Last week, the number-one rated television show in the U.S. was ABC’s 20/20 interview with Bruce Jenner. It garnered a 5.2 rating among 18-49 year-olds, which in context, is nearly 300% more viewers than an episode of “Dancing With The Stars” and 150% of Big Bang Theory’s weekly viewership.
The broadcast featured Diane Sawyer in conversation with Bruce Jenner, one of America’s most popular and favorite Olympic athletes, cereal box personalities, and role models, and the step-father and co-founder of reality television shows featuring the Kardashian’s.
The show focused on Jenner’s lifetime desire to transition from male to female, and his current stage in living life as a woman.
Is it any wonder that the show was telecast over Shabbat Tazria-Metzora?
I think that the producers of 20/20 are obviously quite wise and chose this past Shabbat on purpose.
The double portion Torah reading tells the story of individuals who are deemed metzora, which causes a state of ritual uncleanliness and temporary banishment. The person goes through an intimate ritual that restores their dignity and absolves them of any stigma. They are happily welcomed back with joy and celebration. I am not saying that a transgender person or anyone who is uncomfortable with their cisgender birth assignment is to be deemed unclean. But I am saying that, in the past, transgender people were stigmatized and isolated, and lived as a metzora.
Just as boxing promoter Frank Maloney’s transition from male to female caused a sensation in England several years ago, and opened up the possibility for many others to change, I believe that Jenner’s public revelations as a wealthy white male transitioning to female will affect the attitudes of many towards trans-men and trans-women.
Whether you loved his bravery and openness, or you thought it was a cunning ploy for future revenue, his revelations gave us an opportunity to discuss transgender issues in the Jewish community.
Within the organized American Jewish community there are many trans-friendly changes in progress. Some synagogues and community centers no longer label their restrooms using the binary classification of men/women. Restrooms are deemed “all gender” and are open to all or no gender identifications. There are synagogues that invite transgender and gender expansive people to mark their name changes or transitions with a Jewish ritual on the pulpit or mikveh; and for those shuls with a mechiza separation, they allow each individual to decide where they wish to sit and pray. A few institutions have changed their ads to read “all genders welcome” instead of “open to men and women, boys and girls,” and have included the terms “gender expression” and “gender identity” in the non-discrimination policies. Some have organized classes to study gender in Jewish texts (for example, in the Book of Jonah why does the fish change genders?) and have dialogues to help to reach out and to welcome transgender congregants and members.
Last year, the award winning online series, “Transparent” by Jill Soloway told the story of a Jewish family, in which the patriarch of the family is transitioning. It was based on the life of Soloway’s father.
Last month, Tom Chai Sosnik, 13, came out as transgender in his Tehiya Jewish Day School in El Cerrito, CA and was blessed by Rabbi Tsipi Gabai (see below). Rabbi Gabai said, “Tom came to us last year in seventh grade after really suffering in sixth grade in his school in Fresno. I could see that as a girl, Tom was very unhappy. He confided in me that he was not happy with his body. I could see what he was feeling was real, genuine and painful.” Esti, his mother confirmed that Tom was viciously bullied in Fresno, and that was the reason that she and her husband, Udi, both immigrants from Israel, moved their family to the more liberal Bay Area.
Several synagogues have transgender rabbinical leaders. They include, Rabbi Becky Silverstein at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center’s (PJTC); Rabbi Reuben Zellman at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley; and Rabbi Elliot Kukla is a chaplain at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.