Episode 7: Simcha Halpert-Hanson
I interviewed Simcha over a year ago now, but their interview has stuck with me ever since. Their thoughts about being trans masculine and wearing tzitzit, wearing a tallis, and existing in Jewish community are so powerful. I can't wait for other people to sit with this one, too. Apologies in advance, my mouth was to close to the microphone and sometimes the sound quality is less than I would wish for!
Some definitions from our conversation:
Mechitza- a partition in some synagogues to separate men and women.
Flagging- displaying visibly (but perhaps discretely) that you are queer, especially to other queer people.
Mitzvah/mitzvot- a "good deed," an act prescribed by Jewish law.
Frum- strictly observing Jewish law, can be a noun or an adjective.
Peyos- the grown out sidelocks often worn by observant Jewish men, sometimes also worn by others.
Bocher- a young (unmarried) man, often associated with the phrase "Yeshiva Bocher," a young man studying Talmud.
Yeshiva- school for studying Talmud.
Adam HaRishon- Adam, of Adam and Eve. The first man on Earth.
Beged- the cloth part of a tallis or tallis katan.
Golus- the state of being in exile, Yiddish pronunciation.
With any questions or comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are Jewish prayer shawls and tzitzit are the knotted fringe at the bottom of them. For deeper definitions, check out the first episode. Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Simcha Halpert-Hansen, who will introduce themself.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Hi. My name’s Simcha Halpert-Hanson. I use they/them pronouns. First year student at Hebrew College. Live in Boston. Play drums.
Emma June: Amazing. Well, welcome. I’m really excited to talk to you today and I guess the place I would love to start is just what your first memories of tzitzit and of tallitot are and if those are the same memory or if those two things carry different memories for you.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Well, first I guess I’ll just start with like a brief story about how I chose not to wear tzitzits for my b’nei mitzvah. And then I’ll go into the choosing tzitzits. Does that work?
Emma June: Yeah. Sounds great.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah, so when I was in seventh grade getting ready to do the whole child of commandments thing, I was really interested in what authentic Judaism, “authentic” looked like, and since I understood that at least I thought the options for my gender was to be a girl, then I decided that it wasn’t fitting for me to wear tziszis, and so I, unlike all of my other peers, did not. I did not have my mom buy a tallis for me and was somehow allowed in the synagogue to not be wearing a tallis at the service. So, just mentioning that because it was like a really gendered decision that I made and was trying to live into the gender that I was ascribed, even though it felt like inauthentic and uncomfortable for me.
And then later, when I was 21, I realized that I was trans and decided to start wearing tziszis… and got a tallis katan, specifically. That little… with the shirt. And I remember when I put it on, I started crying, and I remember applying the tziszis to my face, and to my chest, and like this feeling… Feeling very, very whole all of a sudden in a way that I wasn’t aware of that I was missing.
And yeah, so I don’t quite know what was going on in that moment in a broad way, or like why I was crying, but I could that imagine probably it was like reconnecting with ancestral or tradition that got broken up a while ago. And later that year, I went to… trip. Or maybe it was the next year. I think I was 22. Birthright trip to Poland and then to Israel/Palestine and decided then I would buy a tallis. So, I went to go get one on the spot and made sure it was really, really big, because I wanted to… Kind of again living into this version of what I thought was “authentic” Judaism. Wanted to really be covered up like in this blanket that is the tallis. I specifically did not want to be wearing those kind of tallisim that I grew up with in the Reform movement, just like these shawl things. My brother had one. I remember a few times using it for dress up, and I didn’t want that to be what I used for praying, so I got a big one.
And the last thing I want to say is that actually recently, as in this holiday cycle, I had an insight on… that I might stop wearing the tallis gadol, the big tallis, and instead of related to actually being… the fact that like when you in Ashkenazi tradition get a tallis gadol when you get married, or maybe I’ll say you get it when you settle into some kind of life agreement or long-term agreement with someone. Someone else. Or multiple people. And so, I wanted to… I kind of had this insight that I possibly might try going that route, or embracing that tradition, like if you go to more traditional shul, Orthodox shul you’ll see obviously a mechitza space and there’s men on one side, and men don’t wear… Whoever is not married is not wearing a tallis. And I’ve spoken with actually queer or gay men, cis men, who grew up Orthodox, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah. You can’t… If you wear a tallis, on… so you don’t have to make sure you don’t wear one.” All so they won’t know.
So… I thought I might kind of signal that to the universe.
Emma June: New way of flagging.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Pretty much. Yeah. And so, I’ve just been wearing a tallis katan instead.
