I Grew Up Hasidic and Trans. Here’s How I Found a New Community.

By
"I would go to bed and pray that I’d wake up and be a girl." Photo: Courtesy of Aby Stein

I like to say I grew up in Williamsburg before it was cool. I wasn’t aware there was a reality outside the Hasidic community. I grew up afraid of non-Jews. When I was 6, I remember thinking, “I’m not a typical boy.” I would go to bed and pray that I’d wake up and be a girl. I had a secret plan where I’d do transplants for my whole body, but I knew that was crazy and impossible, so I never told anyone. I’d try colorful clothes because they made me feel feminine, but then I’d say to myself “Get over this” and push it away. 

At 18, I was married to a distant relative who was also from a rabbinical family. I moved to our community in Monsey, in Rockland County. But by 19 I would take my friend’s tablet and lock myself in a single bathroom at the mall that picked up Wi-Fi and I would read the internet. I mostly read in Hebrew because I hardly knew English at that point. I started not believing in Hasidism anymore, the hypocrisy. How could they be focused on minor details like keeping the Shabbat when there were people suffering in the community from child abuse? I basically told my wife what I thought, and for a while we tried to make it work, but then her family figured it out and they stepped in and we had to get a divorce.

There was no more reason for me to be part of the community. I had found an organization that helps people who were raised ultra-Orthodox leave and integrate into the world that they want. It’s like being an immigrant in your own country. You don’t know the language, the culture, anything. I went back and lived with my parents for a while. Everyone was angry with me and pitying me. So I applied to Columbia, thinking that was a huge waste of money because I’d never get in, but I did. I started last fall and now live in a co-op where I can live during breaks.

Photo: Courtesy of Abby Stein

The transition was hard in the beginning, but I’d been exploring it online for a long time. In November 2012, I opened a Facebook page under the name “Eve,” because I liked the idea of being the first woman in the Bible. Then I found an online transgender forum where I wrote a long post about my history and said I was going to transition. People were very supportive. But I still held back and would get depressed on and off and sleep all day. My college adviser was worried and sent me to a psychologist at Columbia, a wonderful woman who, after three sessions, said, “You’re hiding something.” And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about” and stopped going to her. But the depression got worse, so I went to a gender specialist who told me, “You have gender dysphoria and you have to do something about it because running away from it will make it worse.” I stopped going to her. But in July it got to a point where I realized I wasn’t really alive except for eating and sleeping, so I went to therapy again and started hormones in September. I just realized that my suffering wasn’t going to stop until I did this. So I chose the name Abby, which is close to Abe, my middle name. Abigail means “father’s happiness” in Hebrew.

Friday nights, I started going to a nice liberal, progressive synagogue on the Upper West Side called Romemu. I love it. I’ve retained the culture of Judaism. It took me a while to realize that it didn’t matter what I believed philosophically, I could still love and enjoy Judaism.

The rabbi there called my father and helped me come out as trans to him. My father had never heard of it and was very confused. He told me he might not be able to talk to me again, and I haven’t heard from him since.

For a long time, I thought I was going to wait to dress like a woman until I could fully “pass.” But then I started slowly dressing like a woman, and I realized that most New Yorkers don’t really give a blank. I’m feeling very hopeful about my life. I’m invited to a different party every night of Hanukkah.