My review of Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger and Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life was published this morning at Tablet. Here’s a sample:
You might expect transgender Jews to see Jewish law and tradition as constricting or limiting, full of static categories and lines that must not be crossed. But two new memoirs by male-to-female transsexuals suggest otherwise: Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger and Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life use Jewish tropes and themes to explore the authors’ identities, with surprising results.
For Bornstein and Ladin alike, Jewish boundaries around sex and weird gender hang-ups—whether the pressures of passing Jewish manhood between generations, or God’s sexless aphysicality—provide productive language for expressing transgender experience. Bornstein is an award-winning writer, performer, and queer activist, whose sprawling memoir chronicles a journey across continents, religious traditions, and (many, many) partners. The pained Jewish masculinity of Bornstein’s youth formed the backdrop for an eventual embrace of Scientology; though she may not intend this, it also helps explain and frame her subsequent rejection of Scientology.
Ladin, a professor of English literature at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, has written a more claustrophobic book, which tracks journeys that are less physical than psychological. She writes about attempting to save a strained (and then broken) marriage, and she explores the process of transition in close detail. But religion—and Judaism in particular—also plays a key role in her book. She found, in her idiosyncratic reading of the Bible, a God as alien to the physical world as she was to her male body. Both books illustrate a deeper point. For people negotiating complex and unfamiliar relationships to gender, religion affords some of the only language intense and strange enough to understand experiences that defy social and sexual norms.
For the rest, head over to Tablet.