This interview was with an 82 year old man who wishes to remain anonymous. He is a rabbi and retired professor, born in Jerusalem, Palestine. He now lives in Newton, Massachusetts. The interview was conducted in person on 22 February 2014.
Stern: What is your gender identity?
Stern: At what age did you identify that way?
JBS: The moment I remember myself. As a child, I knew I was a boy.
Stern: How did you know?
JBS: Uh, that’s a nice question. I guess being in a, I was, that’s an interesting question. I was, we don’t have kindergartens at my time. We had what they call ‘cheider.’ Pre-school. Schoolhouse. And at age three, my parents enrolled me. It was all boys. Girls went to another place or they did not go. So I knew I knew that I was in that school, and everybody was a boy, so I was a boy. And by the age of four, I already learned to read and write. Okay? In that schoolhouse, called ‘cheider.’
Stern: How do you spell that?
JBS: “Cheider,” it’s a Hebrew word for room, meaning school room, okay, and it is the oldest educational institution in the Jewish history, in European Jewish history. With sending the kids very early, and boys. Going back to what I said before, because they could not afford to send girls. So, boys were preferred for intensive education, and girls had other accommodations, but not schooling. Alright? So now, already been defined as a boy by knowing that I was sent by my parents to that cheider, and I only had sisters much later. Rivka was much later.
Stern: How does identifying as male make you feel?
JBS: Ah! I don’t know. I guess, as a child, it made me feel that, pride, able to achieve the things that a boy could do. Learning to read, learning to recite text, that you didn’t expect others to do until age six or seven, alright, so I was a very early. So, that’s, I guess, pride. Pride in my boyhood education.
Stern: Do you sometimes feel trapped by your identity?
JBS: Never. I never, I never felt in any way trapped. It never occurred to me to question it. Not in the context of my upbringing. Never, gender identity was never an issue.
Stern: What made you decide to dress as your gender?
JBS: 'To dress as your gender.' I guess emulating adult models. Okay, so, wearing a jacket, wearing the proper pants, and then going out to a party, or a wedding, they'll put a tie on me. So, it was all the male model. But there was never an issue of doubting my gender.
Stern: How did you realize that you were ready to transition into being a male?
JBS: That never entered my mind. That was not an issue that occurred to me as a young boy and not as a teenager and not when I was dating and not when I was in college. It was never an issue with me. My maleness was accepted for what I am.
Stern: How long did it take you to “pass” as a male?
JBS: This question is very strange. If I felt male, I didn’t have to pass as a male. That was natural. Wherever I went, I went as a young man, as a boy, as a young man. And then, I told you, at age 13, suddenly I am embraced as part of the community, as part of the synagogue. I can be counted as a tenth person. Alright? Without me, they couldn’t start the services. In other words, when you have a small quorum, tenth is a quorum, alright, so here I am, a young boy, counted as a man. That was very important. But not girls. Okay? So that gives you an extra sense of pride.
Stern: Do you ever feel completely at home with your developed voice?
JBS: 'With my develop voice?' Yes, I was very proud of my voice. Everybody was complimenting for my beautiful voice. My singing, they were crazy about my singing, all my relatives, my cousins. And I kept that talent, or that capacity to sing, uh, throughout my life. I was very happy. And Monique says she fell in love with me because of my singing. Okay?
Stern: Do you ever have second thoughts about being male?
Stern: Can you tell me more about what it is like for you as an individual to function within our society’s gender binary?
JBS: ‘To function society as what?’
Stern: [Repeats question]
JBS: Means, ‘Do I understand the problems?’ What is the question?
Stern: Do you know what a gender binary is?
JBS: Yeah, male female, roles. Well, if you know me by now, after being my [grandchild], you know that I started my life very early believing in absolute equality with women. In other words, Monique will tell you that traditional, the tradition in our family is that, when a young scholar marries, he gives a dissertation, speech at the wedding night. That was expected of young rabbis, of young scholars. And my father expected, and I, at the night of the wedding, I gave my dissertation, or my thesis. And we’re talking, we got married in 1963, and at that time, my thesis was all about striking a complete new ground, why women should be equal to men, and what is the role of husbands to make sure that the intellectual properties of women are enhanced, preserved and enhanced and advanced. That was my speech at my wedding night. In other words, I was thoroughly committed 30 years before my time, before it came out about feminism and all that, about the equality of men and women. And we ought to change the role models of the male dominant, the male dominant role model to a shared model in marriage.
