Abby Stein knows her life story is a bit novel.
Born into Chasidic royalty in a cloistered Chasidic neighborhood of Brooklyn and raised speaking only Yiddish, Stein was ordained as a rabbi just before leaving the community altogether — and subsequently coming out as a transgender woman.
“There are some exotic parts of the story,” Stein told a packed room at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac Saturday night. “I see that as a way to get people’s attention — and then talk to them about what really matters.”
Indeed, Stein spent much of her two-hour talk entertaining audience questions on haredi Orthodox Jewish life.
She argued that the rigid interpretation of halachah, strictly enforced gender roles and dress codes, and general isolation of the Orthodox sects in New York City are not primarily about religious observance. Rather, Stein said, these elements developed following World War II in an attempt to prevent mass assimilation at a time when Orthodox Jews — many for the first time, following centuries of persecution in Europe — found themselves equal under the law and free to leave the observant Jewish community.
“The only way they were going to survive was if they recreated shtetl life,” Stein said. “Shtetl life to us meant a place where everyone ate gefilte fish on Shabbos, everyone wore a certain kind of dress coat, everyone spoke Yiddish, and a hierarchical society where everyone followed the rules.”
The flaw with this approach, Stein believes, is that it sought to recreate a fantasy world.
“That kind of society never existed,” she said.
Growing up, Stein said women were seen as sexual objects obligated not to allow their dress or behavior to tempt men. Men, while unable to control sexual urges toward women, were themselves sexless.
“There are no handsome men,” Stein said, describing the prevailing view within the community. “But if your skirt is not covering your knees and a man gets horny because of that then you are going to hell.”
This rigidity extended to views of sexual orientation. It wasn’t until an adult Stein, still living as an Orthodox man, borrowed a friend’s computer tablet, locked herself in a mall bathroom and used the public wi-fi to search whether a man could become a woman that she discovered the definition of “transgender.”
“The Chasidic community was not transphobic when I was growing up, they weren’t even homophobic,” Stein said. “The LGBTQ community did not exist. It’s not a question that, ‘Oh it’s against my religious beliefs.’ It simply did not exist.”
Stein said she views the increasing prevalence of transphobia and homophobia within the haredi Orthodox community as an important mark of recognition that could one day lead to acceptance.
From a young age, Stein knew that she was not a boy. She read from a prayer she wrote when she was 9 that read in part, “Holy creator, I’m going to sleep now and I look like a boy. I’m begging you when I wake up in the morning I want to look like a girl.
“When I get old, I will be the best wife, I will help my husband study Torah all day and all night, I will cook the best food for him, I will have the best Shabbos table,” it continued. “God, you have enough boys, you do not need me to be a boy.”
Stein, who spoke at Har Shalom as part of a book tour promoting “Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman,” is the first transgender woman known to have come out after being raised as a Chasidic Jew.
But if the unusual nature of growing up transgender in the Chasidic community served as a hook to capture the attention of the Har Shalom audience, Stein said that the Chasidic approach to gender roles and treatment of women is only an exaggerated form of the discrimination present in wider society.
“What we are dealing with is people being afraid, or more like intolerant of, something that they do not understand,” Stein said. “So much of this does not just apply to the LGBTQ community, it applies to all different types of minorities.”
Stein said that the best thing people who want to support the transgender community can do is listen to the stories of trans individuals and share them widely.
“We’re just people who are trying to live our lives in the best way possible,” she said. “But we need the support of communities, of individuals, so that we can share our stories and get to a point where people realize that our lives are beautiful.”
Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-area writer.