In this issue of Shtetl Magazine we’re taking a look at what it means to be transgender and Jewish. Who better to talk with than the Brooklyn-based polka-punk-klezmer gag band Schmekel! In this candid interview band members Lucian Kahn, Ricky Riot, Nogga Schwartz and Simcha Halpert-Hanson each weigh in on the ups and downs of crossing the gender divide (and singing about it in a band called…penis).
Shtetl: Why start a trans band?
Lucian (guitar/vocals): Transitioning was interpersonally stressful, and I prefer to deal with stress through comedy and rock music. I sometimes call this Zappa Therapy. We started Schmekel right in the middle of my transition to a male body. Ricky and Nogga’s too. It was the best way to get through it with our senses of humor intact. If you can’t laugh about tiny penises, you’re basically doomed.
Simcha (drums): Because the feminist movement got it right: gender is a major frontier of oppression and misunderstanding. I can’t speak for the band as a whole, but I really feel like our group and other trans-core bands are taking the Riot Grrrl movement to the next step in that we’re forcing people to consider gender beyond the binary construct and showing people how hurtful it is to operate solely from that construct.
Ricky (keyboard/vocals): A lot of what I have to say is in some way inspired by my experience as a trans person, and most people in the world do not have an awareness of trans people’s experiences. When I sing or even talk about my life to straight people, they often get so caught up in the fact that I’m trans that the rest of the content doesn’t quite get through. I have always preferred to collaborate with other Queer people because that way we can both express our solidarity with the community through our lyrics and be listened to by our audience as people with lives that are close to home, and not as outsiders. Although Schmekel started out as something mostly for the queer community, I am pleasantly surprised by and grateful for the broader spectrum of people who like our music.
Shtetl: What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced around transitioning?
Simcha: The largest challenge I experience on an every day basis is being mispronoun-ed and having my gender be misread. As someone who falls outside the binary and uses “they/their/them” as pronouns, I am referred to as “she” and “he” in equal proportions throughout the day and am repeatedly questioned about my presence in public spaces. The other day, for example, a young boy wondered aloud why it was that I was looking at women’s clothing inside a vintage clothing shop; earlier this month, a young man loudly demanded to know whether I was a boy or a girl on a crowded subway train. The inability of larger society to recognize my gender unfortunately creates a daily struggle for me to retain visibility and personal dignity.
Lucian: The first time I told anybody I was trans, I was 16 or 17. Nobody knew what that was in the 90s, so telling those gay kids had no effect. I first started trying to live as a guy in 2000, when I was 18. Almost everybody I knew was rude and hurtful about it in one way or another, and I had a lot of difficulty doing basic things like showing my ID to get into clubs or talking to the DMV, applying for colleges that require listing your sex on the form, getting a job, things like that. I eventually got overwhelmed and gave up because I was so depressed and didn’t have any real community support. I lived as a nerdy “girl” for the next nine years and struggled a lot with identity. I didn’t try to transition again until I found the queer community in Brooklyn and Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Chelsea. I can’t overstate the importance of community resources, especially queer-aware health care providers. We also desperately need an art and music scene that isn’t mopey, which was, of course, impossible in the ‘90s.
Ricky: Asserting the correct gender language used to take a lot out of me. People generally don’t expect a person who looks and sounds like a woman to ask to be called “he” or “Sir,” and when asked to do so, they sometimes get defensive and hostile. Other times they didn’t even understand what I said and just ignored it. Those situations were emotionally exhausting because the onus was on me to correct people in a way that works, and not on them to just be respectful and use correctly-gendered language. So it was that lovely game, or tolerating being called “she”. The bureaucratic stuff was also very exhausting because it involved disclosing this very personal information to complete strangers, and it wasn’t always handled that delicately. And let’s not forget bathrooms. Before hormones I was still using the women’s restroom, and when someone said I was in the wrong room I had witty responses about how the men’s room was out of tampons – always in the highest voice possible, of course. When I first started using the men’s room it was really hard to pee because I got really scared that someone would walk in and see that I’m trans. And there’s jobs. I got bullied into quitting my previous job. Transitioning on a job hunt sucks – there’s the pronoun thing, and there’s coming out to my references, being asked gender questions at interviews, it just wasn’t worth it. I went with the first job I found, which was half the pay, twice the hours, and a less advanced level of work. Sad but true – people take me a lot more seriously now as someone who looks like an average guy than they did when I was the genderf*ck I was before hormones.
