Yeshiva Teacher Joy Ladin Talks Poetry, Gender Transition, and Judaism


Joy Ladin began her Tuesday night chat by featuring a poem she wrote before her gender transition titled “The Soul Wakes on the Wrong Side of the Bed.”

“It’s a poem I wrote during the long time I was in the closet, which for me meant living and writing like a man I knew I wasn’t,” Ladin said. . “You try to write poems that are true and express feelings, but don’t reveal who you really are.”

Ladin, an English professor at Yeshiva University, became the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish university in 2008. She spoke at a Zoom event hosted by Pitt’s Creativity Center for “In our own writing”, a Pitt LGBTQ+ creative writing course for people over 50. Ladin read a selection of his poems and offered his wisdom on writing and religion in a Q&A.

While discussing her”Transmigrationwhich she wrote in the midst of her transition, Ladin said those years had been marked by anguish and heartache — but she had survived and persevered.

“A lot of the poems in this book were written like, ‘Well, I could kill myself now, or I could write a poem,’ and so I wrote a lot of poems,” Ladin said. “There was this part of me that refused to die during the long years of not living as myself – and when I started living it…I wanted to hear what it was telling me.”

While discussing his poem “Bereavement“, she compared the whirlwind of emotions to the experience of her friend Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox Jewish rabbi. As a young man, Greenberg was diagnosed with HIV, which he saw as a “death sentence”, but as treatments evolved, he struggled to change his mindset.

“He mourned all these different aspects of his life, each one, one at a time, and then when the drugs came and he started to get better, he couldn’t flip a switch and suddenly be alive. He said he had to ‘undo the mourning’ of all the things he had been grieving and let go,” Ladin said. “It resonated with me…there had been so much loss, and now I had to ‘put it back. mourn’ to be alive.”

Despite this pain, Ladin says, writers must be motivated by the joy of writing.

“When you’re just starting to write something, try to feel as happy as a three-year-old finger painting,” Ladin said. “It’s that fun of the act of creation – that’s what I think keeps us going as writers.”

Ladin said she had a deep connection with Judaism growing up as the only devoutly religious member of her family. It became an important presence in his life and work.

“I was hanging out with God. God knew who I was, but God was also like me in some crucial ways. God had no body. No one else could see that God was there,” Ladin said. “When I started reading the Bible, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is a book about someone like me’ – someone who loves people and wants to be there for them, but they can’t. not see the person.”

In conclusion, Ladin offered words of wisdom for LGBTQ+ students at Pitt — to persist through tough times and learn from experiences.

“The most horrific times of my life gave me incredible gifts, but to get those gifts I had to survive them… Our feelings are ours – they are smaller than us. The goal is to live through them,” Ladin said. “The pain you survive opens you up to resonate with the pain someone else is going through… That feeling of otherness you have? It is a deep experience of being human.

Erik Schuckers, communications and programming manager at the Center for Creativity, said he hopes Joy Ladin at Pitt will help foster conversations about intersectionality.

“I think it’s really important to encourage cross-generational dialogue on campuses,” Schuckers said. “Our stories and experiences as queer people are often siloed by age, race, religion, socio-economic status.”

Susan Blackman, a 1977 Pitt graduate and “In Our Own Write” contestant, said Ladin represents the intersection of her queer and Jewish identities.

“She inspires me because I’m Jewish and I love to see how different sects of Judaism — including the Orthodox — have been able to come to terms with the differences between Jewish people,” Blackman said. “In particular, I am always struck that the Torah says that God created mankind in his image… In other words, there is no ‘evil’ since we are all created by God.”

Ladin’s story symbolizes an endless struggle for progress, Schuckers said.

“[Ladin’s] the struggle has helped open one more door for gay people, but it is essential to remember that open doors can be closed and progress is not guaranteed,” Shuckers said. “I think we have a sense of that now with the current wave of anti-queer legislation.”

Schuckers found one of Ladin’s poems particularly inspiring, encouraging the reader to embrace “reinvention” in the face of adversity.

“One of my favorite Joy Ladin poems is ‘survival guide.’ It speaks to the joy of invention, or reinvention, not downplaying the risks and discomfort that come with it, but affirming joy and power,” Schuckers said. “The title of the poem is dark and tragically appropriate for our times – the ‘survival’ of trans people is under attack almost everywhere – but the poem itself is a call to arms: “transform into / the real you / you can discover / only by being other.’ »

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