where there are fewer women wearing pants and fewer men looking this, or blah, blah, blah, and there’s less of that gendered variance visible just walking around. If you go enough to pass over to one side, just by one step, they’re like, “Oh, you’re a woman or you’re a man.” And I know a lot of trans friends who are like… end up more easily passing in smaller communities, because people’s minds aren’t attuned to being like, “Is that a man in a dress? Or a feminine man?” Or something like that, because it’s really just like a more binarized system. So, if you take a step over to one side, and I’ve experienced that too in my times in small towns.
And so, that’s like people aren’t looking. You’re not as legible as trans, but you might feel a little freer, because you’re not being read all the time. And then that, to me, is a similar feeling in New York, where there’s so much more conscious Judaism, like at a time a quarter of that city was Jewish. It’s still the biggest Jewish city in the world, depending on where you mark the metro area, with it and Tel Aviv. And so, like when I want… The fewer people that I am seen by, I’m more met with love with by them in the Bay, versus I get a lot more weird stares the times and more fraught or frictionful interactions in New York, where it’s actually they know what’s going on, so there’s a little less of that freedom of invisibility that can come with people not knowing what the fringes are all the time.
Emma June: You mentioned a bit ago how you get to choose being Ashkenazi and Sephardic between those identities and how you wear your tzitzit, and you also talked some about going to neo-Chasidic services and really valuing yiddishkayt, and I’m curious how you interpret wearing your tzitzit at the intersection of your Jewish backgrounds. I don’t know if that question fully made sense.
Binya Kóatz: No, that makes a lot of sense. I really, I don’t actively think about it most of the time. Most of the time… There are things in my head marked Sephardi, things in my head marked Ashki, and things in my head just marked Jewish. And sometimes when I say the word yiddishkayt, I’m also talking about Judaism. I’m just saying it in an Ashki way. But like, yeah, tzitzit in my mind are more just in my like… Me and Hashem. Me and my Judaism space. They are it. But, okay, this is reminding… Yeah. It is definitely like learning the different ways of tying tzitzit, and tying them for my friends, or my lovers, depending on whether they are Ashkenazi or Sephardi, so I can connect them to their ancestral tradition, or if they’re a little chatsi chatsi like me.
You know, and I have a few. I have… One of my tallit katans have the tzitzit tied in the Sephardi way, or in the Moroccan way that I learned it, because that’s where my family’s from, and then half in the Ashkenazi way. So, I guess the different ways of tying tzitzit and how I learned them adds a different tongue, a different taste, depending on… at the intersection of the backgrounds I am. But most of the time, I’m like this isn’t really colored in that cultural way for me, and it’s more just like just me and Hashem and my queerness.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, we’ve been talking a lot about tzitzit, but I’m curious if you wear a tallis also.
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. I do, I put on tallis and tefillin every day except tefillin not on Yontif and Shabbos, and I daven Shacharit. I try to daven three times a day. I sometimes don’t always do that, but there are long stretches where I wear them every day.
Emma June: Do you feel as… I feel like when you’re talking about tzitzit and there’s a lot of excitement, and I’m curious how you relate to your tallis.
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. My tallis. Great Q. Yeah, so… It’s a big tallis gadol, and I love the feelings of the kind of wings of Shekhina being wrapped up in them when I’m davening. And then I love comparing that, or just having my Mincha and Maariv where I’m just davening, twirling my tallis katan tefillin, my tallis katan tzitzit, and just having kind of just what’s on my body for those two services, and then for Shacharit, donning this big thing and wrapping it around my whole body and feeling really held when I first wake up in the morning. And having these intention prayers and stuff like that in the hineini, and all these things.
And that’s like… That feels really beautiful. It’s my bat mitzvah tallis. It also, it was given to me by my Israeli family when I had my bat mitzvah at the Kotel. And at the Western Wall, and it’s really funny. So, my shem emet, my true name, and my government name that was on my birth certificate both have the same first initial, and in my… I still have my last name, Kóatz, and it’s really funny. On the tallis bag that my family gave me is like BC, instead of BK, and it’s because my Israeli family messed up and accidentally miswrote my last name on my bat mitzvah bag, and they… But they were all too embarrassed to say it, so the family story is that it means Binya Cohen, because I’m a Cohen also, and so…But that’s just totally not true. That’s just a spelling mistake on my bag, which I feel is really, really cute, and gay. Yeah.
Yeah, so I love my big tallis and the ways it holds me in the morning.
Emma June: Yeah. So, and with your family in Israel, how do you relate to wearing tzitzit or wearing your tallis around them? It seems like they’re involved, or they have been really involved in your Jewish practice.
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. Yeah, I have… That’s where all my… I have some Sephardi fam in Montreal, but the vast majority of them are in the Aretz now. Yeah. So, yeah, we have San Francisco, or the Bay Area, New York, and Israel as big loki [locations, locuses] of what it means to be visibly trans and Jewish. Yeah. With varying levels of Jewish legibility and queer illegibility, and so for me in Israel right now, it’s I’m actually still closeted to all my family there on multiple fronts. My transness. They know some of my religiosity, but not the extent, and almost all of them are very militantly secular, so it’s very funny to have my fam that’s in the Jewish state be very put off by Judaism, and the “Jewish state,” excuse me. And maybe it’s a tell, the fact that I said that, but they also don’t know about my anti-Zionism and diasporism, and so it’s like a lot of different closets that I’m in, all of which will be very hard neuro bridges to cross over when I do.
I was gonna be crossing over a few of them this Pesach, but then corona got in the way.
Emma June: Sure.
Binya Kóatz: And so, with them, yeah, it’s funny, because I’ve only… I’ve had one trip where I was actively wearing a tallis katan at the time and went to Israel, and never once showed my tzitzits the whole time I was there, and only a few days wore it underneath my clothes. Definitely called on my Sephardi custom there. And then had to be careful going to the beach. And that was like… It’s kind of like because to me, family is one of the most important things in life and in the world. I know that my family is gonna have a hard time with a lot of things that I am, and just at that time, which was like I think… I forget how many years ago. It was not the time to be coming out on all those fronts with them, and so I went into my little tzimtzum, my little drawing in for a week and a half or two weeks, so I could enjoy my cousin’s wedding and be with all my family and joy.
But definitely, and it was very beautiful the days. I’m now thinking about it, I probably did it still most days. Wore it underneath my clothes. And it was very beautiful in that moment to feel it on my body, and that was one of the moments I felt so… Felt that aspect of them that’s like, “This is just me and Hashem.” And I think it was Ha’Ari, like the kabbalist, who wore it all the time concealed and against his body. Because I wear mine against my body too. I don’t wear an undershirt underneath them, even though that’s a custom that a lot of people have. I wear this just against my body, and so yeah, just like the feeling of being in so many closets at that time, but knowing that Hashem saw me, and feeling her physically also in concealment with me, with the tzitzits, and knowing that she’s in… It was like I know, Shekhina is in every closet with every queer person. She is like so deeply there, just like she cries in every wound and is with every broken heart, she’s in every closet.
And I think that feeling the tzitzits on my body was like a real physical reminder of that, that my family sees me in one aspect of my beauty in this moment and I’m glad they do. There’s a whole lot that they don’t, and I’m glad, and it felt… It was so necessary and deep, like deeply, like a well of water in the desert to feel Hashem against my body in that way. In that hiding.
Emma June: Are you the only person in your family who wears them?
Binya Kóatz: I have one cousin, like cousin in the extended big family way, who is like… who my grandpa supports in his studies in Jerusalem, so he’s… And he’s in Kollel and just like living that Haredi Sephardi life and so he’s I think the only other one.
Emma June: It’s just… I just feel struck over and over how… I don’t know the right… Simply powerful this kind of piece of cloth with some string is.
Binya Kóatz: Right?
Emma June: Yeah.
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. It’s some old magic. And it’s like one of the core things we’re supposed to do, like that we have this whole five books with the whole Tanakh and all the commentary, and they’re like, “Okay, there’s one paragraph you have to read each day.” And like, you know, that whole thing is like one of the core things you gotta remember is tie this string to your shirt. I’m like, “Listen, Israel, G-d is one, G-d is yours.” Make sure to tie these strings to your shirt. That’s some old ass witchy deep ancient G-d shit. Yeah.
Emma June: Do you feel like there are any ways that you’ve made the practice of wearing tzitzit, or the tzitzit you have, or the tallis you have, particularly your own or particularly trans?
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. Okay. A couple of things. This is… Okay, and this is a PG-13 to R-rated podcast, right?
Emma June: That’s okay. It is now.
Binya Kóatz: Okay. Okay, so I’m gonna start with the PG-13, which is yeah, so I get my tallisim katani. I’ve never said it in plural in Ashkenazi, but my… I get them from Netzitzot, which I highly recommend to all.
Emma June: Can you say what that is?
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. It’s a women’s-owned tallis katan venue out of as far as I know, an apartment on the Upper West Side, that you, for 25 bucks, they give you either a black or a white tallis katan tied by a woman and it’s these converted H&M tank tops, so they cut them to have these slits, and then attach the tzitzits to the four corners, and so they’re very cute and very good. And that’s where I’ve gotten mine the whole time I’ve worn them, and I’ve gone through a few pairs.
Yeah, and they’re hot, so the thing is that with this slit, right? I think it’s the Halakha is that at least two thirds, it has to be at least two thirds up the seam. This is like, I’m just looking at it now, like about 80% of the seam, 90% of the seam, and then there’s a little piece of cloth, and then it’s a tank top, and so when that’s tucked into a skirt, it has these… It basically leaves these two flirty side tummy peeks, you know, that… Because there are like these big holes in the side, and when it’s tucked in, it just leaves these hot little pieces of your tummy showing, and then it’s a tank top, and then you have tzitzit coming out of your skirt, and so like I’ve done many a queer party. We have this thing called Mango here, which back in the pre-apocalypse days was a monthly outdoor lesbian, queer and trans dance party in San Francisco. During the day on Shabbos, which I would like… That was definitely the way that I most bend my shomer shabbos is when biking to the train to go to Mango.
And it’s like just during the day, and it’s amazing, it’s outdoors. It’s gorgeous. Just like full… Everybody’s like… Almost everybody is queer and or trans woman, and there’s just one or two gay men, and that’s it. And it’s such a good scene, and it’s outdoor parties, and there’s like a free… There’s this old, old, old dyke who cooks free hamburgers for everybody. It’s fucking incredible and I’ve gone to many of those just with a cute bra, and my tallis katan, and then a skirt, and then cute shoes, and that’s my whole outfit. And because it’s like a tank top with fringes at the end, it’s just like wearing a tank top, and it has these hot little slits in the side.
And so, that’s definitely been a way that… Yeah, that combination of transness, queerness, sexiness, and mitzvah is like all comes to one, because really mitzvot, very sexy. And G-d is very sexy, and like you know, serving her, serving this giant gay queen in the sky feels like a very sexy endeavor, and so definitely have felt that, and that’s one way I have felt it. And worn it in many Pride parades, and dyke marches, and trans marches and stuff like that. And sometimes I have to take off the top of the… This isn’t Kosher, I think, but I think I have to take off the top of the… I don’t have it around my shoulders. I kind of like have it just kind of tucked into whatever waistband I have, so that the tzitzit are still hanging out, but I don’t have it around my shoulder, because I want like a crop top and I just want to just be wearing that or something like that. So, I’ve definitely fucked around with them.
And then the more R-rated good stuff is that… Yeah, like I said, strings in a bed are very good, and you know, people do a lot with BDSM and bondage stuff that involve different ropes being used in different ways to restrain or cut off, or hold back, or anything, or like feel all these different things, and… Wow, I feel so naughty saying this out loud. I am so heavily blushing. Yeah, or to smack or whatever. One quick comedic aside is that there are stories in the Talmud of rabbis who were about to sin or were doing a sin and then their tzitzit come up and smack them in the face, take on the little poltergeist and smack him in the face, so using tzitzit to smack things definitely has a long rabbinic tradition. Yeah, and so like feeling that on my body, and now I’m just thinking about this now too, like trans… Being trans and naked is a very vulnerable thing oftentimes, because often we use our clothing to express our gender a lot. And so, when we’re just in our skin, or I’ll just also speak from the I, when I’m just in my skin, I need to be with people I really trust to see me and to hold me in my girlhood. And having a tallit katan on my body at that moment, or maybe it’s like the only thing on my body at that moment, and having it have all these strings, and ropes, and useful things, and to just not only have that as a marker of my Judaism and my gender on my body when I’m… have taken off all my other clothes is such a beautiful thing and makes me really feel like when I’m having sex or in some sort of naked play kind of space that I have Hashem there with me and that she’s in the joy with me and whoever else I’m with, as well.
And so, yeah. That’s a lot of the ways that tzitzit has played into my life.
Emma June: Great answers.
Binya Kóatz: Thank you.
Emma June: We come so many strings attached.
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. I’ve got at least four.
Emma June: I’m curious if there are any things that are kind of like lingering in your mind, or like stories left unshared, or something I didn’t quite get at that you feel like is still connected, and that you’d want to talk a little bit about?
Binya Kóatz: Let me think on it one second. Yeah. It’s amazing the feeling of… I don’t know if you, like I have this ring that I really haven’t taken off in like five years or so, and a lot of people, you have these pieces of clothing or jewelry oftentimes people can have that doesn’t come off, or like everybody knows like a wedding ring, right? Where when it’s off you, you’re like, “Oh my G-d, I feel naked.” Or like I haven’t felt it off me in so long. And that’s how I feel now, like getting with my tallit katan, and it’s so beautiful the ways that it’s become an intrinsic part of my dress and my body in a lot of ways, and like my torso has forgotten what it feels like to not have this on it.
Yeah, and for a lot of time it was just on it, and then in a really beautiful moment on transition, like when I started to wear bras, like then I had both of these things on my torso that were making me feel so holy, like a holy good Jewish girl that I am. And like everything, it goes, like you end up something is ecstatic, and then it becomes routine, and so… But I love that, and I think that’s the same in so much of Judaism, with daily prayer, with the calendar, with Jewish time, with Jewish this, and that, and blah, blah, blah, like we slowly build up these stunning routines until we have all these ways that all these ancestral lived practices… Because you know, there’s a purely conceptual and theoretical way to approach divinity and to approach G-d, like G-d, you can just meditate on the oneness, and just remember that all is one, and it really doesn’t matter what’s on your body, this thing or that thing, because all is one. Even a random thing, like a random shirt or whatever, that’s all part of G-d, because G-d is all oneness.
And you can be in that purely esoteric or mental space with connecting with the divinity and with your creator. But what Jewish practice does is it builds all these routines, and rituals, and habits that are there to hold you, knowing that you can’t always be actively thinking about G-d, because you’re human, so though that’s the goal, or that could be the goal, you also have to eat, and work, and do your shit, and then you drop a thing and you’re like, “Ah,” you move on. You can go days, weeks, whatever, without checking in with Hashem if that was… if your only way to check in was through taking the time to sit and think.
But like these rituals and ways of making the divine oneness tactile, and taking her from infinite to finite, but in a way that hints at the infinity again is like all these genius ways that Judaism has passed on that tradition. Like every single place on Earth is holy, but like every time we move in and out of a door, we kiss a thing to remember, and that doesn’t remind us that door posts are specifically holy. It’s just like in those moments of transition, we reconnect with the holiness of everything, and like every moment in every day is holy, but morning, afternoon, night, we reconnect with the holiness of everything. And before and after a meal we reconnect with the holiness of everything, and these specific points of ancestral gratitude practice, and connective practice, and holiness practice, and like having this, and having it be tactile, and clothing, and on my body, and part of my outfit, and just on my day, and casually my fingers, like being twirled around them or in the best moments, somebody else flirtatiously twirling theirs around them, that is such a genius and tzitzit are just such a genius part of that whole enterprise of taking the infinite divine, giving us finite connections to her, so that we don’t lose it in a sea of undifferentiatedness.
But making sure those finite connections connect us back to the infinity, and so tzitzit and all the magic around them, and the tactile magic around them is definitely a big part of that.
Emma June: Damn. I love that. That really made me… Okay, when I… I’ve only been a mikveh once. I went to this gender inclusive mikveh in the Boston area called Mayyim Hayyim.
Binya Kóatz: Oh! That was my first mikveh. [crosstalk] Hashem! Yeah, I went to Brown-
Emma June: Oh my gosh.
Binya Kóatz: And the queer Jews of Brown all went for a queer mikveh there one year that I was there.
Emma June: I went after I graduated college and-
Binya Kóatz: … Hashem.
Emma June: I have a bunch of piercings, and I got really scared because I was like, “I might have to take everything out. I’ve never taken these out before. I’m gonna have to go back to a piercer to get them put back in.”
Binya Kóatz: I feel that.
Emma June: Properly. I was like really stressed about it and ended up talking with somebody who works there about it and she was like, “Actually, if you’ve had the jewelry in for…” I think it was like three months, that is halachically considered part of your body.
Binya Kóatz: Ahhh!