Nogga: I think before medical transition I had to argue with folks that I was indeed male on occasion, the older I got however, and the more confident, I pretty much would “pass” nearly 100%. Now folks often assume I am a straight cisgender male, so I actively do things to make my self look queer. I have experienced people taking me more seriously and treating me with more respect, which is strange and in many ways unfortunate because now I am navigating white male priviledge which was something I never had before.
Shtetl: Can transitioning to another sex mean leaving behind old friends and even family?
Simcha: I don’t know about the effects of transitioning to another sex as I have never undergone that process, but transitioning to another gender has certainly affected my personal sphere, though thankfully hasn’t meant losing anyone over it. Since changing my sex is not part of my transition narrative (and therefore no one is made to confront my body assuming characteristics incurred by taking testosterone), though, it has meant that my gender is not always taken seriously by old friends and is currently completely disregarded by my family. My sister, actually, is the only member of my family to take my gender presentation seriously.
Lucian: Personally, I had chosen good people to be my friends by the time I finally decided to transition physically. A few people were jerks about it, but that told me a lot more about them than about me. I think if you’re an uptight person in general, you’re going to be uptight about a friend transitioning, but if you’re a laid back person in general, you can just flow with it, and it’s not such a big deal after all. For example, there were a handful of straight guys in my life who didn’t know anything about trans issues and didn’t really know that many queer people in general, and I thought they might have some difficulty with my transition, but in the end, we just ate pizza and played video games, and it was fine. I don’t expend my energy on people who don’t accept who I am, unless we share DNA. As for family — some of my relatives gave me grief for a while, but there was never a danger of being disowned, just heckled a lot. They’ve come around since it’s become obvious to them that I’m not depressed anymore. It also didn’t hurt that Schmekel was in the New York Times. Some cousins I haven’t seen in years put up the article on their fridge.
Ricky: I used to be really nervous about running into people from my past and I actively avoided them, but now that’s not such a big deal. I tell them I transitioned, which they probably heard through the grapevine anyway, sometimes they ask me some silly invasive questions and sometimes they don’t, and we move on. Family is a bigger deal. I haven’t seen my paternal grandmother in a few years, and my conversations with her on the phone are very brief, in a falsetto, and in some really creative grammar to avoid gender (we speak in Hebrew so have fun with that). My family believes that it would not be good for her to see me, which is something that I’m dealing with right now. Aside from her and one more exception, I haven’t spoken to anyone from my father’s side of the family in at least eight years. I’ve never had much of a relationship with the rest of them, but the idea that I might never see my grandmother again because I live in a world that thinks I’m a freak makes me really sad.
Nogga: I didnt lose anyone that meant anything to me and in fact mostly had support. Maybe not immediately… but over time. My family is doing pretty well and we are working on it.
Shtetl: Why a Jewish trans band?
Simcha: Jews are a funny group in that, despite any personal alienation or the forces of assimilation, we feel bound to our ancestral heritage as Jews. Wherever we go in the world, even if our lives seem to conflict with our Jewish heritage, we tend to carry that element of our identity with us (even if it’s just to say “I’m a bad Jew”). So it actually makes a lot of sense that if there was going to be a transgender band, it would be a Jewish one.
Lucian: At our Purim show last year, I dressed up as a hula girl with hamantaschen in my bikini top, and the rest of the band dressed up like sharks. This was to debut our song “Shark Attack,” which is about how I got the scars on my chest. In the middle of our set, I took the hamantaschen out of my Hawaiian-themed bra and threw them into the audience, along with the bra. This joke wouldn’t work outside of a Jewish context. Comedy is sacred to me, which is a pretty Jewish sentiment, isn’t it?
Nogga: Why not? I grew up jewish and I def have a jewish sense of humor. I am also trans… it just seemed to work.
Ricky: I have a lot of things to say about things I had been told to believe, and I express that in Schmekel. Sometimes we approach progressive Jewish issues directly, like when we sing about the mechitza at shul or about circumcision. Sometimes we direct attention to an issue by making a reference to it and not actually commenting on it, in lines like “maybe she’s a Zionist” from our song “Shomer Negiyah”. Most of our songs are about sex and we never intended to be a political band, but those songs can be looked at as social commentary. I’ve always had issues with the amount of focus Jewish culture gives to modesty and to controlling gender roles and sexuality. Using Jewish music and Jewish cultural references to accompany songs about sex and transitioning, while we mostly do it as a joke, is also my way of confronting those ideas.
