Ya’amdu…(Parashat Vayishlach)

The author writes of his personal experience as a transgender person attending a synagogue and being called up to the Torah for an aliyah. He also recounts the story from this Torah portion where Jacob wrestles with the angel, just as the author wrestles with God, gender, and Zionism.

November 24, 2007

By Ari Lev Fornari

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Parashat Vayishlach
by Ari Lev Fornari on Saturday November 24, 2007
14 Kislev 5768
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43, Shabbat

It was Simchat Torah 5767—mid-October 2006. Having spent the previous summer in Palestine unlearning zionism(1) and having recently come out as transgender, I did not have a synagogue I called home. The queer synagogue in my community says a prayer for the state of Israel, the liberal synagogue has gender segregated call and response and the Orthodox minyan has a mechitza, gender segregated seating. So I opted to go to the almost-egalitarian Modern Orthodox minyan, where most everything is in Hebrew, and the hetero-patriarchy is masked by a halakhically-inspired effort to be egalitarian. I knew at the very least there would not be any overt zionism, and I would hardly know any of the people or the words. I was banking on spiritual anonymity.

I was sitting in the back right corner trying to daven, but mostly daydreaming about my complicated sex life and deconstructing the group’s gender dynamics. After completing the traditional seven Hakafot in which the men danced around the room carrying the Torah, while the women danced around each other in the corner, they announced the section of Torah we would be reading aloud. Someone also announced that anyone who wanted an aliyah (to be called up for a Torah reading) would have the opportunity, and that men interested in an aliyah should stand on the right, and women on the left. I zoned out, half wanting an aliyah but totally unwilling to flip the gender coin. About 2/3 of the way through, the gabbai approached me and asked if I wanted an aliyah. “Yes, but I am not willing to stand on the men’s or the women’s side.” “That’s fine, you can stand wherever you want.” Although this didn’t really solve the issue at hand, it avoided it sufficiently for me to tell him my name. “Ari ben Victor,” I said. And he walked away.

Ari ben Victor. Not only had I never said that name before, but I would never have even articulated my name like that. My nervousness attenuated “Ari Lev” to Ari, and caused me to revert to an English rendition of my father’s name, Victor, rather than his Hebrew name, Mazliah. I altogether forgot my feminist inclinations to place my mother’s Hebrew name first, Hana v’ Mazliah. Not to mention, “ben,” son of, instead of the gender-neutral rereading, “m’bet” meaning “from the house of,” that my dear friend Max designed for just this moment.

Ari ben Victor, not Hadassah, the Hebrew name my parents gave me; which is Esther’s Hebrew name, and always felt fitting because of her metaphoric “coming out” moments. Not Hadas, meaning Willow, an earthy male rendition of Hadassah. Not Asher, my chosen Hebrew name, one of the 12 tribes of Jacob, and also quoted in Exodus 3:13 as one of the names of god: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, translated as “I am that I am,” “I am who I am,” “I will be what I will be.”. Not Afo, my soul-searching wandering Jew alter-ego, which means “where” in Hebrew and is also a contraction of my first initial and last name.

Ari son of Victor, not child, not genderqueer in-between trans person, not mentioning my mother or grandmother. Ari son of Victor it was.

“Ya’amod, Ari ben Victor,” chanted the gabbai.

Barachu Et adonai hamevorach

My hands trembling on the wooden scrolls.

Baruch adonai hamevorah leolam vaed

The sea of gender normative 20- and 30-something’s chanted back.

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu ruach haolam, asher bachar banu im kol ha amim v natan lanu et torato. Baruch ata adonai noten hatorah.

And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Divine is in this place, and I did not know [it].”
Genesis 28:16, Vayetzei

This week in Parashat Vayishlach we read the story of Jacob as he wrestles with an angel. Throughout the story, Jacob begs the angel to reveal its name, but the angel is unwilling. Whether metaphorical or lived, whether the angel is inside his soul or a character unto itself, up there on the bimah, celebrating the completion of another Torah cycle, I saw myself like Jacob. I was wrestling with god, wrestling with gender, wrestling with israel.

Having spent a summer in Palestine, it was hard to imagine celebrating many of the words of the Torah: Words I did not agree with, words that told us stories about destroying sacred land, conquering neighboring countries, and occupying the Jordan Valley. Stories that do not reflect my deepest values, stories that do not include my genderqueer ancestors, stories that barely let women speak. And yet, standing up on the bimah, I was awoken from my zoned out place, and I could hear god bouncing off the parchment.

And an angel of God said to me in a dream, ‘Jacob!’ And I said, ‘Here I am.’
Genesis 31:11, Vayetzei

Here I am secretly shaking as I listen to the words of Torah; here I am trying to find myself in Jewish spaces, Jewish history, Jewish stories. Here I am, coming back to Torah week after week, even when I disagree with Your words.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with beings divine and human and have overcome.”
Genesis 32:28, Vayishlach

In Jewish law, to change one’s name, a person need only be called to the Torah by a new name. You don’t have to pay $335 to the government or wait in line at the courthouse with a doctor’s note and a pay stub. You don’t even have to go to psychotherapy. But perhaps, as this parasha describes, it might involve a bit of wrestling.

Many trans people must transform what we have been told is true about us, into what we know to be our own truth. We must name ourselves, and say, Here I am – this new person, who is also the same person. We must call ourselves into being.

The story of Vayishlach is the story of one’s wrestling, and the potential to be reborn, to be renamed, to be renewed through that struggle. Just when I was counting on spiritual anonymity, I found myself being named publicly. Just when I was starting to lose faith, I asked for a blessing. And renamed me.

In the year since, I continue to unpack that blessing. I continue to be called to Torah and to realize that embedded in my naming is a commitment to stay in conversation with Torah. Perhaps this is what Jacob has taught me. That in fact, the blessing is not the naming itself, which we read in the first lines of this parasha; but rather, the continual struggle to stay present, and whole, and in conversation with the divine. For me, the blessing of being named gave me the courage to be called upon, to be called to Torah, to be called to make more space in this world for gender non-conforming people and Jews who support Palestinian self- determination.

May we all continue to wrestle with Torah and with our relationship to that which is Holy in each of us. And may we all be blessed by an angel when we need it most.

  1. It was the author’s decision to render zionism, god and israel in lower case for this essay.