Emma June: If you have had that on or in you for like three months, it is part of you.
Binya Kóatz: Wow.
Emma June: Halachically, and therefore take out any earrings that you don’t… that are interchangeable, but don’t feel worried about your nose ring, or your cartilage piercing, or something. That’s fine.
Binya Kóatz: Holy shit.
Emma June: And so, I just was really thinking about that when you were saying all of the pieces of jewelry and clothing that come to feel like part of you, that like there’s almost… There is like a part of our tradition, and I really wish I knew where it is, but I don’t, but that really honors that. That’s really like, “Yeah, it is part of you.”
Binya Kóatz: Wow. That’s so good. Holy shit. Can we riff on that for a second? Okay, that… Wow. Okay. I’m just thinking holy shit. Okay. Yeah. So, I think about, what that’s making me think about is like the ways that trans people, a lot of trans Jews understand our experience has a really explicit way of being a partner in the creation of ourselves with Hashem, and part of our power as btselem Elohim is that we have a part of her creative power, and she didn’t leave… She didn’t finish the work of the world on the sixth day, and she didn’t finish the work of our bodies and our souls when we exited the womb, you know?
And so, like we become partners of her in her creation in that large scale global sense as we work for tikkun olam, and within ourselves, and trans people know that really intimately as the ways that we grow in our bodies with Hashem. And to include our jewelry, our tallit katans, the ways, and especially because so much of that is so gay. It’s so much of our early gay experiences or way of showing our gayness. It’s like through piercings until enough straight people start doing them and then we have to find different ways to pierce ourselves, and it’s a constant thing and how we undercut our hairs or whatever. We just have to a step gayer than the straights.
Yeah, so that’s so beautiful to include that as a part of it, and yeah, I’m just like that’s such a holy recognition. I know the couple of times that I’ve been arrested at different actions, like the cops have made me take out all those things, so it seems like a really beautiful… I wish I had that on my tongue when I was like, “Actually, halachically this is part of my body. You can’t take out this nose ring…” And for me, I actually have done a couple queer… been blessed. I did, or I’ve done a couple mikvaot, and I, at my last one, I did take out my nose ring that’s there forever, and I didn’t know about this halacha beforehand, and it felt very strange, but I love the wisdom for both the taking out and the not taking out. And definitely feel your worry in like, “Oh shit, am I gonna be able to get this back in?”
But thank you for bringing that in. That was so cool.
Emma June: Yeah. I hadn’t thought of it in a long time, actually, so it’s always exciting to make connections. I feel like Judaism is a place that that happens for me a lot.
Binya Kóatz: Amen, amen, amen. Yeah.
Emma June: Well, would you want to wrap up and blow the shofar?
Binya Kóatz: Hey. Okay. You’re only allowed to include the ones that I do well on, okay?
Emma June: Okay.
Binya Kóatz: Okay, so do you want to call out some things?
Emma June: What do you call out? T’kiah?
Binya Kóatz: Yeah, the standard is t’kiah and then for I think… I actually don’t have it fully clear, but the things I’ve seen is that Chabad does it t’kiah, truah, shevarim, and then the Sephardi thing I’ve seen is t’kiah, shevarim, truah. so the shevarim of three and the truah the nine.
Emma June: Okay, wait. The order is tekiah-shevarim?
Binya Kóatz: Truah. And then you can do t’kiah gadola. But yeah.
Emma June: Okay.
Binya Kóatz: Oh, my G-d. And wait, before you go, you have to say a shechechiyanu, because this is your first time, no?
Emma June: That is true.
Binya Kóatz: Oh, Baruch Hashem. Thank you for giving me this fucking opportunity to do your shechechiyanu with time hearing the shofar this Elul.
Emma June: Right back at you. Seriously. Okay, Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.
Binya Kóatz: Amen. Okay.
Emma June: Okay. Tekiah. Shevarim. Truah. T’kiah Gadola. That’s amazing.
Binya Kóatz: I’m sure. I’m sure my iPhone headphones captured that in all its perfect glory.
Emma June: You’ll listen back and go, “Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like.”
Binya Kóatz: That’s exactly, I got this special Elul edition of the headphones, so it’s specifically tuned to capture all your t’kiah gadola.
Emma June: Made for shofar blasts.
Binya Kóatz: Amen Amen. Baruch Hashem Baruch Hashem. May we all crack open in front of the one who heals.
Emma June: Well, with that adrenaline rush, any final thoughts?
Binya Kóatz: Yeah. I just love the idea of every podcast ending with a t’kiah gadola. That’s a good way. Yeah. Yeah, no, I want to… If I can have permission to just soap box for like five seconds, I am a big sheliach emissary, advocate, stan, fan of every queer wearing their tzitzits, and I think it’s such a stunning embodied way, and especially with the combination of being able to wear it inside and outside, like tucked in or not tucked in as needed, I think it’s a really beautiful way to hold Hashem in your closeted spaces, hold Hashem in your really statically seen places, and like have her with you as you’re edging from one of those into the other, or like moving in a place that’s not the easiest place to be seen in your fullness, but you have Hashem with you and that’s like… and you always do, but this is like her reminder to you.
And so, deeply want to dream and imagine and crave a queer shtetl that we all build diasporically that tzitzits become a sign of our queerness, and known, and reclaimed in their holy fringeness, and you, and if you are somebody, and I know if you’re listening to this podcast you are, on that holy fringe, this was really specifically meant for you, and it’s like gay, and awesome, and transgressive, and whatever in this patriarchal world and blah, blah, blah, but like really more deeply beyond transgressive and fun parts of that is a return to where these tzitzit belong, which is like on your gay body, which is what they symbolize and what they are meant to make holy. So, hit me up if you need any fem fashion tips on wearing tzitzit with crop tops, wearing tzitzit with short skirts, anything like that. More than happy to help anybody out with that.
But yeah, so big advocate, love it, and want to see it more and more in the world.
Emma June: Well, thank you so much for talking to me.
Binya Kóatz: Thank you so much. This was such a glorious little thing. I just love that I’m like I was just around here doing this thing, and then somewhere all the way across the country somebody was like, “I’m doing a podcast about that thing.” I was like, “Cool.” So amazing.
Emma June: Yeah.
Binya Kóatz: Well, thank you, and thank you so much for putting the time and effort to taking all this and making it art, and such deep blessings to you and gratitude to you.
Emma June: Thank you. It’s really been so fulfilling, so yeah, and I get to meet and talk to people like you, so that’s a true joy.
Binya Kóatz: Aw, shucks. Thanks. I’m shyly coyly twirling my tzitzit. Beautiful.
Emma June: Incredible. I’m gonna press stop recording.
Binya Kóatz: Okay.
Emma June: But we’ll still be… Unless…
Binya Kóatz: May you be written in the Book of Life. Amen.
Emma June: Amen.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode6. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot C-O-M/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-6.
As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in the world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A big shkoyach, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, talented creator of our music. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
For this week's episode I interviewed Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari. He is a Rabbi at Kol Tzedek synagogue in Philadelphia, were he has a more in depth bio written here.
It was so incredible to talk with him. He is so overflowing with knowledge, has thought deeply about tallitot and tzitzit, and treats the subject with so much care.
Shana tova to all <3
Some definitions and links from our conversation:
Bimah: a raised platform in a synagogue from which the Torah is read
Atarah: The "crown" or "collar" on many tallitot that contains the words of the blessing you say when donning the tallit. Some people put their own words or no words on the atarah.
Urchatz and Rachatz: The hand-washing parts of the Passover seder.
The Jewish Catalogue: A Do-It-Yourself book by Richard Siegel about the basics of Jewish practice and celebration.
Joseph Soloveitchik: an American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist, and Jewish philosopher.
B'stelem Elohim: The idea that all people are created in the image of G-d.
Shatnez: Cloth containing both wool and linen which is prohibited according to Jewish law.
Purim: a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 14th of Adar in commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews from the massacre plotted by Haman. Often celebrated with the re-telling of the story of Esther, sometimes in the form of a play.
Hiddur Mitzvah: enhancing a mitzvah with aesthetics.
Kavanah: the Hebrew word for intention.
Tefillin Shel Yad: the tefillah that lays on the arm.
Siddur: Jewish prayer book.
Tekhelet: Highly prized blue dye, historically used to dye tzitzit (depending on the tradition, two strings, one string, or half of one string). The tradition using tekhelet was not often used for a long time, but has more recently been revived.
Brit Ahuvim: A lover's covenant. Different in wording from a Brit Nissuin, or marriage covenant. It changes the language from one of acquisition to one of equality in partnership.
The Shema: A very important Jewish prayer, honoring the one-ness of G-d.
Chuppah: A canopy that a Jewish couple stands under during their wedding ceremony.
Elliott batTzedek: Jewish feminist and poet, whose poem "Gathering" was mentioned by Ari Lev.
Prayer for chest binding on TransTorah
With any questions or comments, email me at email@example.com
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hey there. I’m Emma June, and this is Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot, put simply, are Jewish prayer shawls, and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the bottom of them. For more in-depth definitions please check out the first episode. In today’s episode, I interview Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari. As always, they will introduce themself.
Ari Lev: I’m really excited to be on this show and have a chance to talk about I guess one of the first spiritual practices and ritual innovations that I had in my own process of coming more fully into myself as a trans person, as a Jew, and eventually as a rabbi. Let’s see. My name is Ari Lev. I use he or they pronouns, and I live in West Philadelphia, and I’m the rabbi of Kol Tzedek synagogue, and I’m also a parent of two little ones, who are three and five. Zeev and Naim. And I’m a lover of studying Talmud, and I love to bike, and garden, and cook, and I have a longtime meditation practice, and now a deepening prayer practice, of which certainly tallitot and tzitzit are a core component.
Emma June: Wow. Thank you. Can you maybe start off by just sharing when you think back, what some of your first memories and associations with tallitot and tzitzit are from your life?
Ari Lev: Yeah. It’s not a ritual that I have what I would call early, formative memories about. I grew up in a fairly classical Reform synagogue, and I don’t really remember if anyone during Shabbat services wore tallit. I don’t even know that at that time if the rabbis wore a tallit. They certainly wore robes, and kind of shawls, but I can’t even quite viscerally remember, like did those shawls have tzitzit on them? They looked more like what I would imagine kind of a progressive Lutheran pastor would look like.
I have my child… 30 years later, they do wear tallitot and tzitzit now on the Bimah. That I know for sure, because I’ve been back. So, I don’t have a lot of early childhood memories. I did get a tallit when I became b’nei mitzvah, and I remember wearing it for my b’nei mitzvah, and I don’t really remember it, almost ever wearing it since then. And I first sort of re-encountered tallit and tzitzit when I was a young adult exploring the intersections of Jewish practice and masculinity, coming into my own self as a gender queer trans person and wanting to kind of encounter a more integrated inner life. And so, I had at that point… At that point, I had been wearing payos. I had not been cutting the corners of my hair for several years. I ultimately wore payos for about seven years and had been wearing a kippah daily, and was experimenting with what would it look like if I also wore tzitzit? And then kind of emerged a larger question of, “What is this ritual and how might I integrate it more fully into my own life and what would that mean for me and what it would mean for others who perceived it?”
Emma June: So, were you wearing a tallit katan?
Ari Lev: Yeah, so a couple different things emerged when I was… After I graduated college in about 2004, I was exploring the path to the rabbinate and I remember I was a perspective student at a rabbinical school, and I didn’t have a tallit to wear. And I was distressed about this. I didn’t feel comfortable in the tallit that I had gotten for my b’nei mitzvah. I wanted kind of a larger, more what I would call now like a tallit gadol, and a then lover actually said, “Let’s make one.” And that had never occurred to me before, so we actually took all of the political patches off of my backpack and we bought this beautiful, large piece of kind of white woven fabric, and we laid out the patches so that they kind of form the crown of the atarah, and the corners, they kind of bolster the corners of the tallit.
Emma June: Sure.
Ari Lev: And for many years, that was my primary tallit. I mean, all the way through until about 2014, so for about 10 years, that was my primary tallit. And for a while I then retired that and called it my whole tallit, meaning it was the tallit of the regular week, not holy times, or Shabbat, or holidays. And now at this point, for me, it’s my protest tallis. And it feels like that’s the energy that it carries, so its place in my heart has kind of evolved, but that was the first tallit that I ever wore regularly, and so part of my relationship to tallit is this idea that we make them.
And in that process, I also made a tallit katan, which I just made by cutting up a really soft t-shirt and kind of slitting it down the sides, and then putting kind of reinforcing fabric in the corners and tying tzitzit there, and I used the Jewish Catalog to tie tzitzit, actually. I still use the Jewish Catalog to tie tzitzit. And so, a lot of what I learned, I learned directly out of the Jewish Catalog, 1970s style.
Emma June: Wow. That’s-
Ari Lev: And… I’m sorry, go for it.
Emma June: I was just gonna ask if you could talk more about just what it means, this idea that you, a tallit is one that you make. Does that feel connected to being gender queer to you? Or like when I hear it, I’m like, “That feels connected.”
Ari Lev: Yeah. I mean, certainly there was a sense of kind of taking ownership over my body and my Judaism. There was also a desire to not buy a tallit that was made in Israel, or was made in a sweatshop, or had kind of a corporate factory feel, and kind of what does it mean to buy ritual objects that have integrity to them, that feel values aligned if we’re gonna elevate to the status of holy? And so, that was a priority for me, as well, was finding a tallit not made in Israel, and it seemed like the easiest way to do that was to make one.
Emma June: Totally.
Ari Lev: Which is I think one of the unique niches that ADVAH Designs fills now.
Emma June: Definitely. I think that’s definitely a reason some of our customers find us and want the tallitot that we make. And yeah, I guess could you talk a little more about how you imagine the role of a tallis in a protest? And why you wear it while protesting?
Ari Lev: Yeah. It was interesting. There was a Facebook thread about this amongst rabbis recently. I wear it for a number of reasons. One of them is certainly when I’m invited to a protest as clergy, often we’re kind of asked to come robed, like to come visible, which is interesting because actually there isn’t in Jewish tradition anything that clergy would wear that Jews wouldn’t wear, which is different than other religious traditions, certainly than Christianity. And so, to come clothed or cloaked as Jewish is not to come as a rabbi. It’s just to come as a Jew.
But the tallit can be more visible than something like a kippah. Certainly, it makes for… I think if we’re thinking about media effect, I think it has a really good media effect, and it kind of… It marks our bodies and our presence in a certain way. But I also think it, for me personally, has the impact of kind of bringing a prayerful mindfulness to my presence there, to remind me like what am I embodying in this space? How am I approaching this protest? With what energy and intention am I bringing into this space? So, for me, it kind of acts on me as much as it acts externally, and I think there’s a sense of, I don’t know, very kind of core Abraham Joshua Heschel, when he felt his feet were praying. There’s a way in which having a tallit on can remind us that protest is another manifestation of bringing the world closer to the one we long for, which is part of what prayer is.
Emma June: Right. And it’s kind of in a way fulfilling the commandment that wearing a tallis is supposed to fulfill, right? Or the mitzvah.
Ari Lev: Yeah. I feel that way. Oh, and I’m like, “Does one say the blessing for putting on a tallit when they’re wearing it to a protest?” So, I don’t have an answer to that, but I think it’s a live question in my own heart.
Emma June: Could you… I don’t understand why.
Ari Lev: Well, there’s circumstances under which we might do a mitzvah, where sometimes we would say the blessing and sometimes we wouldn’t. So, for example, if I’m putting on my tallit before Saturday morning services, I’m definitely gonna say, “L’hit-a-teif Be-tzitzit.” The one who has instructed us to wrap ourselves in tzitzit. And then there’s a question of if I’m putting it on before a protest, is this also what I’ve been instructed to put on, and how do I see this moment relative to my own kind of spiritual obligations? I’m trying to think. There are others. I’m trying to think of a good example of a time when we would do a mitzvah, but where we would do something we might do as a mitzvah, but we might say it without a blessing.
This happens with handwashing, actually. A good example would be the Passover Seder. We have both urchatz and rachatz. We wash our hands twice, and the first time we wash our hands without a blessing, and the second time we wash our hands with a blessing. So, sometimes we do the same act and we can decide, “Am I doing it with or without a blessing?” So, that’s one example.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, speaking of blessings, you are a co-author of a blessing for chest binding.
Ari Lev: Yeah.
Emma June: Could you talk at all about that blessing? I use it and I know that it contains at least part of the blessing you say when you tie tzitzit, so I would really love to hear more about what went into it for you, and like how you find a connection between chest binding and tzitzit.
