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Joy Ladin
Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, is the author of five books of poetry.

Everyday Life in a Transphobic World: Reflections on Transgender Day of Remembrance


by: on November 20th, 2013 | 3 Comments »


Credit: Lauren Quock (laurenquock.com).

The annual reading of the names of those murdered in the past year for being transgender is a somber reminder that the United States is dangerous place for trans people – particularly trans women and trans people of color. But the once- or twice-a-week murders we memorialize represent a small fraction of verbal and physical violence trans people experience on a daily basis. And as the campaign against the California law safeguarding rights of transgender school children demonstrates, nothing arouses violently anti-trans sentiment like the specter of trans girls and women using public restrooms.

In a country in which it’s still legal in many states to fire people for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, the right to use a public restroom may seem like small potatoes. But as a trans woman who regularly uses women’s rooms at work, in stores, in libraries and other public spaces, the fear of being verbally harassed, physically assaulted or even arrested is a daily fact of life.


Thou Shalt Not Employ a Transgender Professor? It’s Not a Verse in the Bible


by: on September 27th, 2013 | 6 Comments »

I don’t know H. Adam Ackley, the professor of theology at Christian Azusa Pacific University who was recently fired after coming out as transgender after teaching there for fifteen years, but having gone through my own difficult coming-out experience at Yeshiva University, I can imagine some of what Professor Ackley is going through.


Dr. H. Adam Ackley tells his students for the first time of his transgender identity. He had just written his name on the board. Credit: RNS/Annie Z. Yu.

Unlike Yeshiva University, Azusa doesn’t grant tenure. If I hadn’t received tenure before coming out, I am sure that like Professor Ackley, I would have been terminated, and for similar reasons. Some may think that religious universities are driven in this regard by fear of God, but there is no verse in the Bible in which God says, “Thou shalt not employ a transgender professor.” No, religious universities, like secular organizations that fire transgender employees, are acting out of fear of human beings: fear that students won’t register for classes with a transgender professor; fear of parents, who might send their children and tuition elsewhere; and fear, above all, of alienating alumni and other donors whose contributions keep the lights on and the doors open.


Letter to a President


by: on April 11th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

It is the peculiar job of an American president to embody citizens’ greatest hopes and fears, to be magnified in the popular imagination and national psyche into a world-straddling colossus. Thanks to the foresight, skepticism and, perhaps, perverse sense of humor of the founders of our democracy, the president’s vast symbolic power is hobbled and constrained on every side by our multiply divided system of government. American democracy is premised on the idea that power corrupts, that human beings tend to be selfish, cowardly and, if not stupid, short-sighted, foolish, and ever mindful of the whims of the electorate. The president can propose and sign legislation, but can’t pass it without majorities of two separate and often warring legislative houses; even executive orders are subject to review by unelected judges whose lifetime tenure gives them a considerably longer shelf-life than commanders-in-chief.

Americans rarely elect presidents whose talents warrant their high office, but when, as in 2008, we do, we paradoxically ensure that they will fall short of the potential with which we fell in love when we voted them in. Whatever their strengths or accomplishments, presidents are judged them harshly and caricatured savagely. That is their role in our political and psychological economy: to represent fantasies of absolute power that we mercilessly, relentlessly puncture. We doom our presidents to fail our greatest hopes than risk empowering tyrants who fulfill our worst fears.


Enlarging our Moral Language


by: on February 12th, 2013 | 4 Comments »

When the Gaza war began in November 2012, American Jews’ lack of an embracing moral language, a language that could acknowledge all viewpoints, sufferings, terrors, humanity, became painfully obvious. To speak of the civilians dying in Gaza was, to many American Jews, to attack Israel and deny its legitimate rights to exist and defend itself from missiles. We seemed to have no language in which we could speak both of Israeli families huddling in bomb shelters as far north as Jerusalem and children crawling through Gaza rubble. Indeed, to judge by the anguished, enraged Facebook and Twitter exchanges I saw, we didn’t even have a language in which we could acknowledge and address the feelings and perspectives boiling among American Jews.

