A Rosh Hashana Story from Boro Park

This isn’t a representative story. It’s not a story with a lesson, a moral, or even a theme. It’s just a story.

Rosh Hashana davening services begin at 9am and continue until 2pm, with a half-hour break, in most Boro Park shuls. Some go longer, until 4pm.

Men are in shul all day long. Women come and go, some taking turns watching each other’s kids so each woman can be in shul for a part of the davening significant to her – you take shacharis, I’ll take mussaf… After the break, the women’s sections fill up with women and carriages and little children and crying babies, as the kehillah prepares for tekias shofar. In some shuls, there’s a later blowing especially for women, designed to keep the crying kids at home, where they won’t disturb shofar blusen.

During the break, in my parents’ home, my mother and sisters and I would take the prepared foods from the fridge and put them on the blech to heat up for the afternoon meal. We cooked most things ahead of time, and the only thing we needed to do was make sure they didn’t burn when we reheated them.

Some families, especially the ones whose women didn’t go to shul for more than the obligatory shofar, cooked everything on Rosh Hashanah. Unlike shabbos, yom tov carries no prohibition against cooking.

On this particular Rosh Hashanah about six years ago, one of the neighbors was in the process of renovating their home. The shul where they davened went really long – davening wasn’t over until 5 or 6 most years. So when the gas company had to lay new lines and shut off the gas while they did it, Rosh Hashanah afternoon was perfect for them.

Thing is, it wasn’t great for everyone else whose shuls finished earlier…

Cue Zissel Grunbaum coming home from shul, ready to cook for her family of twelve, only to find that her stove would not light, that the gas was off until later that evening.

My siblings and I were sitting on the front porch, enjoying the nice weather and waiting until we were all ready to start the meal. We watched as Zissel marched out of her front gate, already yelling, wooden cooking spoon held high – marched right up to the men working in middle of the street and yelled at them, waving her spoon and gesticulating wildly up at them, her voice reverberating up and down the block, her threatening stance made no less terrifying by her short stature.

The men waved a work order at her – they had no idea what was happening, they were just fulfilling that day’s work orders. The client had specifically requested this time slot, they said.

Zissel responded with some Yiddish words I had never heard before. My brothers laughed delightedly at her foul-mouthed retort.

But the situation wasn’t really funny. My father had come out of the house by that point and made his way down to the altercation playing out in middle of the street.

Calmly, he asked Zissel to let him handle it. Pleasantly, he commiserated with the workers and asked if there’s any way they could possibly postpone the work and turn the gas back on.

After some negotiations and calling their foreman, the workers packed up their tools, got the gas turned back on, and left.

Hachana l’Rosh Hashana 5780

I let the memories wash over me –
they chill me and I shiver.
I want to live, I want to love
I want to swim life’s river –
but my mind is full of memories –
they drag me down like stones –
those memories, they hurt, they wound –
they won’t leave me alone.

Please, I beg, cleanse this brain of mine,
purify its thought so I may seek the world –
so that I may see its beauty
and its glory all unfurled.
And I listen to my pleas,
to my cries and shouts for aid.
And the memories, their hold on me –
they weaken and they fade.

And I live, I do, I live so loud –
I raise my voice and sing.
I live, I speak, I wait with eager joy
for the beauty life can bring.

Why Children’s Books Make Me Cry

CW: emotional abuse, intersex

I’ve been preparing for the fall 2019 semester this week. A few days ago, I wrote an introduction on Blackboard. I ask my students to introduce themselves by answering a few questions about themselves, and it’s only fair I do the same.

For my class on children’s literature, one of the questions I asked is: “What’s your favorite children’s book?”

The answer I gave:

One of my favorite children’s books (because you can’t make me choose just one!) is The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, published in 1996. It’s a middle grade novel about a girl who doesn’t fit in and is made fun of by her whole village. She in fact does not belong – she’s a changeling, switched for a human baby because she couldn’t do enough magic to please the Moorfolk (kind of like fairies). Turns out, her mother, one of the Moorfolk, slept with a human man, so Moql/Saaski (the girl) is half-human and half-Moorfolk. She makes a place for herself and learns to love herself and accept friendship from people who accept her for who she is. I love that message. I have a soft spot for books with outsider main characters who find their own way…

I almost wrote more. About how I felt like an outsider almost all my life, in so many ways – gender, religion, smarts, interests, hobbies. But then I decided it wasn’t entirely appropriate, and/or I didn’t want to spill my life onto the screen for my students to read.