Ari Lev: Yeah, absolutely. I guess the first thing I’ll back up and say is I wore daily tzitzit for a very limited period of time. I experimented with wearing them kind of external to my clothing and also internal to my clothing. I think I utterly shocked my parents when I kind of came downstairs one time. I was visiting. I’d been living in San Francisco and I was visiting, and it’s like I have payos, and I have tzitzit. They were kind of like here they have raised me to be a good, classical Reform Jew. It was like, “Who are you? Have you strayed from the path?” But ultimately, just felt like it wasn’t my own. It didn’t feel authentic to who I was. But it’s still something I’ve wondered about as my relationship to tallit katan, so I’ve made several of them, including a tallit katan chest binder, but it’s not something that I’ve spent a lot of my time actually wearing. And in some ways, the symbolic power of the ritual object and the blessing itself were utterly transformative to create and knowing that you and many other people have kind of lived into the legacy and use them is incredible. We never know kind of the impact of our own creativity.
So, for me, I partnered with Rabbi Elliot Kukla. We were friends and I sort of approached him and had this idea, and I think it came up because I was thinking so literally about binding, right? And we talk about in the Shema, you should bind these words upon your heart and upon the frontlets of your eyes, and there it’s really referring to the practice of wearing tefillin. But for me, chest binding had become something that I had… was a source of pain and discomfort, even as it was also a source of liberation. Even as it allowed me to sort of be seen and move through the world in a way that felt resonant, it also actually just was very physically uncomfortable, and I wanted a way to kind of sanctify that. I wanted a way to sort of elevate it, to reframe it, and give me kind of some spiritual power to push through the practice of binding my chest.
And so, for somehow I was thinking about the four-cornered garments, and binding, and I was like, “What do I need? I have a binder on and then I have a tallit katan on, and then I have a t-shirt, and then I have a sweatshirt.” I was like, “This is way too many layers.” And I had seen somewhere that people had started putting… I don’t know if it was in gest or a real practice was tying tzitzit onto a bra. And I was like, “Oh, I should tie tzitzit onto my chest binder.”
Emma June: Yeah.
Ari Lev: So, it kind of organically developed in that way, and then I was like, “What’s the blessing for chest binding?” And it’s part of the blessing is feeling commanded and feeling a sense of holiness through an act, I was like, “I want to feel that. I want to feel that my… I want to sanctify my own gender identity. I want to take it out of kind of this desperate, worst-case scenario deviance in society, and say no, really, this is also part of what G-d wants for me.” Which, creating a blessing made it more possible to tap into that truth. That part of our job in this world is to manifest ourselves and we see this even in the most traditional sources.
Joseph Soloveitchik writes this, that each and every one of us is called to sort of be in a relationship with divinity and be... What it is to be b’tselem elohim is to create ourselves in this world. Even the most orthodox of sources would kind of affirm that idea, that part of what it is to be b’tselem elohim is this practice of what Elliot and I called hityatzrut. Self-formation. And you know, our own journey inward and the process of coming out as trans through that journey inward is nothing short of kind of a miracle.
So, I approached Elliot and I didn’t, I wasn’t steeped in Jewish learning at this point. I was kind of exploring the path to the rabbinate, but didn’t have a lot of access to text or Hebrew, and we sort of had a bunch of phone calls where we talked about what did we want to draw on, what energies did we want to bring, where did we want to pull from, and I don’t remember if he maybe sent me a draft, what do you think about this? And I said, “Oh, what do you think about this?” And we kind of went back and forth and collaborated on the creation of this. But this idea that it was a mitzvah to bind my chest and a mitzvah to create myself was extremely liberating for me, personally.
And I guess the very fact of that I had to… You know, you can’t buy a tallit katan chest binder, so it seemed right to put on some of what we say when we actually tie tzitzit, because there was an element of that kind of creative energy that’s present when we make new ritual objects.
Emma June: Yeah. I mean, it’s beautiful. It makes me… When I say it and when I hear you say that it makes me feel like I’m making myself holy.
Ari Lev: That’s the goal. I mean, I think you are.
Emma June: Right. I don’t think that’s what we’re always told, or led to believe, or often do.
Ari Lev: Or internalize.
Emma June: Internalize. Yeah. And I think it’s really creative, and I think… I guess I’ve really been thinking as I have been approaching this project, and part of it is just me trying to understand how to feel holy, how to feel ownership and trust in an object like a tallis that the way it was presented was like… It’s for men, or now in this feminist moment of reform Judaism, it’s for men and women, but the women’s ones have pink on them. Or you know, kind of like that it’s felt hard to know how to access this object. And so, you talking about making your own tallitot, and making this blessing, feel really connected to that idea for me.
Ari Lev: And I want to say my desire to keep making tallitot hasn’t ended there. I’ve made… At this point I have about half a dozen tallitot, and I’ve made several of them, actually. And in fact, at Kol Tzedek, at my synagogue, my partner who is very crafty, we ran a tallit-making workshop with a multi-session to support people to make their own tallitot, and more than once I’ve sort of sat pastorally with people and realized what we need to do is make a tallit together and kind of invited people into that journey, and tied tzitzit with people. I have found that practice to know that you could make an object that you can kind of cradle yourself in, reswaddle yourself, kind of rewombing every time you encounter prayer, and I think there’s something very important and kind of points to the embodiment of prayer, which prayer can feel overly cerebral and kind of disconnecting, and I think a tallit is a real antidote to that.
And so, I’ll often make a tallit with people, or invite them to tie tzitzit, or teach them how to do that, so they can… There’s a huge point of empowerment to feel like I can make these ritual objects for myself. And it’s not just what it does about your relationship to tallit, but it does that in your relationship to Judaism in general to realize like, “Oh, I can make this my own.”
Emma June: Could you share more about some of the tallitot that you’ve made?
Ari Lev: Sure. This past summer, I was really on a hunt for having… Well, it grew out of both practicality and kind of sense of renegade witches. In my practice of reading prayer every week, I got a tallit when I was ordained as a rabbi, which I really love. But it’s a very slippery kind of synthetic fabric and it’s always falling off my shoulders, and I’ve gotten the feedback that I fidget with it too much. So, I was like, “I need a less slippery tallit.” And I found a beautiful Turkish bath towel. This is my number one recommendation I now say to people. If you want to make your own tallit, a really good, easy place to start is with a Turkish bath towel. They’re beautiful, soft, cotton, they already have fringes along the edges, you don’t have to hem them, they’re already to go. And for some reason, they’re kind of the perfect size.
Emma June: Wow.
Ari Lev: And so, I sewed onto it another piece of fabric as an atarah, and the corners, and then I really wanted to have a tallit that had tekhelet. All of my tzitzit had just been plain white. There’s something about sort of drawing on the spirit of looking at and seeing uri item, like the tekhelet. The blue dye within the tzitzit and this kind of sky element, so I made this kind of spacious sky tallit. It’s off white with kind of a teal coloring, with tzitzit that have tekhelet, and kind of just try to draw on a more expansive spirit. So, that’s the most recent tallit that I’ve made. And I have this white one that I wear on High Holidays, and I have my protest tallis. And then I have also for the brit ahuvim I had with a partner, with my partner, I… Her parents had been married under a very traditional tallit, like a black and white, very traditional tallit, but that they embroidered their Hebrew names onto. And so, for our brit ahuvim, my partner embroidered our Hebrew names onto that same tallit, and so now there’s two generations of names on this one tallit.
And sometimes, for whatever reason, the right moment, I’ll also wear that tallit. So, even though I didn’t make that tallit from scratch, it sort of has these enhancements, and my partner’s mother, she’s also a rabbi and she had actually done all sorts of embroidery to kind of adorn it, so it has a lot of kind of beautiful intricacies to it, and just to say that we can also take a very traditional tallit or a store-bought tallit and we can make it our own by embroidering words on it, or designs, or somehow, or quilting on it somehow, enhancing it and kind of reclaiming it as uniquely ours.
Emma June: That’s so beautiful. Wow. Wow. Yeah. It’s really… It was very liberating for me to learn that the commandment of wearing tzitzit is really… It wants you to have four corners and it wants you to have these fringes, but that it can be on most any material.
Ari Lev: Yeah. Yeah. In fact, actually this summer I realized that the fabric I was using for the atarah was linen, and so I looked into the rules of Shatnez and got into this whole long conversation about whether I observe Shatnez or care about Shatnez, and for a couple of years-
Emma June: Can you say what that is?
Ari Lev: Yeah. Shatnez is one of theses irrational, and I say that with a fondness, actually, irrational biblical mitzvot to not wear clothing that mixes linen and wool.
Emma June: Okay.
Ari Lev: And I… It’s not something I, when I go to buy clothing, I’m not regularly checking, “Does this have linen and wool in it?” But it felt different to make a ritual object that blatantly kind of was in violation of this biblical commandment. And it’s a biblical commandment that is sort of often held up as kind of even more than the laws of keeping kosher, kind of like, “What is this really about,” is like a mysterious question. And actually, for Purim, my very crafty partner, has actually made a piece of fabric that is itself kind of a quilted collage of linen and wool, and she cut it into a dress, and so she has a dress that she wears called Lady Shatnez as her Purim costume every year.
You know, it’s important to have a playful defiance of these biblical commandments. Anyways, so one of the questions was can I have wool tzitzit on a tallis that has linen on it? Is that a violation of Shatnez? Which I ultimately learned the answer is no, but that’s just another example of how when we make our own ritual objects, it allows us also to ask a whole variety of questions that maybe wouldn’t have been open to us or necessarily for us to ask if we just sort of accept Judaism as something that we can buy in a store or receive passively, so there’s something very fundamental of generating an active relationship with Jewish practice that the creation of the tallit katan chest binder and the blessing for it kind of opened in me a love of ritual innovation and a real sense of agency in relationship to Judaism.
Emma June: Wow. I keep saying it. That’s very beautiful. But that’s just how I keep feeling. Wow. That’s very, very exciting to hear about.
Ari Lev: Yeah. I think exciting’s a good word. I want people to feel that part of why live a Jewish life is because it makes us feel more ourselves. It makes us feel beautiful. The mitzvot of Hiddur mitzvah, of really taking care to experience the mitzvot is beautiful. I think the tallit is a really good manifestation, like a really good example of where beauty can really draw us. How we can be drawn to beauty and it can also draw us out of ourselves.
Emma June: Yeah. And I think I feel that way about being trans, as well. About wanting or needing physical clothing, markers, that make me feel beautiful. And it’s really empowering to hear about or think about finding ways for a tallis to embody both that feeling as a trans person and as a Jewish person, like in one object, instead of letting those be separate.
Ari Lev: Yeah, and I mean it’s so interesting for me, like the depths of which I’ve sort of journeyed with tallit, at this point I don’t even think of it as a gendered ritual object. You would need to remind me that it’s a gendered ritual object at this point. One of the more profound questions I’m asking myself right now as a congregational rabbi is is it a specifically Jewish ritual object? And this comes up with a lot of my conversion students. At what point can they start wearing a tallit? And who decides that? And when they are in synagogue on a Saturday morning, should they wear a tallit before they have converted? And it just brings up this question of what’s our relationship to these knotted fringes? And then for me they also become metaphor. I mean, I love Elliot bat Tzedek’s poem called Gatherings, if you’re not familiar with it.
Emma June: I’m not.
Ari Lev: Oh, my goodness. It’s an incredible poem that’s at Fringes, which is a non-zionist, feminist havurah that meets in… I think it meets in Mount Airy or Germantown. They do this as kind of their opening kavanah, and the essence of it, which I don’t want to butcher, is essentially something like… My paraphrase of it, I should say, is, “Gather what you’ve loved and gather what you’ve lost. Gather your longings and gather your accomplishments.” It’s this whole idea that we gather the four corners of our mind. We gather everything we were, is, and will be in the world. We gather all the places that we want to send energy and we hold that in close. And so, now regardless of whether you’re wearing a tallit, I try to invoke that energy at Kol Tzedek that part of wearing a tallit is preparing us for this moment of the shema, where for a moment we can be whole, or we can imagine, or feel in our bodies that possibility of wholeness.
Emma June: Yeah. Oh, I love that. I’m definitely going to go look at that poem.
Ari Lev: Yeah. I really recommend it. I think they have a Shabbat version and even a High Holidays version. We have a poetry companion that we use at Kol Tzedek and it’s printed right in there.
Emma June: Amazing. Well, hopefully it’ll be online and then I can also link it in show notes.
Ari Lev: It’s definitely on. You can definitely find it online. Yeah, I could even imagine it’d be cool for ADVAH to do something with those words.
Emma June: Yeah.
Ari Lev: The closing line is the most profound part, which is, “And have the courage to proclaim that all we gather is holy.”
Emma June: Wow.
Ari Lev: I could imagine… Elliot is also a feminist, and a lesbian, and I don’t know how else she identifies in the world, but I could imagine… She’s an author and a poet and I could imagine she would be a good person for you to interview, potentially.
Emma June: Yeah. It’s really amazing. The more I talk to people, the more I learn how many people are doing amazing things that I’d just never heard of. Which is interesting, because when I… I have spent a bunch of time trying to Google and find online information about queer and trans Jews using tallitot and tzitzit, and there’s not a ton of content out there. So, in fact you’re one of the only people that shows up.
Ari Lev: Yeah. It’s interesting, because I actually feel like it’s become so much more common now. I feel like when I run in kind of leftist Jewish circles, I see a lot of trans masculine folks wearing payos and tzitzit. I was joking I was ahead of my times. Maybe I would still be doing it if there had been more people. But at the time, I felt like just a total freak. Not in a bad sense, but you know, just kind of, “What am I doing?” But now when I move through leftist circles, I see a lot of trans masculine folks wearing tzitzit. It feels almost like normative practice. It might be so normative that no one’s writing about it.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I mean, I see it fairly regularly in Boston, as well. That’s where I live. And I would say something similar. Yeah. But it kind of shocks me that that step was skipped.
Ari Lev: I don’t think it was skipped. I think there was this bridge generation of which my writing is probably a part of it, where, and we did this because of feminism, because of decades of feminism, where we were able to say part of the extension of egalitarian Judaism and years of Jewish feminist efforts is that all ritual objects, all mitzvot are actually available to all people. And so, once we understand that, we almost don’t even need to talk about it again. But I can say like my peace came out of a moment of not even fully yet understanding or feeling that and trying to kind of help push that little piece of the project forward.
Emma June: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, because on the one hand I think I agree with you, and on the other, like working at ADVAH, we’ll have people call and be like, “I want a women’s tallis.” And I’ll say, “There’s no such thing. What tallis do you like?” And it feels like such a fundamental conversation or breakdown kind of as soon as I step outside of the small circle of leftist Jews I’m in.
Ari Lev: Right. Do you want a feminine tallis, or a feminist tallis?
Emma June: Right. There are many ways you could phrase everything, but I think I have felt struck by both how much I’m seeing it and also how little I think people are… who are not directly inside of those circles even know it’s happening.
Ari Lev: Yeah. I believe that, for sure. Makes sense to me.
Emma June: Yeah. And I guess that’s part of why I want to talk about it. Yeah. That and because I think I’ve never really heard people talk about their ritual, like what their ritual practice really means or feels like to them. It’s why I started asking these questions.
Ari Lev: It’s interesting. One of the things that’s kind of lingered in my mind since I’ve had top surgery almost 10 years ago, and I’ve wondered about getting a tattoo kind of on my left rib that says “ukshartam”, you know, and you shall bind. Kind of as this kind of zecherle, like remembrance of my experience of chest binding. And it’s interesting, my arm would touch… My arm wearing a tefillin shel yad, the arm tefillin would touch kind of that spot on my body of the ukshartam, and just kind of the synthesis of the energy of that place in the body. So, I haven’t… I mostly haven’t had time to manifest those kinds of things with two young kids, but kind of just continuing. I can say even having top surgery that this, the process of this blessing is something that kind of is still very alive for me, and something that my body is very aware of.
Emma June: Yeah. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you’re ruminating on while we’re talking?
Ari Lev: I don’t think so. I really appreciate all your questions and I’m mostly… I’m a ritual nerd, so it’s been fun to talk about this with you, and if there’s other things that you want to know, consider me available. And I feel like it’s a long way from the b’nei mitzvah I had and the kind of… The small tallit that I didn’t feel connected to. To think about now how my tallit… I’ve had the thought sometimes that if, G-d forbid my house was on fire and I had to grab one object, I’ve often thought I would grab my tallit and my tefillin. That would be it. What else is truly irreplaceable? And for me, my tefillin was the… It was a set of tefillin that my father received for his bar mitzvah and he never wore them. He never even opened them. And when I was in rabbinical school, when I wanted to wear tefillin, my teacher said, “See if there was any sets in your families.” And I was thinking, “I’ve never seen anyone even wear a tallit, nevertheless tefillin.”
And my father pulled out this bag and said, “You know, I got this for my bar mitzvah, but I’ve never even opened it.” So, they were like a brand new set of tefillin, and there’s a little bag, and it’s embroidered with his initials, and so certainly my tallit and tefillin are amongst my most prized possessions, and I don’t like to check them if I’m traveling. They always go in my carry on to get a sense of kind of how close I want to hold them.
Emma June: Right. They’re important and they’re special.
Ari Lev: Yeah. Kind of part of how I’ve become myself and also kind of call me back to myself on a regular basis.
