Becoming Eve by Abby Stein (Seal Press, £25)
Take the Strictly Orthodox world and its members’ total isolation, and then shake it up. That is the message of this extraordinary book, telling the story of a Charedi family’s longed-for first boy child, after five daughters: one Yisroel Avrom ben Menachem Mendel. From being a young father himself after an arranged marriage, and becoming a rabbi, he progresses to coming out as transexual and leaving the community.
There is much in between. First, the unflinching picture of that Yiddish-speaking Williamsburg community, with no television and no internet. Rows erupt over whether women should wear black or grey tights. The Rebbe holds sway. School is largely Jewish studies; English is barely taught. And yet this self-contained, expanding community is apparently content to carry on imitating shtetl life just across the bridge from Manhattan.
But, if you do not fit in, there is hell to pay. Teachers try to empathise but in the end any disaffection, any stepping out of line, is a sign of a dangerous person, someone whom the community cannot, should not, keep. Gender dysphoria is unknown in the Chasidic community; young Yisroel Avrom had no clue that his conviction that he was a girl inside was a not uncommon phenomenon. He only knew he had been born into the wrong body, but had no idea what that meant. Nor did he realise that his family, should he take such a step, would disown him.
So Yisroel Avrom, deeply uncomfortable, gets married and has a son, Duvid’l, “the love of his life”. And then he cracks. But Stein does not fully explain why she was unable to remain in the community. We read of the world crashing down at Duvid’l’s circumcision. We learn that she takes refuge in the internet, which she had never used before. She encounters Daat Emet, an organisation led by Yaron Yadan, rabbi turned atheist, whose work she had read in yeshiva. From totally rejecting Judaism, Stein moves to a different form, at Romemu, an individualistic community on New York’s Upper West Side. In their rabbi’s office, he/she comes out to his/her father.
The end of the story brings both personal resolution and extreme pain. Almost all Stein’s family rejects her. Her father says: “You have to understand that this most likely means I will never be able to talk to you again. Ever.”
Coming out brought both support and love. However, the reader is left confused. Does Abby still see her son? Does her former wife understand? Will the family come round? This is not just a gap of cultures, but a gap of worlds and centuries. And so, however brave and outspoken she is, Abby Stein has lost a family and a culture, and gained a wholly different one. Links between the two are hard to find, if not invisible.
Both moving and puzzlingly incomplete, this book takes you into a different world, and leads you to despair.
Baroness Julia Neuberger is the Senior Rabbi of West London Synagogue