I haven’t been able to read and enjoy books for quite some time. Years ago, I used to read at least one book a day, maybe even two or three if they were aimed at younger audiences. My shelves filled with Young Adult and Middle Grade books because I read them, and loved them, and returned to them over and over. But over the past few years, I’ve been struggling to concentrate on the page.

I could attribute it to the strain of reading for orals, writing my prospectus, trying to write my dissertation, rewriting a whole new prospectus, and getting to work on the new dissertation.

But that’s not the reason I couldn’t read.

It was because I was always crying on the inside, and the books I like best make me cry on the outside, and I knew that if I unleashed the tears, they would never stop.

Back when I was in my teens, from about 7th grade onward, I dreamed of being in the Bais Yaakov High School play. After my shower every night, I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and act out random scenes. They were always overly dramatic, and almost always tragic. Many of the scenes I made up on the spot involved a girl in an orphanage, usually Miriam from A Light for Greytowers. I spoke the lines I made up in a whisper, staring into my eyes in the mirror, until my eyes welled up with tears and the tears streamed down my cheeks. Then I would wipe my face with my towel and get on with drying myself off and getting dressed.

There are times now when I feel the tears stopped up, when I think “I really need to cry,” and I engage in similar exercises to gain the sweet release of tears. (It’s a coping mechanism, and not one without scientific validation.)

But the kind of crying I get from YA or MG books is special. It can reach deep inside me and twist my guts into knots, make me feel things I haven’t let myself feel for fear of the emotions taking over me.

I’ve been getting better at regulating my emotions (thanks, therapy and anxiety meds).

And over this past summer, I’ve had to read many many Middle Grade books as I prepared my syllabus for my class on children’s literature. I’ve enjoyed them, though I was reading them with a critical eye, an eye towards whether and how the books would fit my syllabus and be teachable. Now that my syllabus is finalized, my Blackboard site is set up, and my first-day PowerPoints and lectures are prepared, I’ve been relaxing with some of the books I got from the library, books that I knew I wouldn’t teach but wanted to keep an eye on anyway. I’m reading these purely for pleasure, for enjoyment. Maybe with an eye towards using them in future courses, but mostly just curling up with a good book.

And they are indeed making me cry again.

One of those books is Alex as Well, by Alyssa Brugman. According to the publisher’s website:

Alex is ready for things to change, in a big way. Everyone seems to think she’s a boy, but for Alex the whole boy/girl thing isn’t as simple as either/or, and when she decides girl is closer to the truth, no one knows how to react, least of all her parents. Undeterred, Alex begins to create a new identity for herself: ditching one school, enrolling in another, and throwing out most of her clothes. But the other Alex-the boy Alex-has a lot to say about that.

Heartbreaking and droll in equal measures, Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman is a brilliantly told story about being intersex, exploring gender and sexuality, navigating friendships, and finding a place to belong.

I’m not intersex, but I struggle with my gender identity. And there was a time in my teens when I worried that I might be intersex (I do have PCOS, which is why I had some symptoms that made me freak out).

But that’s not why I related so much to the book that at times it felt like someone was punching me in the chest.

It was because of Alex’s parents, because of the interludes where Alex’s mom posts to “motherhoodshared,” a parenting forum, about her troubles and anguish and how much Alex is hurting her, and how she’s a terrible mother, and how she wishes Alex would just be a good boy.

“Your choices make me a failure as a mother,” my mother said to me. “My purpose in life is to raise Yidden with yiras shamayim, children who do mitzvos and follow the Torah. My purpose in life is to raise children like that, and you – my child – are throwing that away. And that means I failed at life.”

It was because of lines like “And then I recall that some of the times he held me down, it might have been because I was having a bit of a tantrum. You are a shit, Alex says. And it’s not just Mum and Dad who think so. Those reports in the attic said you were a shit too.” Because of Alex’s Dad, who says, “You are now, and have always been, a hyperactive, self-obsessed little shit, and caring for you is exhausting.”