Poets can’t protect families from bombardment, negotiate cease-fires, resolve disputes, make peace or establish justice. But we can expose and stretch the limits of language, and challenge ourselves and our readers to imagine more honest, compassionate, embracing tongues in which to address this unspeakable tangle of fear, injustice, and brutality. The following poem, written during the war, was one attempt. I hope that its shortcomings will provoke other, better efforts to create the language give American Jews need to speak with (rather than screaming at) one another about this distant conflict with which we are so intimately involved.


Response to a Religious Jewish Transsexual Listing Suicide Options Considered as Alternatives to Gender Transition


by: on November 1st, 2011 | Comments Off

God is infinite, and each of us encounters different faces of God, and God needs us – each of us – to make our experience of God visible in the world. Without you, the truth of God that only you can know will be lost.

God speaks to us through the language of necessity – what we need to do to live. Think of your body – it tells you when you need to eat, to breathe, to lie down and rise up. Your soul also tells you what you need to do to live; it’s telling you now. Neither soul nor body will ever tell you that what you need to do to live is to kill yourself, but the souls of people like you and me DO tell us that we need to die, to go through the death of our false or partial selves, the selves we createdas confused and agonized childrenout of love for others and God. When those selves become intolerable to live in, as yours has long been, your soul tells you that self needs to die, so that you, the real you, the you God created you to become, can live. The one advantage of being suicidal is that if you can kill yourself, you have the strength and courage to go through the death of the inadequate version of yourself and stand at your full stature before your Creator.

God doesn’t make mistakes. Somehow the agony of having a soul at odds with your body and the life that’s grown around your body is necessary to form you into the person God needs you to be. But WE make mistakes. We mistake the agony that is an inevitable part of the birth process, the process of becoming ourselves, for the selves God wants us to be. The very pain that shows us what we must do – the pain that speaks the language of necessity, that says we must change, become our true selves, to live – seems to us to proclaim the opposite – that God wants us to remain in agony. When I have said that to myself, it has not only been a mistake – people in agony often make mistakes – but perversion, a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, a refusal to hear God’s voice, to see God’s love, to become the person God wants me to become, an insistence that God in fact doesn’t love me, that God is a sadist, a torturer, a God who instead of bringing the dead to life turns life into a form of death. I now realize that I have clung to this perversion of God out of anger – I have been so angry at God for my suffering that I refuse to see God’s love, that I make an idol out of my suffering and sacrifice my life to its twisted face. For me, transition is teshuvah – and without that teshuvah, without smashing the idol of my suffering and facing the God who wants me to live, all my prayers and actions are worthless.

This to me is what it means when Moses says “Therefore choose life.” Therefore smash the idols of agony, death, futility, fear, the stunted and twisted versions of the self, that turn life into death, that make death seem infinitely preferable to life. Therefore risk becoming what God made you to become; therefore risk feeling the love with which God has always surrounded and sustained you; therefore rip up the suicide plans, however comforting, and choose life, however terrifying; therefore know that when you choose life, no matter how hard the road, God IS road, and the destination, and every companion whispering words of hope along the way.

The Fast of the First-Born


by: on April 17th, 2011 | 4 Comments »

For many years, as the frenzy of last-minute Passover preparations gave way to the countdown to the first seder, I would find myself thinking ever more fondly of that first sprig of salt-water dipped parsley. I was hungry. Though I didn’t come from an observant family, I chose to observe the Fast of the First-Born – a special fast for first-born males (in some communities, the fast is observed by both genders) commemorating the fact that when God jump-started the Exodus by slaying all the Egyptian first-born males, those of the children of Israel were spared.

No one else I knew kept the fast, but the moment I read about it, I knew that it was mitzvah I had to add to my intermittent observance. My mother had had a miscarriage before I was born – a male fetus whose life I obscurely felt I had usurped. The fast’s symbolic connection of my life as a first-born to the first-born Egyptian deaths gave ritual form to the vague sense of guilt and loss I had felt since my mother told me that story.

