December 11, 2019 Book review: ‘Becoming Eve’ by Abby Stein
Abby Stein’s new book, Becoming Eve, exemplifies the pitfalls of the genre of OTD memoir. Her story differentiates itself from others, because Abby also came out as a trans woman, so hers is a story of “two transitions.” Each of Abby’s transitions intensified the other, especially as they both happened in her early twenties, shortly after Abby’s arranged marriage and the birth of her son. But the dominant story is Abby’s chafing and rebelling against the Hasidic Williamsburg community. She rebels against the faith. She rebels against the teachers and school rules. She reads the forbidden books. She engages in a taboo sexual tryst with a yeshiva classmate. And she also recounts rebellion against the rigid gender norms and against expectations that she perform manhood—she refused to get her long hair shorn for payos when she turned three because she wanted long hair, and she had an angry argument with her father at the time of her bar mitzvah. Her dysphoria is but one of the various dissonances she has with this restrictive world. This all comes to a head when she leaves the Hasidic community to find the freedom to express her gender, beliefs, ambitions, choice, etc.
This is a story very familiar to me. I too left the Satmar Hasidic community for a degree of these freedoms, as have many others. The story of veering off a prescribed life, of leaving the arranged marriage and nuclear family to self-actualize in a secular world that approves of this journey, is the quintessential OTD tale. In this way, Becoming Eve is an OTD book first and a trans book second, and its faults are the kind I often take issue with within the OTD genre.
When someone leaves the Hasidic community as I did, they soon learn that their life stories fascinate others. We are still greenhorns when others start encouraging us to write a book. We are urged to get our bestseller out by casual acquaintances and strangers, by our super, gym receptionist, customer service rep, or anyone who picks up on our Yiddish-inflected accent and politely inquires if we ever had sex with a hole in the sheet (“Sorry, you don’t need to answer, but do you mind…is it true…did you?”). We are constantly advised, instructed, cajoled, informed, that we must promptly go tell our terrific stories, and that publishing is how we can get rich quickly. People gasp as we describe our arranged marriages and eek us on with encouraging oohs and ahhs when we divulge how many siblings we have; they wag a finger and ask why we haven’t written the book yet. We become keenly aware that some aspects of our lives—ordinary as they were among our childhood peers—now make us special. We learn that experiences that once made us feel awkward and ashamed in our Hasidic families, like divorce and broken family relationships, have become social, if not financial, currency in the secular world. We have a book within us without even needing to be writers. It’s the OTD story.
I don’t think OTD stories are problematic at face value. In fact, it is good to tell our stories, good to share, good to read. An introspective telling can remind us that we all have blind spots, unexamined beliefs, need for social approval, occasional herd mentality. I am also a sucker for a sappy personal growth story, and I will embrace a good one, if a little skeptically. But the problem with the off-the-derech narrative is that the secular world forces our varied and vast life experiences into a mold, a narrative arc. The narrative arc is this: We, the ex-Hasidim, were born into a world that suppressed our true selves, where we were engaged in bizarre ritual and eye-popping customs. Despite this, we were special, different from the rest, and we did not remain passive. We fought our way to freedom against all odds. In this story, our character is always self-determined, enlightened, searching, deliberate. We are one thing at first (a thinking agnostic woman in Abby’s case), and we only need the opportunity to express it. When we finally tear the costume off and reveal this core, we have chosen bravery over cowardice, freedom over passivity. We have done the right thing, which all others who stayed behind did not do, because they are too cultishly stupid. Our stories end on an uplifting note with some prized new experiences previously forbidden, like college, McDonald’s and ill-fitted jeans.
Notice how we’re all the only agents of action directing the course of events. The language is “we leave,” or “we become,” we “went OTD,” and “we stopped believing.” It is never “we were pushed out,” or “we couldn’t find our place,” or “we were told we are no longer one of the group,” or “we had a falling out with a business partner or an affair that created a lot of wounds.” The natural interpersonal issues, rifts, instability, personality clashes, our own mess-ups and indulgences, or our appetite for greener grass, none of those are mentioned.
