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Shekhinah Speaks: Joy Ladin And Liora Ostroff
Episode 66th May 2022 • Disloyal • Jewish Museum of Maryland
00:00:00 00:35:51

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"G-d for me was of my first model of an out and proud queer person, and a queer person who insisted that the entire community, really the entire world, change themselves to deal with G-d on G-d's own terms. And that's really the core of what became my approach to trans theology."

-Joy Ladin

We discuss poetry and trans theology with one of the artists featured in A Fence Around The Torah, poet Joy Ladin.

Joy Ladin is the author of many books, including her memoir of gender transition, National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life, and the Lambda Literary and Triangle Award finalist The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. Her most recent book is Shekhinah Speaks from selva oscura press.

Liora Ostroff is a painter and curator-in-residence at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.


Joy Ladin: God for me was of my first model of an out and proud queer person, and a queer person who insisted that the entire community, really the entire world, change themselves to deal with God on God's own terms. And that's really the core of what became my approach to trans theology.

Mark Gunnery: Welcome to Disloyal, a podcast from the Jewish Museum of Maryland. I'm your host, Mark Gunnery. Today on the show we're continuing our series on a Fence Around the Torah, the Jewish Museum of Maryland's latest contemporary art exhibit. It explores how Jewish communities navigate the concepts of safety and unsafety and traditional contemporary and futuristic ways. I'm speaking with the artist and curators who made the exhibit possible. You can experience the art from this exhibit at And today I'm speaking with a poet whose work is featured in the show, Joy Ladin.

Joy Ladin has long worked at the intersection of literature, Judaism and transgender identity. She's the author of 11 books, including her memoir of gender transition, National Jewish Book Award finalists through the door of life, and the Lambda Literary and Triangle Award finalist, The Soul of the Stranger, Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, and nine books of poetry. She's also a teacher, literary scholar and essayist. Joy Ladin, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Joy Ladin: Thanks so much, Mark. It's really wonderful to be here.

Mark Gunnery: And of course we've also got Liora Ostroff. Liora Ostroff is curator in residence here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, where she curated A Fence Around the Torah. She's a painter whose work explores themes like queerness, Jewishness, violence, and the idiosyncrasies of life in Baltimore. Liora, thank you so much for joining us.

Liora Ostroff: Thank you for having me, Mark.

Mark Gunnery: To get started, Joy, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your poetry?

Joy Ladin: Well, I started writing poetry, or things that I thought of as poetry, as soon as I learned how to write. And I don't know why my family wasn't literary and I don't think had any books of poetry around, I just was drawn to it. And so when I was growing up, I had three things that I knew about myself, and I guess I would call them identities because there were ways that I identified myself. One of them was being Jewish. That was something that mattered a lot to my mother, not so much to my father, but I was taught consistently to think of myself as Jewish and not given very much information about what thinking about that meant other than feeling bad about the Holocaust. It was pretty vague because the family wasn't religious.

And so I filled in the blanks of what it meant to be Jewish in ways that made sense to me. But in general, being Jewish was a minority identity that connected me to other people, and it connected me to a culture and a past. And it also connected me to a future because really, I felt like all the time I was hearing subtle and not so subtle messages about the need to have Jewish children and to continue Judaism and Jewishness into the future.

And I also identified myself as a poet, even though I really didn't know what that meant, because I didn't know anything about poetry and didn't know any other poets. I thought of myself as the greatest poet in the world from about the age of six. And I was not, as I grew up and had to learn about other poets, I have to say I was not at all happy to think of myself as not the only poet in the world or not the only poet who mattered. I was very grudging letting go of that because when I wrote poetry, that was the only time that I felt really alive, that I felt like I was doing something that where I wasn't compromised by dissociation for my body or disidentification from my social identity. When I wrote I was in a place where I could just be all of myself and it always felt great.

My family didn't understand that identity, because they didn't understand, they weren't into poetry. But they didn't interfere with it either. And then the third was that although I didn't have a a word like transgender and didn't know there were other people like me, and as long as I can remember knowing I was Jewish, I also had a sense of female gender identification is what I would call it now. And I knew that that was something that was deeply important to me and something I was willing to ... It was incredibly painful to have this conflict between who I felt like I was inside of my body and my social identity, but unlike some trans kids, I never tried to give it up or wanted to give it up or lose it. That was like a core self for me. But it was a core sense of self that seemed to cut me off from everybody else.

