In the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I was depleted to the point that I went to an inappropriate train station, twice, on my approach to meet companions. It was coming down. My innocent hair was naturally trimmed, and I was wearing a shirt and tie. A youthful Orthodox lady was remaining over the metro steps, attempting to make sense of how to get down with her infant’s baby buggy. I lifted it up and ventured the two flights down, in the downpour and in heavy traffic, with her.
Despite the fact that it was just a couple of days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I stumbled over my words attempting to wish her gut yontif or shanah tovah. In spite of our outside contrasts — her customary presentation of sexual orientation, my trans manliness — I felt constrained to watch our mutual Jewishness with this apparently basic ceremony. I wished I’d been wearing a kippah, as a nonbinary trans kid, to shout to her that I, as well, am pondering reparation this week.
I’ve never worn a kippah — the head covering Jewish men wear in synagogue — yet I needed to at my cousin’s bat mitzvah, when I was 15 or so years old. I asked why I couldn’t wear one like different young men did, why I needed to sit on an inappropriate side of the shul. I wondered why both the men’s and the women’s sides, divided per orthodox tradition, felt wrong. Why both sides were the wrong side. After another 15 years, I now feel more at home in my gender as a nonbinary trans boy. But I’m still wondering how my desire to be a good Jewish boy fits in. And on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and the most solemn holy day of the Jewish year, I wonder if wearing a kippah in this highly gendered mental and spiritual time is a sign of disrespect — or, if it’s a wholly appropriate way to begin this new year.
In my early twenties, the traditional rhetoric of Yom Kippur, coupled with gendered expectations of how to express your spirituality, manifested as an expectation to suffer, especially on high holidays, in service to others in ways that cause rather than heal pain. Yom Kippur is a holiday built around suffering, where Jews are meant to fast from sundown to sundown a week after the new year begins, in order to atone for the sins of the year. But this expectation disproportionately burdens Jewish trans women, queer Jewish women, Jewish women of color, who may often be expected to suffer in silence through only giving and rarely receiving, throughout the rest of the year, too.
And these expectations, as in all of society, can burn toxicity into men and masculine folks, who are too often praised for how well they conceal their feelings behind a practiced stoicism. And trans and nonbinary folks? We have to build our own interpretation of atonement as queer Jewish folks, I suppose.