“You were always so dramatic,” my mother said to me. “How was I supposed to know when you were really upset and when you were just being melodramatic?” And I would wonder, maybe this is my fault. Maybe if I had been better-behaved. Maybe if I hadn’t always been “chin-in-the-chest” upset, maybe if I hadn’t been “ungebluzen,” maybe if I hadn’t been such a “slob,” maybe my mother and father would have loved me more?

It was because of Alex’s Dad who says “you still haven’t actually asked anything. You have guessed, and assumed, and accused,” about Alex’s intersex status and the reason for her double birth certificate, it’s because Alex then remembers “that first night – back at the beginning – when I said I felt like a girl and my mother had the big hysterical fit, he left. He just walked out,” and my hearts screams for this young teen who didn’t follow her parents’ unspoken rule about asking and that’s why she didn’t get any answers and instead got called a pervert.

Maybe if I had spoken more rationally, I think, maybe if I hadn’t gotten upset, maybe if I hadn’t sarcastically said “don’t worry, I haven’t been raped yet” when she expressed concern over my new mode of immodest dress, maybe I could have patched things over with my mother, I think. And then I remember to be kind to the crying child I was, despite being over 25 by that point.

It was because of “It’s abuse, isn’t it? I’m not being a pussy. But it’s not the sort of abuse I could go to the Department of Community Services about – my father wanting to wrestle with me or my mother insisting that I eat French toast,” and pages later a brief memory of Alex’s mother hitting her with the phone, and who even needs to go that far ahead when in the previous paragraph Alex remembers how she fought back and asked her father to stop, and cried because she didn’t want to wrestle.

“Could you stop” was a laughing refrain in my childhood home, a remnant from when my father was tickling my younger sibling and they weren’t enjoying it, and asked for it to stop, but my father was having fun so he didn’t. My throat closes up with the memory of how my father hugged me when he was sad, or when one of “the boys” was in trouble at school yet again, and I knew he was hugging me for his own comfort and I felt suffocated, but I went along with it because if I didn’t his eyes would get all hurt and he would accuse me of not loving him. And I remember how I watched my friends’ families with envy, wishing I had their homes, and then berating myself because a parent hugging a child is not abuse, is it.

It was because of what Alex thinks while she and her father pack up clothes for her mother in the hospital: “This is good – taking things of hers and packing them in a bag, as if I am taking memories and packing them in the back of my mind.”

The dream finally stopped. It used to happen once or twice a week: I would be visiting my parents for Shabbos or Yom Tov, and either something would happen or I would just feel horrible, and I would try to pack up my things and leave. But no matter that, in every iteration of the dream, I was trying to pack the same belongings I had come with into the same bag I had brought – the things would never fit inside. I would stuff them, and stuff them, further and further in, and they still kept overflowing. Each time, I wound up taking extra bags away from the house with me as I escaped into the air outside.

Last time it was different. Last time, just two weeks ago, and the dream has not happened since. This time, my dream-mother said something unforgivable, and I responded calmly, standing up for myself. Then I went upstairs to my bedroom, took a big suitcase from under the bed, and calmly packed up every single one of my belongings. Neatly, carefully, and they all fit into the suitcase. All my clothing, all my books, all my memorabilia – not a stitch of me was left on the shelves. And then I left, and that house does not get to contain me anymore.

It was because of “You know what it comes down to? Alex says to me. People who don’t want to lose their babies shouldn’t treat them like shit.”

Why I Skipped the Fourth Night of Chanukah

CW: abuse, graphic moment of PTSD

Last night, I wrote a Facebook post. I started writing it as a brief post, because I had planned to share my menorah-lighting each night of Chanukah this year, and I wanted to explain why I wouldn’t be sharing the 4th night’s lights. But it turned into a long post, and I decided to share here on my blog as well.

This is the first year I’m lighting Chanukah candles. Growing up frum, I didn’t light, because only the boys lit. There was no real prohibition against girls lighting, but it wasn’t “done.” (see this story where I got excited thinking I would light but then didn’t…) And for the first few years after I left, I had no desire to engage in this ritual.

This year, I bought a menorah and candles, and was excited to have my own little lighting ceremony. And that’s how I learned that the association of Chanukah with the brother who abused me is likely never to go away…

I don’t think I’m going to light menorah tonight. I’m still on the train to the ferry, so I’ll be getting home pretty late and I’m really tired.

