‘Balancing on the Mechitza’ edited by Noach Dzmura

Lambda Literary Award Finalist

Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community (North Atlantic Books) is an exploration of Judaism through a lens of sex and gender, and it is also the reverse: an exploration of sex and gender through the eyes of Judaism.

They have some things in common, notably a great deal of internal debate and the certain tolerance of differing viewpoints that tends to come with that (as a whole, anyhow; individual intolerance remains alive and well, though largely absent from this generous book).

Balancing on the Mechitza ranges widely across denominational lines, carefully including voices from across the spectrum of Jews, and also sex and gender ideologies – giving equal privilege to Reconstructionism and Orthodoxy, to genderqueers and full-medical-model transsexuals.

The work is well-chosen, and a deft editor has been at work here—the prose is generally lively without verging into sameness, which I especially prize.

Books that integrate religious ideas or tenets with issues of gender and sex are always sent to the front line for critique. The nature of the religious fundamentalist is to be rigid about The Way It Has Always Been Done; the nature of the sex-and-gender fundamentalist is just as unforgiving. Beyond that, however, Balancing On The Mechitza has carried on into the breach, digging into even matters of religious practice: offering liturgical contributions, such as Catherine Madsen and Joy Ladin’s ritual for a male-to-female transsexual to both mark a formal transition of sex and make a transition of social gender (a significant area of Orthodox Jewish life, as quite a few things are still segregated by sex and/or social gender).

Ladin, a professor at Yeshiva University, brings to the task not only her clearly deep understanding of Jewish ritual but also a great lyricism. Rather than feeling functional, Ladin and Madsen’s ritual contains the mix of solemnity and joy that one wants at such a moment.

Another strong category to the book is the room it gives for Jewish legal or scholarly work. While I am glad as always to see thoughtful and interesting essays about how some experience has been for someone (more on that in a moment), it’s also satisfying to read essays that dig into Jewish legal concepts. They’re well footnoted and written in the plain, if sometimes dense, language that characterizes modern Jewish law, so even a novice with no previous experience could follow along.

Editor Dzmura also wisely places these pieces in the last section of the book, creating a thoughtful progression that I think would allow many readers to feel quite comfortable by the end reading through four essays that work with the legal status of an intersexed person in Talmudic literature, with a combined total of 77 end notes.

I confess, I was especially delighted with this section in part because the work was so rich – so many nuanced thoughts, so much lexical wrangling – but also in part because they all nail the heterosexism of the original (and most of the subsequent) legal conversation to the wall and leave it hanging there, wriggling. My only discomfort was with the repeated use of the word “hermaphodite,” which is such an outdated and insulting term for an intersexed person that I wasn’t clear why we had to keep seeing it.

Though I’ve especially called out the new liturgies and the legal essays as being wonderful, in part because they are so rare to find, it must be said that the balance of the book is also of high quality indeed. Crisp, fresh prose and a gentle humor characterize many of the pieces; both you-are-there stories of interactions with Jewish culture and longer discursive pieces that treat a broader topic.

Of particular note are Tucker Lieberman’s “Hearing Beneath The Surface,” not only a good story but so well-written it made me catch my breath, and Margaret Moers Wenig’s linguistics piece “Spiritual Lessons I Have Learned From Transsexuals” mixes word-geekery with a wondrous analysis of the nature of trans experience that left me cheering in my chair. I am also selfishly glad to see more positivity and problem-solving than wailing and woe among the subjects, a longstanding hobbyhorse of mine with regard to trans-related titles.

Certainly, there are a few missteps here. I found myself impatient with Tobaron Waxman’s descriptions of his performance art; perhaps it was simply too far removed from the original moment, but a retelling of the experience of a conceptual art installation was jarring amid the sweetly present nature of the rest of the book.

And the Editor’s Notes before each piece, helpful for contextualizing the work to an unfamiliar audience, were distracting for me and I wished they had been placed after the pieces, so readers could jump into each new bite without explanation or expectation. Still, they’re such small things, and the book is so good that they barely register in the grand scale.
Transgender in Jewish Community
Edited by Noach Dzmura
North Atlantic Books
Paperback, 9781556438134, 288pp
June 1, 2010