Skinny dipping in mid-Winter. Or, “How and why I had to ditch my Hebrew deadname”

So I’ve been in the media a bunch recently, mostly talking about my book, Always Anastacia (which I’m told is awesome, and that you should read it – being totally impartial here, of course).

I find that, in many of the interviews I do, I find myself faced with the same questions. Some, of course, are more common than others. But one that a lot of people have asked about (and not just in interviews, mind you, but also in more private streams of conversation), is my journey with religion.

It’s no secret that there’s a lot of conflict there for me. You can (and should – again, totally impartial!) read in depth about some of these complicated experiences and the emotions that went with them in my book, where the matter of religion – and how it interacts with my transition – is a minor recurring theme. But I’ll give you the quick summary here, for context.

I joke about this – when people ask over my religion, I say I’m AJAB – assigned Jewish at birth. In the sense of, “Congratulations! It’s a Jew!”, because even before we start assigning sexes to little newborn people without their consent, we have already assigned them religions.

Some of my friends like the term “Jew-ish”. I don’t know who coined it, but I’m pretty sure I heard Larry David say it at least once.

Whether you say “AJAB”, or “Jew-ish”, or whatever other term you might use, these all reflect what I think is a similar concept – the idea that there’s some Jewishness inside us, even if we aren’t fully observant or we don’t completely identify with it.

I can’t speak for other religions, but there’s a strong cultural component to Jewishness, in addition to the religious aspects. You know, the bagels and the lox and the gefilte fish; the self-deprecating senses of humour that are rooted in millenia of handed-down guilt; the little bissels of Yiddish that we schlep into our daily conversations. Things that have very little to do with any of the dogma, but still define us as Jewish.

BRBurton23 / Pixabay

In my case… well, my history with religion is a complex one. Flash back many years, to when I was but a young child. I attended quite a frum (observant) Orthodox Jewish school. The parents who sent me to that school, however, were quite secular, and maintained a very secular household. So already, there was a good deal of conflict. Because there I was, young and innocent and naive, learning all of these laws and practices at school. And like any good kid, I’d want to enact them at home. But of course, any such efforts on my part were met with stiff opposition. My folks didn’t want to keep kosher or observe the shabbat. But I’d been taught that those were the right things to do.

I felt a lot of guilt over my own non-observancy, even though I had little agency in the matter. And, since most of my classmates were religious, it also made me the subject of much embarrassment and even abuse at school. I was frequently shamed by my peers for being secular.

In case that isn’t sufficiently messy, it gets worse still. Not only was I a stereotypical “good kid” (and I mean sickeningly so – I was really on the straight (haha!) and narrow, never broke any rules, never got into any trouble, always did the right thing), but I was academically gifted too. So I did really well at all the religious studies. Not just well, but like top-of-the-class kind of well. This little misfit kid with secular parents, excelling at all the yiddishkeit. Here’s the thing, though – I didn’t question any of it. I just went along with it. I don’t mean to say I didn’t think – because a lot of the religious studies were about logic, and abstract thinking, and reasoning, and I was great at all that. But I never questioned the premise.

I might have examined the nuances in the sentence structure of verses that talked about the laws surrounding marrying one’s slaves, for example, and considered all of the varied implications that those nuances might have. But I didn’t question why slavery was allowed, or condoned, in the first instance.

I was great at asking questions. Just never the right ones.

War, slavery, bloodshed, misogyny. I didn’t see it for what it was.

For all the things that my education was, I certainly would never accuse it of being intersectional. The school was entirely white, and predominantly upper-middle-class. Even Zulu, for the few months that they offered it, was taught by a white woman. Many of the teachers and administrative staff were Jewish themselves. I had little exposure to people of different backgrounds, not during school hours anyway. And certainly no one sat me down and taught me about feminism, or human rights, or social justice.

But I continued to “excel”, and I won all the trophies, and got all the certificates.

People were taking bets on when I’d become frum myself. Even my own mom thought I’d become a rabbi (hey, it could still happen – who knows?)

Starting my studies at university changed things. I spent most of my time either in Pretoria, or travelling to or from it. I fell out of touch with nearly everyone I’d gone to school with. I didn’t attend religious services, and I didn’t study the texts. I lived what was, for all intents and purposes, a fully secular life. Except for the odd invitation to a shabbat or yomtov (holiday) dinner, religion and I had just about parted ways.

Well, except for that I still felt some kind of connection to the whole thing. And I still identified very much as Jewish.

During my latter years of study, I was disowned by my father, and thrown out of his house. Some eighteen or so months later, he passed away. I attended services at shul for the thirty days that followed. We had never reconciled, but I said memorial prayers for him nonetheless, knowing that if I didn’t, there was no-one else who would.