And also… it’s the 4th night of Chanukah. The night when my father would sit us all down to dole out Chanukah gelt from my parents and grandparents to each of us. The night when we celebrated the birthday of my oldest brother.

He’s been on my mind a lot lately. I can’t help but be aware of when his birthday is coming up, tied as it is to a holiday.

Every time Chanukah comes around, I think of him. This year, I feel a vague sort of… disinterest when I think about him.

I remember that dream I had about him four years ago, when I first started dealing with the memories: I dreamt of standing over his open casket, taking out a large kitchen knife, and slicing his stomach open down the middle.

I was so filled with rage against him for so long.

You did this to me! You betrayed my trust! You were my big brother, you claimed to love me, and you used my body for your own gain! And you knew all these years, and said nothing! And when I confronted you about it, you didn’t apologize! You! You did this to me!

I don’t feel rage against him anymore.

For a while, I pitied him.

You poor miserable creature, you never grew up and became a man. You disgusting being, enveloped in your own brand of jovial desperation. Your own life was messed up, true — but it’s your choice that you didn’t take responsibility and become an adult. It’s your fault that you let your wife turn the blame on me, but I pity you for having no spine or backbone of your own.

I don’t pity him anymore.

I feel… disinterest when I think of him. He has no bearing on my life anymore. My life is my own. He cannot harm me any longer.

It took me a long time to achieve this distance, disinterest, dispassion. But I’ve done it.

Tonight I will not light Chanukah candles. I will light my small candle on my altar, and I will watch the flickering flames, barely casting any light at all, and I will sleep in the darkness.

In the comfort of the home I made for myself, in the life I made for myself.

Embracing all the bright shadows that make me who I am.

I call this my vagina menorah. (It’s supposed to be a rimon, a pomegranate.)

What’s In a Name

Step 1: Get birth certificate from parents’ basement. Fill out form. Go to courthouse. Find out this is not enough because my parents never actually filed the name after my kiddush, although my father wrote “Esther Shaindel” in – and that does not count legally, much to everyone’s surprise.

Step 2: Request certified copy of birth certificate from Vital Records. Redo name change form reflecting current legal name of “Female.” Submit to clerk’s office along with $65 processing fee.

Step 3: Wait a week.

Step 4: Receive mailed notification from the courthouse that the judge signed the order. Go back to the courthouse, get copies of the order with instructions to mail them to the Social Security Office and the Passport Agency and to have it published in a specific newspaper.

Step 5: Mail out the orders. Pay $5 each for certified mail receipts. Realize that in the excitement I forgot to include payment when I sent the order to the newspaper.

Step 6: Call the newspaper once a day for a week and never get through and never get a call returned. Finally get through, they say they’re processing it and I should wait for their call and they’ll get payment info then.

Step 7: Continue waiting another week. Call back and finally get assurance it will be published the next day. Cost appears on my card: $120. I don’t understand why it’s so expensive, but I just want this to be over, so I take the hit and move on.

Step 8: Check the classifieds the next day and stare at that notice for a while, happy that this is almost done. Wait for the affidavit to arrive in the mail.

Step 9: After ten days, get frustrated and call the newspaper office. Get told to wait another week before calling back.

Step 10: Find the affidavit in the mail that evening.

Step 11: Take the receipts from mailing and the affidavit of publication back to the courthouse. Get told I got the wrong kind of receipt from the post office. Try not to cry (it was a bad day to begin with). Clerk is nice to me and reassures me, prints out more orders for me to re-mail.

Step 12: Mail the orders, get the correct receipts that cost $1.50 each.

Step 13: Back to the courthouse again, submit all the receipts, ask for 5 certified copies. Need exact change, so a quick trip to the nearby deli to break a 20, back to the courthouse to pay $30.

Step 14: Submit certified copy to one of my workplaces, excited to get new IDs. They tell me they need my new Social Security card before they can do anything.

Steps 15, 16, 17, 18, please no more: Plan to go to DMV and Social Security offices, get new passport photo taken (more $$), get new passport ($110). Submit certified copies of name change order and documents to all my workplaces, my bank, health insurance, doctors.