This story is far from the version Hasidim tell about us, which is often more complicated by bad ingredients like nasty gossip and schadenfreude, but which also includes more honest aspects, like family feuds and individual bad actors. For instance, I tell myself a narrative that somewhat indulges these tropes, but my mother would tell you a very different story. She recently surprised me when she told me quite angrily that my mother-in-law, called a shvigger, was the reason I left. “She ruined your life, your shvigger. She ruined it. All because of her…”
Did I leave, or did my mother-in-law make me? I would not compliment my former mother-in-law with so much power or with pronouncing my life ruined—it is very decidedly not, even if it is nothing I’d foreseen for myself. But there is probably some truth to my mother’s version—after all, the evil mother-in-law from hell was a real nightmare I once dealt with. The friction that existed between her and me was like many of messy sub-plots (or main plots) that are inevitable in our lives.
The petty dramas and the fights that break out over whose challah recipe we might use will never play a real part in our OTD “bestsellers,” because these parts don’t fit the arc. No chatty beautician has ever listened to me tell of the wedge my mother-in-law drove into my marriage, and exclaimed, “You must write a book! My, that’s crazy, unbelievable, you gotta write a book!” Readers don’t necessarily want to hear what shaped me, only the life events that fit together to make a coming-of-age story, and perhaps elements that sound foreign or strange to them. They are flattered to hear that their lifestyle and values are worth the steepest sacrifices of the closest relationships in our lives. I deeply dislike books that indulge the audience on this. Such books are not enriching, and we don’t learn to have empathy for people different from us. They might tell a “true story,” but true only in the factual sense, not in terms of personal honesty.
Abby Stein’s memoir has many moments of candid, simple, sweet retelling, but for every page of straightforward memories, there is one that feels inorganic. She looks back, digging to find the moments that prophesied her trajectory. A precocious young child who was born premature and had some early health problems (a hernia at two), she remembers that she wanted a girl’s dollhouse after one of her surgeries, and tells us that this proves her future. When she turned three, she cried and resisted the traditional boy’s haircut, here also, we are told, because of how it conflicted with her true self. And as soon as she was a teen, she began questioning the faith. “I had no faith in anything I was told. If they were wrong about my gender, they could be wrong about God, too,” she writes. “I noticed these disconnects everywhere. I found them in every step.” The book tells us that the adult Abby was there all along, from the earliest age, only waiting to break free. The reader is almost relieved not to hear some anecdote about her crying during her circumcision, at eight days old, to revolt against archaic faith and gender pronouncements.
At age 13, Abby demanded answers to very big questions like, “Who said there is really a God? Who said Judaism is the right religion? Who said Hasidic Judaism is the right way to be Jewish? Do we even have souls?” Yet her questions were, “met with disdain and anger, and shock.” Abby adheres to the genre in imagining herself an exception. Only she was different: “I didn’t know any other teenagers who questioned the existence of God, the ultimate truth of Judaism as the only true path to God, the fact that we were the chosen people, or even the authority of the sages.” And then, “Soon, One book led to the next, and to more after that, until I eventually came upon two books that became my favorite: Richard Dawkins The God Delusion and Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?” In tenth grade, her teacher cried, “heresy!” at her, because she dismissed the questions the class studies, because it was on something “insignificant written over eighteen hundred years old.”
The reader who is familiar with the linear “Enlightenment” journey (the God Delusion is a cliché here) must realize that this type of perfect knowledge into the world at a young age is not how human belief comes to be. We, humans, are notoriously flawed in our thinking and susceptible to confirmation bias and to fitting our reason to our personal needs. We believe stupid things despite the evidence, and even stupider things when we have no evidence. In fact, our confirmation bias leads us to imagine that there is one simple truth that the OTD person can find if they simply embark on a treasure hunt. Again, it flatters the secular reader by saying that the truth lies in the western narrative, that western beliefs are superior, correct. But in reality, western beliefs are evolving and are now shown to be far from above superstition, propaganda, blind faith.
At the end of the book, when Abby finally acts on these misgivings, Abby comes out to her father. The father seems perpetually well-meaning but out of his depth with her. Abby brings Rabbi David Ingber, rabbi of the hippy-ish synagogue Romemu, to meet with her father, and Rabbi Ingber breaks the news that Abby has begun her physical transformation. It’s never clear how much her father understands about what it means to be transgender, but no matter, the explanations offered to her father by Abby and the Rabbi would never make sense to a teacher in a Williamsburg Hasidic yeshiva. Abby never unpacks what it might mean to her father to be in this confusing position, or the effect of the transition had on her son, her ex-wife, etc. The end is supposed to be uplifting, but I was left with many questions about the peripheral characters.