It was like the opposite of a Jewish identity. It was a minority identity that didn't connect me to anyone else. It didn't connect me to a past and it sure didn't connect me to a future. And whereas my family was supportive and celebratory and insistent about my being Jewish, I was quite sure that they would be exactly the opposite if I ever revealed what I would call my trans identity. So I had those three things. I wouldn't say I was working at the intersection of them. I'm not sure I was really working, but I also didn't see them as intersecting at that point. They were just all ways that I was, ways that I knew myself. And I wouldn't let go of any one of them. And as I grew up, I focused my engagement with each of them got much richer and I started using one to understand or explore the other.

So my sense of Jewishness was profoundly shaped by being trans, which on the one hand, it kept me from dying, from killing myself. It was a way of being connected to other people and a way of being outwardly true to myself. And it connected me to a religious tradition that I reinterpreted as being all about a God who like me, didn't fit into human categories. So transness and Jewishness started informing one another, probably by the time before I was an adolescent. And in my teens, I would surreptitiously write poems about being trans and then not show them to people. And they were terrible by the way. But from the time I was in grade school, I would write poems that I thought of as Jewish poems. And this is how narcissistic I was.

I worried that poems that were explicitly Jewish, that would use the word Torah for example, or were about the Holocaust. Those felt great because I felt like I was drawing on a long tradition and that the words and images I was using had a lot more resonance than stuff I made up for myself. But I worried that the people around me wouldn't understand it, as though I had an audience to lose. And so I did a lot of thinking about questions that minority artists think about all the time, which is how do you represent your experience as a minority? What do you do with it? Are you writing? Who are you writing to? Who are you writing for? And what compromises are you willing to make in the representations?

Do you translate words, for example, from other languages or do you use them in their originals? And so even as a kid, because I had such an inflated opinion of myself, I found myself thinking about these things. And later when I did start living my trans identity and writing as a trans poet, I found that I was accustomed to thinking about these kinds of problems that I had as a trans poet, because of the practice that I had as a Jewish poet.

Mark Gunnery: Can you speak a little bit more about this intersection of Jewishness and transness? Because a few years ago you wrote the book, The Soul of the Stranger, Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, where you wrote about how our understanding of God and the Torah can be enriched by reading them through transgender perspectives, and how the Torah and trans lives can illuminate one another. Can you speak a little bit more about your interpretation and understanding of trans theology and how it relates to your work?

Joy Ladin: Yeah, thank you. That is a great question. So that project grew out of the experiences that I was just referring to, of being taught that being Jewish was very important, but not being taught very much about what being Jewish meant, which gave me a lot of freedom to create the kind of Jewishness or relation to Judaism that I needed, because I was sort of naturally religious, and just the way I started writing poetry as soon as I started using language, even without knowing what it was. I don't remember a time when I didn't have a sense of God's presence in talking to God. And I've talked with a lot of trans and queer people who also report these experiences as children. And I think there's a lot of evidence to suggest that this is normal. It's unusual to have a culture like secular American culture that denigrates spiritual experiences and perceptions.

Most cultures recognize them and they build interpretations and religions on them. And they're very different. If I'd grown up in Haiti in the Voodoo religion, I would've interpreted whatever was happening to me in a completely different kind of way, but I don't think it was anything special about me that I had a sense of what I thought of as God being there with me. And because the encounters with God were linked to my isolation as a trans person, which is another thing I think is common for trans and queer kids. When they talk about these experiences, they often talk about them as arising because they're so isolated from other people and so stranded in these social identities that don't reflect all of who they are, that God is the only person they have to talk to, who they feel really knows them.

And when you're very small, you think God is also the person who is responsible for making you what you are and is responsible for your suffering. I guess that's not only a kid's thing. We keep clutching to God all our lives. So the sense of isolation from other people, I think, heightens the relationship and awareness of God, because when you're not isolated from other people, God is a pretty boring playmate for a kid. God doesn't do any fun things. So you have to be pretty lonely in order to want to have a whole lot of interactions with God.

So my transness was interacting with my religiousness in a way. And then when I started reading the Torah, which again, I started doing pretty young and I liked it. That's when transness and Jewishness started fusing for me because as soon as I started reading it, I felt a sense of recognition. I felt like this was a book about somebody like me, that God was also somebody who didn't fit into human categories and who couldn't be seen by the people that God was living with and loving.

I think I was also pretty into the fact that God, like me, was angry at people for not being aware of God and constantly failing. The people that God loved constantly failed to recognize God back. So on the one hand, God is at the center of Israelite community. And on the other hand, God is the only one in that community who nobody has a clue about how to treat or deal with. And I liked the fact that God dealt with that anger not the way I did, by becoming suicidally depressed, thinking about killing myself, but by getting, I guess, genocidally angry. God never feels suicidal in the Torah. When God gets angry, God makes it other people's problem. And I was too afraid to do that.

