Bind These Words

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A159 bindthesewords

Ukshartam l’ot al yadecha, I wrap the leather tightly around my arm seven times using my palm as a spool for the remaining leather. V’hyu l’totafot bein aynecha. I place the tefillin on my forehead. I unwrap the remaining leather on my left hand, and carefully rewrap it to form a shin. L’shem yhud, I leave marks on my body where the tefillin and my chest binder lay. With the tefillin tight around my left arm, I place my right hand over my eyes Sh’ma Yisrael… “Hear O Israel, the divine abounds everywhere, and dwells in everything. The many are one.” (Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings) I hold these words in my prayers as I recite the second paragraph of the Sh’ma and kiss the tzitzit tied to the edges of my chest binder. I am learning to love myself and simultaneously unlearning my own internalized transphobia.

I am trying to decipher what Jewish “thickness” looks like, what binds us as a community, what serves as our common assumptions, practices, and prayers. As a trans person, I am both outsider and insider, continually transforming rituals, squirming, and wiggling, and creating more space, not only for myself, but for people of every gender. Wearing a tallit or wrapping tefillin is not inherently sexist. It is not the rituals that are problematic but rather the culture and customs that surround and sustain them. Just as femme-identified women have reclaimed and “queered” many traditional markers of femininity (such as lipstick and high heels), trans people have the potential to liberate rituals and traditions from their oppressive boxes and binaries.

Wearing a tallit katan chest binder is simultaneously observing and reclaiming Jewish tradition. It is reclaiming what observances looks like “on the heels” of feminist Jewish thinkers who have challenged me to do it differently and inspired me to accessorize along the way. My observance is a commitment to engage with Jewish texts and traditions and be transformed through that engagement. I want to fulfill the commandments, both in light of and in spite of my attempt to simultaneously subvert gender norms and transgress gender boundaries. This helps me affirm the presence of God and holiness in my body and in my gender.

Vayivra Elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo.

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  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    This is an important piece that provides insight into a life and scenario that others may not otherwise fully understand. This piece is particularly timely in light of Ha’Aretz’s recent decision to profile six rabbis who identify as trans. We hope to share more of these voices with you on Jewrotica.

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