Print Copy Editor Asher Meklin conducted this interview for the issue 3 cover story “Across, Beyond, and Through the Binary Universe”.
Could you state your name and spell it?
My name is Reuben Zellman.
I use he or they, either one is fine.
How do you identify?
I identify as trans and queer.
What’s your role at the moment in Jewish spaces?
I worked at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley for nine years, so quite a while. And now, I am the Torah reader at Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco and I do a whole lot of freelance things right now and I’m doing a lot of music as well.
You were one of the first trans rabbis, what was that like? How did being trans affect the way that you experienced it?
Yes, to my knowledge I was the first trans person to be accepted at a rabbinical school. And it was very difficult. I’m really glad I did it, and many people were really supportive and rose to the occasion. And a significant number of other people really were not comfortable having a trans person in the school, and some of those people made it really difficult. And I think unfortunately, you know, the first time something happens, that’s often the case.
How has being trans affected your personal relationship to Judaism?
Well for me, being trans has brought me into an amazing queer Jewish community and I became an active part of that queer Jewish community when I was about nineteen and that’s been really central in my life. So, both folks for whom Judaism is central and important but also queer experience and queer thinking is central and important and those things come together often in really fantastic ways.
Do you think that attitudes towards the trans community have changed over time, both within the Jewish community and outside of it?
I cannot begin to describe how different some of the world is for some trans people today, than what it used to be. I could never have imagined some of the things that we see today. For example, I graduated high school in 1996. I had never seen a trans person on TV, I had never heard of trans people talked about in the news, the only time I had ever seen a transgender person was on this one particularly terrible television show where they would bring trans women on and humiliate them, it was awful. You know, I didn’t know the word transgender, intersex, nonbinary- It was so different that I almost don’t even know how to describe how dramatically different it is today. The conversation that you and I are having right now, would not and could not have happened when I was in high school. In fact, I distinctly remember that I actually wrote an article for my high school newspaper and it was dealing with lesbian and gay students at the school, not specific ones, but about lesbian and gay issues at the school and the school said we couldn’t publish it. And that’s nevermind transgender, which no one ever spoke about. So it was really different, and I think that we are incredibly fortunate to be living in these times where there has been so much progress made and also there is such a huge amount of work to do. The new visibility and improved level of acceptance, it’s not good enough and a lot of trans people have not yet benefited from it much at all.
I have heard of the concept about the six Jewish genders/sexes, do you know anything about that?
It’s actually extremely specific, in Jewish tradition and traditional Jewish literature there’s huge amounts of writing about at least six different genders of people- I mean, it’s super complicated, because we’re talking about maybe the year 100, so it’s an extremely long time ago. Jewish literature has been around for a very long time, and that means when they say certain words or describe something, we don’t always know what they really meant. But what we do know is that if you were to open the Talmud, or the Mishna somewhere and start flipping pages, eventually you would cross paths with people that are cisgender males, cisgender females -not that they use the term cisgender- but as far as we can tell, that’s what they meant. And also someone called the androgynos, who seems to have had physical and/or identity characteristics of men and women together, and then there was the tumtum who is a person whose physical sex is not visibl, like nobody knows what it is, it’s covered up. That’s a person where it’s just not known. And then there is a saris which is a physically male person but with a lot of feminine identity characteristics and there’s aylonit which is a female with a lot of male identity characteristics. I mean, it’s hard to even talk about because our language is so binary about these things. But yes, there are definitely six distinct types. And I remember the first time I started reading it, I was like “this is awesome!” because I had no idea that there was, you know, people like us. That people recognized and respected them.
There is a prevalent opinion that being Jewish and trans is a contradiction. Would you agree with this statement?
My thought is that I think that those folks don’t understand how religion works very well. There is no such thing as a single way of being Jewish or Christian or Muslim. There never has been, and there never will be. There are some people who feel that their version of Islam does not include gay people or trans people. There are some people who feel that their version of Judaism does not include trans people. But I can tell you from much experience that there are lots and lots of, for example, Jewish people who are active and involved as Jews, who are absolutely delighted to celebrate gender diversity, as part of who the Jewish people are and as part of how Jewish thought can grow and change and learn things. One way I’ve sometimes put it is that people say, for example, “well doesn’t it say in the book of Leviticus that you’re not allowed to be trans?”. Now that’s really questionable, whether that’s actually the case, but let’s just say it is. It says a great number of things in the book of Leviticus, including that yesterday, because it was a new moon, we all should have sacrificed a couple of pigeons. Which we don’t do! And so, I cannot speak for everyone else, but we’re not literalists in the way we understand what our commitments are and what our values are. So yes, Leviticus says ever so many things, and we continue to talk about them and some of those things we do right up until this very day and others we haven’t done for literally two thousand years, because they weren’t right for life then.
