A text written for the 'Archiving Joy' project by Lu Williams about their trans great aunt, Joy. Book available here (free copies available)
אַ קורצ מעשהלע אויף טראַנסמיניקן ייִחוס בײַ חוה קאַרוואַכאַל
A short little story on transgender lineage by Hava Carvajal
As a trans person and as a Jew I search obsessively for yikhes, for a genealogy, something that ties me to a shared experience and places me in history. Another word for genealogy, perhaps one more useful, is a story. A story is something through which we can construct ourselves, because in retelling the past we strengthen ourselves in the present. A Jew gets up from the table with a knapsack on his back: “where are you going?” asks his children. “I am leaving Mitzrayim for the long journey across the desert” he responds, the same as he does every year. For yidn, our yikhes tends to be handed down in family anecdotes, stories, facts and dates. When a border was crossed, for what reason, who signed the ketubah, and so on. For queers this is not usually the case. We come to ourselves in secret in a private place, maybe alone or maybe not. We catch glimpses in euphemisms and through chance meetings in the streets. We have lived through oppression, violence, loss, l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation), and we have lost accordingly. We comb through photographs, watch films, read stories. We think to ourselves: “we surely are not the first, and G-d willing we surely will not be the last. Where are the others?”.
The desire for firstness is the oppositional reaction to the desire of the past. It is oppositional because it attempts to fulfil the same need from different points of view. The past is the thing which confers legitimacy onto the present: the narrative woven from the past is the scaffolding on which the present is built. When no past is found, when nothing can be prised from history, then we are left with the hollow prize of being the first. The first also confers legitimacy, but of a different and more fragile taste. It stakes a claim which requires recognition now, and so it ties itself historically to the nowness of a moment. It also comes without recourse to a past. This means that we can stumble around in the dark, accidentally destructive in our clumsiness. The first and most vital thing to do when destroying an identity is to deny it a past, because then you are pulling out the roots. A state bulldozing ancient groves of olive trees.
There is a superficial difference here: that the Jew is born and the queer is made. Or, perhaps, that the Jew is transferred Jewishness from the beginning and the queer must discover it. This narrative is not a helpful or true one. Often the Jew discovers their Jewishness later, through conversion or through uncovering previously lost or denied family history. Sometimes the queer can be born queer, through carers or communities committed to the end of the patriarchal family structure and to pushing off the normative heteropatriachy of the world.
Moses Maimonides was born in Spain in 1138 and, having fled total destruction, died in Egypt in 1204. He understood keenly what it meant to lose your past. I find a letter Moses Miamonides wrote to Ovadiah, a convert to Judaism, incredibly helpful. In a letter Ovadiah asks the RaMBaM if he is allowed to say “our G-d” when davening, since he is a convert and not born into Judaism. Perhaps it would be better to say “your G-d?”. Maimonides’ response is a radical opening of what it means to be a Jew:
Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike…whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace by with him. They are Abraham’s household, and he it is who converted them to righteousness.
By understanding what one is, our story is given to us. Maybe we can think of taking on transness in a similar way to the Maimonidean “taking on” of the yikhus of Jewish ancestors. A commitment to understanding ourselves as deserving of a history and as capable of taking on the responsibility of that history. The family is expanded to beyond our flesh-and-blood, beyond the weak and tricky ties of genetics and chances of fate. There is a great and old tapestry of which you are a part, a golden thread hanging down through history which ties us in bonds of solidarity and shared doikeyt (here-ness). We have found the story of ourselves, and more than this, by our existence we add to it.