So God for me was of my first model of an out and proud queer person, and a queer person who insisted that the entire community, really the entire world, change themselves to deal with God on God's own terms. And that's really the core of what became my approach to trans theology. So it grew out of this intersection of being transgender and having religious experience and reading the Torah. But as I wrote the book, and since then, when I've been teaching about it, I've realized that the key for me to trans theology isn't that being transgender can give you this kind of unique perspective, although it can. Any way of being human gives you insights into the Torah and divinity, as far as I'm concerned. It's that being transgender helped me, really forced me to recognize what I now would call trans experience, which is the fact that nobody ever fits the categories and roles that we use to identify ourselves to others.

We're all too messy to really fit in them. In fact, that's why we have these categories and roles. Why not just have names and each of us be individual? Well, the reason is it's hard to build relationships with people that you can't generalize about. You can't oh, Mark. He's the one to talk to if you want to do blah, blah, blah. Or, well, don't say that to Mark. Such and such kind of person, he doesn't have any truck with that. So we use these roles and categories, even though they don't fit us perfectly, we use them to stabilize our relationships with one another. But that means that everybody has trans experiences because none of us actually perfectly fit these roles and categories. And so when I was reading the Torah, what I was recognizing were all of these places where the Torah makes use of the mismatch between who people are supposed to be and who they potentially can be.

That's for example, what God does. If this weren't true, if people were exactly who we're born to be, then God would never have bothered talking to Abraham in the first place, because God would've said, well, Abraham, first born son of somebody in this culture can't do anything except what firstborn children in those cultures are supposed to do. This guy will never abandon his elderly parent and come after me to the wilderness. So in the Torah, often you find God counting on the fact that human beings are always more and can always be other than our assigned roles and identities. That's really what the Torah identifies as the basis of the divine human relationship. And later that gets confused because with all of the sacred laws and social norms that come in the later books of the Torah, that creates the idea that normativity is really what God is after.

But that normativity is only sacred because it's not natural to what people do. You notice God doesn't say, "All you have to do to worship me is breathe." Every time you breathe, you'll be worshiping God, why not do that? That would guarantee 100% faithfulness in the human race. But God doesn't do that, because everybody is going to breathe, so there's nothing special about it. The reason that God, and I don't think this is necessarily a great choice, for God or for people, but God chooses sacred normativity in all of these laws and rules as a sign of human relationship with God, precisely because people are not naturally normative. We have choices, so that when we choose to follow these things, it has significance because we can be otherwise.

Mark Gunnery: I'm going to turn to Liora. Liora, you are featuring Joy Ladin's poetry in the Queer Life section of A Fence Around the Torah. First, what were the questions you were trying to ask with the Queer Life section and how do you see Joy's poetry responding to them?

Liora Ostroff: I think one implicit question is what are the different types of safety besides physical danger? We're also discussing emotional and psychological and safety and safety as a sense of secure belonging. One of the central questions in this section is how does unsafety and exclusion affect personal relationships with Judaism and Jewish community. And another is how do we imagine the Jewish future and safety for marginalized people. And I think that both of the artists featured in this section, Joy and Nicki Green, approached these questions from a place of strength and resilience. Joy's poetry describes both pain and empowerment, the fear of cruelty and violence, and the psychological safety of shame or self-loathing. And when I read Ready and Changing the Subject, I read them as describing relationships with family and of struggling just with being seen.

Mark Gunnery: I'm wondering if we can hear Ready? Joy, would you mind reading us that poem, Ready, which is one of the two poems that you submitted that are featured in this exhibit?

Joy Ladin: Absolutely. And this is from a book called Shekhinah Speaks, and all of the poems are in the voice of the Shekhinah, the Jewish mysticisms name for the female aspect of divinity. And they're all addressed to a you, who for the Shekhinah means each of us, it's an individual you. But she basically sees all people as similar, so she has one you, but she's talking to each of us individually. And she can do that because the Shekhinah is the imminent aspect of God. So not the transcendent aspect that's over everything and running the universe and somewhere in the higher spheres, but the aspect of God that is with each of us individually, who feels what we feel and suffers what we suffer. So everything that's going on in us, the Shekhinah knows. And this is an idea that I didn't make this up.