You know, the one other thing I can add is kind of in that spirit of writing blessings. When we put on a tallit, one question is what do we say to ourselves? And if you open a traditional Siddur, there’s a whole list of psalms that can be read when we put on a tallit, and one cool thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that I have slowly acquired kind of individual lines from psalms or prayers that have become kind of my own kavanah, and so I’ll often say the blessing and then I have kind of distinct lines. I’ll say, “v’asu li mikdash vishachanti b’tocham,” that you should make with me a sanctuary that the holy one can dwell in our midst.
And I’ll say the “taher libeinu lo’v t’cha be’emet.” Purify my heart that I may be of pure and genuine service. And I’ll say “ki imcha m’kor hayyim b’orcha nire or,” or for with you is the source of light and in your light we see light. And this idea that kind of increasingly I like to add different lines from psalms or liturgy kind of to that collection, and they all pretty much come out of verses that I’ve wanted to embroider on the atarah of my tallitot. So, I have… Each of my tallitot has a different verse on the atarah, and actually ADVAH Designs made a tallit that I wore under my chuppah, and that one has the taher libeinu. And my ordination one has ki imcha m’kor hayyim. So, this idea that kind of that thing that we have on our atarah can kind of hint at a larger kavanah about our lives, and I love collecting them almost like little sacred pebbles or something that kind of accompany me in that moment of putting on my tallit every time I put it on.
Emma June: Yeah. I really hear you finding such amazing ways to make your objects your own and to feel like personally attached, and tied, and literally embroidered and bound in them. It’s pretty incredible. Do you think… Sorry. Do you think about, when you think about embroidery, like the binding aspect of that, as well?
Ari Lev: I never have, but given that you all are weavers, it makes sense that you would draw that connection. That’s really cool. That’s a cool image. I never have, but I love that. I love that. Never thought about how it’s kind of tying the knots together and weaving material on material, binding materials together. That’s very cool.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, you’re really… I don’t know. There are just so many layers of binding that you can find in some of these objects and rituals in Judaism when you look. Not even that closely. And it’s cool to hear you adding another layer.
Ari Lev: Well, I guess I’ll say I see myself kind of if anything as a ritual craftsperson, and so I’m sort of binding ritual together if that makes sense. Kind of binding blessing with lived experience, so that’s kind of my own stitchwork.
Emma June: Yeah. Wow. Well, thank you so, so, so much for talking to me.
Ari Lev: You’re so welcome, EJ.
Emma June: This has been really, really incredible.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions and links, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode5. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot C-O-M/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-5.
As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in this world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge thanks to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, the musician behind the intro. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
I had the pleasure of talking to Noam Mason, fiber artist and tallis-maker. Their work is stunning and our conversation has stuck with me in the many months since we spoke.
Their tallis project is called Kol Amotzai: Kol Atzmotai is a project of Noam Mason, a Boston-centric genderqueer Jew. Kol Atzmotai was born out of a love affair with fabric, textile art, and the bold, imperfect marks of linocut printmaking. Each KA tallis is made completely by hand. My work draws from a sense of doykeit, or hereness, and combines liturgical motifs with designs from the natural world. Kol Atzmotai quotes from a line in Nishmat, a liturgical poem recited on Shabbat and festivals: Kol atzmotai tomarna, Hashem: mi khamokha? All my bones cry out to you, Hashem: who is like you? The tallis is one of many embodied rituals within our tradition- by wrapping ourselves in a beautiful tallis, we allow our very bones to pray.
Reach out to me with any questions or comments at email@example.com
Some photos of Noam's work:
Some definitions and links from our conversation:
Shavuos (Shavuot): A holiday in commemoration of the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. Every year on the holiday of Shavuot we renew our acceptance of G‑d’s gift, and G‑d “re-gives” the Torah. Often celebrated with staying up all night studying Torah (or other Jewish text).
Kavod: Kavod is multi-ethnic, multi-racial community led by young Jews in Greater Boston, committed to each other and to building a liberated world for all people. We live out our values through vibrant Jewish ritual, transformative social justice organizing, and collective responsibility.
Kab-Shab (Kabbalat Shabbat): a series of psalms and blessings that start the Friday Ma'ariv (evening) Shabbat services.
Atarah: The "crown" or "collar" on many tallitot that contains the words of the blessing you say when donning the tallit. Some people put their own words or no words on the atarah.
Hiddur Mitzvah: the principle of enhancing a mitzvah through aesthetics.
Mayyim Hayyim: Mayyim Hayyim is a 21st century creation, a mikveh rooted in ancient tradition, reinvented to serve the Jewish community of today. Located in Newton, Massachusetts.
Antonio Fonseca: Noam's printmaking teacher
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcription by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are Jewish prayer shawls and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the bottom of them. For deeper definitions about this, check out the first episode. Today, I’m interviewing the talented and lovely Noam Mason, who is about to introduce themself.
Noam Mason: Yeah, thank you. My name is Noam. I use they/them pronouns. I am 21 years old. I currently am a student at Bancroft School of Massage Therapy, where I am earning my massage therapy license. I am a mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, which is an inclusive mikveh, an inclusive, egalitarian mikveh. I’m a huge bookworm and my best friend is my cat, Jamie. He’s grey.
Emma June: Sweet. Well, I guess we can just dive right in with the question I have started with everyone, which is just what your first memories with a tallis are, what your first memories with tzitzit are. Yeah, like what do they bring up?
Noam Mason: Yeah. Absolutely. So, I actually converted to Judaism. I began that process when I was 18. I finished that process when I was 19-ish. Ish because I actually totally forget when my mitzvah date was. So, I come from a conservative shul in Worcester, Congregation Beth Israel, where there’s a pretty neat striation of tallis practices. Most men and many women wear tallisim. The size, and the materials, and the colors vary a lot. It’s like a really colorful place to be when you are looking specifically at the tallisim that people wear. So, most folks in my community don’t wear a tallis katan, but most people do wear a tallis gadol, or like a shawl-style tallis in shul, so it was sort of my first memories, I guess, are as a young adult and a feeling of anticipation. This very big feeling of anticipation, because it was not within my practice to wear a tallis before I finished my conversion.
So, I had a lot of excitement, and just looking forward to being able to getting to the point where I was going to be able to wear a tallis for the first time. I knew it was gonna be a very, in some ways a very tangible symbol of what role I played in my community, both pre and post-conversion. But I think more importantly, it was something I was and continue to be drawn to as someone who connects very strongly with tangible and tactile ritual. So yeah, so I guess the first memories that come to mind are like of appreciation, of just sort of the beauty of this ritual object, and that sort of anticipation of building up towards something that I knew I wanted to take part in.
Emma June: Was there anybody in your congregation’s tallis who you coveted in any way?
Noam Mason: Oh my gosh. I wouldn’t say coveted, but endlessly stared at during services. So, there is a woman in my shul who I totally regret that I don’t know her name, but she wears this beautiful, dark green, lacy tallis, and it’s like deep forest green, and it’s not just lace. I think there must be a layer of cotton behind it or something, because you’re looking at lace, but you also don’t see through to whatever she’s wearing underneath it. I don’t know. It’s a gorgeous tallis. Very fun to look at.
Emma June: Wow. That sounds very entrancing.
Noam Mason: Oh, absolutely.
Emma June: I really like what you said about finding importance, or I like hearing that you find importance in tactile objects. I feel like I relate to that, and also feel curious, like what about a tallis triggers that for you? If that makes sense.
Noam Mason: Yeah. Absolutely. So, I guess being an artist and being a person who loves fabric, and sewing, knitting, all that fun stuff, from a super young age I just have always loved to fiddle with fabric and string. I’m a very fidgety person, so the idea of having a built-in fidget toy during our three-hour long services, having something to twirl around in your fingers the whole time. But I guess from what is a spiritual standpoint, it’s like a… I guess something that comes to mind is there’s this really nice verse, I guess it’s used as a meditation right before you make the bracha when you put on the tallis. It’s from Tehillim. I totally looked this up before the interview.
So, it’s from Tehillim and it says that Hashem is clothed in splendor and majesty, wrapped in light as a garment unfolding the heavens like a curtain. So, for me that’s like a super powerful line and I think what it comes down when I say that, it means a lot to have something tangible, because I can take this… all these beautiful, liturgical images that we’re working with, and connect it to this very physical thing that just as we see this imagery of like light and the heavens being unfolded like a garment, I’m sort of participating in that as I’m wrapping myself in a garment, so it’s sort of that pairing of these really big, abstract ideas, that then we can sort of distill down into our ritual objects. I think is sort of what comes up for me in terms of tangibility and physicality.
Emma June: And so, are you wearing a tallis regularly?
Noam Mason: I do. Yes. So, I wear a tallis gadol in shul that I made for myself. And the rest of the time, I also wear a tallis katan, so wearing a tallis that I created for myself is like just wicked exciting. It’s a little bit self-indulgent. Little treat to take my art with me to shul. And wearing tzitzits daily is a relatively new practice for me and something that again comes back to that tangibility, like it’s a point to continually ground myself to throughout an otherwise busy, and stressful, and not at all spiritual day, to kind of have something that I take with me and wear with me all the time to sort of return to.
Emma June: Yeah. Could you talk more about your daily practice versus the more in shul practice of wearing a tallis gadol?
Noam Mason: Yeah. I’m not sure that I would say there’s a huge difference between the practices for me. I think wearing a tallis feels very meaningful, kind of no matter in what setting or format I do it. I guess there’s a bit of a difference in wearing something that becomes part of my clothing for the day, and that becomes part of my outfit, and then the fact that I wear it every day becomes almost like a uniform, I guess takes on definitely a different cadence to it than wearing a tallis in shul does that you take, you put on, and then you take off at the end of services. But yeah.
Emma June: Did you make your tallis katan also?
Noam Mason: I did, and that was more for practical purposes than artistic purposes. I could not find… I didn’t look super hard, to be completely honest, but I didn’t expect to find a tallis katan that was shaped in a way that would be comfortable for my body. I also have a lot of sensory sensitivities and so would not really be comfortable wearing something like wool under my shirt all day, so I made mine out of just a very soft cotton t-shit and make slits up the sides and reinforce the corners and whatnot.
Emma June: Right. Wow. It’s just… I guess I’m like… Okay, I would love to know how you decided to start wearing a tallit katan, and I would also love to know more about the process of you making your tallitot, and I don’t know where to start, so I’m curious if you have a place to start in all of that.
Noam Mason: Yeah, sure. I can begin with wearing a tallis katan.
Emma June: Great.
Noam Mason: So, that’s a practice I took on actually just this summer, which doesn’t feel all that long ago, and actually the first day that I wore my new tallis katan that I had made was the day of the Boston Dyke March, which actually also fell right before Shavuos, so it felt like a very auspicious time to be starting this practice. Shavuos is like one of my favorite holidays, so that was exciting and like sort of this fun moment of… Am I allowed to swear on this?
Emma June: Yeah.
Noam Mason: Okay, great. This really fun moment of like gender fuckery, of being able to take on this new practice, which definitely has some gender coding and a lot of gendered weight behind it within our tradition. And the first time doing that was the day of the Dyke March, so that was really fun. But I remember the first time I saw someone who was not an Orthodox man wearing tzitzits, I think it was at a Kavod kab-shab and potluck. It was just like a wild experience for me. It hadn’t even occurred to me that people who were not really observant men could wear a tallis katan. It wasn’t something that was on my radar at all. And so, I remember I was with a friend and I immediately was like, “What’s going on with that? What info do you have for me on this? I need to know what this is, what this means,” and ended up doing a ton of learning about that, because kind of as soon as I realize that this was even an option, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I want to do that.”
It just immediately was like, “Oh, that is a practice that would fit so beautifully into sort of like what I consider meaningful within my Jewishness.” So, yeah, so I did a lot of learning and thinking about it, spent a lot of time kind of trying to decide if this was something I really wanted to take on for myself. I think there was a lot of going back and forth, of like, “Am I just doing this for the visibility of it, or is this something that’s truly meaningful to me, and my Jewishness, and my gender?” There was a lot of soul searching there of considering my intentions. And yeah, so I think it was also especially a big decision because the community that I come from in Worcester, most people do not wear a tallis katan, so it was something I would kind of… making a decision and taking on a practice that was a little bit different than what most people in my community do, so that sort of added to it being a big decision.
But it’s become a very important part of my practice. It’s kind of a moment to pause on a stressful commuting morning, like not just throwing my clothes on and running out the door, but really taking a minute to like really be in the moment as I’m getting dressed, and have a moment to make a bracha, and it’s brought a really strong sense of belonging in my own skin for me, and my own body. I always think of that line from Nishmat, Kol atzmotai tomarna, Hashem: mi khamokha?. It’s all of my bones cry out, Hashem who is like you? So, I think a lot of it, like what it means to live in my bones, in my body, as a person who’s kind of worked within the matrix of dysphoria and transness my whole life, so what it means for not just me to be able to express simultaneously religious or holy expressions and express that I love my body, but for my body itself to be able to create holy expressions, like for my own bones to be the ones sort of praying, that’s a really powerful idea for me, and I think this sort of combination of my body and sort of all the weight that that holds within my gender and my transness, and then combining that with something that holds sort of spiritual weight and significance and a lot of communal significance for me is just very powerful.
So, it’s sort of like taking on the practice of wearing the tallis katan for me was a little bit less about my gender and it was very much like a choice that was Jewishly motivated, fit into my practice. But since then, it’s the fact that I wear a tallis katan has become now an inherent part of my gender expression. So, they’ve kind of become intermingled and tangled up, and it’s pretty neat.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, it strikes me that it’s just one of a few ways I can think of to visibly represent a sort of… It’s like an object that is both visibly Jewish and visibly on some bodies transgressive, and often honestly depending on how its worn on a lot of bodies that are not visibly Orthodox, as well, somewhat transgressive, but that it kind of can hold this gendered and Jewish experience visibly.
Noam Mason: Yes. Absolutely.
Emma June: I don’t know. For me, it’s hard to think of many objects that could do that. Yeah. Wow. Everything you just said was just very… I’ve never… The image of bones crying out is not one that I focused on before, and now I’m just a little stuck on it. It’s very striking.
Noam Mason: Yeah. This is the pitfalls of being an anatomy nerd, is you definitely fixate a lot on all of the body-focused imagery in our liturgy.
Emma June: It’s a good way to be. Well, can I now I guess direct us towards you not just as an anatomy nerd, but as an artist and creator of beautiful things, I guess like I learned who you were partially through ending up on your Instagram and just watching all of your stories of how you made the tallitot that you’ve made and just feeling like, “Oh my gosh! I have to talk to this person!” So, I personally am just very, very curious how you came to making your own tallitot and then also would love to hear about the ones you’ve made particularly.
Noam Mason: Cool. Well, first of all, thank you so much for looking at my Instagram. Yeah. I really appreciate it. Yeah, so I… Oh, gosh. Okay, where to start this section? Okay, so I have had a lot of different sort of artistic pursuits throughout my life. I think a lot of people land on their one thing, like maybe they are really, really good at drawing, or maybe they’re like an oil painter or whatnot, and I feel like it took me forever to do that. And I sort of dabbled in so many different things. Drawing, painting, sewing, weaving, et cetera, et cetera, my whole life.
And when I was in undergrad university, I began taking a printmaking class, which was totally off the cuff. I just… I was working towards an art major and I just needed a class that semester and it was what fit into my schedule. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what printmaking was before I took this class, and it was like transformative. I fell in love with the process of printmaking. Particularly I really, really love linocut printing, so where you carve designs into linoleum and you cover them with an ink and you can print them onto paper, or fabric in this case.
I had a spectacular professor. His name is Antonio Fonseca. And you should totally check out his website. Very talented artist. And he was really influential in my sort of questioning of where can I go with this, what can I do with this, because I’ve never been a person who really likes to make art on paper that then just hangs on a wall. That feels like… I feel very strongly about art should be usable, art should be wearable, art should have some sort of tangible purpose, and while art hanging on a wall is very beautiful, and lovely, and I love to partake in it, as in buy other people’s work, it’s not something speaks to me super strongly to make myself. And so, I was talking with Antonio about just different ways that I could take my printmaking and I settled after a little while on realizing I’d like to be working on quilts, where I was creating the patterns myself, like creating the visual patterns on the fabric myself using linocut.
And soon after that, I finished my conversion process and it sort of struck me that like, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be wearing a tallis soon, and what is a tallis if not just a large, beautiful, really meaningful piece of textile art?” And I love textile art. I’ve just sort of realized this intersection that textile work can have with printmaking, so it just sort of fell together of realizing like, “Oh, I really, really, really want to make my own tallis. That’s the perfect project for me to be working on.” And it admittedly took forever. I was working on this tallis so slowly. But I eventually sort of settled on a design. I think the design part took me the longest, because it was like all the frazzled nerves of being fresh off of conversion, like, “It has to be meaningful. The imagery has to speak to who I am Jewishly.”