But it was the fast’s linking of life, death, and maleness that compelled me to observe it. I knew of no other ritual that expressed the paradoxes that had shaped my life since kindergarten, when I realized that my life depended on acting like a boy even though I felt like a girl. It may seem strange for someone who had never felt male to observe a fast affirming male identity, to affirm my Jewish identity by betraying my deepest sense of who I was, to celebrate my freedom in terms of a gender identity by which I felt fettered, to affirm the miracle of my existence by affirming the maleness that made me feel I didn’t exist.

Yet precisely because of those bitter paradoxes, the Fast of the First-Born felt true to me. My life as a man depended on the death of the woman I felt I should be. And though during those years I barely allowed myself to imagine living as the self that felt true, the fast affirmed what at some level I had always known: that if I ever made the transition from living as a man to living as a woman, much of my life, my first-born life, would have to die.


Staring Democracy in the Face


by: on February 7th, 2011 | 6 Comments »

Protesters call for democracy in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Creative Commons/Nasser Nouri.

As the popular revolt in Egypt surges toward an uncertain future, world leaders, particularly in the U.S. and Israel, are expressing fears about what democracy in Egypt might bring. Those anxieties make it abundantly clear that, contrary to popular American political rhetoric, promoting democracy around the world is not an absolute American value. American-interest-friendly dictators often seem to serve American interests more than the uncertainty and instability of democracy.

Like many progressives, I am disappointed – when I’m not appalled – by the gulf between the short-term realpolitik of American diplomacy and American democratic ideals. But the public hand-wringing over whether the U.S. should support the democratic revolution in Egypt gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we really feel about democracy – not as an abstract universal value, but as a down-to-earth process of picking policies and leaders.

Democracy as an ideal – the election of leaders by a majority of equally enfranchised voters – sounds clean and simple, democracy as an actual process is always messy and often downright ugly. Hitler’s Nazis won elections; so did Hamas; and many Americans, both on the right and the left, passionately object to elections that don’t produce the outcomes we believe are “right.” Even in well-funded, law- and precedent-governed American elections, parties work hard to game the system, from gerrymandering “safe” legislative districts to limiting the number of polling places in areas dominated by opposition voters. And even before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gutted restrictions on corporate political activities, the American electoral process was at least as much about who could fund the most political advertisements as about which candidates offered the best ideas or qualifications. When countries with fewer resources, weaker infrastructure, and less-developed democratic laws, institutions and traditions hold elections, the battle for votes – or rather, for the power that comes of claiming victory at the ballot box – can get even uglier.


Verbal Violence


by: on February 2nd, 2011 | 7 Comments »

A Student at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, from the college website

It was easy for the Left to be smug during the debate over violence in political discourse that opened up in the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. The days when violent discourse – and violence – were most popular on the Left are decades behind us, while the Right seems to be constantly ratcheting up the level of verbal violence. But we don’t have to draw crosshairs over opponents’ faces to turn them, rather than their ideas, into targets. Violent rhetoric may or may not spark acts of violence – but there is no doubt that targeting individuals rather than ideas snarls the debate on which democracy depends, and weakens the connection between progressive ideas and the generous, embracing notion of humanity in which they are rooted.

I learned the importance of speaking respectfully of and with those with whom I violently disagree from the most conservative people I’ve ever known personally: the students at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University who had visceral objections to my return to teaching as an openly transgender faculty member. To those most deeply identified with the homo- and transphobic strains in Orthodox Jewish culture, I was a walking billboard of sin and transgression – but no one showed me the slightest disrespect. Indeed, student after student responded to my presence by affirming, in lunchroom discussions, in webchats, in the school newspaper, that it wasn’t up to them to judge whether my actions constituted a sin. Such judgments were God’s business. Their business, as Jews and human beings, was to acknowledge that I was suffering and respond with compassion.