This is in Jewish tradition, that when there's a wedding, the Shekhinah is there dancing. And when there's a shiva, the Shekhinah is there weeping, the Shekhinah goes into exile with Israel. So the Shekhinah is the part of God that knows humanity inside out and has no choice but to know us inside out. So these were poems that we're trying not to act like the Shekhinah, sort of put on a Shekhinah mask. They're trying to actually turn poetry over to this divinity and to do that, I created language that wasn't mine. I made these poems by mixing words from two totally different texts. One, a chapter of Isaiah that includes the line, Fear not, I am the one who helps you. And the other, a Cosmopolitan article, in this case a very good article, I recommend it, called Seven Empowering Life Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So by mixing words from these totally different texts together, my hope is that it's really the Shekhinah and not just me who is speaking to each of us.

Ready. Are you ready to be strong? Are you ready to follow me beyond the fear that warns you to hold your tongue? When cruelty and hopelessness, degradation and evil stab you through the heart. Fear likes you this way. Self-loathing and numb, believing you're no one I'd ever choose, a warm in a tunnel, dust in a gale, a nameless pool of blood I could never love. I summon them all to judgment, the fears that stalk you to the ends of the earth, the shame and disgrace that nails you in your place, everything that gets in the way of you responding when I say, don't be afraid, don't be afraid. I was here before fear, and I'm there beyond it. Opening fountains, trampling kings underfoot, calling you to me of cross generations by paths you haven't walked, by ways you cannot imagine. I'm the mother who really sees, the father who understands you, every version, real and imagined, future and past, cypress and desert, queer fluid light, thresher of mountains, solitary pine. You have nothing to fear and nothing to prove. Are you ready to be strong? Time to remake the world.

Mark Gunnery: That last line, time to remake the world. Can you speak to the use of poetry to fuel social change?

Joy Ladin: Yes, but not as somebody who feels successful in using poetry to fuel social change. When I was a kid, it seemed very clear to me that because language was the way that we experience everything and the way we understand everything, that if you can change the language that people use to understand, then you automatically change the world. I think what I was imagining was that poetry would always become an instant meme and go viral. And there are examples of wildly familiar poems that have tremendous influence.

But when I was in my twenties and having not changed the world near as I could tell with my poetry or even gotten it published very often, I became a student, I guess I would say, of W.H. Auden. I really looked up to his work and he was a poet who in the thirties had such a position of esteem in Britain that people would write to him and say, "Oh, I read this poem of yours, and now I'm going to go off and fight in the Spanish civil war." And he was horrified because he didn't feel qualified to do that. And he was upset because he knew that what made his poetry great was the sort of vague suggestiveness of it.

So people were thinking that he was telling them to do things, and actually he had no idea what they were reading into his poetry. So he decided to come to America because in America, nobody cares about poetry and nobody would ever go off to war because they read a poem that told them to. That's a bit of an exaggeration, and I think that there are ways that poetry can be a part of social change movements that's very meaningful. But I think that the most direct thing is when poems and poets are part of movements so that they are responding to and speaking back to. Adrienne Rich is a great example of this.

When she came out and became a leading lesbian feminist, she was explicitly writing poems that addressed the concerns of lesbian feminists and the lives of lesbian feminists. And she knew that she was being read by people who would read their own lives through her poetry, because she was part of that movement. She wasn't off in an ivory tower or a Citadel. She was with folks, she was on the front lines. I've never done that. The other way that poetry can change the world is just by offering language to individual readers and saying, here it is, you can take this language and you can use it as a way to change your own way of understanding the world. That's what the Shekhinah is trying to do when she says, are you ready to be strong, time to remake the world.

She's hoping that each of us is going to say "Wow, you've offered me a vision of my own strength, and you've immediately connected it to a vision of my responsibility for this reality. You're not letting me off the hook, but you're also empowering me. And you're saying that vision of strength, that I don't have to be on my own, no matter how isolated I feel, all these terrible ways that she says, I know you feel this way and that way. She's also saying, if you hang with me, I know you feel like nothing, but if you hang with me, I will help you recognize your own strengths. I'll help you get beyond your fears. And I'll help you confront the question of what's your part in remaking this world.

Mark Gunnery: Liora, as a queer artist yourself, how do you imagine as you put it, quote the Jewish future and safety for marginalized bodies and voices end quote.

Liora Ostroff: I think that everyone will imagine this differently, but I imagine three main things. Disrupting expectations, taking up way more space, and with regards to queer and trans life, centering the experiences and truths of queer and trans individuals to go into more detail. A lot of the unsafety is created by presumptions and by expectations. And people need to feel safe changing their self-expression and feeling free and at home, both with themselves and with their outward expressions.