And I remember, when we got engaged, my mother looked at Monique with her beautiful, the same suit that she has here [gets up to show me pictures] the Chanel suit, absolutely, this is the suit she wore. You can see it here. This is the suit. This is a Chanel suit Jacqueline Kennedy wore when her husband was assassinated. Okay. And she came, yeah, this was the suit she had, exactly the suit, here, this is the suit she wore. She had three suits like that. Uh, and my mother looked at her beautiful nails, she had gorgeous nails, fingers, beautiful nails, she was slim like a four and a half or five, and my mother looks at me and says, ‘With this nails,’ in Hebrew, ‘she’ll never be able to wash dishes. And with this figure, how would she have children?’ So I told Ima [Hebrew for Mom] ‘I’m not marrying her cause I need her to wash dishes. I’m marrying her because of her mind.’ Okay? So that already set me apart from the rest of my contemporaries. I believed already then, that’s why I married. I have six, I have five brothers and sisters. I had six. One of them died. I married the last. Everybody married before me. And the reason being because I was not satisfied with the type of women that I met. Monique was the one that I, that I really felt, and she was, in a way, realizing or confirming, confirming my philosophical outlook that women should be treated and respected and on equal basis as male. So, that notion of equality started very early with me. Okay?
Stern: When did you learn about the different gender pronouns used?
JBS: What is the word?
JBS: 'Gender pronouns?' Meaning what?
Stern: Meaning ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘they.’
JBS: That’s an interesting question. Uh, gender pronoun, you have to understand, is very, very rooted in our language. Our whole grammar is structured around that. Okay? In other words, I write, you write, he writes, and so on, she writes, or I am writing now. Hebrew is definitely, that goes back to Biblical times, is gender, is governed by gender. Okay. I write, ah nee ko tev, if I am a male, I say, ah nee ko tev. If you are a female, you will say ah nee ko tevet. Alright? That’s in most Semitic languages. So, in other words, the gender differentiation is already in your grammar. That’s how you grow up with. Whether it’s in the past tense, present tense, or future tense, is always the feminine and the masculine. I think, in some degrees, in French, too. You add ‘ES’ or whatever. So, the gender difference is very clear in the language. Okay? So, you grew up with that, and most people in the European culture or Middle East cultures and tradition and languages grow up with that gender differentiation. My philosophical problem started in college sometime when I was questioning all the prayer books that we recite our prayers, alright, like last night I made a prayer, right? Say, ‘Baruch atah Adonai,’ blessed you, atah is male for ‘you.’ If I tell you ‘at,’ it’s not ‘atah;’ it’s ‘at.’ Woman. Alright? And my philosophical, theological question is, ‘Why do I refer to God as atah?’ Should be a neutral. So, I had a philosophical issue about referring to God, to the deity in a male, in the male gender. And, throughout the prayer book, all the prayers are written in the masculine. So, that was my philosophical problem, and I haven’t resolved it til, I don’t think it’s a resolved question. Except you accepted that this was the way old literature were written. They always used the masculine gender. So, that’s a big issue for you in Gender Studies, in most languages. In English, too; the way they describe God is male gender. ‘He’ – very rarely ‘she.’ The question is, is there a neutral word that we can introduce to designate that God is not a he or a she. That’s a philosophical, theological issue, and I wrestle with that, long time ago. You have to understand the problem of it. The problem is that our designations of God are always in a masculine form, not in a feminine form. Why is it so? Can we accept it? Should we change it?
Stern: Do you feel the need to conform to what society asks of you, in terms of your gender?
JBS: Well, I’m not a non-conformist, so I feel free to do whatever I want, but there is certain expectations based on my culture, what a male do or can do. Alright? Uh, in other words, I automatically assume that I can carry burdens more than my wife. So, I always tell her I’ll carry the laundry down or up. Alright? I’ll do the hard work, the physical work. That is culturally – not imposed, but it’s not a question of being gentlemanly or being considerate – it’s just that I knew that a man can do, and can be assigned to heavier tasks than women. Okay? But that is really an ongoing issue in society. The issue in Israel, when they started about, oh, long time ago, thirty, more years ago, to give equal tasks to women in the military. And the issue today is debated in America. Today. Whether women can be in the Marines, whether they can be in the front, whether they can do the males’ type of work. That is an ongoing issue. So, I was involved in this thing that women can do all these things that males can do. However, we have to defer to certain limitations. Okay? And we have to respect those limitations. And respecting those limitations is I would carry the load upstairs and not Monique. And I expect others to do the same. Alright? And that’s basically what you, what’s the answer to your question.
