From Haredim to harrassment: My struggle as a transgender Jewish woman

By Jenny*

Trigger warning: This blog focusses on a range of sensitive issues including domestic abuse and suicide.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

2004: Living a lie

I stood there in the corridor thinking: how, oh how will I do this? This is so scary. It’s insane. As I stood there scared and petrified, I felt my feet shaking. I felt a cold yet warm sweat across my entire chest. My clothes were wet!

I felt a pain in my chest – a pain that was intensifying, but I thought nothing of it. I had already lived with such symptoms of anxiety and fear for many years stemming from every time I was yelled at and every time I was left perturbed after an additional onslaught of hours of verbal abuse.

This was sadly just part of my everyday life. Survival has become the only thing I would focus on. Nonetheless after years and years of pain, I instead started hoping that I would finally die. After all, that was the only thing I could actually control in such difficult circumstances. Yet, I came to realise that even that was untrue. Yes, even suicide didn’t work.

Thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts had however now became just part of my life. Almost on a weekly basis I would try to drown myself whilst taking a bath – in any way in fact that I could think of relieving myself from the cruelty and the pain. Then her stern voice echoed again: “Leave at once, go sleep in the street!” she blurted out. I thought to myself: Did she mean it? Can’t I just promise to change? I am so scared of the shame and embarrassment…

Me: “I promise to change”

Sarah: “No not a chance! Leave at once and after you leave, I will let the world know how insane you actually are. Just you wait for the next step in my plan – you will regret every stepping foot on this Earth. My brothers will avenge my father’s heartache caused by all this. My father thinks that you are an amazing person. He doesn’t know yet what a monster you actually are. You can rest assured – my brothers will find you and kill you after you leave.”

I thought to myself: Is there any a way to avoid all of this?

Sarah: “Gender identity is a certainty determined by a midwife! Everything else is the work of the devil! Just change who you are already, once and for all!”

June 2015: Making my escape

mercedes-mehling-717790-unsplash.jpg

After my escape, I looked out of the window, consuming myself in the beauty of nature, trying to self-medicate in some form. Wait. What? I was perplexed. That’s not me! I am not that person…

Well the truth is: I lived my life through at least two spheres. Or perhaps more like four or five – maybe even six actually:

Haredi, ex-Haredi, man, trans, woman, father

Being born in this community, parental alienation had now become a part of my life. I was no longer allowed to see my children for fear they’d become “tempted” to try out and copy my so-called perverse form of identity. Yes, this was another tactic tried against me, along with the threat of the Haredi (Charedi – Ultra-Orthodox Jewish) community ostracising my children and hurting them. Instead of supporting us and allowing my children to maintain their relationship with me, they encouraged my children to believe that their father was instead a monster.

I looked through the car window. There I saw the beautiful sun set. Its light was becoming less visible but the light in my life wasn’t so dim now. As I watched such natural beauty happening in front of my very own eyes, I marvelled. Then as I venerated its glory, I also revered and idolised what I saw. Wait! What was I seeing? As I moved my hands talking to my friend, I thought to myself: Is this me? I had never even saw this person before. Was it really me? How could it be me? It felt like I was finally exiting the dark nightmare I had been trapped in for year after year.

My ex’s friends in the Haredi community assured me that I had been consumed by the devil. Her rabbis determined that I was in fact crazy. Their response to my suffering was to say I was mentally ill – yes this was from rabbis who are meant to care for their congregation and support them in their time of need.

Looking at myself I thought: is this really me? Upon finally changing my Facebook profile picture just three days before, I now felt so reassuringly good. A massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I was finally able to share myself with the world after hiding behind a facade for so many years. Nonetheless it provoked an entire community to come out with egregious responses. Some called me a “capo” (a Jewish Nazi), whilst others told me that I had become so self-absorbed that I couldn’t even recognise myself anymore. Meanwhile, the Haredi websites in Israel had a field day! Some even declared that I have been consumed by the devil himself, that I was self-absorbed, selfish and cruel. This is despite the fact that one of the most important rules of Judaism is not to speak Lashon Hara – to not use derogatory speech, to not speak with an evil tongue to hurt people and to be mindful of the words we use towards others.