It doesn’t. It just needed to be pretty. I was overthinking it. But, so I eventually sort of settled on this design where each of the stripes that we traditionally see on a tallis were going to be created with linocut printing in sort of these repeating patterns, so I have one stripe of blue that is in the shape of water, one stripe of a brown-black that is representing crumbling earth, a stripe of brown branches, and a stripe of green American beech tree leaves. And yes, and the atarah is dyed, and embroidered, and so it was a long process, and I think it was… I struggle with large projects with feeling motivated continually through them, and this was like the first project that even though it took me forever, I felt excited about each and every step, like no part of it felt like a drag, like, “Ugh, I have to do this so I can get on to the next step.”
It was actually really, really engaging at each point that I was at, so I realized after finishing this tallis that this is something I would love to keep doing, and I feel very honored that I’ve had a couple friends ask me to make tallisim for them. So, I’ve recently finished two for two of my friends, Victor and Bunny, who are members of my synagogue in Worcester, and yeah, it’s been a really spectacular process sort of engaging more fully with the concept of Hiddur mitzvah, like not just seeking out beautiful ritual objects, but like really pouring myself into them and creating these beautiful ritual objects has been really, really strong, really powerful, and as I was saying before, it took me like a very long time to feel like I’d settled into what my shtick was within my art practice, and I’ve kind of come to a point where I feel like this is it. I feel like creating tallisim is kind of my thing.
So, yeah, it’s just been a really strong, powerful practice, and it’s something that I don’t really know a lot of people that do, that do create their own tallisim. I know a couple people here and there who’ve done it, and it’s always really, really exciting to talk to other people who’ve created their own tallisim of like what was your process like, and what led you to want to do this, and whatnot. Yeah, so that’s a little bit about that.
Emma June: Yeah. Wow. What is it… You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that sometimes it feels almost selfish to get to wear your own art in shul. But I’m curious to know more, like what does it feel like to then have spent all this time trying to make something that felt right to you and then getting to just wear it now?
Noam Mason: I think maybe a little more self-indulgent than selfish. It’s like, “Ah, this is a little treat.” Yeah, it feels… I mean, it feels huge every time I put on my tallis. I poured so much of myself into this and I spent… It’s things like it took me three months to research and find the perfect fabric that I was going to order to use, like every little step was really… A lot was poured into it. So, I think it’s hard to put into words what it feels like. I think it can feel like a lot of different things, but I think it sort of captures a sense of excitement, of pride, I think it captures a sense of how actively I’ve been able to participate in my own life Jewishly, which I think is really, really huge, and I don’t think it should have to be subversive for trans people to really, fully experience our Jewishness. But the fact of the matter is sometimes it is, so that there’s definitely some sense of that going on.
And then I think there’s also like just, as I’ve said, I just love the liturgical imagery that surrounds tallisim and sort of having imagery on my tallis that sort of echoes the nature that I grew up in, like I specifically chose… Beech trees grow a lot in my hometown, so this was like… This is imagery that echoes a lot of my really close relationships with and memories of nature, and little pockets of nature that I’ve been able to be around my whole life, so I think there’s another sense of groundedness in wearing something that is so deeply personal, and then there’s also just like a sense of expansiveness, of wearing something that’s a little bit different, like I think all tallisim are very, very meaningful, but wearing something that’s not just… that echoes a lot of the traditional imagery that we see in tallisim with the stripes, and the corner square, and the atarah, and sort of having the same basic format, but having it be something very personal, and imagery that’s very natural I think feels very expansive and exciting to me.
To be able to take a very traditional object and sort of maintaining what we expect from it traditionally, and halakhically, and then sort of riffing off of it to see where else could this go, what else could this be? Which I guess is also probably a good way to describe my Jewishness in general.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I’m curious to hear more, like you brought up how… about feeling… Sorry. Okay, I’m trying to figure out how to word the question I want to ask. I basically want to know… You talked about with your tallis katan that it has come to take on this meaning for you as a trans person as well as a Jew, and you mentioned being trans in what this tallis that you’ve made means to you, and I’m curious if this tallis has also taken on any gendered feelings for you.
Noam Mason: Ooh. Yeah. Hm. That’s a really good question. I think… I guess sort of the two things that come to mind are again, just how physical and tangible this object is. Anything that is related to my body that comes up when I’m praying will sort of end up taking on some element of bringing up feelings of transness and gender for me. So, like being able to wrap my body in a ritual object definitely evokes some sense of protection and belonging in my own body, which is very trans feeling, growing up feeling most of my life like it was very difficult to feel protected and belonging in my own body, so this is sort of a powerful practice of that now. And I guess the other thing that comes up is sort of the idea of having an object that is… having a ritual object, a tallis, that is very traditional in its format, like it’s got a nice white background. It’s got the fringes that run along the border. It’s got the stripes in the traditional direction, sort of the overall visual effect is a lot like a basic blue and white or black and white tallis.
But then having what composes the stripes and what the atarah looks like being very bright and colorful, I guess like in my shul, this is not a blanket statement, but to some extent, women tend to be more likely to wear brightly-colored tallisim, where men tend to be a little more likely to wear traditional black and white or blue and white tallisim. Which is not to say that is true of every man or woman in my congregation. That is definitely not true. But a little bit of a trend, so I guess there’s a fun little marriage of those two styles within my tallis.
Emma June: That’s neat. Wow. Yeah. I guess I feel really struck by your tallis and by your process, partially, and by your decision to make your own. I think partially because to me it feels like really, like hearing you say all this, it really feels like you are owning this object as your own in a way that… I know that many, many women wear tallisim now, and I also just… I guess for myself, I just can’t get away from this idea that the tallis is traditionally for men, and then they made women’s tallisim almost, and that I, like hearing you speak about making your own just has made me, has moved me in a direction of feeling just like, “Oh my gosh, you just got so…” There’s so much power in choosing how this looks for yourself and how, what it physically feels like, and which parts of the tallis speak to you, and don’t, and how affirming that sounds in a world that kind of… Definitely not all tallisim were produced for one type of person, or any other, but I don’t know. A lot of them are, and a lot of places will be like, “These are our girls’ tallisim.”
Like, “You have a son being bar mitzvahed. Check out this one.” Like what you’re talking about, about the trends in what you see. On the other side of it, at ADVAH, where I work, we don’t gender our tallisim, but other people will when they buy from us. They’ll be like, “I’m looking at one for my daughter, so these seem like the options, right?” And we have to be like, “If you think she’d like them, but not because it’s pink.” Or like, “Not because it has any color on it.”
Yeah. It’s just a very… It just sounds very affirming to make your own in light of all of that to me.
Noam Mason: Yeah. I absolutely adore… Wow. I’m realizing just now this probably speaks a lot to my own gendered or whatever outlook on life. It actually never even occurred to me looking through ADVAH’s website that they weren’t categorized by gender. I have always just looked at the websites like, “Oh my gosh, what beautiful tallisim.” And it never even struck me that they weren’t categorized by gender, so wow. Didn’t even think of that. Spectacular. Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah. It’s like a pretty low bar, you know?
Noam Mason: Yes.
Emma June: In my mind. Yeah. There are definitely a lot of other people create it, anyway, when they interact with our stuff.
Noam Mason: Absolutely.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I’m curious just what… If there are things that I haven’t asked you that feel relevant, if there’s something on your mind through this conversation, or right now that you would like to share?
Noam Mason: Oh gosh. Wow. I don’t think anything in particular jumps out at me. I guess I’ll do the shameless self plug of you could look at my tallisim on my Instagram, which is HomeBody.png, HomeBody.png. I at some point will be creating a more organized and professional looking website, but the time hasn’t happened yet, but I do really adore creating these and creating these for and with people, and it’s always such a gratifying process when the tallis is finished and then I get to tie the tzitzits with whoever it’s going to be for. The last two that I created were for two friends who actually had never tied tzitzits before, so it was really fun to be able to do that with them, and it being like a learning process for them and the first time they’d done that, so it was really fun.
So, yeah, reach out to me on my Instagram if you’re interested in creating something together. Shameless self plug.
Emma June: Absolutely, and there will be show notes, and I would love to… I’ll put the link to your Instagram in the show notes, as well.
Noam Mason: Oh. Fancy, fancy.
Emma June: I know. Everyone should go look. It’s just very beautiful. Very inspiring.
Noam Mason: Thank you.
Emma June: To me, at least. Yeah. No, we love the self promotion here. Everyone should see your tallisim. Yeah. Well, it’s just been such a pleasure and a joy to get to talk to you.
Noam Mason: Absolutely. Yourself as well. Thank you so much for having me and for all your questions and for listening and for your time.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions and links, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode4. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-4. The show notes will also include Noam’s Instagram and other links to their work. Please look at it. It’s so gorgeous.
As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in this world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge thanks to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, non-binary Jewish musician of my heart and creator of our intro. Thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
Oh how the tables have turned! In an attempt to make sure you get a taste of who I am and why I'm doing this project, I decided to have my friend Liel interview me. Liel has their own episode forthcoming, but this one is about me, Emma June (EJ). At this point, the interview was done about 6 months ago. It's amazing how much can change in 6 months, even just about how I feel in relation to tallitot. It's obviously more than that: coronavirus and quarantine, brutal and systemic racism, social uprising, impending economic disaster, the continued rise of fascism.... But listening back to what I thought before all this is odd! I feel really connected to some of what I said, but changed from other things. I can't imagine getting to perform for an audience again, can't imagine going to services inside. My relationship to my body has changed these 6 months. My relationship to being Jewish has changed. I am always and forever changing, though! I couldn't be where I am now without the thoughts of the past. And I guess I have to believe that those thoughts still matter, still are part of my story, and might matter to someone else.
Also follow me (in drag, ch'ai treason) and my Jewish drag troupe Turmohel on Instagram
Reach out to me with any questions or comments at email@example.com
Daven(ing): to pray
Fringes Podcast Transcript Episode 3
Transcription by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are, put simply, Jewish prayer shawls, and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the end of them. For deeper definitions, check out the first episode. Today, the tables are turning a bit. This is an interview of me, done by my friend, Liel Green, who will be featured in a later episode sharing their own thoughts and experiences. But for now, I hope this little slice of my personal thoughts and questions provides a little insight into who I am and why I’ve undertaken this project.
Without further ado, the interview.
Emma June: Hello!
Liel Green: Hey. So fun to be here with you, EJ. Yeah, so I guess just to intro this, I have the immense, immense kavod, honor, of being here with the creative mind, energy, and heart behind this podcast, Emma June Youcha! Woo! Yeah, I think I was wondering if you could… Do you want to give a little intro for yourself? I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to really do that, because you’ve usually been in the other role.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, okay, my name is Emma June Youcha. I sometimes am referred to as Emma, sometimes as Emma June, sometimes as EJ. I like all of those names and that’s just a facet of my life. I use they/them pronouns. I work at ADVAH Designs as well as at a bagel store in the Boston area, where I live. I am a part of a Jewish drag troupe called Turmohel. I live in a Jewish income sharing coop called the Riot Bayit and yeah, I’m just trying to figure my life out, you know?
Liel Green: You’re doing it.
Emma June: And make the world a little bit better and more interesting.
Liel Green: For sure. For sure. Yeah, so I guess the first thing that, to kind of go down what this podcast is about, so I was wondering if you can talk about one, like what… So, I’m sure people who are listening to this very niche podcast have some sort of idea of what it’s about, but I wanted to hear from your words what this podcast is about. Why you’re doing it, how it got started, et cetera.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I guess… So, I tie the tzitzit, the fringes on all of the tallitot that get made through ADVAH Designs, and that just means I spend a lot of time sitting and tying these fringes, and at a certain point in doing this, I started reflecting on like who’s wearing these, and what does it feel like to wear this object? And how do people connect to it? And noticing in myself a lack of understanding of how I connected to them, even though I spend so much time with them, and even though I spend so much time in Jewish space, I’m trying to understand my… what my Jewish practice and life looks like, that this is a piece that I don’t actually understand that well for myself. Especially I think because I’m genderqueer and because the tallis that I have, I was lucky enough to get a very well made and very beautiful one for my bat mitzvah, but it’s just not an object I feel very connected to. I wear it on High Holy Days and at services, but I basically just had all of these questions and really just wanted to talk to other trans people about how they engaged with this object.
And the more I learned about how tallitot work, the more I felt like there’s opportunity for such creation here. And I also feel like sometimes there’s a trend to take things that are very binary, like the tallis has been presented in my mind as something that’s originally for men, and now there are also women’s tallitot, and that when something is explicitly gendered, I know a lot of people and sometimes myself will just shy away from it and say like, “That’s not for me. I don’t get to wear it. There’s no way that I get to engage with whatever that thing might be.” And that I just really want to… I think I wrote in my email to at least somebody asking them to be on the podcast, I just want to make kind of a gender-full existence. Not a genderless existence. I want more access to more things, and opened doors because of gender expansiveness, and I felt myself like not feeling that way about a tallis, and wanting to hear from people who have felt that way. Or if they haven’t, why they haven’t.
And I did a lot of research going into it, wherein I found very, very few people talking about or engaging with trans people and this particular ritual object. And that, to me, also… It felt like a niche that I actually didn’t see a lot of content or thought in currently. And so, that also is part of why I decided to make something about it instead of just believing that I was sitting alone in the corner, being the only one wondering.
Liel Green: Wow. Yeah. It’s such a gift, what you’re doing. And thank you so much for sharing it. I really connected and I’m very intrigued by what you just mentioned about gender-full versus genderless. And so, I want to try to incorporate that into the next question that I was planning on asking you, which you touched on a little bit, but I’m wondering if you can kind of… I don’t know if this is a challenge or not and you totally don’t have to, but incorporate the lens of gender-full versus genderless in talking about your own personal connections to and experiences with tallitot, past and present. So, in thinking about what your current and past, and you can even dive into the future-
Emma June: The future!
Liel Green: … connection, yeah, and experiences with wearing a tallis. What felt gender-full and what felt genderless, and ways that come… It’s very striking, the idea of gender-full as something that can be so liberatory, freeing. And also, so deeply hurtful when something is full of the gender you don’t want.
Emma June: Right.
Liel Green: And so, oftentimes you kind of think like, “Oh, the way to get away from this, the hurtfulness of gender, of something being full of gender, is by making it genderless.” But that also kind of… It empties in some capacity is what I’m kind of hearing. Empties the expansiveness that is possible. Yeah, so I was wondering if you can talk about all that a little bit pertaining to your own personal experiences?
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I guess, so I grew up in a reform synagogue in D.C., and I don’t always know how to reflect on it. I think that many people did wear tallitot. Certainly not everybody, and I remember my b’nei mitzvah class, like many people got one, although I don’t think everybody. It wasn’t something I was surrounded by. Neither of my parents wear one. But when my bat mitzvah came around, it was very important, I think, also to my grandparents, particularly my grandmother that I had one, which is like a curious thing to look back on now to me. And I know when my brother had his bar mitzvah, he got one also.
But we are maybe the only people in our families on either side with a tallis. And certainly, the only people who wear them at any family events now. And I think that I’m feeling somewhat inarticulate about it, but I don’t know. Mine is like it has this rainbow woven into it.
Liel Green: Nice.
Emma June: And this was also at the period of time in my life where I was a straight ally.
Liel Green: Foreshadowing.
Emma June: Some foreshadowing. I couldn’t have predicted. There was no way to tell that I was queer.
Liel Green: None.
Emma June: Even to myself. And I think when I look at it now, it just feels like, “What was I trying to do, or say, or what was I picking?”
Liel Green: Did you choose it?
Emma June: I did. Out of like a very limited array. I think something I’ve heard from a lot of people I’ve talked to is that they have pushed themselves to wear a tallis or to wear a tallit katan, the undershirt, and that it sometimes, in Judaism, we don’t feel connected every time we do something. And that’s okay, and it’s also about the practice of continuing for the moments where you do feel connected, and that I am really hard on myself that I don’t feel very connected to the tallis that I chose for myself. And I think in terms of the gender-full genderless aspect, I think I also feel like shouldn’t I like this? It has a rainbow on it. And then I’m like, “Ugh, but I’m anti-corporate gay,” and then I kind of get… I just overthink everything.
And I think that I move myself away from the experience of feeling like wrapped and held by a tallis, or trying to know what… I don’t know if I believe in G-d or not, and I think that’s another piece of wearing a tallis, is that it is a reminder of G-d, and G-d’s existence, and… But I’m trying to understand what I’m trying to feel connected to, as well. Like it all poses pretty big questions, I think. It all meaning the tallis. A tallis poses really big questions in my mind, and I think gender is a really easy way for me to run away from a lot of those big questions, because I can just say like, “This is… It’s really gendered. I just don’t feel comfortable.” And I think that’s partially true, but I also believe that… I don’t know. I think I’ve spent a lot of time rejecting a lot of things because they were gendered, and that has just led to me approaching my life in a negative, like, “Oh, I can’t or won’t do that because it is these things.” Instead of saying like, “What do I actually relate to? What do I feel confident in? What do I feel connected to? What does create moments of joy?”