Stern: Do you think gender is merely a social construction? Why or why not?
JBS: It is a social construction, but it is a biological construction. Can’t call it a social construction. It’s the way we evolved as a human society. The way all the animal kingdom evolved, where you have a procreating, at least in our species, where you have male and female. So, this is a biological construct. Alright? We have the male, the procreating male, and you have the female. And we grew up like that; we evolved that way. So, it is part of our nature, and the problem is, we have it among the animal, some animal, I forgot the, I used to know them, in insects and in some animals, there is no differentiation of gender. Okay? But the way we are constructed as a biological beings, that has been since the time we are born. We have been defined by our gender. But if mere fact that, whether physical appearance, physical prowerness, agility, all sort of skills, that was attributed to, that was at least assumed that the male gender can fulfill those tasks better than women. Like hunting, alright? Like fighting. And women is the protected one because she had children to bear and she had to protect her youngs.
So, the male role was to protect the woman, and to protect the house, and to protect from other prowlers, and because, in ancient societies, women were subjected to being snatched, being taken away by other tribes, and the male role was to defend that woman. Okay? So, there was always warfare about protecting the woman property, or the woman home, the woman’s nest. So, there is a biological construct to it that we cannot escape that. And it’s true that, as we grew to understand gender differences, that some people fall in between. In other words, some people, for, now we know more because we know more about our genome, we know more about our brain, we know that some individuals have not developed biologically that absolute differentiation. There is a, there is sort of a confusion of boundaries. Okay? But it’s not confusion; it’s just the way we are, alright? It’s a question of, for instance, they found a certain part of the brain that, uh, that with gay people, there are different responses than straight people. But it’s a question of brain development. Okay?
Stern: Do you think of gender as a thing you would like to undo? Please explain.
JBS: I never thought of that. I accepted my role.
Stern: If gender did not exist, do you think you would still have the desire to live as a male?
JBS: That’s a theoretical question that I cannot deal with. In other words, we are, as I said before, we are biological constructs going back millions of years of human evolution. And that’s how human evolution evolved, where you have gender differentiation. That’s how it evolved. Those who were, I’m sure there were people in million years ago whatever, they were transsexual or, but they did not survive because they did not procreate. So, in terms of human evolution, it really forced the gender differentiation. Because, otherwise, by the laws of evolution, right? Those who were, with that kind of boundaries between the gender, not really knowing where to, where their brain let them be, they have not survived because they have not procreated.
Stern: Some transsexuals procreate.
JBS: Probably, but, yes, they do. A lot of gay men have marriages.
Stern: Yeah, well, gay is different than transgender.
JBS: Yeah, a lot of them created progenies, alright, but the question is, what happened to the brain development? Okay? And, is it a recessive gene, is it a dominant gene? What happens when the gene in the next generation mixed with another gene? I don’t know. But the point is that the human condition is such that the differentiation, gender differentiation has been imprinted in our biological evolution. Okay?
Stern: If you could choose to be transgender, would you?
JBS: Say it again?
Stern: [Repeats question]
JBS: No, not at my age, and not before. I don’t think I ever, no, I never wanted to be something else than I am. I never had a problem of thinking that way. I don’t remember myself thinking that way as a young man or as a young boy. No.
Stern: If you were unable to live as a male, what would that mean for you?
JBS: That question never occurred to me. It never came up in my life. In other words, it was, it’s again, it’s the human condition. You take it for granted. I’m a male. There certain expectations, okay? And I tried to fill the social, anthropological, whatever, expectations as a male. So, I never thought, what would I have? It never entered my mind, what would I been able to accomplish had I been a woman? That never entered my mind. In other words, I didn’t feel that I missed something in life not being a male – not being a woman.
Stern: Do you think there’s a place for transgender people in the Jewish community?
