Since early childhood, Joy Ladin felt a disconnect between her body and soul but the one thing she did feel a connection to was poetry.  

In 2007, Ladin transitioned to live as a female and became the first and only openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish organization.  Now, as a published essayist and poet of several books, Ladin is also a nationally recognized speaker on trans and Jewish identity. 

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Ladin to hear more about her work, and her journey through identity and transition. 

Hear Joy recite one of her recent works, Singing, in this exclusive digital extra.

This segment originally aired on July 2, 2021.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Since early childhood, Joy Ladin felt a disconnect between her body and soul, but the one thing she did feel a connection to was poetry.

In 2007, Ladin went through the transition to living her female gender identification and became the first and only openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish organization. Now, as a published essayist and poet of several books, Ladin is also a nationally recognized speaker and trans and Jewish identity.

I spoke with Ladin to hear more about her work and her journey through identity and transition.

Joy Ladin, Poet: I started writing poetry in a home that was completely not literary. We didn’t have poetry books, but as soon as I started writing, I started writing what I considered poems. What I would now call like, rhymes.

But I not only considered them poems, I considered them great poems, even though I had no concept of literature and I’ve often like, “what was it about? What did I think I was doing when I was six years old that I thought was so important?”

And I think that it was because when I wrote, I felt connected to language as a whole, something larger than myself. When I made words rhyme, I was showing that words that seemed to be different on the outside had an inner kinship on the inside.

And I wonder if that’s not the way I felt about my female gender identification, that I could feel it rhyming with other girls, but they couldn’t see that.

Zydalis Bauer: You are the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish organization, whose transition made national and international news.

How did it feel to receive this type of attention and such a personal journey?

Joy Ladin : It felt pretty awkward. So, some of that was it was an awful kind of attention to receive at first. And then I realized…I’m really lucky in a way, because being at that intersection of traditional religion and open queerness gave me an opportunity.

I didn’t really do anything except go to work, but I became the place where Orthodox Jews started doing a lot of work on these issues in their communities. And I got to learn incredible things. I had a front row seat on the way cultures change, on the collision between modernity and secularism and traditional religious communities, which I have a deep respect for.

And so I started to really appreciate it.

Zydalis Bauer: The second book that you published entitled “The Book of Anna,” it’s a collection of prose, diary entries and poems in the voice of a concentration camp survivor and was the last book that you published as a man. The second edition was recently published this spring.

How pivotal was this book for you through your journey of identity and transition?

Joy Ladin, Poet: When I started writing it, I thought, you know, this is really great because it’s a way of…I’m willing to do this work because of this trans thing. And it will help me keep things in balance while living as a man.

What I didn’t realize was that as the the character in the book, Anna, was emerging to me, she was teaching me that I was basically wrong in everything that I thought of being a woman was.  I mean, she just didn’t fit any of the preconceptions that I had.

She was you know, she’s angry. She’s tough as nails. She does not — she’s not nice. You know, I was always trying to be very nice. And I confuse being nice with being good. And I confused going along and accommodating people with being honest, if you’re what people want, then that’s like, you know, somehow that seemed to be OK. And I confused all of that with being female.

So, she wasn’t a woman, according to any of my underdeveloped ideas of it. She was really herself. And it wasn’t until years later,when after years of living as myself, that I thought, “oh, right. A gender transition isn’t becoming a woman.” Nobody can become a generic category.

There are no women or all woman, everybody is who you are individually. And that’s what it’s about for me. And that’s what Anna, in an extreme way — she still scares me — was modeling for me.

Zydalis Bauer: You’ve been recognized as LGBTQ Nation’s top 50 transgender Americans, and you’ve delivered talks nationally on trans and Jewish identity.

What motivates you to do this type of work?

Joy Ladin, Poet: When I went to UMass Amherst to do an MFA, one of their main means of support is giving the classes to people. And in my first class I was like, “oh my God, this is a totally different thing.” But I need to do this in the same way that I feel like I need to write poetry. It’s another vocation for me.

And being a teacher, to me involves two things that are sacred and they’re linked together. It’s trying to help other people to understand. But in order to do that, I need to understand. Like I can’t help other people understand unless I’m always engaged in the work of understanding other people. I have to keep growing and learning that way. And so teaching is a way that we grow together in understanding.

And the work around trans talking, I don’t even know if it’s activism, it’s just I do feel like it’s part of my work to help people understand and to always be working to understand things better and more broadly. And so, I pay attention to anti-trans feminists and Evangelical critiques of trans identity, not because it’s fun to read that stuff, but because it’s my job to understand so that I can help others understand.

Zydalis Bauer: And to that point, what is something that you would like people to understand about the trans community?

Joy Ladin, Poet: Being trans and non-binary is just another — these are just different ways of being human. And not only that, but identities for all of us.

It’s like what Anna was trying to teach me. None of these identities, no matter how well they work for us — and sometimes they work really well for us, you know, we get a lot of goodies from them — but none of the identities that any culture gives us, perfectly fit us as individuals or perfectly fit us all our lives.

So, all of us, in a way, are Emerson said this, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We pass for what we are.” All of us are passing for what we are. We’re saying, “I want people to understand me. And so I’ll present myself as a category they understand, rather than the full messy me that I’m not sure they’ll understand.” And that means being trans and non-binar, this is something that’s common to all of us. It’s just that for some of us, our bad fit is more, with the categories we’re given, is more extreme.

But basically, I think that trans and non-binary people, give everybody a chance to embrace the larger parts of themselves that don’t fit into the categories and role and they can give.