Passover is a holiday defined by coming out toward freedom. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, meaning, “from the narrows,” represents not so much a geographic location as a state of mind, from which each of us seeks liberation in our own way. In my case, I started life as a first-born son, but could now say I was born, at first, a son. As I reflect upon my own unique journey into Jewish womanhood, it helps me not only relate to the narrative of our past, but recommit myself to the responsibility of being a Jew in the present.
The concept of transgender individuals need not be alien to any sect of Judaism. Talmudic references to suprabinary sexes aside, the necessity of a person to permanently assert a new gender based upon sincere self-awareness, let alone the medicine to influence physical characteristics to match, was simply not on the minds of our sages; whereas, homosexuality, albeit grossly misunderstood, was. In Torah, crustaceans are “shellfish” and cetaceans are “big fish.” As Jews, we read many books beyond Torah, each building on humanity’s knowledge of Hashem’s creations, as they line the walls of our synagogues and homes. Seeing only male and female is seeing only “fish,” a beginning to the conversation at best. Sadly, gender identities, and sexuality in general, remain taboo in many circles of our community. This is not a problem unique to Judaism, yet is one we can uniquely remedy by relating new ideas through the history we tell best.
Gender matters within the Passover story as early as line sixteen in Exodus. The Hebrew midwives are ordered to smother the newborn boys, yet spare the girls. Obviously, they disobey. Oppression can take many forms, sometimes only a perception is sufficient. With the help of a different newborn, the dial-up Internet, I discovered scarce reports of other trans children like myself. The fear in revealing myself was not my parents’ rejection, but rather their support. They would have moved heaven and earth, perhaps to a different state, for me to quietly continue on as a girl, were that my need. Circumstances have changed, but years ago, even the prospect of unintended consequences was itself a captivity. Hidden within me was a girl trapped in her own Mitzrayim by the first-born big brother’s obligation to look out for his siblings, rather than change at risk of uprooting them. It took me decades to escape that mindset, but Passover is a reminder that transformation requires both preparing yourself and preparing the world. The woman I am could never have existed before; by outward appearances alone, I’d have been among the smothered.
A hint at how to prepare the world for redemption comes in another line from Exodus, so early in the tale that I fear it gets passed over. Line eight speaks of a new ascending Pharaoh, to whom Joseph and the prosperity the Hebrews brought was unknown, no sooner were we enslaved. Today, multiple states have introduced legislation proposing that I must use men’s public restrooms. I may comply at risk of violence or defy at risk of arrest. Further bills, notably one just passed in Indiana, may give anyone who desires an exemption from serving me in the first place. Yet again, the world finds itself dignifying discourse around where a minority can pee or where they can be.
As Jews, our own history should remind us: Next come the ghettos. Joseph was viceroy to a mighty empire, yet within a line was erased without even a why or how. Perhaps the Hebrews in Mitzrayim became complacent in their affluence? For all that American Jews take for granted, not 75 years ago this same nation could not make space for a single ship of refugees waiting at its shores. How soon could the tides change or the sea split once again? For whom must we stand up now, lest no one be left to stand for us?
Our narrative as a people of eons adds Milk to Miriam and Moses, growing braver with each new hero or heroine who rises to the challenges of preparing the world in that day, so long as we keep telling their stories and broadening conversations.
My journey toward liberation and self-actualization against societal expectations and my own fears helps me look upon the journeys of others, realizing that I once was restricted as well, and in different ways still am. To be a Jew reminds me, in this age and every age, that asserting our own and ensuring others’ freedom of expression is, perhaps, our greatest expression of freedom.
Hannah Elyse Simpson is a medical student in New York City at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, a marathoner, supporter of Israel, and total unabashed nerd. She is active in numerous Jewish congregations and is the volunteer coordinator for Trans Lifeline, a peer crisis hotline. She has recently been featured on refinery29.com and has been interviewed by Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC. Find her on Twitter @hannsimp.