And that I want to find that in Judaism, and I believe that I find that really deeply in clothing, and appearance, and expression in a lot of other facets of my life, and a tallis is such a beautiful piece of Jewish expression. But I want to figure out how to own and make my own, especially because I spend so much time making that possible for other people and seeing that happen for other people in my work life. And believing in it, but just not believing in it for myself.
Liel Green: Yeah. I think it sounds from what you’re saying like the… As opposed to the tallis as a ritual item, as a ritual piece being kind of an answer or a stagnant thing that will automatically, or that has automatically connected you to the divine, it’s instead kind of a vehicle towards this connection, or like can it be a vehicle for this connection is kind of the question, like the tallis as a process versus the end goal, almost. Or the tallis being able to facilitate this process of connection, and of emerging, of becoming. That also seems kind of, from what you were saying, and also from knowing you a little bit, just also related to the ways I’ve heard you kind of talk about gender and queerness is as an emergence, or a becoming, or like as this process… Yeah, which feels kind of essential to gender queer existence, is this fluidity as opposed to a rigidness that kind of knows… It’s a false rigidness. Nothing is ever as rigid as possible, or as rigid as we think it is.
Another thing that I’m interested in hearing more about, so you mentioned that you’re in Turmohel, a Jewish drag troupe based in the Boston Area, big fans. And you were talking about how in other facets of your life, you really are able to kind of connect to this kind of adornment, or fashion, or just like connects through external means. And I was wondering, one, does that come up in your exploration of drag and Jewish gender as art, and also… Yeah, just how does… Do you feel like those two things relate or bridge your interests and your questions around your own personal connection to wearing a tallis and the ways you engage with Jewish gender and queerness through your art?
Emma June: Yeah. That’s a big question. I guess when I think about being on stage and performing something just very Jewish, it feels like my mind is like automatically often making connections between songs, and things I hear, and stories that I’m told, and movies that I watch, and that because enough of my life’s content has been Jewish that I’m constantly making personal references to my Jewish life, and that Turmohel is creating a chance to explore those artistically and publicly, and to explore political ideas, and weird ideas, and random YouTube videos I really love, and kind of make them more of a statement and a chance to understand what it means to perform something that is both Jewish and gender queer to me at the same time in front of somebody else, in fact, in front of like 100 people, and there is something to me that feels like being able to perform is a chance to feel… I feel both really very connected and really very disconnected from my body when I’m performing. And really connected to the audience and really disconnected from the audience.
And I think sometimes performing feels like one of the moments that feels the most like out of the world that I’m used to, and there’s something that feels kind of holy about that. And that feels kind of like a version of prayer or honoring somebody, which sounds funny, because when I think about my numbers I’m like, “I did a number as Gimli the dwarf from Lord of the Rings talking about anti-Semitism and eating a cabbage.” So, it’s not exactly like obvious, or even appropriate, or what we would normally think of when we think of talking to some version of G-d, but I think as I’m figuring out what I do believe in or what I do think is holy, I think performance and the stage holds a real part of that for me. And is such a piece of where I get to be exulting something, even if that thing is like my friend, and myself, and my culture, and my people, and my confusion, and my questions.
And I do think getting to love questions feels like a piece of drag and a piece of wearing a tallis, and just a huge piece of being Jewish in my mind. So, that’s one tie in. And I think I also feel like curious about wearing a tallis on stage and about doing some kind of performance or number that is about this particular ritual object, given how much time I’ve spent thinking about them. But I haven’t done one up to now. I think I would like to, and I think a conversation that I hear a lot from people in my community, and in Turmohel, is that we sometimes wonder what we are allowed to wear, particularly if we are not convinced of our faith in G-d, or Orthodox, or even regularly practicing, that I hear a lot of people doubt whether or not… Like can I wear a kippah to this protest? Or can I wear a kippah when I perform? Or can I have a tallit katan on? And to me, I think this is mine to play with. And I feel really excited about getting to do that and about having a stage and a platform and an audience to do that with, hopefully in a way that also encourages that audience to want to play and explore more, also.
Liel Green: Does it, so my question is does it feel like a performance to wear a tallis? You know, just when you’re davening, when you’re praying? Does it feel like a performance to you? Because I think the way that you spoke about performance was so beautiful in terms of the opportunity it kind of… how it allows you to transcend or to connect to something beyond the present moment, or how it’s actually creating something else as it’s happening. So, I’m curious if it feels like the performance may be a different kind of performance, but a performance nonetheless to wear a tallis. And if so, what do you feel like you are or would be performing through wearing it? Whether on stage, or again, during davening?
Emma June: I mean, I do think it’s a performance. I don’t always feel like I know why I wear it, but I feel like I’m being told to by somebody, even if it’s just myself, and that I make a choice to put it on, and I sit in it, and a pray in it, and I kiss the Torah with it, and I go through all of these motions. It doesn’t feel like natural or obvious to me all of the time, so it definitely feels like a performance. Although sometimes I think performance can feel natural, but anyway, that’s tangential of that.
Yeah. I think… Wait. Sorry, what was the second part of your question?
Liel Green: That’s okay. The second part was what are you performing through wearing the tallis? And I think specifically… Yeah, I was thinking about how performance, whether it’s on the stage or the kind of, sort of quotidian everyday performances, like you’re… They’re connected, so there’s this idea of a citational chain, so your current performances are connected to your past performances, but also they’re creating something. They have the potential to create something completely new. And I’m really interested in that in terms of the idea of drag, and also just the things that we choose to wear on our bodies, or the motions that we choose to do. And especially if something like wearing a tallis isn’t necessarily something you grew up with.
So, I agree with you that performances can and usually are… feel natural, and that’s kind of the thing about them that you don’t really notice about what we are performing, but these kind of alternate performances that come about and are facilitated through queer ritual innovation, or through just ritual objects and items, have the opportunity to kind of interrupt and also recreate. And I was just wondering… I don’t know. I don’t really have a full question, but just what you were talking about with being on a stage and performing in that capacity, and that being really connected to dress, and makeup, and what you wear, versus also wearing a tallis.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I don’t think I have a very clear answer, because I think that I’m still confused about what I am wearing a tallis for, that I don’t always… I don’t really know exactly what the performance is for, and I think that’s part of why I’ve felt like I have so many questions for other people. Or why I want to hear other people’s stories, or that’s at least part of it.
And what it makes me think of is just how as a queer person, as a drag performer, I have all these memories of seeing people out in the world, both regular people and also drag performers, who I look at and kind of just so deeply admire in passing, or in the more long-term way, the people who just through look the way they do, through the work that they have put into how I get to see them, I feel like something else is possible, or like I’m possible, or like what I want is possible. And I’m trying to think. I feel like there are people who I see in tallitot that have made me feel that way, where like seeing… I don’t know. There just is like a few people that stick in my mind where I can just imagine them wrapped in their huge tallit gadol, and I think, “Oh my goodness. Can I imagine feeling that way in that object?” I can see how raw, and open, and also closed and held this person is in front of me, and I want to feel that way. Or seeing somebody who is like gender queer and wearing tzitzit, and just like walking somewhere. And just feeling so moved, and knowing I guess that like… Wearing a tallis is an unapologetic act of wearing your Jewishness. And yeah, you like want… I want that for myself, and I feel really moved seeing other people really embrace it. And moved by other people who’ve… Yeah, made their tallitot, or who come and just always wear one, and always… I don’t know. It’s just how I see that person.
Yeah. I think that they’re moving objects.
Liel Green: Wow. That gave me goosebumps. Yeah, I think for the profound gender-full pleasure, and the love, and joy that comes from the… It seems very, like there’s an intensely communal aspect. I mean, and I feel like in that sense, it’s kind of a performance where there’s like… It’s an internal sort of thing, and that it’s also like you’re watching other people doing this thing that you so, so want. And I’m sure that they’re struggling with it, too. You know, it always looks kind of seamless from the outside. But this idea of feeling possible.
You were talking about how you kind of… You facilitate to the experience of… So, you facilitating this experience for other people, so you physically tying tzitzits for other people, and you creating, and recording, and conducting these interviews for this podcast. How queer ritual items kind of make it possible, make us possible, make you possible, and I’m wondering if that, like through these interviews and through the actual tying the tzitzits and through your own experiences, how have you felt possible? Or like what feels… I think you kind of touched upon how you feel possible, but like what feels possible? Through queer ritual items, and innovation, and engagement with tradition.
Emma June: Yeah. Great question. I think my biggest… I feel like I want to make my own tallis.
Liel Green: Yes!
Emma June: Which I really hadn’t considered before. Even though I feel like I should have. And I also think… Yeah, just it feels more possible to talk about ritual and think about ritual in my own life because of this podcast, and to know that I don’t have to have answers to try things is something that really has come out of talking to people for me. And that… Yeah, also that no one other person does have an answer for me, but only their own questions, and maybe their own answers, but that I’m I think gonna try to make my own tallis.
Liel Green: Yes! Oh, so that actually leads me to one of… Yeah, that actually leads me to one of my final questions, which is what is your ideal tallis?
Emma June: Great question. I think… Oh, I wish I could weave.
Liel Green: I bet you can.
Emma June: Maybe I’ll learn just for this. It would be very colorful. I think probably like base yellow, but maybe also every other color. And I don’t know, I also… Well, I’ve just seen so many beautiful ones now, but I think it would probably just have a lot going on on it. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to be surrounded by a lot of patterns and colors, and… Yeah. Gravitate towards that all the time. Yeah, I think I would want one that makes that… It actually makes me think about my room, which is yeah, just very, very bright, and covered in things, and something that I’ve thought a lot about a room, and my room in particular for myself, is that I cover it with all these things that remind me of all of these different people, all these different places, all these different experiences, colors that make me feel at home, and that makes me feel like I am in my home and I am surrounded by… like it brings me closer to everything I’m surrounded by, and it makes it okay for me to be alone in my room, and it makes it an exciting place to share with other people. And yeah, I guess my ideal tallis would make me feel those things, that I am at home in my body when I’m wrapped in it, and that I am also with G-d, or with my questions, or with my questions about G-d, or with my community, and my people, and my loved ones, and so I guess I’m trying to create a room out of a tallis-
Liel Green: Yes!
Emma June: … is my ideal tallis!
Liel Green: I feel like that’s the point of it, like it’s for you to feel at home, and I think as queer and trans people, it’s really hard to feel at home in our bodies. And again, that’s a generalization, but I think… I’ll speak for me.
Emma June: I feel that way.
Liel Green: Yeah. Yes. For us, for the two of us, and I’m sure many others, it’s so hard to feel at home in our bodies, and it’s such a profound gift that Judaism offers us to have kind of like accessories, and help, and feeling at home in our bodies, especially during such an intimate thing and such an embodied action and experience as prayer. So, I love that you said that. Yeah. Emma June, you are a dear, dear friend, who I feel in complete divine collaboration and coalition with. And I’m so, so grateful to have had the opportunity to interview you.
Emma June: Dude, thank you. This is awesome. It’s fun to be on the other side.
Liel Green: Yes. Yes.
Emma June: And I really appreciate it. All right. I’m gonna press stop recording.
Liel Green: Yes.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of today’s episode, check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode3. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-3. As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in this world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge, huge thank you to Liel Green for interviewing me and asking such thoughtful questions. Please stay tuned for their episode upcoming. Thanks also to Sarah Resnick, my producer, and musical wonder Home Despot, for the music. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
Pidge is such a gem! Getting to hear what their experience has been growing up trans in a reform synagogue right now, how they chose their tallit, and what wearing it feels like for them was a delight.
They passed along these photos of their tallis (one with their cat!):
With any questions or comments, reach me at email@example.com
Bar/Bat/B'nei Mitzvah: a ceremony held in the synagogue, usually on Shabbat, to admit as an adult member of the Jewish community a Jewish boy/girl/person or people of 13 years who has successfully completed a prescribed course of study in Judaism. B'nei Mitzvah is plural, often meaning multiple people are participating in this ceremony, but has been used more recently as a more gender neutral word to describe this event for trans and non-binary people doing it.
Goyim: or "goy" in the singular, is the Yiddish word for a non-Jew/gentile.
Fringes Podcast Transcript Episode 2
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are essentially Jewish prayer shawls, and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the end of them. For deeper definitions, check out the first episode. In today’s episode, I had the pleasure of interviewing someone who, for the purposes of this podcast, is known as Pidge. They will introduce themself.
Pidge: Sure. My name is Pidge. I’m a sophomore in high school. I’m a Reform Jew and my pronouns are they/them and he/him. That’s kind of it.
Emma June: Awesome. Well, I guess I start with everyone I’ve interviewed so far, I’ve asked just like the first things they remember about a tallis, because I’m just curious to know where we first remember them. So, what are you first memories with them?
Pidge: I think first memories would be probably when I used to go to… There’s an Orthodox or conservative shul that we go to up in New York with some non-nuclear relatives, and I can vaguely remember being there and having my dad’s tallis draped around me, and braiding the tallis strings together, the tzitzit. So, that’s kind of the first I remember of it in general. When I started realizing the sort of… When I learned the kind of religious connotations of it was probably when I was about 12, before my b’nei mitzvah.
Emma June: Yeah. Did somebody sit with you and teach you about it?
Pidge: Yeah. We have a fantastic cantor who helps train kids for b’nei mitzvot, and I was… I mean, there’s obviously the blessing that you say over it at the b’nei mitzvah, and that was… There was kind of an explanation of it there. There was also one given to me by the tallis shop owner.
Emma June: Wow. Where did… So, you got one for your b’nei mitzvah?
Pidge: I did. There’s a shop in… G-d, I think it’s Brookline. A traditional Jewish shop that I went in and I looked at, they had racks and racks of tallitot, and I picked one out from there.
Emma June: Wow. How did you decide which one you wanted?
Pidge: I wanted a less traditional color scheme, so I started off by looking at ones that weren’t white and blue, and then I filtered out the ones that weren’t all black, and I ended up finding one with a really pretty dove motif on it. It’s yellow. It has gold and white and orange stripes, and it has these cute little golden, glittery doves along the borders, and I thought that went really well, because my real name vaguely translates to Dove in a language I’m not going to say, because that’ll definitely give my real name away and out me to everybody. But I thought it was fitting.
Emma June: Yeah. That’s very beautiful sounding. How do you… Do you wear it if you go to services now? Or do you wear it in any other circumstances now?
Pidge: I mostly wear it at services where I know there’s going to be a Torah involved, like Rosh Hashanah celebrations, and Yom Kippur, other b’nei mitzvot, stuff like that. But I do wear it from time to time in everyday services, like Friday night services, stuff like that.
Emma June: Yeah. Did you have an understanding for yourself when you were being b’nei mitzvah-ed, that you were non-binary, or trans, or whatever word you use for yourself? I’m sorry, I didn’t ask before I asked the question.
Pidge: No, that’s fine. I use non-binary as a more specific term, but I do consider non-binary a part of the trans community, so I can use either interchangeably, really.
Emma June: Sure.
Pidge: I did have an understanding of that, yes. I wasn’t really out and I was still trying to figure everything out. I wasn’t sure if I was gender fluid or if I was just questioning, or what was going on, but I knew that I wasn’t completely the gender I was born in at that point.
Emma June: Yeah. Did that feel like it affected… Did knowing that feel like it affected what you looked for when you were trying to find a tallis?
Pidge: A little bit. I didn’t want anything… I mean, obviously I didn’t want anything that’s like overly specific gender connotations, like there was one I looked at that was vivid pink and the text along it read something along the lines of, “Our beautiful child.” And I was like, “Hmm, maybe not for me.” But apart from that, I don’t really think it affected too much of it. I just… Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah. How does it feel when you wear it now?
Pidge: It feels comfortable and it feels kind of safe, like I can just… Like, you know when you pull a really soft blanket around your shoulders and you can just kind of hug yourself with it? I’m aware it’s not a great analogy, and that I’m struggling for words, but it’s kind of a safety object at this point, I guess.
Emma June: Yeah. This is a big question, but I guess what does it make you feel safe from?
Pidge: Just the world in general. I use it as almost a barrier, like how you’re supposed to associate certain things with certain situations. I kind of associate my tallis with, “Okay. We’re out of everything now. We’re in a quiet temple at this point. Everybody’s going to be quiet and respectful, and I’m not going to have to deal with the stress of daily life.” You know? So, it’s kind of like… It represents a barrier for me from the stress of the real world, I guess.
Emma June: Yeah. And it brings you kind of into a different real world, I guess.
Pidge: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Real world might have not been the best word, like the non-secular world??? The non-goyim world.
Emma June: Sure. I mean, it is a separation, and it’s interesting to me that Judaism uses a piece of clothing. I guess I’m fascinated by how people use clothing in general, and yeah, that we’ve got this shawl blanket covering thing to remind us of things that are holy is really… It’s just very fascinating to me.
Pidge: No, you’re absolutely right. I mean, we tend to… Okay, I was going to go into a thing about how society uses different objects to demarcate different places, but that’s completely irrelevant here. But it’s kind of nice, almost, that instead of using something that’s really difficult to get, it’s just… Well, I say just. It’s an item of clothing that we use to represent ourselves that can be so easily customized.
