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The feminist in me is also frustrated that the concept of a “tomboy” has become outdated.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 kool aide 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.

Public Rituals For Grieving: Lessons from saying Mourner’s Kaddish for three and a half years 


By Donna Harel, PhD.

Humans have evolved many different ways of managing and commemorating loss, which is always a private as well as social matter. In other words, we have technologies of time and space and material for processing grief.

Pop-up vigils and memorials, burials, cremations, wakes, shivas and, these days, online tributes, mark passing as well as grief. Some traditions emphasize honor for the body of the departed, others treat it as potentially defiling. Some traditions expect grief to be a private affair, others treat it as more social. In some cultures, public wailing, often through hired hands (keening in Ireland and Scotland, Uluation in Muslim tradition) is designed to help mourners connect with the grief in their hearts and at times show the status or esteem of the departed. My own tradition, Judaism, has an elaborate technology for dealing with dying, treatment of bodies, funerary rites, grief and mourning.

Jews mark intense period of mourning for a week, and status as a mourner continues throughout the first year. Regular moments throughout the calendar mark the passing of a loved one beyond the year. Growing up, I was always told that the rituals were not for the dead, but for the living. While many people see these practices as archaic, I personally found them to be healing. Here’s my take on what amounted to a protracted and somewhat unusual experience. While the details were a bit unique, I suspect that they may have a wider resonance for those dealing with loss.

Each week, like a small boat surrounded by others, the name (and the life it represents) floats just a bit further away -one or two waves at a time–until at the end of the year it finally floats so far into the distance and is no longer recited. They will recall the name once a year, remembered more as a distant star than a long-launched boat. If you follow the name as it makes its steady progression out to sea, you hear the names of the other boats, whisked off just a bit further as well. New boats come each week as the familiar ones start to leave. A steady progression across the year in a sea of names. You stand that year as you listen to the names recited. You connect, once a week to the lost soul, now a boat whose distance away marks a longer tether to the grief, the celebration, the mix of memories and emotion.

The reading of names and the ritual of standing and reciting Kaddish Yatom, or “mourner’s kaddish,” the Jewish prayer of remembrance, takes place in my synagogue community each week. In some settings, people recite mourner’s kaddish daily and in others, the names are not recounted. Traditionally, the recitation is a social act and most communities call for a minyan or gathering of ten adults (in very traditional communities only men) as a requirement for the recitation. I suspect that these requirements underpin the social support embedded in the call to public grief. In many communities, people come to minyan for the explicit purpose to ensure that others may recite the mourner’s kaddish. Fun fact: a Torah can stand in for a person to creat a minyan. As the mourners stand for the minute or so, reciting the incantations, either reading or with eyes shut, the community holds them, reciting their bits of ritualized responses. The community creates time and space for the mourners to connect and commune with the memories of their dead loved ones.

Nearly every Shabbat morning between July 2012 and January 2016, I stood for mourner’s kaddish. 175 recitations. I  closed my eyes as the words, even those moving with my own breath, washed over me. First I stood with my father on the shabbat morning following my grandmother, Rachel’s death. She was the last of mine and my husband’s grandparents – those eight sweet people who treated us with so much adoration, unconditional love and very little rebuke. When I stood each week for a year and recited Mourner’s kaddish, I had a chance to commune not only with them, but with that feeling of unconditional adoration and love.

Overlapping that year, by about a week, I began to stand also for my beloved father-in-law. He passed away in July of 2013, shortly before what would have been the due date of a miscarried baby. I’d been connecting to that loss throughout the year of mourning my grandmother. I spent much of 2013 with a growing belly. The promise and disjuncture between life and death, punctuated mourner’ Kaddish  and our third daughter was born in April of 2014. She nuzzled against me in her sling every time I reconnected with her grandfather, her namesake.

My own father passed away in May of 2014, when the baby was 7 weeks old. The names of our two fathers bookended me and the baby as I mingled generally fond memories and impressions with sweet little nuzzles. A dear friend and teacher passed away later that summer, just as my father-in-law’s name cycled out, his boat launched as a distant star. I dwelled in only fond memories of the friend, and she remained a steady companion as I recited kaddish in the year that followed.