Do you think that you experience people treating you differently on the basis of your trans identity in Jewish spaces?
No. You know, now in 2021, people are much less surprised to have a trans person in a Jewish space. We’re fortunate to live where we live, because I think people have a higher level of commitment to opening their minds about these things in general than many other places. There’s still work to do, there are still a lot of more subtle forms and systemic ways that we marginalize gender diversity, unfortunately, but things are so dramatically different than they used to be. For example, now it is possible that I can go to a meeting and not talk about transgender issues. Often I do need to, but people can now handle having a trans person who happens to be working with them on something. And that didn’t used to be what happened. It did not used to be like that. I feel like this is a great demonstration of the fact that we -and I mean we as Jews but also we as human beings- we can improve ourselves, we can expand what we understand to be how things are, we can access, we can learn new things and incorporate that and do things differently. We have to, and we do. And so, that’s what makes me excited about the time we’re in now.
What specific changes would you like to see in Jewish spaces going forward?
I would like to see the ways that we are learning to open our minds about gender, that we would continue to open our minds about other things, and let ourselves continue to learn and grow. So, for example, I think that every community has their own inclusion challenges. I think, for example, that it is way past time that Jewish spaces are much more attentive and aware of and really celebrate the presence of people with disabilities in ways that we are not very good at now. And I think that it’s all related, it’s all about, in the end, am I really looking at this person as if they are a reflection of God, as someone made in the image of God. Because if they are -and that is what we believe, that every single person is a reflection of God- and so, that being the case, what do we owe each other? And how do we make sure that each other can be fully present and fully heard> So, for example, I would say, perhaps a place has finally changed their restrooms to being non-gendered, but are they wheelchair accessible? You know, there are so many ways in which we are taught to think about the human body that I think we have a great deal to improve on there. I think that if we can take a lesson from the change that has taken place with trans awareness in the Jewish community, part of it has to do with understanding that we have been lied to about what kinds of human bodies exist, what kinds of human bodies are good, which ones are healthy- there’s so much judgement and misinformation about that. And we are making progress in fixing that when it comes to gender expression. We need to make a lot more progress when it comes to for example, fatphobia or disability justice. And certainly when it comes to having more open and more focused conversations about what race looks like in the Jewish community and how that’s experienced and where things need to be improving.
What was it like growing up trans for you?
It was just vastly different than it is now, thankfully. I’m so glad that it’s different now. Nobody would have, when I was in high school, asked what anybody’s pronoun was. It wasn’t happening, and it wasn’t in people’s consciousness. It was something you were supposed to assume, and asking would have been considered extremely rude because of transphobia. It was dramatically different, and I think the fact that I didn’t have -nobody did- the language that we have now around trans experiences made a big difference for a lot of people because it’s very hard to know how to proceed forward as a transgender person if you don’t know that there are people like that. I think there are many generations of queer people who knew they were queer but didn’t know how to speak about it or how to name it or how to connect about it. That carries a lot of damage for people. And I am extremely fortunate that I entered college in the late 90s and was able to take advantage of some of the ways that things have really improved. I don’t want to be all downer about it but it was hard, it was definitely challenging. I came out when I was twenty and so many of the things that we think of now as being part of trans experience like gender clinics, for example- that didn’t exist. So it was kind of like the Wild West, it was just beginning to be known that there were people who were trans and people who transitioned. Of course, there always has been, but it was just beginning to be talked about where it was starting to be possible to be an open thing- it’s been a really interesting journey.
Do you have any advice for trans kids today?
You know, in some ways, things have changed so much that I almost have no idea what it’s like to be a trans kid today because what that means now is so different than what it meant when I was young, but what I do want to say is just hold on, because when you’re an adult and you have more resources, more options, more choices, things really can get so much better.