Abby Stein during a photoshoot. Photo courtesy of Abby Stein. Source: Mackenzie Stroh

By Brandie Bland@BlandBrandieFor Mitzpeh

Abby Stein knows how to engage an audience.

Stein – bright red lipstick perfectly framing a welcoming smile – opened up on Monday to this university’s Jewish Student Union and Hamsa groups about her book, Becoming Eve, which follows her journey leaving the Hasidic community where she grew up to find her voice and live her truth as a woman. 

Stein, 29, is a trans woman who was raised Hasidic. Born into the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Stein is a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century Eastern European founder of the Hasidic movement.

The sixth-oldest of 13 children, Stein, like many people in her community, followed in the footsteps of her father —marrying young and becoming an ordained rabbi.

“I was engaged at 17, married at 18, my child was born when I was 19 and I divorced at 21,” Stein said over Zoom.

Raised in what she calls “the most segregated society in North America,” Stein could not hug girl cousins. In this gender-segregated community, girls and boys live in separate worlds and attend separate schools.

“I actually spent time looking for gender-segregated fundamentalist societies in the U.S. and could not find a community that has more gender segregation,” Stein said.

Educated in the Hasidic school system – which exists in the legal gray areas of New York Public School System’s requirements – Stein learned English as a second language up to a third-grade level and elementary math up to long division. From eighth grade onward, Stein’s education was strictly religious — there were no secular history, science or social studies classes. 

Stein didn’t learn conversational English until she was 20. And she thought the Holocaust was the only thing that happened during World War II until she was 12.

“I was unaware that there was an actual war of Nazis occupying different countries. I guess no one ever felt like discussing it and we never had any history classes. We never actually studied,” Stein said.   

With a limited education and even narrower knowledge of the outside world, “transgender” was a foreign word to her. What wasn’t foreign was Stein’s struggles with gender.

In Becoming Eve, Stein gives readers a glimpse into these struggles as she recalls twenty-plus years trapped in a body that doesn’t feel like home. 

At age three, Stein’s first fight against gender expectations started with the “upsherin,” three-year-old Jewish boys’ first haircut.

Stein refused to get her hair cut and begged her mom to let her keep her curly hair, which helped make her feel like a girl.

“My young, fragile feminine brain did what so many girls learn to do all around the world: behave according to the social norms forced upon us if we want to survive,” Stein said.

At age four, Stein’s mother caught her poking her private areas with a safety pin in the bathroom.

Later on in the book, readers walk beside Stein as she gets married and explores feuding thoughts and feelings.

“As the wedding approached, I could not stop thinking that I should be the bride. I liked Fraidy, but I couldn’t help feeling that she deserved to marry a real man, and so did I.”

When Stein found out she was going to be a parent, her struggles with herself became something she can no longer ignore.

“Gender started punching me in the face,” she wrote.

But it wasn’t until Stein’s son’s circumcision that she locked herself in a unisex bathroom at the local mall and used the internet for the first time in her life to look up if a boy can become a girl.

“I cried when I read the word ‘transgender,’” Stein said.

No longer able to ignore her lifelong feelings, Stein admitted what she’s always known: she’s a girl.

Stein’s marriage ended after her son’s birth. In 2012, Stein left Williamsburg.

With the help of Footsteps, a non-profit organization that helps people wanting to leave or have left Haredi and Hasidic communities, Stein was able to assimilate to life in the 21st century.

Now a successful author, Jewish educator, activist and speaker, Stein uses her story to educate the world about being trans and Jewish and growing up in a Hasidic community.

Stein worked with Netflix as a consultant and extra for the television miniseries Unorthodox, which is based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and follows a Satmar Jewish woman as she leaves her community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

For some students who attended the event hosted by Hamsa and JSU, Stein’s story was their first introduction to trans Jewish experiences. For others, Stein’s journey is a reminder of transphobia and homophobia they have experienced in their own community and the work that still needs to be done.

Junior criminology and criminal justice major Meira Goldfischer is one of the latter. Goldfischer, who identifies as a queer Modern Orthodox Jew, says she has been a victim of homophobia in the Jewish community.

“One thing that really hit me very hard is that Judaism really places an emphasis on love and connection to our previous generation,” Goldfischer said. “And at the end of the day, I believe that anyone who isn’t showing signs of love and isn’t accepting of others, they’re missing the whole message of Judaism.”

Becca Carin, a junior Jewish studies major, also appreciated Stein’s willingness to open up about her lived experiences to students at this university.

“I’m interested in hearing people speak about their experiences that aren’t the stereotypical Jewish experience,” Carin said.

Stein continues to shine and find new platforms to share her experience with anyone ready to learn and listen. Recently, Stein signed a contract with CBS to develop a television show based on her book.

Stein’s parting gift is advice for any Hasidic child struggling like she once was.

“You are not alone. There are millions of people like you. Know that you can succeed, not just survive, but thrive.”

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