Abby Stein: From Chasidic rabbi to transgender activist

Abby Stein: From Chasidic rabbi to transgender activist

As her compelling new memoir, Becoming Eve is published, Abby Stein tells Alex Galbinski why she is happier now, despite being shunned by her parents and most of her family

Alex Galbinski is a Jewish News journalist

Abby Stein has written a memoir, Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman
Abby Stein has written a memoir, Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman

Abby Stein was a girl trapped in an Orthodox boy’s body. It was something she had known from infancy – and was devastated when, aged three, her hair was cut of at her upsherin ceremony.

As one of 13 siblings, she describes herself as “a child who was mistakenly believed to be a boy”. But Abby – then known as Yisroel – could never reveal this, as her family is considered rabbinic royalty.

She is a tenth-generation Chasidic Jew descended from the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, and strict rules governed every aspect of her family’s life.

As she explains in her compelling book published today (Thursday), Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman, she might have been born in New York city, but culturally, “I was raised in an eighteenth century Eastern European enclave in the heart of its capital, the Ultra-Orthodox Chasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

In her world of strictly-defined gender roles, aged six she was no longer allowed to play with girls – but she hated being with the boys. Aged four, she would take a pin to her private parts, angry at their existence, and used to recite the traditional blessing recited by girls.

She only learnt English seven years ago – her first language is Yiddish – and still speaks with a hint of an accent, while her knowledge of popular culture was non-existent, as her community forbade watching TV or reading of books or newspapers deemed unacceptable.

By the time she reached her teens, she had gained a reputation for being a troublemaker, and was questioning everything she knew.

“All these people were telling me I’m a boy and I know for a fact that’s inaccurate, so if they’re telling me about God and religion, what makes me think they’re not wrong there as well?” recalls Abby, now 28 and a trans activist.

But she craved knowledge and started reading widely. Aged 15, a rabbi told her she should learn about Kabbalah, which includes the idea that gender is fl uid and that the soul can be in the wrong body. She “cried like a baby” upon reading this.

Despite playing up in class, she was a gifted scholar, passing her rabbinic degree with relative ease. She tried to conform and was 18 when she married, revealing that she only learned about sex a few days before her wedding.

Two years later, the couple had a child, Duvid, who is nearly eight. “I’m a baby with a baby,” she tells me wryly.

This, and especially the brit milah (circumcision) ceremony, was her point of no return; having a child led her to the conclusion she could no longer deny who she was.

Abby says that when she looks at photographs of herself before her transition, she feels a complete disconnect, as if she’s looking at pictures of her brother

With the help of Footsteps, a non-profit organisation, she left the Chasidic community.

“When I left, it wasn’t because of gender, it was because I no longer believed in their lifestyle,” she explains. “I have so many issues with their philosophy, the way they practice and the abuses that are happening with their community.”

Abby, who read gender studies and political science at Columbia University, became estranged from her parents and community after transitioning.

She came out as transgender in 2015, and was given her new name, Abigail (Abby) Chava, at Romemu, a Jewish Renewal, egalitarian synagogue in New York City, where she now lives.

She penned her book, having found blogging about her journey to be therapeutic and with the intention of preventing others feeling isolated like she had, until the age of 20.

“Before I came out, there was not a single person who grew up Chasidic who has come out as trans,” she tells me. “I think it’s going to help a lot of people in that community; there will be people who will secretly read it and go ‘oh, this is something that exists’.”

Having previously taken hormone replacement therapy, I ask whether she has undergone gender reassignment surgery. “When people ask the details about my physical transition, unless you’re my doctor or I’m planning to date you, it’s none of your business,” she says, not unkindly.

We move on. What does Judaism mean to her now? “It means a lot of things. I love it,” says Abby, who works in public policy. She lights Shabbat candles weekly and says she celebrates, rather than observes, Shabbat in her own way.

Does she believe in God? “Define belief, and define God, and we’ll talk,” she retorts. She’s not being disingenuous; she has probably given more thought to this question than most people, dissecting it to fi nd meaning in the spiritual.

“I don’t think the God version I grew up with exists, the bogey man in the sky, who is going to get really angry if I switch on the light on Shabbat – I do not relate to that in any way.

“However, if you’re going to talk about a God that is divine, that seems a lot like more like something I can relate to.”

Could she not have suppressed her feelings and not rocked the boat, I ask. “They’re more than feelings,” Abby clarifies. “It’s an identity. It’s who I am. I’m not acting anymore. I think I acted for the first 24 years. Now I’m just living.”

After she transitioned, she was shunned by most of her family and she receives hate mail.

She was also shocked at the amount of sexism women have to put up with. But despite all that, she has no regrets.

“I try to focus on the good parts. Hands down, the past four years have been the best four years of my life, in every single way,” she a rms.

“My old community doesn’t talk to me, but I have closer, more intense friendships than I’ve ever had.

“I have two siblings who have a relationship with me, as well as 10 or 15 cousins out of a few hundred.

“I like to focus on the reality that most people my age only have two siblings, and 15 cousins, that’s a huge family.

“My life is better than anything I have could have ever imagined. Yes, there are struggles, but there’s an old Chasidic saying that if your life is just a straight line, then you’re dead.

“It just means that I’m alive.”

Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender
Woman by Abby Chava Stein is published by Seal Press, priced £25

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