It’s been a headache (which is not yet over) but I am finally legally

Dainy Esther Shaindel Bernstein


The Exhilaration of Teenage Rebellion

Originally published on Tales Out of Bais Yaakov.

A few years ago, my sister was in her BY high school play. I sat in the audience and watched the girls having the time of their lives on stage, over-dramatic acting and all. During my sister’s dance, though, I was jolted almost right out of my seat by one of the moves.

It was nothing very exciting. The girls in the dance dropped down onto the floor for two seconds and rolled over, then popped back up and flowed into the next move. They were great, and it looked terrific.

But it sent me way back down memory lane.

In the play I was in, Listen With Your Heart, there was a scene about “The Doctor’s Plot,” when Stalin accused nine doctors, six Jewish, of plotting to kill him, and had them arrested. The dance following this emotional tale had half the girls dressed as KGB officers and half dressed as doctors.

At one point, the dance heads had choreographed the doctors dropping onto the floor with the KGB officers standing over them. The KGB officers would do some motions, and then step away, at which point the doctors would all roll over toward the edge of the stage.

Everything was going fine throughout practice and rehearsals. During the last week of dress rehearsals, one rebetzin came to the public school whose auditorium we had rented out, to watch the “run-through” and comment on any lack of tznius.

She commented on this move.

It’s a complete breach of tznius, she said, total pritzus, to have girls lying on the floor, kal v’chomer when you have other girls standing over them, and kal v’chomer even more when the girls roll on the floor! And even if it weren’t so untzniusdig, it’s definitely not dignified. (Because dressing up in our shiny gray choir costumes was definitely dignified…)


The dance heads listened, nodded shamefully, and let her finish.

But then a discussion ensued when the rebetzin left. How could they change this? It would affect the entire choreography, and there were only two days until the first performance on motza’ei Shabbos (three, but you couldn’t count Friday).

The girls in the dance were in an uproar and refused to change it. The heads were ready to change it, because you can’t outright disobey the rebetzin like that.

“But listen,” one of the dance girls reasoned, “Rebetzin Overseer always comes to the first performance. And everyone knows the first performance is basically like the last run-through, no one expects it to be perfect. So make up some stupid change, don’t stress too much over it, and we’ll do it in this first performance. Then she’s gone, and satisfied we’re not being pritzusdig, and we can go back to the way we practiced for the next four performances. And I mean, we could even leave it in for that performance. What’s she gonna do? Get up on stage and make us stop the performance?”

I don’t actually remember what they did. I do remember that the move was in the play, but I don’t know if they used that bit of subterfuge.

Perhaps they did speak to Rebetzin Overseer and convinced her that there was nothing pritzusdig about it. That might at least explain why it was okay for my sister’s dance ten years later to include that move.

There was one time where the logic of this subterfuge did work.

In the same play, the girls in songdance wanted to make use of the audience aisle.

They were originally supposed to exit the stage at the end of their songdance by forming two lines, each one exiting off to one side of the stage. The problem was that the right side led to the classrooms where the rest of the grade was hanging out, waiting for their turn on stage, but the left side led to a tiny room where the props were kept.

And the scene after the songdance lasted another ten minutes, so the girls who exited to that room would have to stay silent there for ten minutes. Not a fun prospect.

So they proposed to their heads that instead of exiting sidestage, the two lines would use the two sets of stairs leading off the front of the stage, walk up the aisles of the audience, and exit out the back doors of the auditorium. Those stairs were being used by the actresses throughout the play already anyway.

The directors of the play said no.

The heads of songdance relayed this message to their group, who weren’t very happy. They grumbled through the first two performances, but were fed up after the third night of having to wait before they could join their friends in shrieking when their performance was over.

So they decided on this plan of action: banking on the directors’ desire for the appearance of a smooth, perfect performance, they knew that they wouldn’t be stopped if they did something ridiculous (one actress had already taken advantage of this and shouted out a hello to her mother in the audience while she was supposed to be acting drunk).

So if they just marched off the stage, no one would stop them.

Sure, they’d get a yelling afterwards, but it was the last performance anyway.

They had to get the two girls who led the two lines to agree to this pact, and to resolve not to lose their nerve. And it worked! They all marched off, still singing as they were supposed to, and walked out the doors. Of course, they were so excited at their little rebellion that they shrieked as soon as they exited, and everyone in the audience heard it through the open doors…

They got a yelling.

