When I read about Abby Stein in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, I knew I wanted to talk to her. She’s 24, a student in Brooklyn, and the descendant of a founder of Hasidic Judaism, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (also known as the Baal Shem Tov).
Four years ago, she left the Hasidic faith in which she was raised, and about a month ago, she came out publicly — including to her conservative family — as a transgender woman.
When it comes to gender roles, Hasidic Judaism is arguably one of the strictest religions in how it upholds specific rules and responsibilities for men and women. Understandably, Stein’s coming out hasn’t gone over well with her family, particularly with her father. But she’s found a safe space in liberal Jewish circles where she’s accepted for her true self, and she blogs regularly to share news about her gender identity, her journey, and her relationship to her past and present faith.
Stein and I talked on the phone about her interest not only in atheism, but in progressive Judaism, humanism, philosophy, and the many other pieces that make up who she is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
You left the Hasidic faith four years ago, recently came out as trans, and now you also identify as an atheist. Tell me about how all of that converged.
I always say that I believe in Judaism more than I believe in god. So, like, I have become very involved in [Judaism] as a culture, but my beliefs or my disbeliefs haven’t changed.
Can you tell me more about what it means to believe more in Judaism than believe in God?
Belief is maybe a very strong word. I’d say I relate to Judaism more.
You relate to it more. What does that mean to you?
Philosophically, if you talk about God as a higher power, as I like to say, the bogeyman in the sky, I don’t believe in that at all. But I think in Judaism, specifically liberal and progressive Judaism, there’s a lot that resonates with me. I like a lot of their ideas, I like the community life, and also, interestingly enough, especially in the U.S., the liberal and progressive Jewish communities are usually more accepting and more progressive than the general American population. Some of them have their own ideas about what God could be or couldn’t be, but it’s totally open to the idea that you can be an atheist and be part of it. There are a lot of members who don’t believe in anything and participate in the community fully.
In that progressive community, are you out as trans?
Oh, not only out, they have been supportive above and beyond. The rabbi of this community, the week after I came out, gave a whole sermon, a Friday night speech to a few hundred people, about coming out and supporting, and mentioned me by name. They are not only accepting, they are totally okay with it. The rabbi in that community is the one who helped me come out to my father.
What was it like coming out to your father?
Basically what I expected. I left religion four years ago for philosophical and ideological reasons. The reason why I started studying philosophy was triggered by the discomfort of my own body. But the reason I left wasn’t that. I left because I didn’t believe in it. [My father] had the biggest problem with me not believing in Judaism the way that he believes in it — the traditional way. He had a bigger problem with that than if I’d said, “It’s all BS and I don’t want anything to do with it.”
So our relationship was kind of complicated, and I knew this could be a deal-breaker. I just had no choice, and I was kind of ready for that. So I came out to him and I really tried my best to talk in his language. He didn’t know this existed, at all, just like I didn’t until I was 19. So when I came out to him I had to explain to him the basics. And he didn’t get it, he was in total shock, he didn’t even understand it fully. And I haven’t heard from him since.
And how long ago was that?
How are you feeling about it?
The first hour I felt very shaken, but after that, totally fine. In some ways it seems easier that way. I mean, I definitely still want to have some kind of relationship with him, but [if I do] it will also come with a lot of guilt, or [him] trying to change it, and it’ll be a lot of emotional stress with it. So in some ways I would say it’s less anxiety. But then there’s obviously the part where you still want to have a relationship with your family.
Have you come out to anybody else in your family?
Everyone, I‘m out to the whole world by now. I didn’t come out to anyone in person. I did send a long text message to all of my siblings, all of them who have texting, the night I came out in public. Only two of them responded, one of them very negatively. One of them was actually kind of supportive — not really supportive, but just OK, telling me, “I can’t imagine what you went through, know that I’m always here for you,” but that’s it. And that was 2/13.
You have 13 siblings?
I have 12 siblings, so I’m one of out 13. And now eight of them are married, so it’s kind of 20.
Which one are you in the 13?
Interestingly enough, I am the sixth. So my mother had five girls, then what she thought was five boys, and then three girls. So I’m the sixth after the five girls. So I’m the first “boy,” supposedly, after five girls. So now I’m thinking, that was just a mistake, she had six girls and then four boys.