Shtetl: How did you come out to your parents? Do you remember what you told them and how they reacted?
Simcha: I came out as a dyke to my parents at age seventeen. I deeply resented having to “come out” as I didn’t see my straight peers needing to “come out” so I didn’t volunteer the information with any fanfare or discussion. My father noticed I had been spending considerable time with a woman (my girlfriend at the time) and just asked me if I preferred women to men. I told him I did and he responded calmly. When the same girlfriend (who lived out of town) needed a place to stay to visit a friend at a hospital local to where I lived, I told my mother this information and that I thought my girlfriend should stay with us since she “is my girlfriend”. My mother responded by bursting into sobs (out of what I perceived to be grief, not joy) and made the information I passed onto her about herself. When I came out to my parents as transgender, they responded with a lot more calm then I expected but as I said in a previous question, it hasn’t been taken seriously and while they attempt to use the name I have taken for everyday use, they have greatly modified it for their own ease and do not at all employ the pronouns I prefer.
Ricky: I was out at my school and my Hebrew school as bisexual when I was 16 and had to have that conversation with my parents after I was outed against my will by someone else’s mother. My mother thought it was just a phase I was going through so I had to come out to her again several times, you know, to remind her that her child is still a weirdo. My father is very rational and objective, and keeps judgements to himself. I only ever remember him saying maybe one or two hurtful things out of ignorance, but never out of anger. With my mother though, it always involved a lot of tears and long dramatic emails and door-slamming. When I started transitioning, I told both of them separately, over lunch. I told them that I consider myself a man, not a woman, that people regard me as a man, that I have started hormones, and that I would eventually like them to refer to me as a man. I brought it up through the fact that I had been speaking to them in male grammar for a few months (remember – Hebrew) and I asked if they had noticed. My father asked some mostly fair clarifying questions, and said he needed to give it some thought. My mother basically looked at me like I had horns and said some messed up shit that I blocked out. We’re doing a lot better now though, I have a great relationship with both of them. My mother has come a long way in accepting me as her son and I’m proud of her.
Nogga: I came out many times to my family as many things. When I told them I was trans, shit really hit the fan and it led to a few years of talking and not talking and some estrangement. My mother and sister are amazing allies, my father and I are civil and don’t talk about it. It came out as an accident actually. It was after dinner… the best time to have an argument, and I don’t know how it started but my dad was ticked about my haircut maybe? I believe I either had shaved my head or had a mohawk. He asked why do you dress like a man… do you want to be a man? At that point I exploded in tears and yelled YES! I DO! Everyone was stunned. My mom was washing dishes. she stopped, looked at the clock and said, “Oh my, I think it is time we go food shopping for Nogga so she can have groceries at school.” So we went to Shopright, she bought me ramen noodles and canned corn and drove me back to Manhattan.
Lucian: Similar to Ricky, I came out as bisexual to everyone I knew when I was fourteen — except Ricky still likes girls, whereas I lost my interest in women about two months into testosterone. My mom never minded my sexual orientation, because she was a theatre kid in college and all of her friends are gay men. Even my grandma didn’t really care. Trans stuff was harder for the family than sexual orientation. I don’t actually remember how I told them the first time, in 2000, because it was such a bad time in my life. The second time around, in 2009, I tried to talk with my mom about it a few times in person, but it was too hard for her to discuss and we didn’t really get anywhere. I think it’s tough for parents, especially that generation. Out of respect for my mother’s request that I avoid talking about gender with her, I actually didn’t tell her I was living as male full-time until I had already been on testosterone for three months. At that point, I had to tell her because my voice was dropping! It dropped about an octave. I mean, that would be a pretty severe head cold! My mom just said she loved me. It was very sweet. I think my family didn’t feel able to accept it until I was well into physical transition. They needed the flat chest and the beard. You know, credentials. That expectation comes from the messed-up notions that mainstream society proliferates about transsexuals — but families have a hard time with change anyway. Interestingly, though, when I told them I was a gay man, they continued to be really laid back about my sexual orientation. They’ve all met my boyfriend and think he’s a mensch. When they’re in town, we all go for Chinese food.
Shtetl: Got any fun dating stories that only a 100% trans Jew might experience?
Lucian: I once had a two-night stand with a clean-cut gay gym rat who had never seen a dick like mine. He wasn’t exactly sure what to do. He worked in computers, so before our second date, I typed him up an elaborate FAQ about how to get me off. He said it was the best email he had ever received.