Yet now, the sun turned to me and smiled. It beamed beauty, splendour and clarity. Then she spoke: “Jenny have you never seen me before? You’ve been on this earth for 37 years.” I thought to myself: yes, I have been here that long. I know that I am 37 years old but I am just not sure who I was until then. You see my gender identity was always crystal clear. It was scary and threatening, devouring and obstructive, confusing and damaging but all I could do was capitulate into submission – to yield and acquiesce for the greater good of the community and for my family. The sad truth is: I wasn’t allowed to be an individual.

Jenny had to be crushed even if I was to do it with such raw mechanic brutality – tenaciously determined to remove the bad, to clear away the dirt. Yes, I had to do it. But now, now Jenny was out. The clothing I had worn to keep her hidden was now years old. Before, I was hidden and buried, concealed and enshrouded, masked and covered but for the first time, I was out in public. Finally, the fear was gone.

What else was I to do? Jenny was crystal clear about who she was – even after countless years consisting of innumerable nights of hours of Sarah yelling at her. There were wet cold sweats, racing heartbeats and chest pains. The trauma manifested with IBS, tingling pains and suicidal thoughts. Yet this was all just part of my daily routine.

So many times, I would walk in middle of the street hoping to be hit by an oncoming car or lorry. On those long nights even as the sun would rise, as the horizon made its soothing appearance, sleep deprivation was just something I had gotten used to. I had long ago given up on such decisions such as: when I was to fall asleep at night? What I was to do in my own bedroom? Who I was?

You see, Jenny felt absolute disgust and repulsion towards herself to the point where she wanted to kill herself. Yet Jenny still refused to budge, Jenny refused to disappear because Jenny was always stronger than little Yakov. In fact, I was a sort of an unlikely partner in crime with Sarah for I hated Jenny more than Sarah did. Sarah hated Jenny to the point where she hoped that her threats of her family’s death would do the job of keeping me in line, yet I hated Jenny to such a degree that I wanted her to disappear, whilst knowing how desperate she was to breathe, see the sun and to not hide anymore. I knew how desperate she was to release herself, to shine, radiate and dazzle, coruscate and sparkle.

Yet, I still refused to budge. I refused to give way! I instead wanted their expectations, my perception of God, my rabbis, my parents, my in-laws, my neighbours, my community, my friends to be my whole identity. I wanted all of these elements to be holistic and congruent: congruous in its entirety – the real me!

From childhood to marriage: Simply survival

dreamstimelarge_78578312.jpg

I watched, I observed, I revered, I marvelled. Then the subject of marriage… I will do that too I convinced myself and finally it did indeed come. Yet the truth is: I didn’t really expect this day to ever arrive. I paused and thought to myself: how will I survive? How can I be me when that’s just not allowed, when it deemed “abnormal” and simply “unacceptable”? It’s seen as shameful and crazy, crass and unmitigated, selfish and brazen? These were all qualities which I tried so hard to diffuse to crush, pulverise and remove. So, I made up my mind: Jenny was just going to have to disappear!

As a child, I knew that I had to survive. That was the one thing I was sure of. The resurfacing of my identity again and again therefore caused me to become very frustrated. When I was six I knew who I was and I fought viciously to stop “it”. I would hop along day after day as a child and simply make the best of my difficult circumstances.

I wouldn’t say that I didn’t have happy moments in my childhood and even in my marriage – I did. Life for me was not always a continuum and I like my parents and I refuse to see them in any way responsible for my sufferings. They were given a limited understanding of this kind of reality, which is why I believe they tried their best.

There was definitely one thing I could look back on and appreciate from my childhood: my parents always gave me a listening ear. I couldn’t come out to them regarding my transgender identity. It was way too much. However, in every other way they were there to the best of their ability.