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The real missed opportunity is that there is almost no exploration of how toxic a gender-segregated world can be to those who can’t conform to the rigid male and female dichotomies. A book by someone raised as a man among only men and then comes out as a woman is a perfect opportunity to take a close look. As a Hasidic girl, I never struggled with the gender roles in the acute ways Abby did, but I struggled, I struggled plenty. I was socialized to make myself feminine, small, uncomplicated. The term “tomboy” did not exist in my vocabulary; rather, my friends would tease me that I was a bochur, a teenage boy, and I thought I was a freak of nature, a deformed woman, not quite right where I was, but definitely not acceptable among men. I came to believe men were intelligent and confident, and that women were wise but busy with materialistic trivialities (all the latest fads all the time!). I did not feel like I was good at womanly things (I really would like to wear the same outfit every day, in the fashion of Steve Jobs or a Hasidic G&G suit—I’ll even sweat under a Hasidic shtreimel forever if that’s what it takes). There is an intense loneliness that accompanies the feeling that you are not a “proper” person of your sex. I had lots of girlfriends who loved me for all the ways I got myself in trouble, but I often worried that they were laughing at me, not with me. If I ever expressed interest in the talks or singing or rituals among the men, the men sent me away with disdain. I wanted to sleep in the sukkah like the boys; I wanted to do the thumb-dip over a Talmud like my brothers did; I wanted to be in on the drinking and dancing on Purim; I wanted to be able to scream at some protest for reasons I didn’t care about. I wanted to ride the Big Wheel bike down the steep driveway, but my floral dress, hemmed with frilly ruffles, caught on the wheels, and I untangled myself with utter horror as I realized the tear was so large, it could not be patched. Most of all, I hated how stupid I felt when men made their inside jokes and Talmud references and mocked our girlish ignorance. And while I thought I was the only weirdo who belonged neither here nor there, I know that many other men and women contorted themselves to conform.
Abby touches on the problems of extreme gender roles. She had few female relationships throughout her childhood and the primary characters in her story are her father, her male teachers, male classmates, even the famous Vizhnitzer Rebbe. She struggled with isolation and depression and had trouble making friends among boys. I wanted to hear so much more on that. I wanted to hear how her socialization made her life different from, say, a Yentl, who was raised as a female but cross-dresses to join the men. I know I was socialized to be female: to never sass back, to take up less space, to be uncomfortable with my body. But to be socialized among men, I am sure, would have completely changed me. It would have deprived me of the deep connections and many meaningful friendships that made me emotionally intelligent and at ease in the social world.
There is so much to consider about how our childhood contact with boys and girls shapes us. I also see now, as a parent of a teen in a coed NYC school, that coed childhoods have their own problems, especially as they hyper-sexualize kids. I look into the Hasidic world for a contrast so as to better understand what we gained and lose. I look to the experience of formerly Hasidic men, women, and especially those who had a view in both. But Abby Stein adds very meager insight.
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I want to see more OTD memoirs. I will read them. I will join the chorus and urge an insightful commentator to get writing. But I want a story that is more searching and reflective than the genre’s simplistic arc. My favorite example of a wonderful memoir (although it is not quite about leaving the Hasidic faith), is this year’s viral New Yorker story, “My Childhood in A Cult,” which tells of Guinevere Turner’s upbringing in the Lyman Family commune, which she reluctantly calls “a cult.” Turner’s experiences resonate with many of us from the Hasidic community—an ex-Chabad man wrote a letter to the New Yorker editor to say so much. But Turner’s story is not about a heroic escape; in fact, Turner was expelled from the cult unceremoniously when the Lymen lost jurisdiction of her and younger sister. The story, still, is riveting, thoughtful, enlightening.
Turner writes, “I’ve always been struck by the sensationalist and reductive way that sixties and seventies cults are portrayed in the media. In a nation fixated on individualism, cults and communes are easy objects of disdain,” Rather than adhere to a tired narrative, her story challenges us to look at our own assumptions and ask: As individuals, how well are we positioned to say which systems of belief are right or wrong? How can we use our own stories to create a meaningful, empathetic conversation among people of varying backgrounds? What are our own blind spots?