Non­fic­tion

Becom­ing Eve 

  • Review
By – December 23, 2019

Holy Cre­ator, I am going to sleep now, and I look like a boy. I am beg­ging you, when I wake up in the morn­ing, I want to be a girl…God, you have enough boys. You do not need me to be a boy. I promise, if I wake up as a girl, I will make up for it by hav­ing many boys, who will be the most stud­ied and pious boys.”

Abby Cha­va Stein remem­bers say­ing this night­ly prayer as a child, which encap­su­lates much of what makes her mem­oir cap­ti­vat­ing: the bal­ance between her love for the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and Jew­ish learn­ing, and the restric­tive­ness of com­mu­nal norms, the bal­ance of humor and heart­break in her rec­ol­lec­tions of grow­ing up, and the core per­son­al­i­ty of an inven­tive girl, always hun­gry for learn­ing, liv­ing in a world where inven­tive­ness was frowned upon.

Stein’s mem­oir, Becom­ing Eve: My Jour­ney from Ultra-Ortho­dox Rab­bi to Trans­gen­der Woman, is a wor­thy addi­tion to the lit­er­a­ture of off-the-derech” mem­oirs. Trans­gen­der read­ers from many back­grounds will find kin­ship with child­hood expe­ri­ences like col­lect­ing news­pa­per clip­pings on organ trans­plants, hop­ing to some­day have a full-body trans­plant. Read­ers curi­ous about Hasidism will find a bal­anced, com­pas­sion­ate descrip­tion of a com­mu­ni­ty whose tight-knit struc­ture is a bless­ing when it is not dis­rupt­ed by an over­ly rigid under­stand­ing of human nature. Queer read­ers inter­est­ed in Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity will find spe­cial mean­ing in the rev­e­la­tion of the six­teenth cen­tu­ry Kab­bal­is­tic texts, which first showed Stein that she was not the only female soul in a male body.”

Stein skill­ful­ly draws a por­trait of her­self as a young girl caught in an aca­d­e­m­ic sys­tem that did not allow her to express curios­i­ty about the texts her teach­ers pur­port­ed to unrav­el down to the last detail. The struc­ture of the chap­ters, in which each opens with a dra­mat­ic scene of con­flict before skip­ping back­ward to its pre­lim­i­nary moments, may cause occa­sion­al con­fu­sion. But the tone and pace over­all are engag­ing and acces­si­ble, with suf­fi­cient expla­na­tion of vocab­u­lary and con­cepts that even read­ers unfa­mil­iar with Hasidism should fol­low easily.

Along with the charm of Stein’s straight­for­ward, often light­ly self-mock­ing voice, her atten­tion to his­to­ry is a strength of the book. Grow­ing up as the heir to a Hasidic roy­al dynasty, she was always aware of the impor­tance of con­ti­nu­ity to her fam­i­ly. But look­ing back from an outsider’s per­spec­tive, she points out that the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty, despite the efforts of many of its lead­ers, is not sta­t­ic. Rules change over time, some­times on the whim of a sin­gle rebbe. This under­stand­ing of his­to­ry as a process of changes helps bring a mes­sage of hope for the future, even as Stein clos­es her mem­oir with the heart-break­ing scene of her last meet­ing with her father.

If Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties were once more per­mis­sive, the bal­ance might some­day tilt again toward open-mind­ed com­pas­sion, and away from rules so strict they end up iso­lat­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty. If Isaac Luria could describe the appear­ance of a female soul in a male body as a holy process in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry, we should be able to treat trans­gen­der peo­ple with respect and as pre­cious mem­bers of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the twen­ty first cen­tu­ry. As Stein says, in her opti­mistic last line: to be continued!”

Sacha Lamb is a part-time librar­i­an, part-time writer and part-time goat-herder. Sacha has pub­lished a num­ber of short sto­ries fea­tur­ing gay and trans­gen­der Jew­ish teenagers, and will be a Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Writ­ers’ Retreat fel­low in 2018.

Discussion Questions