Then, after I got married, I witnessed a very different reality. I witnessed how my wife and in-laws literally ignored anyone who didn’t fit exactly into their tiny little clique. As a son-in-law, I always felt like an outsider invading their space. Anytime I spoke, I was ignored. So, I eventually learnt to rarely speak up around them. That is not to say that they were mean or cruel – it’s just that they were very dysfunctional people in desperate need of therapy. Their tragic circumstances were never dealt with…

Back then, I was only 16 but I knew that I had to prepare for marriage. I had to improve my qualities as a Haredi man. No, prayer and studying Torah a few hours a day just wasn’t enough. So what was I to do? I wasn’t sure but I knew I had to improve in intensity and fervency! You better strive and reach pitch, level up to the point where you reach in exultation connected to God. You better serve God just right – yesterday’s boundaries, yesterday’s laxative measures were absolutely insufficient.

You see the sunshine? You see its beauty? You see that steak that enjoyed last night? Well, just be aware – those are all God’s gifts and they are conditional. If you don’t obey Him, he will strike you, he will definitely kill you! That was another rabbi’s assertion. I heard it so many times before but now again, I felt fear and trepidation. Who was I? I was this little timid thing with no backbone… God’s servant, God’s tool. “Be timid. That’s what God demands of you!” they’d tell me. Yet this was merely another measure used to keep me in line.

With all of this around me, how could I even contemplate coming out as a woman and defile God’s image? Desecrate God’s name? How dare I contemplate such a thing? How egotistical, self-absorbed could I be? Only crazy people are so introverted! We must unite to serve God. We must sacrifice our own identity – our own image – in order to serve God in a holistic and pertinent manner. We must be vehement and ardent in our determination to serve God as One. Individualism/individuality are qualities which had to be dismissed and surrendering before God was the only option. Threats of the oncoming Gog Magog/Apocalypse were often relayed and they kept me fully in check.

Throughout the years: Abuse and anguish

pablo-basagoiti-2170-unsplash.jpg

In my marriage I knew one thing and that was that there was my wife and then there was me – there was to be no parity. I am to listen to whatever I am told, lest my little secret would be exposed to the world. That was only one threat amongst many my partner used (as is quite known concerning narcissists). As they get older, they become more and more egregious and self-absorbed, more demanding and more controlling.

Sarah was determined that we were to have more and more children. We flew across the globe to make it happen. When I tried to question her choice, I was met with a harsh response. I was literally caught between a rock and a hard place. We would go on to have more and more children. It was literally only my escape which put a stop to it. Of course, a vasectomy would have also been an option. I just couldn’t do something like that without Sarah’s consent.

During our marriage, I was physically abused by Sarah three times in total. One of those incidents was pretty severe and I reported it to the police in Swinton, Manchester. Whilst physical abuse however was not a regular occurrence, sexual manipulation and verbal abuse were part of my daily routine. Verbal abuse and sexual abuse is a lot worse than physical abuse. It can go on undetected for decades and often enough the victims can be dismissed and even mocked – which is why I suggest that those who haven’t been through abuse might assume that physical abuse is the worst form of abuse. In reality it is not. Physical abuse is easily proven and detected. Whereas verbal abuse and sexual manipulation is harder to prove and as a result, stranger is unlikely to pick up on it.

In January 2015, Sarah told me how she now prays before she lights the Shabbat candles on Friday nights. She said: “I plead with God that He make my children be righteous and upstanding in the community. I also pray to God to make you die”. This words barely affected me. By now, I was already so used to hearing how terrible I was. Then a few weeks later Sarah turned to me and she said: “I am so upset that the kind man in our community Chaim Shwinger died. I just wish God had killed you instead. You are such a bad person”. Yet this is the kind of thing I lived with for years. This is just a glimpse into my tragic circumstances. Of course, some people might say you made your bed, therefore you had to lie in it. Well I would say – try being transgender in a world where you are told that you are insane, in a world which thinks nothing about bullying you to death. Nonetheless I will say this: for fifteen months I tried to delay meeting my wife-to-be. I didn’t want to get married – I knew it was wrong – yet the pressures placed me caused me to eventually cave in.