After that brief flirtation with the synagogue had ended, I grew even further from my religion. For the three years following my graduation, I did my internship and community service far from home, and far from any Jewish community. I didn’t even make it back home for most of the holidays. I still kept the major fasts, and I didn’t eat sandwiches on Passover, but that was about the extent of my religious participation for those years.

Then I moved back to Joburg, taking a job as a general practitioner in a nice upmarket suburb, at a practice that served a bunch of Jewish patients. And the tenuous link was re-established. Shabbat here and yomtov there. It was good and well for a while. I was never perfectly comfortable with it, but I was never perfectly uncomfortable either.

Until I started to open my eyes.

Recognising my latent gender dysphoria was traumatic in and of itself. But it didn’t play nicely with Judaism, or at least not with the brand I’d always been exposed to. And my awakening to social issues didn’t gel with it very well, either.

I couldn’t keep on ignoring the problems.

Not any more.

In between acknowledging I was trans, and the point where I came out to literally the entire world, I started actively avoiding all religious settings. I made sure to always have an excuse ready, in case of an invitation that I’d need to decline. Or, if I couldn’t find a way out, I’d attend whatever gathering, and feel exceedingly uncomfortable in so doing.

I had grown uncomfortable with religion. Organised religion in general, because of all the ills and evils conducted in its name, but especially my own religion.

That didn’t really come as a shock. It had been brewing, of course, for some time.

But what did come as a shock was how uncomfortable my religion had become with me.

There were two things in specific that demonstrated this for me. The first is one that I do speak about in the book, an interaction I had with a religious authority who was billed as being quite knowledgeable on transgender matters within a Jewish context. The second was after I came out, when I first started doing some interviews in the media. I had a few TV appearances, did a few radio shows, and had a video interview that did the rounds on the web. Social media being what it is, there were a few unsavoury comments that were made about me. The majority of them were easy enough to ignore, but the ones from “religious” Jewish folk, describing me as an abomination, or an “affront” to god, well… those were harder to just brush off.

It stung. Bitterly.

Because while I’d never been observant or Orthodox, I had lived a pretty decent life. You know, in terms of the important stuff, like “do unto others”. I never tried to cheat anyone, or deceive them. I didn’t wish harm upon people. I never acted out of malice. In fact, let me not sell myself short. I was honest, and compassionate, and kind, and generous. I was an upstanding person, ethical and good. Always trying to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t in my own personal interests.

Well, I thought that was the important stuff. But maybe I was wrong, because here I was being told, by complete strangers, that I was unacceptable despite all that.

I knew what my own values were. I always have. And any faith that I have ever had is in line with those values.

I’d always accepted, or assumed, that Judaism was in line with those values. But this bitter rejection I faced gave me pause, and made me question that.

I said for a while thereafter, when people would ask me, that religion and I were “seeing other people”. I was jaded and upset, cast out and dejected. I was resentful of the way I’d unquestioningly toed the line. I was ashamed of the harmful beliefs and ideologies to which I’d held, because they’d been instilled in me, without my consent and before I even knew enough to be critical of them.

But the tzoris (agony, suffering) didn’t end. Weeks and months passed, but the pain of rejection still felt very acute. As much as I tried to divorce my religion, it simply wouldn’t take. Like as not, it was a part of me. And even though I’d wanted to excise it and cauterise the bloody wound it left behind, I just couldn’t do it.

Because I still had faith. And I had to reconcile it with my identity. I couldn’t accept that I was broken or defective. Because in my faith, people aren’t created broken. They can’t be.

I got in touch with Keshet, hoping they’d know of someone or something in South Africa. They couldn’t help with that, unfortunately, though they did have a lot of useful links and resources that made me feel a little better about being trans and Jewish at the same time.

Through sheer coincidence, just a week or so later, I learned of a local reform community that was holding a Pride shabbat. And my heart skipped a beat. It seemed too good to be true. But I got in touch with the shul, and they assured me that it was everything it said on the tin. The rabbi himself even got in touch with me shortly thereafter, and assured me that I’d be welcome – and safe – at the shul.

A place where all mutants and broken-winged creatures- such as myself – can find space, feel at home and celebrate their identity.

I knew that I certainly felt broken-winged. And I knew I wanted to feel at home. Inside of my religion.

The community surprised me. It wasn’t perfect; no community ever is. But I was welcomed, without judgment or prejudice. Week after week, I’d find myself in the shul on a Friday evening with surprising regularity. I marvelled at the gender-neutral god-language of the prayer book. I smiled at the inclusivity, of the reworked texts and of the congregation itself.

I felt like there was a place for people like me. People who were queer, and trans, and feminist, and somehow still Jewish. I felt like there was hope that maybe those fundamental principles that were important to me – love, inclusivity, compassion, kindness, and understanding – did not have to be at odds with my religion.