But they also got that exhilarating feeling – that sweet, sweet feeling of adolescent rebellion!

Just One Shabbos

The very last time I visited my family was Shabbos zachor, the shabbos before Purim 2017. That shabbos was a major factor in why I decided not to go home for Pesach, which led to my parents pressuring and pleading with me to join “family time,” and eventually led to my decision to cut off contact with them.

Here are some highlights as I wrote them to myself, to make sure I remembered, immediately after the shabbos (and yes, during shabbos too, when I could escape to the room I was sharing with my sisters, and take out my phone and type for a few minutes).

The best part is the very last point here, which happened at the very end of shabbos, in which I did not remain silent, did not clench my teeth.

  • My brother tells a story on his way out to shul Friday night. It ends with “a goyishe kup. Goyim are so stupid.” I wasn’t part of this conversation, and although I thought about saying something, like a comment about all my goyishe friends, in order to make everyone aware that not everyone in the room agrees with them or has the same experiences, I stayed quiet too long and the moment passed.
  • While the men are in shul, the three new sisters-in-law are discussing how their husbands use yeshivish and chassidish language that they don’t understand. One points out that her husband doesn’t understand some of her “girl talk.” Another says, “yeah, he never will. Boys can’t understand girl talk. Boys and girls are just different. That’s just the way it is.” I was half-part of this conversation, and I’d heard this line from this sister-in-law before, and had no interest in engaging.
  • One sister-in-law talks about her job in a real estate office, and how one agent is chassidish and looks totally “foreign” and barely speaks proper English. She says, “I don’t know how he’s so successful. I mean, I wouldn’t trust someone who barely speaks English.” She imitates his chassidish-English, and marvels in awe at how successful he is at selling houses even though he looks and sounds so foreign. I refrain from commenting on the locales where he’s selling (all the places around Lakewood that are the center of an outrage because Jews are pushing goyim out by out-pricing them etc), or on the attitude about someone who doesn’t speak English not being competent… Another sister-in-law says, “you see, it doesn’t make sense, it’s because Hashem is amazing. He didn’t need college, Hashem takes care of him. It’s so clear.”
  • The three newlyweds discuss married life. One talks about how she hasn’t gone to the gym since she got married, and it leads to a comment about “when I was single, if I wasn’t at the gym, I’d be shopping or sleeping.” The third sister-in-law, who has been quiet through most of this conversation, says, “I didn’t shop much at all when I was single. But I was in college, so I was always busy with that, I never had time because I was studying.” I think she felt a little guilty after she said that because it was obvious she was being snarky about the idea that a “single girl” has absolutely no life besides work, shopping, and gym.
  • A discussion about one of my brother’s fish dying and the necessity of maintaining the ph levels in fish tanks leads to this comment: “Oh those ‘environmentalists’ were shrieking chai v’kayam when the oil spilled, and they worked so hard to clean it up. But then winter came and they had to stop working, and when they came back after the winter, the oil was all gone – because idiots, the ocean takes care of itself.” I was part of this conversation but was trying so hard not to blow my top at this point. These little things build up. So I kept quiet and didn’t say, “and what about all the sea-life that died while the ocean was taking care of itself after irresponsible money-hungry oil companies caused an unnatural spill?”
  • In the kitchen during the meal, one sister-in-law asks me, “so you’re really a professor?” I say, “yep. Well, not really because I’m still working on my PhD, but my students call me professor.” She says “It’s amazing that you’re doing that. Getting a PhD. It’s like, so much work. Is it like, *in* something, the PhD?” I stop myself from guffawing and say “yes, in English literature.” She goes on to give a long speech about how hard college is, and she knows someone who took an accounting course, and it was so difficult and this girl almost broke down so many times. I try to say something about my actual experience as a college student before and a PhD student now, but end up just agreeing that yes, college is hard and college students break down fairly often. (This was less annoying than the time a few years ago, when another sister-in-law asked what I do as a literature PhD student, if I write “book reports.” But that’s not entirely related to OTD / XO – all grad students deal with that from family members.)
