Off the Shelf: Major life changes by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The two memoirs seemed to have little in common at first glance. Yet, underlying the authors’ very different lives is a similar theme: the need to adjust to a major life change. In “Becoming Eve: My Journey From Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgendered Woman” (Seal Press), Abby Chava Stein discusses not only why she left Orthodox Judaism, but decided to transition to her true gender. Jason B. Rosenthal, who was blindsided when his wife, Amy Krause Rosenthal, died of ovarian cancer, writes about the difficulty of adjusting to the loss of his soulmate in “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me” (Harper).

Stein had the more unusual life journey, Although she knew from the time she was 4 that she was a girl inside a boy’s body, it quickly became clear she had to hide her feelings. Her wish to have a dollhouse and her preference for bright colors in a world where men and boys only wore black and white raised enough disapproval for her to know her desires were considered inappropriate. But that was not the only problem she faced: although born in 1992 in New York City, she lived in what she calls “an eighteenth-century Eastern European enclave in the heart of its capital, the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.” Adding to the pressure were family expectations. Since family lore said they were descendants of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, Stein was expected to become a rabbi and continue the dynasty after finding an appropriate wife.

Stein’s struggle with her gender led her to question Judaism and Jewish practice, something that is frowned on in her community. Even worse, she began to doubt God’s existence. Stein notes, “Questioning is basic human nature, and for most Jews around the world, it is a strong Jewish value, Not in the Hasidic community. My questions were met with disdain and anger, and shock. Asking these questions was just not done.” The questions about faith made sense in terms of her life, though: “If every authority in my life told me that I was a boy, and I knew I was a girl, how could I believe the rest of their claims? If they were wrong about my gender, they could be wrong about God, too.” 
Yet, Stein continued to study and follow the path her family outlined for her. That included becoming a rabbi and getting married. Her hope was that she would feel more content after marriage: she “thought that after I was married – and living with, sleeping with, and spending time with a ‘real’ girl – maybe all my feelings would magically go away. I hoped for that outcome with renewed intensity. I guess it was my own version of ‘praying the gay away,’ although it was more like ‘praying the girl away.’” Obviously, that didn’t work. It was not until the circumcision of Stein’s first child that she realized she could not continue. Using the Internet, Stein searched for “boy turn into girl” and expected to find nothing. To her great shock, she found the Hebrew Wikipedia page on transgender. (Stein notes that her English was almost nonexistent at the time so she could only read articles in Hebrew.) From there, she learned about organizations that helped Jews leaving the Hasidic community.

At first Stein rebelled against all Judaism, but then found her way back, although she now practices Judaism on her own terms. She still had some contact with her parents at first, but that ended when she informed her father that she was going to have surgery to become a woman. Yet, after going public on her blog about her life, Stein found herself inundated with love from those willing to accept all her feelings as natural. Unfortunately, she has also learned about what she calls the “uglier side of human nature” – messages of hate for Jews and for those who are transgendered. The final result, though, is positive: she notes that “I have seen more kindness than I ever expected in a lifetime, and I’ve learned more about the world, and identity, and faith, in these past few years than I could have imagined.” 

While Stein’s work ends on a positive note, Rosenthal tries to focus on the positive throughout his memoir, even when writing about the most difficult times. That’s because so much of his and Amy’s life together was wonderful. He sees his book as “an exploration of what it means to love, to lose, and to emerge from that loss somehow ready to be resilient in surprising and unexpected ways. It is the story of love and loss but also of appreciating the joy, beauty, and vitality of life. A story of how you come to the end of one part of your life and find a way to turn the page to the next.” 

That is an accurate description of Rosenthal’s memoir. He tells the story of his loving marriage and his wonderful extended family. Amy, who was a writer, supports him during his attempts to find meaningful work as a lawyer. Their children grow up with few problems and the last one is finally in college. Then disaster strikes: Amy is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and, although she fights hard to get well, the cancer is too far gone to stop. Then, just before Amy died, an essay she wrote appeared in The New York Times’ Modern Love column. Called “You May want to Marry My Husband,” she writes of her hope that Rosenthal will find love and happiness after she’s gone. Of course, this is far from easy. Rosenthal was devastated by his loss. It took him time to understand and overcome his grief, but, with the help of friends and family, he stays true to Amy’s desire that he continue to live his life as meaningfully and joyously as possible. 

“My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me” is beautifully written. Rosenthal noted in his introduction that his book was not going to be “a maudlin tale of death,” although it is sadder than he suggests. He does acknowledge how lucky he is, but some readers might have difficulty mirroring his actions to overcome grief in their own lives. For example, his healing included trips and concerts with his friends, something not everyone can afford. He talks about how hard it is to be a single parent, yet his youngest was in college when his wife died so he never had to juggle childcare concerns with work ones. There is also no mention of medical debts due to Amy’s time in the hospital nor complaints about the inability to afford aides so she could die at home. This is not really a complaint about the book, which is very well done and moving, but about deciding who might find it helpful.

“Becoming Eve” and “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me” are both life-affirming works. The authors’ stories – their ability to deal with major life changes – offer insights for those facing their own challenges. The memoirs also show how love in all forms can help one through the darkest times and shine more light during the greatest joys.