From Boy to Joy by Dr. David Sanders


The innovations of the Kabbalists in Tzfat some 500 years ago were often based on observations that led to their intuitive insights. In this regard, they were as much social scientists as they were mystics. One such naturalistic observation was the presence of people in their community who we would now identify as transsexual or transgender. They spoke about these people as “men with female souls” and “women with male souls.” The outside appearance was not reflecting an inner awareness. Their bodies were not conforming with who they knew themselves to be.

When we meet someone who challenges our preconceived categories of human expression it can be quite disorienting. We are, after all, not just social scientists gathering data. Out naturalistic observations can become quite personal. We are not observing a phenomenon—we are getting acquainted with, learning from and loving people who are “men with female souls” and “women with male souls.”

Joy Ladin, formerly Jay Ladin, a tenured English professor at Stern College for Women, had always felt her body didn’t match her soul.

Professor Ladin’s transition from male to female caused quite a stir at his Orthodox Jewish university. It disrupted his family. He nevertheless was determined to create a new rhythm to his life–to be who Jay was meant to be, to be free, to be Joy.

Joy saw her disconnect between body and soul metaphorically in the form of poetry she was (and still is) attracted to. She loves rhyme, “as there is something in rhyme, that is almost like a magic ritual of revealing identity in unlikeness.”  In an interview with Krista Tippet she reflected: “I may be making this up retrospectively, but it seems to me that rhyme was the way I felt that there was a fundamental female identity within me that rhymed with that of other born girls and women, that when I created a rhyme between dissimilar words, I was revealing something like that hidden essence. I was making it ring true. That’s what rhyme usually feels to me, like the ringing of truth.”

What is the deal with masks

when we say, they reveal

as much as they conceal.

Authentic as those may be

He or she or they

Are masks our essence convey.

Comments 1

  1. The work of “seeing” does indeed require openness to welcoming the sacred “Other” before us. We must be good social scientists if we are ever to be ethical, moral and enlightened Jews. Responsible theology demands this. Thanks to Dr. Ladin again for her work, and to you, Dr Sanders, for this essay.

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