Ricky: People I date and hook up with generally know that I’m trans and are fine with it, but there is a Craigslist story that actually didn’t make it to a Schmekel song. A guy posted that he likes Russian and Israeli guys with hairy legs. I’m Israeli and Uzbecki and hairy, so I emailed him and said that I meet his criteria and that I’m also an FTM – is he into trans guys? He asked what FTM and trans means so I said that I’m a transsexual but since he hasn’t heard of this, it’s not gonna work. He said “I heard the term but wasn’t sure what it meant. So you’re a man and you like to wear women’s clothing, right?” I told him to look it up, so he did, and told me that what I’m doing is unholy. So I asked him if that’s why he’s looking for casual sex on the internet, and he said that he is sinning and that it’s very wrong, but I am changing my body from the way G-d intended for it to be. Just for the record, I don’t really do Craigslist hookups anymore.
Shtetl: Can you tell us about the Mohel Song. What is the halachah around circumcision? Is that an important right of passage for you?
Lucian: The Mohel Song is about a Jewish trans guy who starts testosterone and realizes after a couple weeks that his dick is growing and it has a foreskin. Theological dilemma! Personally, as the song says, “I don’t need a fucking mohel!”
Ricky: I don’t feel qualified to discuss halachah around circumcision because I am not a rabbi. Nogga consulted a rabbi who said that for guys like us, only a tiny bit of blood is required; not the removal of the foreskin because that would be dangerous and damaging, and pretty messed up. Bris milah is not an important right of passage for me at all. That’s mostly on principle, because I’m uncomfortable with that commandment and its non-consensual nature. I’m otherwise pretty halachically inclined and express my faith in Hashem in many other ways. I’m looking forward to Nogga’s answer about this. Take it away Nogga!
Simcha: The mohel song reflects Nogga’s experience attempting to find himself in the halachic system. It conveys his indignation when he discovers how the ways in which the halachic system can recognize him don’t at all accord with who he is.
Halacha around whether a trans man requires a circumcision to be considered a full fledged Jewish male is rabbi-dependent mainly because there isn’t a unified ruling around it. The Talmud is concerned with the appearance of one’s genitals which in turn will determine which mitzvot a person in question can legally fulfill. A trans man in the Talmud would be considered an “androgynos” because of how taking testosterone would affect the appearance of his genitals. “Androgynos” refers to an intersexed person (hence the anger in the Mohel Song over the rabbi’s ruling — a trans man is not an intersexed person). So from the Talmud’s perspective, a trans man doesn’t need a circumcision because according to the status of an “androgynos”, he isn’t fully a man.
Circumcision does not affect me personally in the slightest because I am not a trans man nor am I observant.
Nogga: Well Sim and everyone covered it. The story is, I talked to a few rabbis. One was my rabbi at school and the other some big-time Hassid from Tsvat. My rabbi said that I wasnt 100 percent male so I fell into the Androgynous category, and the Tsvat Rabbi said if I was to be a man then I had to do everything a man does to be a Jewish man.
Shtetl: How do you respond to folks who say that we are born in the body that God wanted us to have?
Simcha: Conflating free will with an arrogant and subjective assumption on G-d’s desires is ignorant and bigoted. I am grateful to HaShem for the body Ze gave me and I am grateful to HaShem for blessing me with a soul and being to inhabit this body, all of which are inextricably intertwined and all of which work together to make the me that G-d created. Who G-d made me into is the business of G-d, not other people.
Lucian: I think if you believe in God, it’s awfully presumptuous to assume you know what God would want. It’s hard enough to figure out what your lovers or your friends want, and God’s supposed to be infinitely more complicated, right? Maybe God would want some people to overcome a body-mind disconnect by developing technologies and strategies for change. Maybe God would just want people to be creative with the materials they’re given. How do you know what God wants? You’re not God. That said, I’m the atheist of the group.
Ricky: They’re absolutely right; I was born in the body that G-d wanted me to have. G-d also wanted me to make the choices I need to make in order to be emotionally healthy. And G-d also wanted diversity in the types of people who inhabit G-d’s universe. That’s what it means to be created in G-d’s image; it means that there is an infinite amount of faces to the human species.
Nogga: What Simcha and Ricky said.
Shtetl: What are some of the weird/funny/disturbing transphobic comments you’ve endured?