In 2015, Sarah also tried to convince me to go back to conversion therapy to solve “my problem” but I knew that this would cause nothing but suffering for me. She went behind my back and she contacted the therapist herself. This was in fact just one incident of many where Sarah went behind my back, contacting rabbis and community leaders to try to figure out how to “fix me”. She was fixated on shaping and fixing that perfect tool there to help her worship a God she created in her own image. I was very much treated as if was Sarah’s little pawn in need of “fixing”, doing whatever she could to convince me to squash who I really was.

Through such experience, I learnt in life: it is easy to judge and express an opinion about someone else when you have no idea how you would feel had you been put through similar circumstances. I was to be judged many times after I left, especially in court. My reality as a trans person was mocked and ridiculed. I eventually learnt that the only way my identity would go away is if I were to commit suicide and whist many of Sarah’s friends would welcome and celebrate my death, that doesn’t solve the problem. Gender dysphoria and transgender identity doesn’t discriminate – it can touch your children as well. Nobody is immune from it.

I try to rationalise the abuse, to configure some of the background which led up to Sarah’s abusive nature. You see, Sarah’s circumstances may or may not have led to her abusive behaviour. Yet I have found that rationalising abuse can lead to more abuse, so why do I do it? Well, I do it for my own sanity and to be able to somehow reach a level of forgiveness.

One of the reasons was that Sarah grew up in a very tight-knit community, where problems were supposed to be swept under the carpet. Sarah was only aware of one thing: survival in the group. Everything else was seen as trivial and meaningless – a disturbance which had to be done away with. Small fires had to be extinguished – the source of their flames had to be extinguished at once and any ways or means of figuring out its source was dismissed.

All means of making life bearable was seen as an oversight, merely trivial. Sarah’s main concern in life was raising children in a way which prepared them for the perfect most suitable marriage partner in the community. If that meant praying to God to bring about her children’s father’s demise, she did it. If that meant going to court to support a sexual predator who was later sentenced to twenty years in prison, if that meant keeping quiet about my son expressing his wish to die: so be it. Sarah was transfixed on one thing: her name and position in the community. Everything else was trivial. In her eyes, the ends always justify the means.

2019: Rumours always lie

adult-communication-contact-267810.jpg

Now in 2019 and merely a few weeks ago, I was made aware of another attempt made by Sarah to erase me from existence. A rumour had spread throughout the community in Manchester: the rumour was that I had finally committed suicide. Oh what a relief! This transgender thing will hence be erased for good! Sarah and the community will have killed two birds with one stone. Firstly, she’d had finally proven that transitioning causes suicide – which they would then use to prove to Ofsted that to be transgender is not a healthy choice. The community will believe this lie. That is the nature of rumours – you can’t stop some people from really believing them. They won’t all believe that I actually died but they will all believe that I contemplated suicide because I lost their community support and I’m trans. Yes, this is incredibly unhealthy.

Secondly, Sarah would also have finally gotten rid of me for good. Her perverted idea of God would have finally done God’s very mission. Sarah’s prayers to a God she created in her own image would have finally been answered.

Now I will admit that the rumour did affect me. With so many people wishing you would just die, I think I would be abnormal if I wasn’t affected by it in any way and Sarah was well aware of the affect that this would likely cause. Sarah did this in a clever manner. No one could possibly trace the source of the rumour and this has always been Sarah’s devious approach: acting in a covert manner, making the people around her react with a dubious approach. This is just another one of the typical traits of the covert narcissist.

The ends always justify the means. Marital prospects. Name and position in the community – all finely arranged. Who would believe Jenny’s side of the story? After all Jenny is just bad.

Editor’s note:

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in the blog, please contact the following organisations for information, advice and support:

Keshet UK (Jewish)

Hidayah (Muslim)

Stonewall

20% offPurpleBouquets

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s