The Current

Abby Stein went from being an ultra-Orthodox rabbi to a transgender activist. Her new book tells her story

Abby Stein lived as an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jew for most of her life, but says she always questioned the conventions of the faith. She left the community in 2012, and came out as transgender a few years later.

Stein felt a disconnect between her faith and her identity from a very young age

Abby Stein lived as an Orthodox Hasidic Jew for most of her life, but says she always questioned the conventions of the faith. (Hachette Book Group)

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As a young child in an isolated Hasidic Jewish community, transgender activist and writer Abby Stein collected newspaper clippings of organ transplants — "heart, lung, kidney, hands and legs."

"My idea was that I will collect them all, I will go to a doctor and have him do a full body transplant," said Stein, author of Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman. 

"Once I realized that that isn't possible, I had to move on to find different ways of trying to deal with my identity — but it was always there," she told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

Stein is a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century Polish mystic and healer regarded as the founder of Hasidic Judaism. 

She grew up in an enclave in New York City speaking no English — only Yiddish and some Hebrew. Men and women were strictly segregated, and Stein had little access to popular culture or the outside world, or even knowledge that transgender people existed.

Hasidic Jewish men walk along Bernard Street in Outremont, in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

For most of her life, Stein followed the conventions of her faith: she had a bar mitzvah, entered an arranged marriage and had a son, and became a rabbi. 

But her transgender identity always prompted her to question the "blind faith" she saw around her.

Even so, to ask when she realized she was a girl is to ask "the wrong question," she said.

"I was about three years old when I realized that everyone else thinks that I'm a boy."

At the age of nine, she wrote a prayer asking God to let her "wake up as a girl," and promised to be the best wife and have lots of sons when she got older.

Laura Lynch asks Abby Stein to read a prayer she wrote when she was 9, asking God to let her be a girl. 1:42

The prayer was her way of "trying to deal with it." It gave her younger self the "psychological relief of saying it every night and feeling that I'm doing my job, I'm doing all I can do to help myself," she said.

Looking back, she sees the prayer as indicative of what a nine-year-old in the Hasidic community considers the role of women to be, "which is to dress modest, and to help your husband to have a lot of babies."

"Hasidic women don't get options, whatsoever," she said.

But she added that's a problem throughout society at large.

"Women almost everywhere still have to work more to have the opportunities than men do," she said.

"All of these ideas that sound so radical, and not normal, and shouldn't exist in the Hasidic community, also exist in our day-to-day life."

Women from the Hasidic Jewish community are seen in Brooklyn, New York, in 2017. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Father 'didn't know transgender existed'

Stein left the Hasidic community in 2012, but did not come out fully as transgender until 2015.

She told many of the people in her life through an online post, but met with her father to talk.

Abby Stein talks about her coming out journey in her book Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman. (Hachette Book Group)

Stein's parents had five daughters before she was born. Throughout her childhood, her father's long-held desire for sons had weighed heavily on her, she told Lynch — despite the fact that Abby ended up with four brothers, born after her.

Up until that morning, he did not know transgender people existed.

She and another rabbi — a family friend — used Kabbalistic teaching to explain the concept, using scripture that says "a man can be in a woman's body, and a woman can be in a man's body." 

Her father agreed in principle that transgender people can exist, but that you would need "a holy person … to be able to tell," she said.

"It obviously didn't end the way I would have hoped it would, but it was what it was. I did feel relieved after that." 

Stein hasn't spoken to her parents since. She is in touch with two sisters out of her 12 siblings, and 10 to 15 of her first cousins, out of a few hundred.

She says she's found new support among the people she's met since coming out.

"All of my friends, the ones that I made since 2012, have been amazingly supportive, and that is life-saving and life-changing in such a beautiful way," she said.

"I focus on the blessings, I focus on the silver linings in everything. And I think life is a lot better that way."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.


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