Gender was basically just male and female. Even when we learned in the Talmud about other gender identities, mainly intersex, it was never even hinted that something like that actually exist[s] today. I was not aware that [there] are different gender identities until I was 19. This is why I thought I am crazy for feeling female, thinking I am the only person in the world with these feelings.
What sort of impact, if any, do you think it has that a descendant of a founder of Hasidic Judaism is coming out as trans?
I would say that the biggest “extra” impact my family’s status made is the amount of coverage within the Hasidic community and outside of it. The fact that so many people know my family makes it inevitable that people will talk about it. Furthermore, this also had an impact on my readiness to talk in public. When I got to the point of realizing that I have to come out, I thought a lot about how it will impact my family. As much as they don’t treat me well (nicely put), I still don’t want to cause them “extra” pain. However, when I considered the fact that people are going to talk about it anyway, even if I don’t write about it, and from the other side writing about [it] will help so many people, I concluded that there is simply no reason to hold back.
Do you think anybody will think of your family — or of the faith — differently?
I don’t think that my coming-out will effect my family in any negative way – within their community. About the community as a whole, it is possible that now that people see how they treat, or rather mistreat people of LGBT+ experience, some people outside the community will get an even more negative view on them, [on] ultra-Orthodoxy, but I think that depends a lot on how they treat it, and so far, the only hate I got was coming from them. In some ways, they are bashing themselves.
In the future, what would you like your relationship to be with the faith you were raised in? Is there any part of it you want to carry with you?
I am kind of carrying a lot of it. The community I am part of has a huge respect and acceptance for science. There is no question about evolution or any scientific reasoning, [and] when they do talk about God, it’s very loosely, could mean anything, could mean nothing, so I relate to that. And the other aspect is the community life. I like the idea of, for example, the Shabbat on Saturday. I don’t keep it in the traditional sense, I use my phone, I use electricity, but I like the idea of having a day in the week that is your day of rest. So I usually wouldn’t do homework on [that] day, just take it as my day off. I get a lot of friends who tell me, “Just because you want a day of rest, take Tuesday!” And my response is that [they’re] right, I could technically take Tuesday. But Saturday has been going on for generations, Saturday is where I have the structure, where I have the food that I like, I have the songs, I have the community values and everything. So I like it.
So you do identify as an atheist, but you also identify with elements of your Jewish upbringing. Is that right?
I don’t think they have anything to do with each other. I honestly don’t think there’s a contradiction, they’re just two separate things.
What does being an atheist mean to you?
It’s very Humanistic. It’s not about a belief; it’s an understanding that there is simply no reason or evidence or whatever; there’s just as much chance that there’s a God named Yahweh as there’s a God named the Flying Spaghetti Monster. To me they both make exactly the same sense, or nonsense. I don’t think there’s anyone in the sky who is looking at you and going to punish you and tell you what to do. We have to be good to each other not because someone is going to punish you, but because we’re all humans. I see not only that morality and being a good human is possible without religion, I think it’s way more advanced and honest and open without the idea of a God. And the facts show that, in the people who are usually fighting for civil rights and the people fighting against [them].
Do you see any parallels between being an atheist and being trans?
Being trans in some ways is very similar to being an atheist, in that some people don’t grasp it. People that come from different backgrounds just [say], “What do you mean you don’t believe in God?” They don’t get you. To them [religion] is just so obvious, and I feel like I keep on having that with gender, also. Some people just have in their mind very firm ideas of gender, and they just can’t get it into their head. With my father I had this exact experience. For a while he thought I was going to convert to Christianity instead of [understanding] I was not going to be religious. Even on his face, [it was] the same reaction when I told him I’m becoming a woman, like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
What advice would you have for someone who’s growing up in a conservative Jewish community and discovering that they’re trans?
Growing up, I didn’t know that [being trans] exists. I would beat myself up and think that I had to be crazy because I was the only one who was having these feelings. So first, they have to know they are not the only ones, and that’s already a tremendous help. I think the biggest part to know is that it’s totally possible. There are other people, there are supportive people. As much as you might be afraid of rejection from your family that probably would happen, there’s still a lot of people who would support you no matter what. It’s very hard for people who have to transition in gender and also transition in religion. I think it’s important to know there are so many Jewish LGBT organizations that are prepared to help, which means you can stay within certain comforts of what you were raised in. You don’t have to become an atheist in order to transition. And I think my last piece of advice is always get a therapist, talk to a therapist.
(Image via Facebook)