Simcha: As a drummer I’m kind of deaf so I make it a point to use that to my advantage in order to avoid absorbing harassment when it’s launched. However, recently my hearing loss couldn’t help me because the person harassing me was yelling inside of a train car. He was asking me whether I was a boy or a girl to which I asked what the hell was it to him. Upon hearing the timbre of my voice, he suddenly became ecstatic and yelled out with utter amazement as if I had just told him the meaning of his pitiful existence, “Oh! You’re a girl! I though you were a boy!” I quickly responded “I thought you were a boy too.” This confused him. “I am a boy,” he said, rapture gone. I replied, “No, you’re not. You’re an asshole.”
Lucian: The majority of offensive comments are a lot less original than the people who say them think they are, but I was recently asked very earnestly, out of nowhere, “Do you miss having a period?” Yeah, every month when I don’t have cramps or bleed for seven days, I cry with nostalgia.
Nogga: I could write a book. The list is endless. Read most mainstream media outlets or watch most shows that have or make a reference to trans folks.
Ricky: Someone once commented on our Youtube page that we should call ourselves trans goyim. Lucian and I broke rule #1: Never Read The Comments. A gay gentile wrote that trans people shouldn’t be included in the queer community because we “mutilate our bodies and live a life on drugs in order to become the other sex,” and that the queer community “shares feminism’s deep disdain for men.” This person also intentionally misgendered Simcha, put the word “person” in air quotes when referring to them, and said that they have an “allergic response to recognizing the difference between the sexes,” again attributing it to feminists, who as we know, eat firstborn male babies. But we firmly believe that no press is bad press, and that’s why we have a standard response for transphobic comments about us on the internet. It’s “Zolst vaksn vi a tsibele mitn kop in dr’erd,” Yiddish for “May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground.”
Shtetl: Now that you are music superstars, is it easier to get laid?
Lucian: I love this question. I met my boyfriend at a Schmekel show, actually.
Nogga: Not easier, but I have not had a problem in this area yet! I wouldn’t mind getting some under garments thrown at me though.
Ricky: No, I still never get laid. Don’t you know that joke? What do you call that guy in the band who never gets laid? The keyboard player.
Simcha: That joke was HILARIOUS.
Shtetl: How has the Jewish world reacted to your songs?
Simcha: Both frummies and seculars have reacted with glee. They’ve even danced together over it (check out the photo in the NYT article). My mother’s elderly shul really wants us to play for them!
Lucian: We once had this insanely excited punk dude come up to us after a show in Brooklyn. He said that he had been raised Orthodox and used to play in a wedding and Bar Mitzvah band, and that we were the best thing he had ever seen. This kind of thing happens to us a lot. It’s zany and also humbling. Oh yeah, and there were pictures of us in togas in the Jewish Daily Forward. Nogga will probably point out that they technically weren’t togas, but rather simple tunics. His name rhymes with toga, so he knows a lot about them.
Nogga: My name does rhyme with toga but I’m no expert… my roommate Tobi is an expert and corrected me many times. Yah, so far everybody seemes to be too busy laughing to be hating on us.
Ricky: We’re really well-received in the progressive Jewish community, thank G-d. Whenever I tell a Jew who hasn’t heard of us about Schmekel, they get really excited. The lewd jokes don’t seem to be a problem, and they’re totally cool about us being trans. I really like playing for straight people now. Jews, both queer and straight, seem to get a kick out of the more obscure references, which I really appreciate. At our last show we premiered two of our new songs, “The Binding of Isaac” (about a trans person named Isaac who is binding their chest to go to shul on Rosh Hashana and daven on the men’s side) and “Shomer Negiyah”. Some of my friends who are observant queer Jews were there, and the looks on their faces were priceless. It’s always entertainingly awkward when someone at shul asks me about my music because then I get to use the word “schmekel” in polite company.
Shtetl: How can I listen to Schmekel?
Our first album, “Queers On Rye,” is available for purchase on the Schmekel website, transjews.com.
p.s. To hear some of Shcmekel’s music (including the Mohel Song) listen to this week’s episode of Shtetl on the Shortwave: A Transgender Shtetl. There are beautiful songs by a whole bunch of trans-identified bands and an interview with a Jewish woman about her transition from male to female.
p.p.s. Dearest Shtetl readers, there’s a great article in Forward Magazine by Eddy Portnoy about Schmekel that asks (and finds!) whether there were transgendered folks in the Jewish past. Who knew?!