In a process that began in 2007, Joy Ladin stopped using her birth name, Jay, and started transitioning from male to female.
Ladin’s story, which includes her sex reassignment surgery, shares common threads with the experiences of other transsexuals. But her experience is magnified and exacerbated by her day job–teaching girls at Yeshiva University’s Stern College—an Orthodox institution with a relatively traditional and gender-binary culture.
In her new memoir Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders, Ladin discusses her role as a non-Orthodox (but practicing Jewish) teacher at an Orthodox institution. After Ladin comes out to her dean, she’s placed on “involuntary research leave” for a year. Her world collapses when her wife divorces her and sues to bar Ladin from seeing their children. Curiously, though, salvation comes from the least expected place–from her students.
“Between secular conventions of political correctness and Jewish conventions of derech eretz, respect for others, the school turned out to be a surprisingly safe place to be out as a transsexual,” Ladin wrote. Upon her return from leave, the Stern newspaper ran an issue devoted to “Transsexuality and Judaism,” in which Orthodox rabbis examined Jewish beliefs on the issue. In the final chapters of Ladin’s book, one student asks Ladin if she can do an independent project on the changes in Ladin’s poetry through the stages of her gender transition. To Ladin, there is no higher compliment.