What it means to be a Jewish trans woman
This excerpt was published with permission from Jonathan Ball publishers and is available from all leading book stores.
About the book:
Born into a Jewish family in Johannesburg and raised by her parents as a boy, Anastacia Tomson was never sure just how much of her persistent internal discomfort was to blame on an often troubled family life. She qualified and practised as a doctor, but it would take a great deal more clear-sighted and difficult questioning to finally find peace and self-acceptance, as a woman.
This memoir is a clarion call for a more nuanced understanding of trans people and the concepts of sex, gender and identity. It is a courageous account of self-discovery and transition as Anastacia embraces her truth, as the woman she has always been.
The Last Seder
Day −89, 3 April 2015
I reluctantly fastened my tie and rolled back my French cuffs, securing them with the pair of cufflinks that Dr Katz had given me the previous week. He had a passion for cufflinks, and he was something of a collector – the quirkier the better. This pair had little stethoscopes on them –he had his own pair that I’d often seen him wear.
This was the first invitation I’d accepted in a good few months. The invitations had become a bit sparser of late, but I knew that I’d felt much less comfortable with the idea of accepting them in any case, and I’d look for reasons to decline respectfully.
I knew that Dr Katz and his wife had noticed a change in my behaviour. Not at work, where my performance was as about good as it had ever been. But on the social front, I’d become much more of a recluse. The Jewish community is a small one, and word travels fast. So, Dr and Mrs Katz must have known that I had been in a long relationship, and that it had ended in August, almost eight months earlier. I hoped that would explain the change.
The truth is that Judaism is very concerned about matters of gender, and since I’d begun to come to terms with my gender identity, I’d felt increasingly uncomfortable in any sort of religious setting. Before I had been so plainly aware of what I was experiencing, it was simple enough to stand on the fringes, participating where it was appropriate, smiling politely and generally toeing the line. I might not have felt completely comfortable, but I was not being dishonest – I was doing my best to fit in with what I knew was expected of me.
I might not have been raised entirely in accordance with the observances, but I knew well enough how to avoid making any embarrassing or disrespectful gaffes. Knowing that I identified as a woman made religious proceedings more challenging for me.
I had become accustomed to feeling a little lost on the rare occasions that I did go to the synagogue. But this time, I was entirely dissonant with my surroundings. It didn’t help that I had arrived slightly late. I hurried past the stairway that led to the cordoned-off, upstairs women’s section of the synagogue as I scurried into the main hall and found a seat next to Dr Katz. A silent nod all the greeting we needed, as was often the case.
I opened the siddur (Jewish prayer book) with trembling hands, and willed my rapid breathing to slow. I’d been dreading this night since I’d had the invitation thrust on me a few weeks earlier. ‘I won’t take no for an answer,’ Dr Katz had said; after trying out a handful of excuses on him, I realised he was serious.
The most difficult part was already behind me – after a good, long chat about the matter with my therapist Meryl, I’d made the decision to not back out at the last minute with a case of debilitating, albeit fabricated, diarrhoea. I’d put on the uniform (a dark suit with a white shirt and a tie), I’d made it to the synagogue, and I’d found a seat. I’d even managed to get the prayer book open on the correct page. I was doing a perfectly good imitation of a nice Jewish boy – I just had to stay calm and remember that.
In a few hours, I thought as I continued to shake ever so slightly, this will all be behind me.
I glanced around the room, and I felt a brief pang of jealousy. The people around me were all content, standing in the synagogue in their dark suits and white shirts and boring ties. They knew their places and they knew their roles, and they were satisfied with them. Some of them had wives and children; of those who didn’t, most – someday – would. They were secure in their identities. I reminded myself that my secrets were safe under my black-and-white penguin suit. I decided not to spend any energy wondering which truths the rest of the congregation might have had hidden beneath theirs.
The service was over soon enough, unsurprising given my late arrival. I followed closely behind my host as he exited the synagogue, stopping to shake hands and exchange greetings with the rabbi, and then began the short walk to his home.
This was my third year in his employment, and though we’d spent the better part of each working day in offices mere feet from each other, the two of us had never shared a very close relationship. The practice was incredibly busy more often than not, and it was not unusual for days to pass with us exchanging nothing more than the odd hurried greeting. Certainly, we’d never spent any time on meaningful or personal discussions, although I had been a guest at Dr Katz’s table on many occasions during those years.
His home was lavish but tasteful, and the man himself was simultaneously a great capitalist and a humanitarian. He worked long and hard hours, but I had always admired that he made time for his family. He knew when to be firm and when to be kind. In the time I had known him, I had grown to respect Jonathan quite deeply. Had I been shopping around for male role models, he would have been an excellent choice.
Seating arrangements were always a point of concern in the Katz household. The family was Orthodox, and the seats had to be arranged in such a way that men and women were not placed next to each other unless they were related. I briefly contemplated how a situation like mine might complicate the proceedings. I can’t speak for other religions, but Judaism does not present a clear position on the subject of transgender issues: some authorities recognise and affirm transgender identities (although they fixate problematically on the point of surgery); many do not. Most of the religious texts themselves seem not to address the matter directly, if at all.
I was seated next to Brett, a gentleman just a couple of years younger than me who informed me that he was a towel salesperson. It’s a fine line, trying to appear interested enough not to come across as aloof while not getting oneself dragged into conversation in excess of the bare socially accepted minimum. He was quite persistent, though he was amicable and good-natured. I made conversation as best I could.
And all the while I tried to keep from staring across the table at the women. Perhaps I would’ve felt less out of place seated among them.
The evening’s proceedings were lengthy, as is to be expected at Passover. The ordeal is referred to as a Seder, which translates literally as ‘Order’ – everything has its place, and all the ritual and ceremony follows a precise structure. Generally, it lasts upwards of three hours; in an Orthodox household, it could easily exceed five. Much time is spent on relating and discussing the narrative of Passover, and the various symbols with which the Seder itself is concerned.
A fair amount of bloodshed and brutality forms the bulk of the Passover story. It was the sort of thing that I had tried before to justify or ignore, instead of acknowledging that these concepts made me uncomfortable with the religion into which I’d been born. But in recent months, I’d become more accepting of my own feelings, and I rationalised less and less.
There were elements in the texts – specifically things like the wholesale murder of innocent people, the endorsement of slavery and violent vengeance – that I found disturbing, and that I could not reconcile with my own sense of justice, fairness and morality.
The Seder was a more intimidating prospect than it had been in years past, and the night itself came at the tail end of an emotionally harrowing week. I’d had some legitimate fears that I may simply burst into tears at the table. I felt like an outcast, seated amongst the men. Staying in character took effort and concentration, and I needed to be mindful not to let that show either. The suit and the tie and the cufflinks made an effective disguise, but one that I felt could prove insufficient under serious scrutiny.
I did my best to follow along with the proceedings, and I remained patient throughout the evening. I never wore a watch, and I imagine that not keeping track of time may have made it feel like it was passing a little quicker. Dinner was eventually served at close to ten o’clock and Mrs Katz’s cooking was, as always, delicious. After dinner, the closing prayers were concluded within another hour, and I politely shook hands with my host and his guests as I took my leave.
I had attended many a Seder in previous years, ranging in severity from Reform to Orthodox. As I walked down the street, I realised how ironic it was that this had been the first Seder during which my own life had started to move towards any sort of order. I did not know if it was also to be my last, but I was certain that if there were to be any more in my future, I would spend them sitting with the women.
To purchase a copy of Always Anastacia, visit Takealot.com.