Book review: ‘Becoming Eve’ by Abby Stein

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 manhoodshe 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 livesordinary as they were among our childhood peersnow 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 ruinedit is very decidedly not, even if it is nothing I’d foreseen for myself. But there is probably some truth to my mother’s versionafter 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.

* * *

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 suitI’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.

* * *

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 communityan 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?


Why I believe it’s Important to Criticize Shows like Unorthodox

How my childhood was like the Rockettes

What it is like to grow up in Kiryas Joel

Is the Hasidic Community a Cult?


  • Abby Goldsmith
    Posted at 02:35h, 20 May Reply

    I can see your point of view on this, although I gave the book 4 stars. I love de-conversion stories–not just Jewish ones, either–because every one is unique. And they are remarkable people, to dare to ask questions when questions are discouraged or forbidden. Those are people after my heart, that I can root for. I’d bet your story would fascinate me, too.

  • Lacey Stovall
    Posted at 01:00h, 20 March Reply

    Oh Frieda you really are an incredible writer with a brilliant mind. The way you describe not fitting the role and how that creates self doubt and suffering is so relatable. I hope that some of your writing is published beyond this blog. It needs to be.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 10:05h, 20 March Reply

      You are so so very kind my good Lacey. You made me look back at my cartoons, and that was a lot of fun memories!

  • Ch
    Posted at 17:39h, 29 March Reply

    Frieda, I’m curious how you would feel if your son, hypothetically, comes out as transgender?

  • Ch
    Posted at 21:56h, 30 March Reply

    Just finished listening to your interview with Sara Braun. Your last question answered my curiosity! It’s complex…
    Your a brilliant, honest, amazing person!

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 08:16h, 31 March Reply

      Thank you so much 🙂 You are very kind. Not sure where you were going with the transgender question – I was curious about that!

  • Ch
    Posted at 16:57h, 31 March Reply

    When you asked Sara if she would be upset if her kids goes otd. My question to you is would you accept if your child becomes transgender.

  • Gitty
    Posted at 17:29h, 23 April Reply

    This is really something. Your whole blog and outlook really but this piece seems to encapsulate it. I’m a frum Lakewood lady and I am blown away by your nuanced take on it all. I’m so sorry that you couldn’t find a place for yourself in the frum world!

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 18:01h, 23 April Reply

      Thanks for reading old posts on my blog – always surprises me when someone digs up old stuff. This is one of my favorite things I wrote because I feel like it gave voice to something I feel strongly.

  • Gitty
    Posted at 23:30h, 23 April Reply

    yes I have literally read probably 90% of your archives in the last 24 hours and I’m totally fascinated by your POV. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a gracious/honest/humanized reporting of a culture someone left

  • Gitty
    Posted at 23:42h, 23 April Reply

    Also coming from the background that I do, I’m so curious how Yeshivish Judaism would have hypothetically treated you had you been born into it. On the one hand the ladies here don’t shave their heads, drive, can have a career, don’t wear a hat on top of their shaitel, have more Hebrew academics in school (not gemara but yes tanach inside with meforshim). On the other hand, we’re still antifeminist, keep full nidda laws thru childbirth and all, are plenty conformist with unspoken rules and in general do place our yiddishkeit as primary in our lives. Plus we support our husbands in kollel which is its own thing. It’s not super practical but I’m so curious for your take. Oh and I also 100% see what you are talking about where our community looks down at ex chassidim and I agree with you that it’s terrible.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 08:00h, 24 April Reply

      That’s very interesting – no one ever brought it up to me, and I never thought much about yeshivish; that’s probably the Satmar bias in me. I did always think very negatively of women “doing it all”, working while men learned, and recently my mother and I talked about it and we both were critical of it (some of our more modern cousins want learning boys and we have a hard time understanding it) and my mother kind of whistfully said – you know, the men who learn they are able to be more family men. They are not as haggard by the world of business. It made me pause. But generally, I can’t wrap my head around men being in kollel. I do think it’s interesting to consider how much more of a sense of developed religious understanding yeshivish women have.

  • Gitty
    Posted at 09:53h, 24 April Reply

    Yeah that’s all super interesting! On the one hand we definitely work hard with earning money and also raising a family. But there is fulfillment in a career and I think it’s easier in a way to not be home all day. And the kollel fathers are definitely very hands on, taking care of the kids and so on. It’s easy to think sometimes that chassidish ladies have it easier, not being responsible for money coming in and going to kimpeterin homes after each baby. In general I do think Chassidim live with more affluence although it obviously varies family to family. Another thing also that I meant to say is the yeshivish rabbanim are also totally on board with birth control between kids. The more yeshivish don’t go on birth control but they could if they want to. Another interesting difference is that there is no central oversight in Lakewood. Everyone can kind of do as they please. They might not get the kids into the schools they wanted to if they’re more modern but there will always be a jewish school in Lakewood for them.

  • Gitty
    Posted at 10:05h, 24 April Reply

    And more stuff because this cultural comparison is so fascinating to me. we learn Jewish history more organized and chronological than what you describe, my mother actually wrote an (unpublished) timeline kind of Jewish history book and we had these Jewish history coffee table books in the house. I’m surprised there isn’t a Yiddish equivalent! Also I noticed how your Yiddish is so fluent (I know like a few words in Yiddish but that’s it) but you weren’t sure what bedikas toalim (checking for bugs) and hilchos melicha (salting/kashering chickens) meant and that you didn’t remember Koheles and Mishlei at all so that was very interesting to me. It sounds like you learned Yiddish with very little Hebrew, is that correct? I would love to hear more

  • Gitty
    Posted at 10:14h, 24 April Reply

    And even more to add (lol), it’s so interesting to me how the the litvish and hardcore chassidish worlds are so separate. I have very chassidish belzer cousins in Eretz Yisroel. One of them moved to America (Boro park) temporarily for medical reasons. We went to visit them on Chanukah and it was a whole different world especially for my kids. My cousin wears a shpitzel with a piece of fabric in the front and the next morning before I got dressed, my snood was a little pushed back and my four year old asked me if I was wearing my snood like cousin Malky was wearing hers yesterday!

