BY DAN FRIEDMAN
Imagine you leave work one semester as a man but when you return to the classroom a few semesters later you are a woman. Imagine trying to smile through this gender transition if you teach at a conservative religious institution where gender roles are clearly delineated. And, just for kicks, imagine what your second day would be like if your first day back at work at Yeshiva University Stern College for Women was heralded on the front page of the New York Daily Post with the headline, “Ye-She-Va.” Instead of imagining, you could read Joy Ladin’s dignified testimony. “I am surrounded by love,” she writes. And she means it.
Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders recounts the author’s transformation from Jay Ladin (father of three, prize-winning teacher, and poet) to Joy Ladin. As Joy she’s still all of those things and yet she’s someone else entirely. On her journey she howls at the walls and tears at her own flesh with lengthening nails; she coldly contemplates suicide at the appropriate time for a life insurance claim; and she talks to God in her “gratitude bath” every night of a debilitating and unexplained illness in the middle of 2009, months after the Post headline.
By her own account, Ladin spent four decades in a body that felt alien to her. It deadened her sense of the world and caused her to betray her feelings repeatedly and cripplingly, until her “gender dysphoria” was so severe that she had to bring her world crashing down — either through suicide or through gender transition. With regret, Ladin notes how her wife of 20 years couldn’t live with her choice and, at greater length, discusses how their children cope with the divorce and the fact that Daddy-with-a-beard is now a woman.
Ladin discusses her children because they constitute the core of her love for the world. There are numerous named and unnamed friends throughout the book who give her advice, shelter, or just the means to hang on another day. But she can live with her children’s difficult adjustment because her own adjustment will allow her to shine with a light she can share with them.
Given their vantage point, her son and daughters should have a more nuanced sense of gender roles than Ladin herself displays. Perhaps she has the projected views of someone who has had to learn these roles from the outside but, oddly for a poet whose work is touching and exact — and for a book that brings into question all sense of self whether understood as essence or construct — gender roles are sometimes portrayed in rigidly narrow ways. Women don’t watch “Star Wars.” Men have a limited vocal range. Women have only women friends. Boys don’t cry.
She does not embrace the same flavor of religiosity that Stern College advocates, but Ladin is a religious Jew and she turns to Judaism to guide her decisions. But choosing Jewish forms of righteousness can be difficult given the binary gender division patrolled by traditional Judaism. Laid out in Deuteronomy 22:5, the King James Version reads: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”
Ladin only mentions this once we are 170 pages into the book. And, she doesn’t fully deal with this stricture nor the other key text at Genesis 1:27 (“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”) There are other places to go for the LGBT debate within the Jewish community but Ladin takes some hope from the centrality of circumcision: “If an operation to alter genitalia is necessary to bring the male Jewish body into conformity with the Jewish soul, then God long ago acknowledged that medical intervention may be necessary for human beings to achieve their true identities.”
Despite her obvious, explicit and long-desired need for community, hers is a singular experience and not easily generalizable. She’s a tenured poet at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, a hyper-articulate and believing Jew and a middle-aged transsexual going through a mid-life crisis, adolescence, and rebirth all at once. That’s why the tone of the book is poetic and, justifiably, over-wrought. Ladin’s two predominant figures for her new life are adolescence and rebirth. For a newborn, life is a knife-edge, it’s a precariously raw, a bloody and physical thing. There are no real models for conveying what that feels like for a 50 year old woman.
And, with her hormones surging as she changes drastically, Ladin is within her rights to talk about her adolescence. If there’s one thing that adolescents do to perfection, it’s melodrama. They simply don’t have the perspective to know what’s important but they are usually able to voice their fears. How they look in new shoes is as important as the existence of God. So juxtaposed with heart-rending accounts of despair and renewal come Ladin’s mundane rituals of establishing an external gender identity as a single woman. Growing and dyeing hair. Buying dresses on a shoestring budget. Having to learn techniques of smearing on makeup as a nearly 50 year old.
The seemingly carefree photograph of Ladin on the front of the book belies the battles she won to get to that shining smile. I constantly flicked back to the cover from the descriptions of her ongoing attempts at transformation. But, of course, for a believer in God — and the conversations with the Divine are some of the most telling moments in the book — justifying His creation by making whole what He created is not only a matter of life and death, but a matter of universal justice.
Towards the end of the book Ladin contrasts her two trips to the Western Wall. The first time she went as a man and stood on one side of the mechitza — the ritual barrier that divides praying men and women in traditional Judaism. The closer she approached the wall, the sicker she felt. The second time she went as a woman and sobbed next to the stones of the wall because, as she says, “I’m sobbing for the One I’m praying to, because I see the mouth of that river of grief and the ocean into which it empties is God.”
From one side of the mechitza to the other may be a short geographical trip but it’s a massive leap. For Ladin, who is still working out what it means to be a woman, it’s a leap of love.
Dan Friedman is the managing editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and has also written for the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and “Da Ali G Show.” He has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale and an MA in English Literature from Cambridge.