Gender on the Fringes: Why Our Biologically Female Child Wears Tzitzit Part-time.

-By Donna Harel, PhD.

So our biologically female child, Ronnie, has lately asked to wear tzitzit “like the other boys” at her Chabad Montessori Preschool. We stand at the intersection of shifting ideas about gender and different Judiasms. As an anthropologist, feminist, and progressive Jew, I feel rebellious on several fronts. At the moment, my unwavering love for and trust of my kid steady and center me as the kaleidoscope keeps swirling my view.

As Ronnie’s shifting gender identity unfolds, I find our lives embedded in multiple contexts and narratives -some discomfiting. My feminist sensibilities rankle against what feels like a master-narrative from the world of Trans-gender advocacy. To be sure, a growing alphabet soup of gender identities reveals the idea of “trans” implies a gender binary currently under deconstruction. I am heartened to know that individuals and parents, fighting the good fight, are taking seriously the shifting nature of categories that they must simultaneously embrace, advocate for, and deconstruct.

However, I feel at odds with two aspects of what I’ll call a “Trans-formation” narrative. First, a teleology -a predictable, inescapable narrative– seems at work.  It holds that the “this” happening in our family, has an endpoint. The master Trans-formation narrative suggests that we might be kidding ourselves that Ronnie’s shifting gender identity is a phase.  Eventually, we will need to accept something with which we presumably have issues.  Yet, I’m finding the concept of a “phase” helpful as a heuristic (rather than a source of denial as the Trans-formation narrative would have it).

A phase can last a week; a phase can last till sexual maturity, a phase can last til death.  I generally see life on earth as a phase in an ongoing, soulful adventure in the jungles of time and space.  So I embrace the notion of phase even as I hold for all possibilities for my child’s gender identity.  Thus, I’m currently rejecting the “Trans-formation” narratives —as I have encountered them— a deterministic distraction from  being present with my kid and their needs,

The feminist in me is also frustrated that the concept of a “tomboy” has become outdated. Over the last few decades, the term has fallen out of use perhaps because it marked as distinctive –rather than normal– traits of rough and tumble-ness among females. Why call girls tomboys simply for reflecting a diversity of ways that girls can live in the world? I get that on the surface, “tomboy” is a sexist term. But, lately, I’m pining for language and a framework for my child to flesh out the particular version of girl that s/he might happen to be.

Ronnie  has been told by almost everyone who s/he has encountered in their 3.5 years that s/he is “cute.” S/he has two, considerably older sisters (by 8 and 13 years). They are emerging as powerful young women, and are conventionally feminine. Ronnie goes to a school in which all of the teachers and most of the mothers wear skirts, most women cover their hair and almost all of the girls wear skirts or dresses. So almost all of the females in Ronnie’s life and their own experiences with dimunative girlhood (what a good friend referred to as “all that cuteness bullshit”) reflect a sensibility about femaleness that counters their desire to be a powerful, roaring, superhero, soldier, firefighter, rough-and-tumble kid. A little language of “tomboy” might give Ronnie some breathing room around the idea of femaleness. Without it, s/he seems to be pushed to picking a team.

No one told Ronnie that s/he has to pick a team, but in their world, as it stands, s/he seems compelled to make a choice.  At the moment, team Boy takes the lead. At  Ronnie’s Orthodox preschool, (an outstanding Chabad Montessori) embedded in a world that appears highly gendered, only one pivotal moment in the day is demarkated by gender: that moment in morning group time when the boys and girls take turns standing up and saying their respective prayer: Girls thank God for making them according to God’s will/plan and Boys assert that they God’s soldiers -a symbol for Ronnie that holds great appeal at the moment.

So here’s the rub: these soldiers wear tzitzit. Every day. All the time. For Orthodox boys, tzitzit form a pivotal part of their family’s expressions of devotion and community. Tzitzit are the sign and symbol of orthodox Jewish male identity.  And Ronnie has seized upon tzitzit as a symbol  of the (male) power that s/he is after.

But Ronnie is NOT an orthodox Jewish boy.  Our family identifies as progressive Jews. In our (Conservative) synagogue, people wear tzitzit on their tallitot (prayer shawls), only when we pray.  They serve as reminders of ADULT obligations of mitzvot (commandments) and connecting those to our prayer experiences. I take this distinction seriously. I identified tzitizt as separate from the prosaic world and bristle at the idea of my kid wearing their “Tallit katan” (little tallit) while playing in the dirt, going to the grocery store, or using the bathroom.

So, like many other parents who send their kids to Jewish Day schools, we must reconcile the tension between our home practices and those of our child’s social world. In Ronnie’s world at school -a place in which s/he spends most of their waking hours during the week (with the exception of all of those days off to the holidays!)- boys  wear tzitzit all the time. Asking Ronnie to take the tallit katan out only to pray–our initial impulse– (particularly as they go UNDER the shirt) would make Ronnie stand out when s/he clearly wants to blend in, and unduly burden the staff. So Ronnie will wear the tzitzit under the shirt while at school as long as s/he pleases.

I’m more than a bit irritated with secular friends and family that question or LAY BLAME for Ronnie’s transforming gender identit(ies) on the fact that s/he is attending an Orthodox school. This line of argument goes that if the community weren’t so sexist, s/he would’t be forced to identify as a boy.  Some of the people in my life cannot see past the covered hair and tzitzit common in this community. The anthropologist in me is rolling my eyes at the  lack of subtlety and appreciation of internal differences among groups –in this case among Orthodox Jews.

Chabad, which does a tremendous amount of outreach, has a general ethos of acceptance. Consequently a colorful cast of families traipse through their doors. We are not the only progressive Jews to send our kids there.  From the outside, one cannot easily discern that some of the mommies (Orthodox or otherwise) are doctors, lawyers, researchers, professors, businesswomen. My friends haven’t seen me walk into that building in the middle of the summer, dressed in workout clothing and looking like the Whore of Babylon, only to find warm welcome. I don’t doubt that the Chabadniks will continue to invite us to their events, but these folks know that I have drunk the koolaid at my own progressive, egalitarian shul.  Some  know that I have given divrei Torah on Shabbat -they know that I have no plans to leave my synagogue and still they greet us with welcome. As we are.

Ronnie has a an amazing, experienced teacher who is, kind, loving and committed to helping our child unfold into their best self.  As a parent, I couldn’t be happier with the compassionate, Ronnie-focused response to our unique situation. The director, in a quick moment of kindness, creativity and expediency, decided that henceforth all of the bathrooms would be un-gendered for the preschoolers. How cool was that?  So we are staying put for now.

Some kids gravitate towards superheroes. At the moment, our kid’s favorite superhero garb is their tallit. S/he kisses it in the morning and it’s offering her a shroud of belonging as s/he finds a place in the world.

While we have settled the physical fringes for now, we have much to reconcile in our other worlds. Ronnie may very well turn out to be transgender. Should that come to fruition, we will accept and affirm every aspect of our child.  For now, dismayed by the anemic variety of choices for strong and powerful females in our culture, I’m holding out for team Tomboy.  Best still, Team Ronnie.