  • One brother shares a story he had seen but mistells it as a male boxer tricking his way into being on the women’s team and therefore being able to beat up all the women. Another brother (who I expected way better from) starts going on about how people get offended when he thinks they’re male because they’re dressed like a man and “if you want me to know what you are, dress like what you are. You can’t get mad at me if you dress different than what you are.” My mother pulls aside the first brother to tell him he got the story wrong, that actually a trans man who was in the process of transitioning was forced to play on the women’s boxing team even though “she” already had male hormones. I’m upset at the misgendering but surprised that she even said anything, and also that she’s no longer calling trans people “it.” I leave the table when the transphobic comments get too much. The meal is over by then anyway.
  • My mother tries telling a “vort” about how the optic nerves actually match the lines of tefillin. My brother (who is in college) says no, that’s not how the optic nerves look in the brain. They argue a bit, my brother says “look, I know, I held brains in my hand and saw it.” Another brother says, “but that was a shvartze brain, so it doesn’t count,” and then laughs like it’s so hilariously funny.
  • Someone tells a vort about how Haman’s daughter heard Haman saying “kocho yai-aseh la’ish….” And should have recognized her father’s voice. But she knew that he was so attention-hungry that if no one was around to lead him on the horse and proclaim this, he would do it himself. Some details of how and why she then threw garbage on Haman’s head are unclear, and everyone gets very involved in trying to make the plot details work out logically. I refrain from telling them what I told my students about a medieval romance last week: in these kinds of stories, the logic of the plot is not all that important…
  • My mother tells over what she heard a rav say – in the age of the internet, when everyone has access to “Dr. Google,” they don’t trust doctor’s prescriptions and diagnoses, they google everything themselves and then tell the doctor “but I read…” and don’t listen to the “mumcheh.” And that’s why students don’t listen to their rebbeim and ask questions, and reject the rebbe’s authority. One brother (the one who held brains in his hand) objects to this and says that there’s nothing wrong with a student asking questions about what the rebbe presented. Another brother says that he won’t ask questions like that until he’s a talmid chacham himself, otherwise he will accept the chacham’s authority (this is verifiably false, because he has asked numerous questions and apparently doesn’t even realize that asking questions is a large part of how gemara study works). Rather than yelling “critical thinking is not a bad thing!” or pointing out the lack of logic in comparing one situation (trusting Google more than a doctor who spent years in training) to the other (asking a rebbe to explain or prove his statement or provide a source), I leave the table.
  • And the last one, in which I speak up: As we’re waiting for the zman, my brother says, “oh, Esther Shaindel, it’s almost your day!” (referring to the upcoming Fast of Esther, the day before Purim) And goes on to say how Esther was the one who got things done, because even though Mordechai had to tell her what to do and how to do it, she got things done, because she needed Mordechai to give her that push… He was attempting to be empowering, I think? It came out terrible, it came out sounding like Esther was a weak-willed girl who needed Mordechai to remind her that if she doesn’t go to the king, “revach v’hatzala” etc. I did respond to that – I said “well, she was contemplating being killed…” and then said “yeah, in this story, Esther is the one with balls!” I think only one brother (who wouldn’t care if I say things like that) heard me, and the rest were confused and then just ignored what I’d said.

