Jews and the Transgender Movement

The past few years have come to be labeled a “transgender moment” because of the increasing visibility of transgendered individuals in law, the media and popular culture. One of the artistic productions that both responds to and is responsible for this moment is Transparent, the dramedy that airs on Amazon TV. The show’s title signals its central plot point—the gender transition of Maura (originally Mort) Pfefferman, a parent of three adult children. Defying expectation, the show is not uniquely focused on its central eponymous character, but uses the transition to explore a nuclear family’s complicated gender and sexual identities and behaviors. Even more surprisingly, the family is more authentically and accurately Jewish than any other characters in the history of television. At different points the show forces a provocative intersection of Jewish and trans/gender identity that both analogizes the individual subcultural experiences and even fuses them. One of the characters, Ali, is hard at work on a Gender Studies thesis that is interested in connecting Jewishness and gender fluidity.

This course is a theoretical rumination on the intersection of Jewishness and gender fluidity in terms of personal identity, cultural politics and institutional normativity. Both Jewishness and gender identity are cultural constructions with strong relationships to biological “facts.” They share the experience of internal cohesion through external labeling and persecution. Modernity has transformed both gender identity and Jewish identity into somewhat autonomous self-characterizations even as the choice to transform one’s identity comes with significant social judgment and cost. Jews who were familiar with the challenge of responding to normative cultural expectations sometimes sublimated this challenge into new avenues of resisting those expectations; it is not surprising that several Jews have made significant contributions to transgender theory. Magnus Hirschfeld advocated for transgender rights in 1920’s Germany. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy about a girl who cross-dresses to study in Yeshiva is far more provocatively transgendered than the better known Oscar winning film Yentl made by Barbara Streisand in the 1980’s. Judith Butler has noted her early background in the study of Jewish ethics as a contributor to her fundamental re-imagination of gender as performance in her groundbreaking Gender Trouble. Further back in history, the Talmud and other works of rabbinic literature regularly treat intersex phenomena as legal categories and at times consider the possibility of three genders on this basis.

The twice weekly seminars in this course will discuss a series of theoretical texts that will allow us to reflect on Jewishness, gender and the intersection of the two. There is no expectation of prior knowledge of Judaism, Jewish history or gender theory.