I think we need to think about the practices that communities create for queer individuals and the extent to which those practices exist to placate non-queer people, rather than uplift or honor our identities. And this issue isn't specific to Jewish communities. I think that mainstream narratives around inclusion and acceptance continue to otherize queer and trans people by reinforcing gender and sexual conventions and expectations. And Jewish communities have a specific set of conventions to challenge, for instance, in prayer and ritual and in how we construct our communal life. And artists can help us to imagine more specifically how to defy those conventions by queering ritual and ritual objects and rewriting liturgy and refocusing these narratives.

Mark Gunnery: Joy. I wonder if you have thoughts about this, if, if you have thoughts about what a more just future for queers and trans people and Jewish community could look like.

Joy Ladin: The Shekhinah, as in some of the poems, the Shekhinah talks about justice, and I always get very uncomfortable. I think probably that's because I spent so much of my life in hiding. I was terrified of being who I was. So when Liora says, take up space and disrupt conventions, I'm like, there's some part of me is still that terrified child, who's sure that bad things will happen if we do that. My wish, and I think that this is the subversive or sneaky, subversive is a fancy word for it, it's a more sneaky idea behind the trans theology work and some of the other writings that I've done about Jewish tradition, is that by emphasizing not the queerness of trans people and trans non-binary experience, but by emphasizing the aspects of our lives that highlight aspects of everyone's lives, that sneakily centers queer and trans and non-binary lives. It says, yeah, look at these lives, because when you do, you'll be looking at yourself.

So I have a lot less faith in justice as things that communities are able to achieve. I think that's why the Torah has justice, justice you shall pursue. There's that famous commentary that says it's repeated, because you'll never catch it. You just have to keep running. But I have boundless faith in people's narcissism, and maybe I'm projecting here because of my own boundless narcissism, but I feel like if I can convince people that by understanding trans and non-binary lives, they're learning more about their own humanity and they'll be able to expand their own sense of what it means to be human or what it means to be Jewish. That I believe, it just feels like a more likely way of transforming communities. And when we talk about inclusion and I think, although I'm not sure, so correct me if I'm misrepresenting you, Liora.

But when Liora was saying ways of talking about inclusion that replicate the idea that we're including people who are other. Real inclusion is recognizing difference as part of sameness, not in opposition to sameness. So I had an example in my family when I grew up. My sister is the only blue eyed member of our family and my mother endlessly would tease her about it. So of course I teased her about it also, like who wouldn't. But she was clearly upset by it. But when I go to Jewish communities, I don't see Jewish communities saying, we want to especially welcome our blue eyed members. We want blue eyed members to know that actually on Tuesday, we're having somebody with blue eyes, who's going to be speaking to our congregation about how the world looks through blue eyes.

I don't mean to mock these things. These are important steps congregations should want to know. But the reason that sounds absurd is because we say, "Yeah, of course, congregations are going to have people with all kinds of eye colors." Once you say that, and you take that for granted, and that's your basis for being curious and interested and supportive of people's differences, that's when I think we've achieved full inclusion, where we're valuing differences just because that's part of the richness of community. And if you're in show and you say, "Hey, where have the blue eye people, what happened? Where did they all go?" Or I'm trying to overcome my own reflexive whiteness and recognize when I'm in a Jewish ritual space and I don't see anybody but white Ashkenazi Jews surrounding me. I'm trying to notice who's not there. That's kind of what inclusion is. It's a long road to get there.

Mark Gunnery: I've been talking to Joy Ladin. She's a poet, teacher, literary scholar, and SAS. Joy Ladin, thank you so much for joining us today.

Joy Ladin: Thanks so much, Mark and Liora, thank you for including me in this wonderful exhibition.

Mark Gunnery: And of course, I'm also joined by Liora Ostroff. Liora Ostroff is curator in residence here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, where she curated A Fence Around the Torah. She's also a Baltimore based painter. Liora, thanks for joining us.

Liora Ostroff: Thank you, Mark. And thank you, Joy.

Mark Gunnery: Thank you so much for listening to Disloyal. We hope you enjoyed the podcast and we'd love to hear your feedback. Our email address is You can follow us on twitter @jewishmuseummd, or on instagram @jewishmuseum_md. Go to for more information, and to become a member if you're interested in supporting content like this podcast. Visit to check out our latest art exhibit. Disloyal is a production of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and is produced and hosted by me, Mark Gunnery, with production assistance from Naomi Weintraub, the Jewish Museum of Maryland's community, artist and residents. Our executive director is Sol Davis. You can subscribe to Disloyal wherever you listen to podcasts. New episodes each Friday. Until next time, take care.




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