Between The Covers

By Terri Schlichenmeyer, March 2020 Issue.

Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to
Transgender Woman by Abby Chava Stein
c.2019 | Seal Press | like in the other book’s pricing | $35.00 Canada | 272 pages

Who are you?

There are many possibilities. You can answer with ethnicity, gender, social strata, or surname, mention your species, family origins, religion, or hobbies. So many things and yet, as in the new book Becoming Eve by Abby Chava Stein, only one answer really matters.

Yisroel Avrom Ben Menachem Mendel was born on the 24th of Tishrei in the year 5752 — or, for those who are not Orthodox Jews, the first of October, 1991. The sixth child and firstborn son, Yisroel’s birth was the cause of great jubilation: one main forebear was Baal Shem Tov, a holy leader and the founder of Hasidism. In their Brooklyn community, that made Yisroel a member of royalty.

Almost from the moment of birth, the future was set: Yisroel would follow the same path laid out for the males of the family, starting with ritual circumcision and religious observances, then yeshiva to study the Torah and Jewish law, marriage at age 18, and hope for sons to continue the line. There was no alternative. The entire family lived like this, like “eighteenth-century Eastern Europeans,” and had done so for centuries. 

The exception came when then-four-year-old Yisroel insisted on having always been a girl.

Later, though other childish things were forgotten, those thoughts never were. They were constant, remembered, boxed up, ignored, or excused. Even when theological questions roared, when religious texts seemed to confirm Yisroel’s suspicions of girlhood, when sex — a subject no Ultra-Orthodox Jew was supposed to know about until days before marriage — made an all-boy yeshiva more bearable, questions of gender were suppressed. At 18, matched with and married to a woman who was nearly a stranger, Yisroel burned with envy that wearing a bridal gown would forever be denied. Naming their firstborn son was devastating.

“Oh, and gender?” says author Abby Chava Stein today. “It started punching me in the face.” 

Without a doubt, Becoming Eve may be one of the most fascinating books you’ll read this winter. Certainly, it’ll be one of the most unusual.

Set in a community that is meant only for adherents, author Stein’s story is told in rich detail that lets readers imagine everyday life with restrictions that most of us would chafe under, and without the internet, blue jeans, fast food, or English. These day-to-day details are relayed in a matter-of-fact tone that makes the severity of the “laws” seem even more astounding because of the seeming scarcity of emotion associated in their telling.

Stein’s lifelong question of gender almost seems secondary to those astonishments, but as the tale progresses, her demand for answers grows quietly in a way you almost won’t notice until it pounces on you. Whoosh, it’s a relief you never knew you were waiting for.

And yet, relief is fleeting: Stein leaves readers hanging by not including an up-to-date, which could be frustrating in any other story, but this unusual book’s end still feels just right. For that, Becoming Eve is a most satisfyingly unsatisfying book, and you’ll love it no matter who you are.

Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son by Richie Jackson
c.2020 | Harper | $24.99 / $31.00 Canada | 163 pages

Like father, like son.

When you were small, people said you looked just like your dad. As you grew up, they said you had his sense of humor or his temper, you laughed alike, you walked alike. Today, you may be close or you may have a chasm of miles or emotion between you, but as in the new book Gay Like Me by Richie Jackson, you’re a lot more like Dad than you think.

From the time he was small, Richie Jackson knew two things: he “felt lucky to be gay,” and he wanted to be a father someday. 

“Everything good that has happened to me is because I am gay,” he says — and that includes the birth of his son, born to a surrogate when Jackson was in his thirties. Since then, in the meantime, the sentiment has surely doubled since Jackson’s son came out as gay.

That was his “greatest wish for” his son, that he know the joy of being gay because it’s “a gift.” Says Jackson, he is “thrilled for the flight ahead of you” and “wary of the fight ahead of you” because wonderful things could happen but vigilance is required, and the knowledge that pain sometimes comes from people you didn’t think would hurt you.

Still, Jackson is excited for his son, who is college-age now and who grew up at a time when AIDS isn’t a death sentence, hiding isn’t mandatory, and so many large battles have already been fought by people at Stonewall, in the military, in marriage equality, and in everyday life. These things give Jackson hope as he launches his eldest son in the world as a gay man, but he has advice.

Know who you are, he counsels, and “never diminish your essence.” Know the heroes who went before you. Never let your sexuality shame you and never use it to shame others. Know your partner’s HIV status in advance. Don’t fall into the same drugs-and-alcohol trap that’s ensnared so many other gay men. And “vote as if your life depends on it, because it does.”

Nathan Johnson

Is there a modern teenager in the world who takes his father’s advice? Perhaps not, but if he’s a gay young man, he might still be glad to have Gay Like Me.

Written with enthusiasm and gratitude, author Richie Jackson also displays a lot of loving steel hidden in the things he wants his son to know. His advice is fierce but tempered with the kind of acquired fear that traumatically becomes a part of one’s DNA.

 In the sweetest of dad-tones, he’s honest, using a please-don’t-do-as-I-did warning, heavy on the “please.”  He doesn’t just write words to his son, but he penned them about his son, and they’re caressing, but difficult, words that aren’t only for the sake of, or aimed at, one specific, specifically-young man.

You don’t, in other words, have to be young or gay or even a man to enjoy Gay Like Me. Mothers of gay teens will want it, fathers and sons alike.