Transgender Professor Joy Ladin Faces Life Back at Yeshiva

By Rachel Ament

Originally published on Advocate.com September 18 2008 12:00 AM ET

A few years ago,
Jay Ladin found his mind constantly shifting toward the
subject of gender, and then one day, it got stuck there. The
obsession had turned into a physical illness. Ladin,
an English professor at the Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva
University’s Stern College, was having trouble
eating. He’d dropped a whopping 30 pounds and tossed
and turned throughout sleepless nights.

Jay Ladin knew he
wanted to become a woman but feared the havoc that
would be in store for his family and career.

Now Jay is Joy,
miles ahead of where she was two years ago when she told
Stern College administrators she was in the process of
becoming a woman. School officials immediately put her
on indefinite leave. Unfazed, Ladin’s lawyers
sent a letter to the school, and in one sharp snap, the
decision was revoked; Ladin could keep her tenure (she began
teaching at the school again two weeks ago for the
first time since her transformation).

The details of
the legal work have remained a mystery to the public and
even to Ladin, with an anonymous source stating that
“it remains unclear whether Stern faculty
members suddenly empathized with Ladin or if the
decision was completely legally motivated.”

Whatever the
case, heated protests could be heard everywhere from the
hallways of Stern College in New York City to rabbinic
powwows on the other side of the Atlantic.

“We are
dealing with someone who is severely psychologically
disturbed, and we should physically restrain him from
touching his body, the way we would an anorexic
teenager,” says Rabbi Moshe Tendler, senior dean of
Yeshiva’s rabbinical school. “Transsexuality
in the Torah is absolutely forbidden!”

Other reactions
have been milder.

“I
don’t understand this illness, but I don’t
think people need to react with such anger and
hate,” said a staff member who works in Stern's
administrative office. “Rabbi Moshe Tendler is a
scary man.”

School
administrators are doing their best, it would seem, to keep
their faculty quiet on the subject. When queried,
faculty members would provide only PR-tinged responses
about how they could not speak to the press, while
others would speak only on condition of anonymity.

Yeshiva University x100 | Advocate.com

A surprising
number of students were active supporters, sending Ladin
encouraging e-mail messages after they heard the news via
the grapevine. Many others appear to still be torn.
Jillian T. Weiss, a transgender Stern alum, commented
on the gay blog Queerty that she wishes Ladin the best
of luck but that she also “understands the financial
realities. I’m not sure whether I wish for
Professor Ladin to stay or be fired.”

On the domestic
front, Ladin faces yet another battle. Her wife filed for
divorce and custody of their three children (ages 14, 8, and
5) and has moved out of their Amherst, Mass., home.
Ladin and her wife settled an agreement that Ladin can
still see the children but must wear men’s
clothing. This has lessened the shock factor for the
children but has been “incredibly
difficult” for Ladin, says an anonymous
source.

According to
Ladin’s unfinished memoir, Inside Out:
Confessions of a Woman Caught in the Act of
Becoming,
she has yet to undergo
gender-reassignment surgery but is taking estrogen and
progesterone to grow breasts. The hormones have wreaked
havoc on her body temperature, however, causing abrupt
surges, then crashing falls. Ladin often feels sick
and feels weaker than she did as a man, since female
hormones soften muscle tone.

The journey has
been an emotional roller coaster for Ladin, resolving old
inner struggles while creating new ones. But working on the
memoir has helped, especially since she
couldn’t write about herself before the
transformation, since she “didn’t feel she had
a self to write about.” Ladin has also taken up
beading; the rote task of stringing beads on a thread
has had a way of assuaging nerves and “making a
pattern out of the chaotic,” says a source.

Though
Ladin’s transformation has been a lonely process,
there is a long list of other transgender cases in the
Jewish world, several within Orthodox communities.
Support groups for Jewish transgender people have
cropped up across the country, the most prominent being the
Boston-based Transgender Working Group, which welcomes
transgender people from all branches of Judaism. The
group hosts Havdallah nights, offers Torah study
groups, and has been pushing for a trans rights bill to give
trans people protection against discrimination in the
workforce.

Ladin is sure to
face a great deal of parochial bullying within the next
few months, but under all the rubble is a smidgen of support
here, a dash of good luck there.

Says Rabbi Or
Rosen of Hebrew College: “As a graduate of Yeshiva
University, I am proud that my alma mater has the good sense
and moral courage to retain this award-winning scholar
and teacher.”