Emma June: Yeah. It definitely can. I guess that kind of leads me toward I think there’s a lot of creativity that’s possible with a tallis as an object, like the rules, the Halakha around it is really like, “Well, it’s supposed to have four corners and you’re supposed to tie these fringes onto it,” and other than that there’s not that much that you need to fulfill the mitzvah. And we have these very gorgeous, fancy tallitot, or really traditional ones, or really… All these different ways. But you know, somebody could sit at home and make their own super easily, and they would be just as valid halakhically.
Pidge: Yeah, exactly.
Emma June: Yeah. Do you ever think about making your own or what you would make for your ideal tallis?
Pidge: I’ve considered it before. I considered it when I was looking at the process, but it was… Well, A, it wasn’t an option that my parents gave me, which is honestly fair, because I at no time have ever had the free time to do something like that. But also, I don’t… At this point, I’ve found that I’ve grown pretty attached to my current one and I don’t know that I want another one. That being said, an ideal tallis would… I don’t know what material my current one is made out of, but it would be made out of something that’s not so… My current one is very slick to the touch, which is not the ideal texture for me, which is a stupid thing to want to change, but it’s… I think that’s the only thing I’d change about it is making it slightly nicer to the touch.
Emma June: Yeah. That makes sense to me. Yeah. Have you ever, in your Jewish community, are there people whose tallitot you admire or who have taught you things about how to wear one, or to feel safe in one?
Pidge: Oh yeah. My dad introduced my to the concept of a more triangle-shaped tallis, which I really enjoyed but didn’t end up being able to find one, which is a little disappointing, but ultimately okay. I also have a friend who made a gorgeous rainbow-themed one that… Well, I say rainbow themed like it’s like they’re draping a massive pride flag over their shoulders, which is not true, but it’s got these really pretty intricate rainbow designs they hand weaved into it, which I admire very much the dedication an the talent that that requires.
Honestly, my class, my grade of Hebrew school students seems to have… We seem to have kind of learned that we can have… Oh, did I just cut out? Okay. Good, great. Because my computer turned off. We seem to have learned that we can kind of have what we want if we make it ourselves, so a bunch of us did end up customizing ours. And I didn’t, but I like mine anyways, so…
Emma June: Yeah. That’s awesome. I think I’m so curious about… Well, I guess I know that I got a tallis that I don’t relate to at all now, because when I got it, I didn’t really understand very much about my gender or what I would maybe have wanted in the future. So, future EJ was not super happy with 13-year-old EJ’s choices. And I’ve wondered, I guess, like would I make… what kind of decision I would have made if I had maybe known more about myself at that period of time.
I think part of my pursuit with this podcast is trying to understand how it is that people, especially trans people, feel connected to their Jewish ritual objects and connected to their tallis, and like what makes them feel those things.
Pidge: Yeah, and for me it was largely that… Well, I knew what my favorite colors were, and I knew what I was trying to spread, which was I wanted people to see me and think I looked happy, and looked approachable, which is… I mean, my fashion sense right now is a lot of black clothing, which means a lot of people think I don’t look approachable at all. But the fact that I’m not remotely photogenic doesn’t help with that, obviously, but I feel like I kind of saw the yellow tallis, and it’s a very bright, very saturated but pale yellow, and a very sunny color, and I felt like I could kind of use it to broadcast a message to others, as well as myself, because I can look at it and it makes me feel happy, you know?
Emma June: Yeah. Yellow is such a good color.
Pidge: It is.
Emma June: Yeah. I’ve almost never seen anyone in a yellow tallis. That’s very bold and special. Yeah. Do you feel like there are any questions that I’m not asking? Like there’s anything you know about yourself that I don’t know about you?
Pidge: Well, I mean I did almost make the very brash thing, the very brash decision of coming out during my b’nei mitzvah.
Emma June: What?
Pidge: Yeah. I was actually going to. There’s a part of our service that we do in our synagogue where we have this whole speech planned as to how we have interpreted our Torah portion. And I had a whole thing planned out that I would end it with a very dramatic coming out statement, which I now realize was a very bad idea at the time, as it would have made the day about my sexuality and my gender instead of about my accomplishments as a Jewish person. And my cantor and my rabbi ended up talking me out of it, which was probably the right decision on their parts, and it was a very impulsive decision on mine, but that was… It was an interesting decision on 13-year-old me’s part.
Emma June: Sure. What a public venue.
Emma June: Dang. I get the impression from you that your Jewish community is very… that you share a lot with them and that they’re pretty supportive. Am I hearing you correctly?
Pidge: Yeah. Well, my cantor is lesbian, or possibly bisexual. I’m not 100% sure, but she has a wife. And our rabbi is a woman who has… which is always very… You can kind of tell the environment that a synagogue is in by their staff, by their clergy. If they’ve got several old men who are crotchety and talk exclusively about Torah, and about Talmud. I mean, obviously it’s fine. It’s kind of what a temple should… It fits the purpose of a temple well. But it’s always nice when you know that you can come to your rabbi and your cantor, and to your clergy and teachers for help and for counsel. But yeah, they’ve always been some of the most open-minded people I’ve ever known. And some of the kindest, too.
Emma June: That’s really, really lucky and amazing.
Emma June: I think that’s… I mean, in my head, that’s really what a rabbi should be there for, and what a cantor and clergy should be there for.
Pidge: Exactly. It’s been really nice having a place to go. Our Hebrew school traditionally meets on Wednesday. I wasn’t able to go today because of an audition, but it was… It’s always really, really nice to have that little island of peace in the middle of my week, you know?
Emma June: Yeah. That’s very… I feel like I’m… Well, what were you gonna say?
Pidge: That many of the other classmates that I have are transgender and they’ve managed to make a way for b’nei mitzvot to be b’nei mitzvot and not exclusively bar/bot mitzvahs.
Emma June: In your synagogue writ large?
Emma June: That’s amazing!
Pidge: It’s fantastic and I’m very lucky. I feel very blessed to have an accepting synagogue.
Emma June: Yeah. Wow. How did your synagogue come to that?
Pidge: I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I mean, I joined when I was nine, and before that, we still had our fantastic lesbian cantor. We had a different rabbi, who was also fantastic. He was very good with kids, which I feel very thankful that I had that kind of influence on my life. But I don’t know too much about the history of our synagogue. I know we got it off of a family, and that it used to be a proper house.
Emma June: Wow. Wow. Yeah. It’s really exciting to hear that. It makes me want to talk to… I grew up in the reform movement, as well, and it makes me want to talk to my old rabbi and see what they’re doing or if they’re talking about, if they’ve had b’nei mitzvot called that, or what they’re experiencing now. Because it definitely… I’m only 24, but it wasn’t that way when I was there, for sure.
Yeah. That’s amazing.
Pidge: Yeah. Honestly, I feel really thankful and really blessed to have a synagogue that’s that accepting and that makes tallit and b’nei mitzvot and all that kind of just another thing that trans teens can experience without feeling so left out.
Emma June: Yeah. And so, am I hearing from you also like just not really experiencing a feeling of feeling left out?
Pidge: I mean, not at synagogue, no. It’s always school putting… They were like, “Oh yes, we’re being inclusive and putting gender neutral bathrooms. We’re putting them as far away from the classes as we can physically put them.” So, I mean it’s nice to be accepted at synagogue, even if I can’t… even if I still have to deal with the whole whoopsies, school isn’t going to be super inclusive of you, or even that inclusive at all, you know?
Emma June: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely. It makes me feel pretty proud of your synagogue for making a space that feels that way to you.
Emma June: Yeah. That’s amazing. Yeah. I guess I feel like we’ve answered a lot of questions. One thing we haven’t talked about I’m curious if you’ve engaged with at all is like have you heard of a tallit katan?
Pidge: I don’t think so. No.
Emma June: If you’ve ever seen Orthodox men, they’re the vests that go under, like the undershirts that have tzitzit tied on the ends.
Pidge: Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ve seen those.
Emma June: Yeah. I know of many trans people who choose to wear those, like not because they’re Orthodox, or maybe they are, but also just as kind of a tool of gender expression. And like being able to wear tzitzit in a style that’s a little bit… that feels more gender affirming to some people, or to be able to wear tzitzit every day. And I guess I was just curious if that was on your radar, if you’d ever thought of that before, if you’ve done it before?
Pidge: I hadn’t heard of it, actually, before just now. I don’t think I’d ever consider it. I think it’s a fantastic idea for those who find themselves on that side of the spectrum. I think I’m content to leave the tallis and the tzitzit as something that I reserve for special occasions and for temple and stuff like that, and I’m content to not go around with that under my clothes, because I don’t know that I feel safe in my school environment to do that. Not because I’d get bullied or harassed or anything, but because I’d end up… Which I know I’m very lucky that I wouldn’t have to deal with any of that, but I feel like I’d be fielding a lot of questions, and a lot of people going, “Well, why are you doing it, anyway?” And a lot of criticism, I guess. And I know I’m lucky I wouldn’t have to deal with anything physical, I hope, but I don’t know. I don’t think I’d ever consider it, but I absolutely find that a valid form of self-expression. I think that’s fantastic that people are doing that.
Emma June: Yeah. Absolutely. I was just curious, because it’s another… just like a different avenue of approaching the tzitzit. Yeah. Do you have any lingering thoughts, or feelings, or insights?
Pidge: Not really. As a species, we don’t… I don’t know. As a species, we don’t spin around in circles enough. That’s my lingering thought.
Emma June: Like physically spin around in circles?
Emma June: I give you that. I don’t think we do it enough.
Pidge: All right. That’s my lingering thought/insight.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode2. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-2. As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in the world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A big think you to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, genius of the guitar and voice who made the music. Thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.
In the first ever episode of Fringes, I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Joy Ladin. I can't say enough amazing things about getting to talk to her.
Joy Ladin, Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University, has published nine books of poetry and two books of creative non-fiction, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, and The Soul of the Stranger: Reading G-d and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. She serves on the Board of Keshet, an organization devoted to full inclusion of LGTBQ Jews in the Jewish world; links to her poems and essays are available at wordpress.joyladin.com.
She did a talk recently, available here: “Shekhinah Speaks: Gender and Divinity.” Hadassah Brandeis Institute. Via Zoom. July 23, 2020.https://ensemble.brandeis.edu/
She's also been doing a weekly JewishLive conversation program called "Containing Multitudes" Tuesdays at 2pm. Recordings of those conversations are here: JewishLive.org/multitudes.
Some definitions and links from our conversation:
Sephardi: A Jewish diaspora population originating from traditionally established communities in the Iberian Peninsula; most were expelled from the region in the late 15th century. They have a distinctive diasporic identity that they carried with them to North Africa, South-eastern and Southern Europe, Anatolia, and the Levant, as well as the Americas, and all other places of their exiled settlement.
Ashkenazi: A Jewish diaspora population of historically Yiddish-speaking people who settled in central and eastern Europe.
Tefillin: Tefillin or phylacteries, is a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. Tefillin is worn by observant adult Jews during weekday morning prayers. In Orthodox communities, it is only worn by men, while in non-Orthodox communities, it may be worn by anyone.
Parashat Sh'lach on MyJewishLearning, the site we were looking at.
Halakhah: Halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and Oral Torah. Halakha is based on biblical commandments, subsequent Talmudic and rabbinic law, and the customs and traditions compiled in the many books such as the Shulchan Aruch.
Sukkot: A Jewish harvest festival beginning on the 15th of Tishrei and commemorating the temporary shelters used by the Jews during their wandering in the wilderness
Sukkah: A sukkah or succah is a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot. It is topped with branches and often well decorated with autumnal, harvest or Judaic themes.
Hallel: Hallel is a Jewish prayer, a verbatim recitation from Psalms 113–118 which is recited by observant Jews on Jewish holidays as an act of praise and thanksgiving.
With any questions or comments, email me at email@example.com
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. My name is Emma June, though you may hear me referred to as Emma or EJ, as well. I’m a white trans Jew with a mixed Sephardi and Ashkenazi background. I’m a creator, lover of colorful things, and relevantly, the person who ties tzitzit and does shipping at ADVAH Designs, the small tallit business that is sponsoring and supporting this podcast. After spending so much time with tallitot at work and so little time wearing one, especially because I felt so alienated from the tallis I have and from so many that I’ve seen, I started to wonder how other trans Jews related to this ritual object. I found very little content online on the subject and decided to start asking around. Thus, a podcast was born.
Before we get to the first interview, let’s get some definitions down. First, tallitot. What are tallitot? Tallitot, or tallit in the singular, are prayer shawls worn by Jews that have knotted fringe on each of their four corners. This fringe, known as tzitzit, is tied with a prayer, and is what make tallitot ritually significant, what make them holy. A few other things to know: most traditionally, and for most of history, tallitot were only worn by cis men and boys. This has changed a lot, especially in the last 50 years. While in some Jewish communities, men are still the only ones to wear tallitot, they are now commonly worn by people of all genders.
There are a few kinds of tallitot. There’s the prayer shawl you most commonly see, which hangs over both shoulders. A tallit gadol is a larger tallit that is often worn over the head and down the back. A tallit katan is a small vest worn daily as an undershirt that has tzitzit on its corners. Tallitot can be made of most anything, so long as they have four corners and tzitzit tied correctly. I’m using tallit and tallitot, the Sephardic and Hebrew pronunciation of these words, but you will hear them being called by their Ashkenazi pronunciations, tallis and tallisim, by many of the people that I interview. And with that, I bring you to my first interview. I was so nervous, and she was so gracious and so brilliant. Let’s hear Joy Ladin introduce herself.
Joy Ladin: I’m officially the Gottesman professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, which is an Orthodox Jewish institution, and even though I’m not Orthodox, I am the first, and as far as I know still the only openly transgender employee of any Orthodox Jewish institution. And I’ve done a lot of speaking and writing about trans identities and Jewish identities, and about how they intersect, and published a couple of books where they talk about those things, most recently The Soul of the Stranger: Reading G-d and Torah from a Transgender Perspective.
Emma June: Yeah. I actually have that book in front of me right now. It’s very engaging, so thank you for writing it.
Joy Ladin: Thank you.
Emma June: Well, on this show, I’m really interested to be talking about tallitot and tzitzit. I’m trying to talk specifically about this and these ritual objects because… Well, I work tying tzitzit as one of my jobs, and-
Joy Ladin: Wow.
Emma June: I am trans and I think when I’m sitting there tying, I end up having a lot of thoughts about what’s going on, and who’s wearing them, and how I should be wearing them, or could be wearing them, and what they’ve brought up for me and what they might bring up for other people. So, I guess to start off, I’m curious what your first memories with tallitot and tzitzit are, if those are the same memory, if those are different, just kind of where that brings you back to.
Joy Ladin: Those are different memories for me. I didn’t grow up in a religious household at all. We were ethnically Jewish and part of that for my mother was she wanted us to be a part of the synagogue so that my sister and I would grow with, as my mother puts it, a sense of who we are. And she didn’t grow up with a religious background. Her mother’s family… very religious, but her mother was the non-religious child in a religious family. But they… My mother grew up in the Jewish ghetto in Montreal, and so she felt that that was enough to give her a strong sense of Jewish identity without a sense of Judaism as a religious practice, but she felt that we needed bar and bat mitzvah, and Hebrew school, that kind of stuff.
So, I was attracted to Judaism not because it was important in my home, because it really wasn’t, but because when we went to synagogue, it was the only thing that I’d encountered that was as strange as I was. Judaism is really strange. It’s very old and didn’t fit at all in our really kind of assimilationist middle class white Jewish lives. But it was different in all of these ways that weren’t… were supposed to be socially acceptable, like not even commented upon. So, I had this sense of gender difference that I felt was really problematic. I had to hide it. It wasn’t okay. But this weird Jewish stuff, Judaism stuff, was okay. And so, that was really attractive to me, so my mother, probably because she didn’t care very much about the practice of Judaism, was more about transmitting a sense of Jewish identity to her children, had picked a very strange shul.
It was the remnants of an Orthodox shul that had burned down, and most of the Orthodox members of that congregation had formed a new shul that was Orthodox, but there was a small group of Ashkenazic Eastern European refugees who were elderly and didn’t speak English very well, and they instead joined with the young families like mine, who I guess you would call them reform, but it wasn’t a formal identification. It was just not Orthodox, not too invested in anything except children in Hebrew school and bar and bat mitzvahs. And so, when I… I was really into going to services because I was attracted to the strangeness and because I was also looking for some kind of formulation, my relation… to G-d. But when I got there, there were these old men who were delighted to have anybody who was younger than 70 years old, and they wanted to share their Judaism with me.