My mother passed away in October of 2014. Her death brought to the sacred recitation the mix of feelings that only mothers can bring out in their daughters. All the while, my own little girl started to poke her  head out of the sling. How many times did she nurse during this recitation? This act of mothering surely smoothed over many of my ambivalent feelings.

When my mother’s husband passed away in January of 2015, the baby and I would stand each week with a swirl of memories and mixed, often fraught, emotions. For a while, my father’s name remained on the list. Three parents. One friend. Four sets of emotions. My dad’s name sailed further and further away until May, when his ship launched off into the distance. My beloved friend, always such a strong voice for embracing the other’s burden, steadied me as I faced the impending encounter of standing with singular thoughts of my mother and her husband. The last shabbat that I heard my friend’s name announced, I suddenly incanted “Infinite love and gratitude” instead of the proscribed words. This was her parting gift as her name sailed off into the distance.

So July came and all of the steadying guides and easy relationships had truly departed. As I stood up during the first encounter –just me and my mom and my stepdad– I breathed deeply for the work ahead.  I shifted the 15 month old on my hip and sought to shift from ambivalence to compassion. For the three months, the tight knots of frustration began to loosen. Slowly, slowly, the sensations of the love and nurturance my mother bestowed upon me began to take over. Yes, she was m difficult and not always kind. Judgmental and often divisive, and all those things that some mother’s can be. But between the steady sounds of the incantation, the soft cooing sounds of the baby and the small still voice urging “infinite love and compassion,” I truly swelled with gratitude by our final week together. I recall kissing the baby’s head, then the siddur and wiping the tears that had rolled down my cheeks. “Thank you, Imma,” I uttered as her boat launched out beyond its tether.

“So,” I thought to my step-father as I rose the next week, “It’s just us now. Can we do this?” No one else would be doing this for him; I was the lone torch-bearer. My stepdad had been an imposing figure. A lanky Vietnam veteran- turned carpenter, he was always composed and gentlemanly. He had taken  tireless care of my mother. Yet he always exuded a undercurrent  of  darkness and suppressed  anger. After 15 years of caring for my mother, he was at sea after her death. He was overwhelmed by her convoluted accounting, which required near-forensics to disentangle. He had vascillated between terrific gratitude for our concern towards him and seething anger that we three daughters hadn’t done enough to lighten his burden. He never explained himself before taking his life, and I spent the ensuing months of reciting mourner’s kaddish working through anger and frustration.  I sought connection and gratitude. Images of silly dance parties and construction projects with my girls eventually flashed within my mind’s eye. I envisioned him and my mom dance at my sister’s wedding. And in the months and weeks between October and January, I found gratitude and peace.

When I finally remained seated after three and a half years, I noticed, for the first time, what it’s like to play the part of the community -to hold others as they stand and connect with their departed. I have come to believe in the sacredness of both ends of the production. I still feel the rhythms of the sea of names as they float by, marking time for us as a community and connections of lifetimes for those who remain behind.

I firmly believe that our most intimate encounters with anything divine come by way of others. Ideally, others are there for us as we grieve and rejoice, connect, and say goodbye. So whether you are standing for mourners kaddish or bearing witness to those who do, you are engaging in holy work. And for that, I feel infinite love and gratitude.

Indeed, the closing lines of the mourner’s kaddish call for the establishment of peace within ourselves, among our people and for all creation. Kaddish Yatom is, indeed, a structure and a framework to achieve achieve exactly that.

So what do we do without these very specific technologies for processing grief?

Our day and age abounds with opportunities to miss out on grieving and opportunities to create structures of time and space to grieve. As a person who doesn’t live a highly structured life, I appreciate that my tradition created those structures for me and that I was fortunate enough to make use of them. Without them, however, we might do well to make a weekly or regular time for communing with our losses.

Consider setting an alarm, finding a regular place to close your eyes, listen to the same tune, sounds or poem. Write your way through the relationship. Whatever you do, find time and space and a ritual of sorts to connect, reflect, say “sorry,” “thank you,” “why?”
I hope you find infinite love and gratitude or at least bits of peace.
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