The Journey
of Abby Stein

From ultra-Orthodox rabbi to a transgender woman who’s become a recognized activist

04 Jun 2020 | 03:05

By Khaya Himmelman

On a Thursday night in late February, onstage in the Jewish Museum’s auditorium, Abby Stein went off script.

Stein, 28, was there to discuss her memoir, “Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman,” and its relation to co-panelist’s Goldie Goldbloom’s fictionalized account of a Hasidic woman dealing with similar feelings of isolation.

Before moderator Stephanie Butnick of Tablet Magazine could read a question, Stein shot up from her chair. “I need a volunteer!” she said. “Someone preferably cisgender female and comfortable identifying as very straight!”

A young woman in black framed glasses stepped onto the stage, said her name was Rosie, and stood across from Stein.

“Okay, Rosie, tell me, how did you know you were straight?”

Rosie shrugged. “I just did.”

Stein continued. “Do you plan on coming out?” She didn’t wait for Rosie’s response.

“Maybe you just haven’t met the right woman yet?” she asked sing-song, eyebrows raised.

Finally, “Rosie, how do straight people have sex?” Stein paused and smiled, readying herself for the familiar reaction, laughter and applause.

Stein sat back down and addressed the crowd: “You see, I do this to tell people what you can and can’t ask a trans person,” she explained. “Think if you would ask the same thing to a straight person.”

Arranged Marriage

Stein, a former Hasidic rabbi from the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community in Williamsburg, came out as transgender in 2015. She’s thought to be the first openly transgender woman from a Hasidic community, a distinction she wears with pride.

Until 2011, Stein didn’t know English or what transgender meant. But she had felt she was a girl for as long as she could remember. At nine, she wrote a prayer in Yiddish, her primary language, pleading with God to turn her into a girl. She repeated it nightly, a way of never accepting that she was a boy.

At 19, Stein married an 18-year-old Hasidic woman, an arranged marriage. She was excited about it because she had wrongly thought marriage would rid her of gender dysmorphia, she said.

Although an ordained rabbi, Stein started becoming less religious after her marriage. She learned English on YouTube, then later enrolled in a program at Rockland Community College. At about this time in 2012, when their son was born, Stein came clean to her wife about her religious questioning.

Stein’s in-laws soon learned about the secular classes and religious changes and forced the couple to divorce, Stein said. She got a job at a marketing company, and with the support of Footsteps, an organization that helps people leaving ultra-Orthodox communities, earned a high school diploma. Later that year, she was accepted at Columbia, where she studied gender studies and political science. Stein came out a few years later, saying it was easier to come out after immersing herself into a secular community.

Though Stein says she doesn’t like being recognized, she also seems to embrace it. Seated at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights on a Tuesday night before coronavirus changed the city, Stein put down her glass of orange juice and finished an apricot pastry. She was eavesdropping on two young rabbinical students sitting next to her, discussing biblical sources.

“I couldn’t help myself,” she told them, “I was listening to you study.” The students said they recognized her and would be attending her event at the Jewish Museum. “Amazing!” she said.

Helping Producers of “Unorthodox”

Stein wants to create more trans awareness in Hasidic communities so that families like hers don’t abandon their trans members. She regularly gets messages on social media from Hasidim struggling with gender dysphoria, but finds herself at a loss when they ask how to be trans and remain in their community. Stein knows there is no solution; acceptance as a transgender Hasid is simply not an option.

According to Maya Balakirsky Katz, professor of Jewish art and history at Bar Ilan University, 18th-century Hasidism defined itself in reaction to preexisting models, and offered refuge to those who did not fit the mainstream. However, she said, Hasidism today is a mainstream religious movement that grapples with what it sees as threats from the outside. Balakirsky Katz says that Stein is actually in touch with earlier iterations of Hasidism.

Last summer while in Berlin for speaking engagements, Stein met the producers of the popular Netflix miniseries, “Unorthodox,” about a young woman leaving a Hasidic community. Stein was helping the cast with Yiddish expressions and pronunciations and then was asked to be an extra in an episode. The role required her to dress up as an ultra-Orthodox woman with a hair covering.

The last time Stein dressed like a Hasidic woman, as part of a costume, she felt traumatized. She said it made her think of how degrading the experience of being forced to cover your hair must feel. This time, though, she found the experience liberating. This was finally her choice, she said. “It was so freeing because I was doing it for a project I loved. I had come full circle.”

Stein’s bedroom in a shared uptown apartment is a testament to her achievements as a trans activist and deeply felt Jewish identity. At least 25 lanyards from events where she’s spoken hang on a hook over her door: Footsteps, The Jewish Week, Limmud Toronto, the Victory Institute. She’s still trying to figure out how to frame the articles about her from Vogue, InStyle and Glamour.

Stein readies herself for another public appearance: a podcast interview from a desk in her bedroom. Before joining the video call, Stein mists herself with perfume from a large plastic spray bottle. She shakes out her freshly blow-dried hair, tops it off with a generous spritz of hairspray.

Since coming out, Stein has had one goal. She actually wants the Hasidic community to be transphobic. If the community is transphobic, she said, that means there is a real understanding that trans people exist.

Thinking about her many public appearances, the support group she’s started for trans people from Orthodox backgrounds, her memoir, and the countless messages she gets from Hasidic people looking for guidance, Stein said, mission accomplished. When she came out, she hadn’t heard of anyone else in the community being trans. Transphobia at least acknowledges that trans people exist at all, even among Hasidism, she said.

And, that, for Stein, represents a big accomplishment.