Sass Orol’s The Shortest Skirt in Shul is a work of trans-poetics that examines Jewish observance and Hebrew linguistics. The book’s engagement with Hebrew root words and language experimentation results in some of the most unique Jewish poetry of our time. These are poems of faith that envision a Jewish practice that is both traditional and inclusive — poems that insist that Jews need not choose between their Jewish denomination and their gender identity.
The book’s investigation of traditional Jewish practice through a transgender perspective asks hard questions of patriarchal traditions. In “Forgiveness Season,” the speaker teaches their students about teshuvah, or repentance. Contemplating the morning prayers, the speaker realizes that the lines that they once remembered as “Blessed are you god who didn’t/make me woman” are in fact “easy to forgive because it’s true — g‑d didn’t make me a woman.” The poem then turns to the reader and declares that “You did. Yes, You, You Reader,” imbuing the reader with the power to finish the work of creation by seeing the speaker how they are meant to be seen. In “Minyan,” the speaker is called to make minyan so that someone can say kaddish. The poem explains that this is a traditional minyan that only includes men, implying that the speaker has not publicly transitioned. When the speaker is called to participate (“Hey man we need a tenth”), they are in front of a mirror, where they “fondle the gelled breasts/filling out my borrowed bra.” The fierce ending blends both the mourner’s difficulties and the speaker’s: “One more grieving man./Will I not let him weep?”
One of the highlights of the collection is “Crown for Transition,” which examines the modest dress of observant Jewish women. “To be wrapped in thick-set cloth and tucked away,” Orol writes, “is one way to be a proper Jewish girl.” The poem studies such modesty through the lens of gender dysphoria: “Plain shirts too loose to tell on my flat chest,/high necks without the slightest hint of breast/hair. Hair, hair, to be worshiped and hidden … ” By comparing Jewish females covering their hair as a means of observing Jewish law with the speaker’s desire to cover their hair so as to appear more stereotypically feminine, Orol both engages with Jewish practices and asks readers to expand their understanding of Jewish gender identity beyond a limited binary.
Many poems in the collection, such as “Aleph Pattern,” deconstruct Hebrew to its roots. The first stanza looks at the words אנשים (men) and נשים (women): “In Hebrew, the word women is the word men/with the first letter dropped. Not just any letter/but the first first letter, the aleph of the aleph-bet.” The next stanza shifts to a scene of gender affirmation surgery:
The steel band securing the forehead
to the hospital bed is preheated
but cools quickly in the doctor’s curt hands.
Inside every men is a women
you’ll need to amputate to find.
In this poem, the removal of the prefix א is likened to an amputation, illuminating what is already present — that the female exists within the male. In “Grammar Lesson,” the speaker continues this meditation on Hebrew. They start by noting that Hebrew is a gendered language: “In Hebrew every word is butch or femme. Every word tops or bottoms.” Some words have “a trap between their legs” or “only crossdress among friends.” But they move to the word שושנות (lilies/roses), which “is not a proper word” by traditional Hebrew standards, because the speaker has replaced its masculine ending with a feminine one — subverting Hebrew’s gendering of grammar. They explain that “When I make [שושנות] into a word/I hope it bitchslaps the fluent listener/as it does now.” The poem enacts the entire collection’s project, which is not to reject Jewish practice and Hebrew, but to wake them up to their fullest, most just potential. The Shortest Skirt in Shul is a vital book of Jewish LGBTQIA+ poetry and a powerful testament to the Jewish obligation to wrestle with tradition until we can observe it sincerely, as our truest selves.
Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a finalist for the Berru Poetry Award and the Ohioana Book Award.