JBS: Again, we’re talking about, we have to go back. The way I grew up, as a mature, thinking man. In all my life, I was, I was committed to law and ethics, right? The underline of the law, the philosophy of law, the basis of law, and morality. So, the central feature of my thinking is that every human being – that is the first few sentences, verses in the Bible – every human being is in the image of God. The imprint of the divine, okay? You can spend years trying to figure out what it means. The Hebrew is ‘sellomello im.’ ‘Sello’ means ‘image of.’ Okay. So, if you are an image of God, and he is an image of God, Monique is the image of God, right? And billion other people are the image of God, but they do not all look alike, do they? Meaning, philosophically that you and I and everyone else around us is not, is not the same copy you get on a Xerox machine, on a copy machine, they all look the same. Everyone has its own unique genes, all unique, okay? What makes him unique? And everyone is the image of God. So, philosophically, you think, “Aha. So, God has infinite, infinite manifestations.’ Right? And his infinite manifestations is projected on Charlie, on [me], on Jake, on billion, billions of other human beings, past, present, and future, and everyone is different. Therefore, that applies to a transgender. He is in the image of God, so he is a human being, and I am obligated to care about him, to save him, to care for him, as any other human because he is the image of God. He has his own worth, whatever it is. Okay? So, that is the humanity, at least where I come from, my social, my ethical, legal philosophy.
Stern: Do you have many friends/family who are also male?
JBS: 'Who are also male?' What does it mean 'also male'?
Stern: Male like you.
JBS: Most, I have many many, I have two brothers and hundreds of cousins, and they all seem to be, unless, they all seem to be in similar mode of thinking and behaving. I haven’t seen any difference from what I know. Many of my cousins and relatives. No one in my immediate family had any gender issues that I know of.
Stern: Do you find that your relationships with people in the male community are different from your relationships with people outside the male community?
JBS: ‘Outside the male community’ means my relationship with females?
Stern: Yes, and people who are neither male nor female.
JBS: Well, you have to put yourself thinking about how you were as a young man. So, the things that you can say or do and act among your male friends and things that you were restricted from doing, not daring to do when you were female presence. So, that is a social construct. It’s a question of etiquettes, it’s a question of manners, uh, these have changed. Young people today can say anything that comes to the mind, never thinking that may offend women or saying things that usually we say it among male, especially if you’re in the military establishment or any working establishment. Alright? People tend to be more reserved with a female in the midst. And male tend to be less ruly and less inhibited when they are with their own kind. That’s what I experienced all my life. But definitely, even today, if I’m sitting with women, it’s different than sitting with men, because with women, there are issues of sexual attraction. You have fantasies, real or that, but there are issues with women, especially with mature women, adult women, not talking as children, okay? And these issues, so you have to be very careful.
In other words, as a professor, I made it my business, I worked on it a lot; I never complimented a woman, a student, and I had many students, on her beautiful hair, or when she came with a different hairdo, like you had with different colors. Or dress, manner of dress. ‘Oh, what a beautiful dress, what a beautiful scarf, what great shoes, oh, it’s so beautiful.’ Never in my life. Even though I would like to say it, but I never did it. And the same policy applied to male. Each time Monique meets a friend, ‘Oh, what a, who’s your hairdresser? Where did you get your haircut? It’s beautiful. Where do you get the dress? And, it’s beautiful. Oh, the shoes are adorable.’ That’s what they do in France, okay? That’s what they do in all over. I never engage with that. Okay? So, I made it into my, as a teacher, and I think it influenced my way I’m working with women. Okay, so, there are certain things I couldn’t do in front of women, right? There are certain words you couldn’t, gestures, because there is always the question, ‘Is he making a pass on me? Is he sexually attracted to me,’ or the other way around. So, that’s the issue of the tension between male and female, which has been always. That’s part of our social environment. So, you have to be aware of the different roles and what people may make out of if you make the wrong comment or the wrong gesture, or the right gesture, okay? So, we are not as free. So, this is, I would say, social constructs. Very much social constructs.
The expectations is, let’s say you are with a female, and you feel that she attracts you, are you going to tell her that? That’s the question. So, you have to always hold on. After all, she’s married to my neighbor, to my friend. You may have a fantasy about her, but… So, that’s where the social morality walks in. I mean, social morality is a whole system of cues for what you do and you don’t do with the opposite sex. Okay? So, people who are cultured, people who are more aware of that, know what are the cues – what they call proper and improper. Okay? What are the things that you project that may be out of line. And where do you have to have self-discipline. And a lot of male don’t know how to exercise their self-discipline, even though they… they would like to, they do express their fantasies, okay? ‘Ah, what a beautiful. Oh, you are a great, you are a great,’ you know, ‘you have great boobs,’ or, ‘It will be nice to have a, to, uh, to have an evening.’ Okay, I don’t want to use words, okay? ‘It would be nice to fuck you.’ Okay? That’s what they use all the time. I have been constrained by that because of my philosophy. Respect of women, respect of – and knowing that there is a sexual tension, so you have to be respectful of that.