  • Gitty
    Posted at 11:18h, 24 April Reply

    And even more to add regarding kollel specifically. To me it’s like investing in anything else that’s important to you. if it’s a priority for you to have a home where your husband is learning most of the day it’s not such a big deal to work and make do with less. The kollel husbands by and large are very available and helpful and money comes in from stipends and government programs. Speaking from personal experience, my husband learned for 7 years and then started working. My life isn’t too different now from when he was learning. My husband is a bit less available and he brings in a bit more. That’s how it is for us! In general I do think that the stereotype of the overwhelmed shmata of a lady that does everything so her husband can learn is largely a myth. Everyone does what they can, based on their priorities and resources…

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 08:52h, 25 April Reply

      Yeah, I think the overwhelmed shmata lady stereotype is even prevalent among Chasidim, definitely in the wider world (in a different way). I find it interesting that my cousins with learning men seem to still go out for mochas more than my Chasidish sisters.

      What is the general yeshivish attitude towards Chasidim? I find this discussion really interesting.

      I do have huge gaps in knowledge, especially of Hebrew, in part because girls learn little Hebrew, in part because I daydreamed through all the Yiddish classes. It really didn’t interest me. I have some Chasidish friends who know more Hebrew than me. If I need to know something, I first usually ask my female friend – if she doesn’t know, I ask men. She usually doesn’t know, but she definitely knows a lot more than me. There are big gaps in many women’s knowledge. I’ve been told by several women in Williamsburg when I approach them during certain street rituals (like kapores) “don’t ask me, I’m just a woman, ask a man.” The woman excuse themselves from even needing to know religious significance, Hebrew and so on, and I think many many don’t care that they don’t know.

  • Gitty
    Posted at 15:13h, 25 April Reply

    I find this discussion super interesting too! we should do like a blog post together or something. I would say the attitude of the super litvish is something like respect mixed with a sense of superiority with maybe a drop of a complex too. They feel that chassidus was created as a kind of bedieved (last resort) for the poor Russian Jews that couldn’t learn on an advanced level. They respect Chassidim for how they adhere to their mesorah and for how prominent their yiddishkeit is in their lives but they do feel like a lot of it is superficial. Like it’s more important to dress just so than to be makpid on zmanei tefilla (prayer times) for example. Then they have a bit of a complex that chassidim think that they’re more frum than the litvish when the litvish feel that they’re more frum… Stuff like that.

  • Gitty
    Posted at 15:36h, 25 April Reply

    It’s also so interesting how you write how many chassidish ladies don’t really care to know more about why they do what they do when at the same time they definitely care about doing what they do! Like I’m sure these ladies would all be horrified to consider skipping doing kaparos! It sounds they don’t need explanations, knowing that they’re doing a mitzva and what Hashem wants them to do is enough for them, what do you think?

    For me if someone asked me why we do kapparos, it would probably be hard to answer on the spot, especially to someone without any background knowledge in Judaism. I would need to think for a minute and would probably come up with something like, before Yom Kippur we do teshuva to atone for our sins and ask God to transfer our sins to this chicken and punish the chicken instead of punishing us. But I’m not sure how much sense that would make to someone without background knowledge…

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 10:51h, 26 April Reply

      I think ‘minhag yisroel torah hu’ is a very big part of why explanations aren’t really needed. There’s a deep appreciation that tradition, even if not Torah itself, is a safeguard to keep the Torah alive, so tradition could sometimes not make sense, come from completely strange places (like ancient customs, fashions in Europe, etc) but having become minhag, they are sacred in and of themselves. Just like with Jewish music which pretty much everyone knows often is based off secular music from Europe but has been “sanctified” and become minhag.

      I also think that many people would have a hard time explaining their own world to outsiders. This is universal. It takes understanding what outsiders know and how they grasp your world in order to describe it.

  • Gitty
    Posted at 16:08h, 26 April Reply

    No absolutely not. I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this lol but my husband’s Rosh Yeshiva told him (in private, upon being asked) that Chabad is not part of Klal Yisrael. My father went into a shul in crown heights a few years ago and there was a big sign on the wall, “Yechi Adonaini Melech HaMashiach”. He walked right out, he wouldn’t daven there. So that’s kind of that, from my perspective.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 16:10h, 26 April Reply

      Privately I’ve heard similar sentiments from some chasidim. Interestingly, now with many Chasidim traveling so much for work (especially to Asia to import) there’s been more of a need for Chabad shtibelech and perhaps a softening. Also, many chabadniks are not moshiachisten. I do find that quite a few Chasidim online who share content share on chabad equally to other sects.

  • Gitty
    Posted at 16:16h, 26 April Reply

    So that, I think, brings us to one of the core differences between the Chassidim and the litvish. We don’t disregard legitimate minhagim at all but there is more of an understanding I think of where they come from and why we do what we do. My husband says a story from R Yeruchem Levovitz, mashgiach in the Mir. There was a time that he couldn’t stand with his feet together by shmoneh esrei due to some medical issue. The American boys continued to stand with their feet together but the European boys copied R’ Yeruchem. R’ Yeruchem gave it to them! “What am I, a Rebbe, that you’re copying my every move without knowing why I’m doing it!” And it’s interesting cuz this story has nothing to do with gender it’s more about the differences between the Chassidim and the Litvish in general.

  • Gitty
    Posted at 16:18h, 26 April Reply

    I’m not sure what you mean by the last sentence?

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