Smiling with Clenched Teeth

I wrote this piece over two years ago. I no longer go home, and I no longer clench my teeth, or my fists under the table. I no longer put myself in situations where I must be silent. Even if I go to frum events, I try not to be silent. It doesn’t always work – at the friend’s wedding I went to recently, someone made a racist joke and I ignored it, but she pressed it and thought I didn’t understand, so she explained the racist joke to me, and I said nothing because it was right before the chupah and she wouldn’t have understood anyway and and and…. And I feel guilty about that. But when I’m not silent: If someone makes a comment about how getting married and having kids is the goal of every woman’s life; if one of my (female) friends makes a sexist joke or comment about how stupid and weak us girls and women are; etc.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote over two years ago:

So much of going home OTD is about silence.

Events in the past years when I listened to speeches and resisted exploding out of my seat in outrage and indignation:

  • a dinner for Bais Yaakov High School at which my mother was being honored. The speech included a mention of how wonderful she is because all her children bring her such nachas, because they’re such good Jews, following the mesorah. (My OTDness wasn’t well-known in the community at that point…) It also included lots of mentions about the Holocaust and how we carry on the interrupted legacy, and how the girls in Bais Yaakov are so tzanua and so willing to serve their husbands.

    with my sisters at the Bais Yaakov dinner honoring my mother
  • my grandmother’s levaya. Speeches in Yiddish included praise of her selflessness and how she never thought of herself, how she was great because she didn’t consider herself important and completely erased herself in order to serve others.
  • my uncle’s yahrzeit seudah, at which a rabbi whose opinions I already had reason to despise talked about the posukishtecha k’gefen poriyah al yarkisei baisecha.” A good wife is compared to a grapevine, he says, because she chooses to put all her efforts into the fruits. She is not like a tree, infused with a sense of her own worth, building up her own trunk and branches. Instead she finds her greatest joy in the accomplishments of her children. (He actually used the words “sense of her own worth” in saying this…)
  • my grandmother’s hakomas matzeiva, where I saw that my grandfather’s headstone contains a verse from gemara about how his whole life was about learning, and my grandmother’s newly erected headstone merely says “she served her father and husband with honor and respect.”
  • my uncle’s second yahrzeit seudah, at which a nephew started off a speech saying “we all know everything happens for a reason.” I was sufficiently practiced by that point to tune out the speech while appearing to listen. Well, okay, no I wasn’t. I did listen to it. But it was something about Parshas Noach, and I don’t remember it, to my great relief.

I go to these events because they’re my family. I stay quiet because this is not the time or place for an argument. I clench my fists under the table, I grit my teeth, because it is so hard to be the only person in the room who doesn’t take these ideologies for granted.

Of Joy and Friendship and Acceptance

I often share stories of difficulty and pain about “going home XO.” Here’s one of joy and love about seeing people from my childhood and adolescence.

Earlier this week, I went to the wedding of my friend’s older sister. My group of friends was very close to the kallah growing up. She lived with her parents until now, when she got married, and we hung out at that home a lot. She was our honorary older sister, as one friend in our group is fond of saying.

In the frum community, when an “older single” gets married, it’s a huge celebration. I may not share that worldview, but I was very happy for her joy, and excited to join her simcha.

When the kallah got engaged, my friend (the kallah’s younger sister) called me. I hadn’t spoken to her in a while. I had been avoiding her. She knew I wasn’t frum, but she had been living in Israel for the past few years, and though we had kept in touch via phone, she hadn’t seen me – hadn’t seen my short dyed hair, hadn’t seen my tattoos, hadn’t seen me in non-tznius dress.

I told her, when she called to invite me to the engagement party, that I was afraid of her reaction. But of course I would be there.

I needn’t have worried. When I walked through the door and she saw me, her face lit up and she caught me up in the tightest, most emotional hug.

Another friend was at the engagement party, but I had hung out with her and her babies in pants and short sleeves before, so I knew she wouldn’t be judgemental. I had felt in the past that she had been attempting to do “kiruv” on me by inviting me for shavuos, but during that engagement party we discovered the misunderstanding: I had attempted to break the news of my XO status to her gently, and had apparently been so gentle that it didn’t break (sorry – I get one corny pun per post!). When she invited me for shavuos, it was because she thought I didn’t want to go to my parents but was still frum.

At the wedding this week, I saw another two friends from that group. I had seen one at my grandmother’s shiva because she is my second cousin, but the other friend and I hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in six years. Neither of these two, as far as I know, knows I’m not religious. I never spoke to them about it.

But I am single at 30. And I have buzzed red hair, I was wearing a dress with an open neckline and above-the-knee hem, and my wrist tattoo was somewhat visible.

I expected at least some shocked or uncomfortable looks.

I am happy to report that none of that happened. We gabbed and laughed and caught up and decided to create a GroupMe chat so that even the two friends without smartphones could join (though the one friend whose kosher phone doesn’t have texting will have to be updated separately still).

And I am so relieved, and actually looking forward to our plans to get together soon. I even offered my Staten Island apartment as a good place halfway between Brooklyn and Lakewood!

Many other little interactions at that wedding reminded me how awful people can be, and how wonderful my friends are.

In a situation often filled with so much heartache (a few XO friends have expressed surprise that I keep up with my high school friends) I am fortunate to have childhood friends who care about me as a person more than as a Jew.