Because that is what my faith is. When I speak about faith, I’m not talking about belief in some or other god entity. Because… I do have a problem with the idea that there is some omnipotent being that created us lowly mortals in order to serve him and stroke his ego, and that we’ll be smitten and punished if we don’t. That is no god of mine, I am certain.

Rather, my faith is in love. In inclusivity. In compassion, and kindness, and understanding. My faith is in doing good for the sake of good, not for the fear of retribution. My faith is in accepting others without prejudice or judgment. My faith is about finding the best within ourselves, and cultivating it, even when it’s hard to do so.

My faith is in being true to oneself.

One of the first things I asked the rabbi when I started going to shul again was about the process of changing my Hebrew name. My Hebrew deadname. Because I couldn’t just leave it behind me. Just like the rest of my Jewishness, it was something I carried with me. And I couldn’t abandon it, not successfully; instead, I had to reconcile it.

In Jewish tradition, a mikveh is a bath or pool, used for ritual immersions. These immersions might happen for a variety of reasons, which I won’t elaborate on now. In reform Judaism, immersion is often done to mark major life changes or events, healing, or celebrations. The mikveh also plays a big role in the process of conversion.

You can probably see why it’s become a bit of a thing for transgender people, too.

So, if you’re trans, and Jewish, and you’re going to the mikveh, the first question, of course, is when to do it. And the answer might be different for everyone. There’s no right or wrong. Especially if, like me, you don’t use words like “complete” with reference to concepts like transition. But my name change… well, that’s an identifiable, definite point in the entire process. And it’s one I fought hard for. So having, at last, my English name change finalised, it seemed like an appropriate time to go to the mikveh, and to cast off the baggage of my Hebrew deadname too.

Because it’s been weighing on me. And sometimes I feel silly admitting this, even, but it’s true. I haven’t had to use my Hebrew name for any reason in years. But it’s there. And I know it. It’s not me and it’s not mine, but it hasn’t been shed. Names have power over us. And this is something I do believe. In fact, in Jewish tradition, it’s not uncommon for someone afflicted with illness, or serious misfortune to change their Hebrew name. It all sounds a little superstitious, and I am the first to acknowledge that – but whatever the reason, logical or illogical as it may be, changing mine was important to me. And it needed to be done.

If you’re trans, and Jewish, and going to the mikveh, the second question is where to do it. Because the “official” mikveh belongs to the Orthodox community, and it’s kinda-off-limits to Reform folk.

So for me, the mikveh was a swimming pool, in the backyard of one of the ladies in the congregation. In the middle of Winter.

If you don’t know, the typical immersion ritual requires you to be naked, and fully submerge yourself, head-to-toe, three times.

Oh, and it gets better. There need to be witnesses. Three of them.

It’s fair to say that I had a bit of anxiety leading up to all this.

So there I was, 4 ‘o clock in the afternoon, wrapped in nothing but a towel, standing on the edge of the swimming pool. Faced not just with the imminent threat of hypothermia, but worse, with my own body issues.  Taking my clothes off in front of a bunch of people with whom I’ve really only ever exchanged pleasantries and light conversation…  it’s a scary and intimidating proposition. It’s difficult enough being naked in front of myself, trying not to feel like I have to make excuses or apologies for my trans body. My body that doesn’t always fit, that’s covered in scars, that I have spent a lifetime at war with. Baring it in front of others is a whole new level of ordeal.

I dropped the towel, and bravely stepped into the water, closing my eyes as I plunged beneath the cold surface, feeling the water as it engulfed me, soaking me from my hair to my toenails. And I did it two more times.
In those brief seconds, I reflected on the journey I’ve taken, how far I’ve come, and where I’ve yet to go. The life I once tried to live, and eventually managed to cast aside, and the new life I’ve claimed for my own. The struggles I’ve faced in finding acceptance, from myself and from others. The wonderful successes I’ve had, and the painful defeats.

In those brief seconds, I gave thanks. Because for all the pain and all the suffering, I managed to endure.

And when I emerged, cold and wet and naked, I did so bearing a load lighter than when I went in.

Tehiya SheyneThe next morning, at the Shavuot (Pentecost) service, I was called up for a Torah reading (because in Reform Judaism, women can receive aliyot and the world doesn’t end!), by my new name. Hearing it called, and answering to it… I relived some of that unique blend of joy, relief and fulfilment that I used to experience when people first started calling me “Anastacia”, what feels like so long ago.

 

And now, Anastacia is the only name I know. Well actually, one of two, I suppose.

The other?

תחיה שיינה

Tehiya Sheyne


My book, Always Anastacia, is available at booksellers across South Africa. If you don’t see it on shelves, ask your local bookstore. Also available worldwide through Amazon. And catch up on all the latest #AlwaysAnastacia news, including interviews, media appearances and extracts here.

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