Joy Ladin leads a full and productive life, but her path has not been easy. “Very early on, there was an awareness that I wasn’t in the right gender,” Ladin told the AJP from her home in Hadley, Mass. The first openly transgender person to work at an Orthodox Jewish institution, she chronicles her transition in her 2012 memoir, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders.”
Ladin will be speaking in Tucson at a variety of venues from Nov. 14 to 17, including Temple Emanu-El and the University of Arizona. The David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, she is the author of five books of poetry, including “Coming to Life” and “Psalms.” Ladin is also a board member of Keshet, a national organization that works for the full equality and inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish life.
She was born in 1961 as a male, Jay. As a boy in preschool in Rochester, N.Y., Ladin recalls, she preferred to play with girls. “They ran away from me,” she says. “They wanted me to chase them and try to kiss them. I thought that was strange.”
In first grade, Ladin tried playing with boys. “I consciously tried to figure out their rhythm,” which, she says, was different from hers. What she experienced is now “called female gender identity. I didn’t know there was anyone else like me. I felt a lot of fear, guilt and shame.”
When Ladin was 8 or 9, she read an article in a women’s magazine about a woman who had a transgender daughter. “I realized there were others like me,” she says. “But I had a sense of being the ultimate minority, besides being Jewish and having [only] one or two Jewish friends in grade school. I didn’t feel Jewish people would accept me either.”
Ladin’s parents “came from different strains of Judaism. My mother,” she says, was a descendant of rabbis from Montreal. “She wanted to be an American mother in the ’60s. My father came from a more socialist strain. He was pretty contemptuous of religion.”
Ladin, however, was drawn to Judaism. “I liked going to services. It came from a long time ago,” she says. “[Judaism] was something weird like me, but was socially acceptable. I had a very intense relationship with God, which is common for trans kids, and a very intense relationship to the Torah, which is not so common. “
Since her family wasn’t religious, “I ended up making up my own Judaism,” says Ladin. “God was like me and had extreme social problems due the lack of a body. I didn’t think my family would love me if they knew. So having a relationship with God made me feel less alone.”
Plus, she affirms, “I was angry. God was allowed to be angry. Think of the sons of Aaron entering the Temple the wrong way,” says Ladin, adding, “they were consumed by fire,” succumbing to the full wrath of God.
As life went on, “having this relationship with God made me feel less alone,” she says, while continuing to suffer the pain of being born the wrong gender. Ladin came out during her sophomore year of college to the woman who would become her wife, she says, noting that she was “the only person who loved me who knew I was trans.”
Ladin’s wife told her she could think whatever she wanted inside her head, “but she wanted me to express myself conventionally as a male,” says Ladin. “I periodically went through a gender crisis.” The couple stayed married for 20 years and had three children.
In 2008, after Ladin received tenure at Yeshiva University, she went through a transition process to change gender and continued teaching — as a woman. Since then, “some Orthodox rabbis defied the stereotypes,” says Ladin. “Some would say, ‘Judgment is God’s business. Human beings’ business is being compassionate for people in pain.’”
Events featuring Joy Ladin
THURSDAY, Nov. 14
LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona — “Deep Dish” lunch Q&A. Noon-1 p.m., at McClelland Park, Room 202
Hebrew High and teens casual dinner and conversation — 5:30-7 p.m., at the Tucson Jewish Community Center
FRIDAY, Nov. 15
Pride Alliance at the UA — Brown bag lunch, reading and Q&A, noon-1 p.m., UA Hillel lobby, 1245 E. 2nd St. (at Mountain)
Temple Emanu-El — Shabbat Services — 7:30 p.m. “Through the Door of Life: Transgender Identity”
SUNDAY, Nov. 17
Global Day of Jewish Learning — Rabbis’ recommended reading and Temple Emanu-El’s Sefer Book Club — 10 a.m.-noon at Temple Emanu-El book discussion group of Ladin’s memoir “Through the Door of Life”
Ladin’s visit to Tucson is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project, Temple Emanu-El, University of Arizona Institute of LGBT Studies, UA Poetry Center and the UA Hillel Foundation. For more information, call Ellen Freeman at 577-9393 or visit www.jewishtucson.org/lgbt.