And they would explain things to me in great detail, but of course I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. So, nothing that they said to me interfered with the strange idiosyncratic ideas about Judaism I was making up on my own. One of the things that they did was when I was still quite young, they started putting a tallit on me, and I didn’t realize this was something that I was supposed to be doing myself at first. But I remember them wrapping it around me, pointing to… for the prayer, the blessing that you’re supposed to say. And I remember having performance anxiety about it. It was a familiar feeling to me because I always had performance anxiety about acting male. I felt like I was always in danger of not doing it right. But I was also worried that I might do it too well, that if I performed maleness too well, it would undermine my sense of female identity.
So, I don’t think that I knew that putting on a tallit was a gendered act at first, because they couldn’t explain to me why I was doing it. So, I worried about whether I was doing it right, but I also remember really enjoying the physical feeling of it as a garment, and part of my kind of tormented relationship to gender was that I didn’t feel that it was okay to enjoy garments. That was something that to me was like a feminine thing, so it was too dangerous for me to do anything that might express my female gender identity. But that was okay here, and so these tallisim were old, and worn out, and they were just the standard American Jewish synagogue issue. They’d probably been… This was the 1960s. They’d probably been in use since the 1950s. But I liked the way that they felt in the sense of being surrounded, and it was always something that felt related to the forbiddenness of expressing my gender identity. This was a garment that was expressing something about my identity in a way that I usually felt like I couldn’t do.
Later, they would give me tefillin, but they never gave me the tallit katan, tzitzit. That I came to much later and in a very different way.
Emma June: When did the tallit katan enter the picture for you?
Joy Ladin: That was not until… That must have been my 30s. At that point I had… I was married. I’d been married for a long time. Since I got out of college. And had children, and I was a struggling academic. I had a PhD, but not a regular job at first, and I was… Partly because I was getting older, I think, but partly because of having children, I was struggling more and more with not… It was becoming more and more difficult to not express my gender identity, and I would have these gender breakdowns is the way that I thought of them to myself. It felt like an alcoholic binge. I would just be consumed by this desire for transformation, and that’s all I could think about, and it was very painful, and afterward I felt very ashamed and like I’d lost control. Because I carried on my childhood relationship with G-d, this feeling of a personal relationship, after these things, I would feel this sense of what G-d wanted me to do to… I thought of it as penance. I came to think of it in somewhat different ways.
But I remember I was on my way to my very first post-PhD job. I was gonna be teaching at Princeton as an adjunct for the first time, and I had had this gender breakdown, and I realized suddenly that what I was supposed to do, what G-d wanted me to do was start wearing a kippah all the time, and I’d never done anything to identify myself visibly as Jewish outside of the synagogue. I was… I had a Jewish identity. I had a religious identity. But I didn’t wear like a Magen David or anything that would identify me that way, and I always thought, “This is insane.” And I felt very uncomfortable, but I had a kippah and a tallit, because I did use it in daily prayers, and so I put it on.
So, I showed up for my first day of teaching bizarrely dressed. I was wearing a kippah, which I had gone to Princeton for my PhD, but I’d never worn a kippah there before, and wearing shorts, which is not what you’re supposed to do when you teach at Princeton. It’s a very conservative school. And probably really crappy shorts and shirt. I was just… I felt like a fish out of water in every possible way, and deeply ashamed, and on a later gender breakdown, I realized that I needed to start wearing a tallit katan, and I had to order one from the internet and I thought that was very… because I had never known anybody who wore such a thing.
Later, when I was starting to transition, I realized these things that I had thought of as penance were actually the first time that I had chosen to wear clothing that marked me as visibly other, and that expressed an identity that I normally had kept hidden. And I realized that in a way, that was practice for being trans, and that reflects the way that I felt about Jewish and trans identity my whole life, which is that being Jewish was a way of being different that I could express in some ways, and being trans was a way of being different that I couldn’t. And so, being Jewish sort of taught me about being a minority in ways that really were very useful… I started living as openly trans. Sorry, that was about more than the tallit katan.
Emma June: No, but it’s very beautiful to hear. I think the… It brings up for me kind of a question of passing, of where you get to be when you… How do I want to say this? That you can control how you appear to people and sometimes one is safer and hurts more.
Joy Ladin: Yes.
Emma June: And I think… Yeah, I’ve never I guess heard it framed the way you just said, of Judaism being the one that was at least more publicly acceptable. And that’s powerful to me. Do you still wear a tallis?
Joy Ladin: Well, rarely. For a few reasons. So, when I started realizing that I couldn’t live as a man anymore was a long and very difficult process, because so many people’s lives were built around my male identity and there are a lot of issues that are not related to tallisim here, but I had gotten a job at Yeshiva University and I was a very weird artifact to them. Not because I was trans. That’s a way I would become strange later. But because I was a non-Orthodox who was nonetheless religious, and that’s something that was like being a platypus or something. It was a bunching, mixing categories that weren’t supposed to go together in their world. And I was wearing a tzitzit and kippah and I was not Orthodox, so… Which they could see, because I was Ashkenazic, but I was wearing a Bukharan kippah that I was wearing because it stayed on my hair better.
Emma June: They do that.
Joy Ladin: Yes, and I didn’t feel it was okay to wear bobby pins, because part of my neurosis about hiding my trans identity, bobby pins in hair was part of the forbidden things that women do that I couldn’t allow myself to do. So, they hired me with this strange, really queer form of Jewish identity that had nothing to do with gender or sexuality, and as I was… I entered into therapy with a therapist to work on the gender stuff, and in one of our sessions she startled me by saying, “Is it comfortable for you to wear those things? Because aren’t those expressions of male Jewish identity?” And I realized yeah, of course. I was wearing them because I felt like I didn’t have a choice but to live in ways that expressed a male identity, and I took them off, and I immediately felt better. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with them in themselves, but because for me, they were part and parcel of maleness that I was feeling entombed in.
So, I stopped, gradually stopped wearing them, and that was part of my transition. And when I… Of course, I wasn’t ever Orthodox, so I never belonged to any shul in which it wasn’t egalitarian in terms of gender. In all of the shuls that I belonged to, it was normal for women to wear tallisim and kippah. And it was normal for anybody to wear tzitzit, but in services, that was normal. But to me, it didn’t feel comfortable. So, it’s something that I do, like I did it for the High Holiday. I wore a tallit. But, and I have a beautiful one that was given to me as part of a transition ritual. But it has never been something that I’ve been able to make my own as part of my real identity.
Emma June: Yeah. I think that’s something I’m very curious about, is how to grapple with these ritual objects that Judaism has brought us that kind of approach gender, or have been taught to us in such a binary way, and that because we don’t fit into that, it’s either something I think as trans Jews we have to reject or make something new out of. Or you know, find some in between way to engage with it. And-
Joy Ladin: Yes.
Emma June: I’m curious if that… I feel like you started to talk about it, but I’m curious if you have any more thoughts on that with your own practice?
Joy Ladin: Well, the tallit that I had used for most of my life was one that I was given at my bar mitzvah, and so it was really, and I used it all the time, because I prayed every day, and on my own. Usually not in services, but sometimes in services and when I had children, I would hold whoever of the kids was a baby while I was praying in the tallit, so it had little yellow poop stains on it, and it was very dear to me. And because it was bound up so much with my… It wasn’t just… My life as a man was bound up with my life as a parent and raising my children, and this certain of kind of relation to Judaism that was part of my life as a man. So, it’s strange. In general, I had a very binary idea, as many trans women of my generation do, that you’re either your true self or a false self, and it’s all one or it’s all the other, so the idea of having aspects of my life, which is true, like I value, I’m not rejecting being a father to my children. That’s crucial to me.
But I don’t really know how to integrate it into a full sense of who I am, and that tallit that I’ve had my whole life that I still have was part of that. So, I just stopped wearing it. Didn’t… Was kind of a short circuit. It didn’t feel right not to wear it and it didn’t feel right to wear it. So, at a certain point I had been living as myself for a few years and I was with, but not yet married to the woman that I’m married to now, and I felt like I needed some kind of a ritual to consolidate my new sense of who I was, and I worked with Rabbi Jill Hammer to put that… put something together, and my wife bought a tallit for me that was presented to me as part of that ritual, and I was sobbing. Tears were streaming down my face, and the tears were kind of a tallit, and there it was, this vision. It still looks new, because I’ve hardly worn it. The other tallit is so worn. This tallit is so new and it represents a… It’s beautiful, like a vision of a life in which my Jewishness, and my transness, and my gender all completely integrated, but that’s not a life that I have, that I’ve reached yet.
And I think what you were saying before about needing some kind of other relation to this gender ritual object. Obviously, I can’t wear it if it signifies maleness. Because I didn’t grow up female, wearing a tallit is not a liberatory gesture. It’s not an assertion that, “Well, I’m equal to men, therefore I can wear a tallit.” Because I know that according to the most conservative versions of Judaism, I’m still a man, and I should be wearing a tallit. So, how can I wear it in a way that is authentic to me and is not where… When I’m wearing it, I’m not distracted from the work of prayer by the conflicts around genderedness? I haven’t figured that out yet.
Emma June: Yeah, it’s a big question and kind of internal struggle. Yeah. I’m curious. You’ve written a lot about your relationship to G-d and spoken a lot about it, and I know that wearing the tzitzit is a commandment given by G-d in the Book of Numbers, and I’m curious, I guess… So, I’ve been reading your book, The Soul of the Stranger, and in it the way you describe G-d is as somebody who is also on the outside and who doesn’t fit, and who doesn’t have a body that makes sense to the world. And I guess I’m curious if you’ve thought of any ways to read a passage like the one in the Book of Numbers through the lens that you’re reading Torah in in your book?
Joy Ladin: That is a great question. Do you have the verse so I can look at it and not just make stuff up?
Emma June: Yes.
Joy Ladin: Which I’m also good at.
Emma June: Let me pull it up. I had it up and then I… The internet cut out, so-
Joy Ladin: Okay.
Emma June: Let me get it. Okay. Tzitzit fulfill the commandment in Numbers 37, in the portion called Parashat Sh’lach. “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corner of their garments throughout the ages. Let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe. Look at it and recall all the commandments of G-d and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all of my commandments and to be holy to your G-d.”
Joy Ladin: That is definitely the commandment, but there is no Numbers 37. The last chapter is 36.
Emma June: That is… Okay. MyJewishLearning is then wrong, which-
Joy Ladin: Not to say fake news, but only…
Emma June: Okay. I’m gonna look again on Chabad’s website.
Joy Ladin: All right. This is saying 15:38, and then Deuteronomy.
Emma June: Okay.
Joy Ladin: Let’s look at 15:38 and see if that turns out to be the right…
Emma June: Well, I’m finding that it’s Numbers 15:37.
Joy Ladin: Ah, okay. Yes. Yes, it is. Okay. Good. Okay, so the context of this is the… It’s horrible. One of the many horrible things that happens in Numbers is in the verses right before that, they… Somebody is found gathering wood on Shabbat, and there’s no instruction about what should be done to them, and G-d says the whole community has to stone the man to death.
Emma June: Ah.
Joy Ladin: So, they do that. That comes right after the… Well, there’s a lot of stuff about… commandments around sin offerings before that. So, the context of this is anxiety about breaking the commandments that G-d has given. And the juxtaposition implies, but it doesn’t… The Torah doesn’t make clear usually the logical connections between things, so it feels like G-d might have said, “Ah, this dude forgot you’re not supposed to do this on Shabbat. I guess human beings need more than just commandments. They need a reminder that they should follow the commandments.” And so that, the commandment about tzitzit seems like an attempt to prevent further errors like the gathering of wood on Shabbat. So, if that’s right, there’s nothing gendered about the fact that it’s a man wood gathering wood on Shabbat. In terms of the way the story is told, gender isn’t a factor, and the community that gathers to hear the sentence, it’s the whole community, so that again is everybody, and they’re all supposed to be stoning him.
So, as near as I can tell, the way this stuff is written, this is before the later gendering rabbinic commentaries and Halakha put on all of these things. At this point, most of the commandments are given to everybody at once, and everybody is supposed to be responsible for following, and speak to the Israelite people, again, it’s not a gender-based thing. It’s not something that would be specific to men and exclude women, and in this formulation, it wouldn’t exclude people who don’t identify either as men or women. It’s just if you’re part of this people, you need to do this so you can… Basically, so that you can say to yourself, “Huh, isn’t that weird? Look. I got this fringe hanging under my garment. What the heck? What’s going on with that? Oh, right! I have to follow G-d’s commandments.” That seems to be the kind of technology that G-d has come up with here. And I have to say in a lot of the Torah, and here I would think this is an example, it looks like G-d is… has an experimental relation to human… Like G-d keeps trying to figure out what will work to set, to create a community in which human beings will actually remember that G-d’s there all the time and act accordingly.
And G-d does not seem to realize that anything that we do habitually, we’re just likely to forget. So, I have to say personally, when I was wearing tzitzit, of course I’m not a Halakhic Jew, so it couldn’t work quite that way, but I would just… I didn’t pay much attention to them. I didn’t look at them and immediately remember all the commandments. It was just like you get dressed in the morning, you put this stuff on, it starts to seem normal, and normal is… I don’t think I ever completely acclimated to it. I think it always felt somewhat uncomfortable to me to be wearing tzitzit. But I don’t think it ever functioned mnemonically to me. But the theory here is that… So, to me it looks like this is G-d trying to use what G-d knows about humanity, human beings are forgetful of what they’re supposed to do. They’re subject to impulses and urges. When they feel an urge, they’re liable to forget what G-d has told us to do. And human beings wear clothes. Hm. What if they could wear a kind of clothing that would remind them to do what I told them to do instead of what they feel like doing?
So, the perspective in my book is focusing on the awkwardness of G-d as a non-human being trying to relate to human beings. And to me, this looks like a good example of that. I’m not sure… The Torah I don’t think records a single example of somebody who’s about to sin, but looks down at their tzitzit and says, “Oh, right. Don’t gather sticks on Shabbat.” In fact, I don’t think it ever mentions it again. I don’t remember any point at which it comes up. So, to me it looks like G-d throwing spaghetti out to see what will stick on the wall. I think later, Orthodox practice develops this and elaborates on it, and makes it a more central thing than…. People build on it, but in the Torah it’s just like, “What the heck do you do to get people to remember that I’m here? And so, you shouldn’t do stupid crap like gathering sticks on Shabbat. I mean, come on guys. That’s pretty simple.”
Emma June: Right. Right. Wow. It’s interesting. It makes me think about like how to approach practice as more what helps me, or whomever, remain in touch with… I mean, I have a… I don’t know what I believe in, exactly, so I think for me it’s a question of engaging with that question. But just like what is it that can push us to remember how to be with our core values, or with our G-d, or with whomever.
Joy Ladin: Yes.
Emma June: And that that’s a really powerful way to approach maybe tzitzit or maybe something else.
Joy Ladin: Yeah. It’s a kind of very focused mindfulness practice. And the idea of wearing mindfulness, or wearing in your case, if you’re not sure what it is, what you’re wearing is a reminder that you should be actively not sure. You should be asking yourself that question and those questions. You should be walking through life clothed in the questions of where are you in relation to G-d, and Judaism, and all of that. I think that’s a really healthy way to think of it.
Emma June: Yeah. And it’s really… I mean, there’s something about it being about being clothed in those things, and how important to me as a gender queer person, clothing is something I do think about every day, and that has really impacted how I choose to move through the world already. It’s an active choice all the time. And I know that’s not true of every queer and trans person, but I do think it’s a somewhat common feeling. And so, I’m curious. Yeah, I guess I’m just struck by transferring that approach to Judaism, that the way that you clothe yourself matters.
Joy Ladin: Oh, I love that. So, it sounds like you can deepen your relation to this aspect of Jewish tradition by looking at what clothes mean to you as a genderqueer person. And then thinking about the similarities or differences in the tzitzit.
Emma June: Yeah. Yeah. I think so.
Joy Ladin: Fantastic.
Emma June: I’m curious. Are there any thoughts left ruminating for you? Or things you want to have said?
Joy Ladin: You know, this is probably neither here nor there, but I’m really, really… On my mind, I think because it’s Sukkot, and some of my most joyful memories of wearing a tallit are on Sukkot. It’s the one time in my life that I probably… will have ever owned a house. We had a small house kind of in wooded hills, basically. The house was a bit of a shambles, but it had a large amount of land, and enough so that for the first time in my life, I built a sukkah, and would build it every year, and then I would say Hallel in the sukkah in the mornings of Sukkot, and I would put on my tallit and I remember holding my baby in the sukkah, wrapped in my tallit, and singing and dancing to Hallel in the sukkah the morning. And it was hard for me to be happy when I was living as a man, but that was about as happy as I could get.
Emma June: That’s so special. Wow. Does your kid know about that now?
Joy Ladin: Nah. He couldn’t care less about my religion or really most anything about me. A very healthy 16-year-old in the difference.
Emma June: Wow. Maybe one day.
Joy Ladin: Yes. A girl can dream.
Emma June: Absolutely. We gotta.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions and links, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/Fringesepisode1. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-1. The interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in this world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That’s what it means to tell a story. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at Emma@advahdesigns.com. E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge thanks to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, the musician behind the intro. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.