Emma June: Wow. Do you wear… Can I ask about like how often you wear your tallis katan?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Yeah, totally. So, I started wearing it as I said when I was 21, and then I kind of went in and out of places in my life where it felt safe to be myself around frumkayt and times where it really didn’t feel safe, and so I would kind of vacillate between years, periods of time, like periods of years where wearing, and not wearing it, and not being observant, and I two years ago stopped being observant, and then actually just really very recently, as of like last month, or September, rather, felt this new something shift and felt another opening to… It’s kind of safe. Maybe it’s safer now to be engaging with that, so I’ve been wearing it again all the time.
Yeah. Yeah. I have kind of an ambivalent relationship to it now, but then I did when I was younger, or even three years ago. But I do wear it every day.
Emma June: Yeah. Can you talk at all to what you feel like brings about that ambivalence?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. To be totally frank, the ambivalence is not really specific to… Well, the ambivalence is maybe specific to the tallis katan and not the tzitzits themselves, right? Or indicating reminder or the tzitzits are an indicating reminder of our relationship to the mitzvahs. So, halakhah ostensibly, or feeling bound to that. I’m like… When I put it on, it’s like I feel very daft, and like I need to be following what it is that I’m preaching to myself with this garment. So, I, because of honestly being a survivor of a lot of different forms of either community-based harm, partner-based harm, became really disillusioned with I guess Jewish people observing Judaism, and kind of didn’t feel, don’t feel like a… There’s something that’s broken for me around the… There is a relation. I see a relationship between Halakha and people, right? Like we are the people that enact it. And we are the people that enact Judaism style like in general? I don’t know, the Meztorah, the tradition, and I guess like in interfacing with all the ways that we as humans enact also in the same breath that we kind of pull, show love, like pull in, like reach for each other, the same hand can be pushing away and breaking or severing relationship and connection through various means.
And just feeling really disenchanted with that reality. Even though it’s a very human thing to be doing, this… I guess the kind of again, like a specific harm that I’ve gone through in community settings has been… It’s just been hard to navigate of like, “Do I buy this? Do I believe in this? Do I feel connected to it?” I think maybe it’s more of the question, like, “Do I actually feel connected to this thing?” I have also been in a relationship with many Jews who adhere to something Jewish and can also be an act of harm. I don’t know.
Emma June: Yeah. That makes sense to me. Yeah. I guess it makes me curious, like what it means to you to keep wearing the tallis katan through some of that doubt, or like through some of those hard feelings, because you said that you started wearing it again.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Yeah, I think I get the sense that I’m in some kind of cycle, or new cycle, or something spiraling up of healing around that particular theme, which has been with me for the past three years or so. And so, I think I’m just… I kind of just was like had a sensation one day of it already being on my body, and feeling like a sweetness towards it, and so to follow that sweetness. And I think that I am trying to in the… After, whatever, after part of feeling sweetness, and it’s like then you have the relationship, or like after the honeymoon. And I think I’m in this place of just trying to reorient all of it into a different spot than I had previously located it, which was very much feeling connected to it through feeling connected to Jews. And that there’s… I think there’s learning for me in wearing it every day around how to heal up that… Around how to heal up that relationship for myself, to find a ground in it that’s just specific to me. And specific to G-d. Yeah, because of all of that has gotten kind of… The connection… Yeah. To me, it’s like the connection with people gets severed. The connection to G-d gets severed.
And so, yeah, I think now it’s just like I practice it, like I’m choosing to try to connect. Instead of maybe taking it for granted.
Emma June: Wow. Yeah. Okay. Cool. Okay. I’m just… It feels really powerful to me to hear people talk about their… Like how they feel spirituality and relationships to G-d. Because I feel like people don’t… It’s not something that often gets shared and I’m asking really personal questions about it, and it means something to me to hear how people experience the world. Yeah.
I’m curious. This is a slightly different path of questions, but I’m curious about how or if, but I believe how wearing a tallis katan and your trans identity connect for you? You mentioned around the time that you were coming out or coming out to yourself that you put on a tallis katan. So, I’m just curious if there’s more to say about it.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. I don’t know. I guess… I don’t really think about… I’m gonna flesh out some really kind of not so cooked thoughts, or present some not so cooked out… But I’m still kind of mulling over myself. Lately, this year, I’ve been feeling a lot more into I guess embracing the inherentness of my masculinity a lot more. And which means for me that I guess it… What it means is that there’s a large part of me that is… I’m not sure if it presents itself to others as traditionally male, or I know it’s actually… Sorry. It definitely presents itself to others as traditionally male. I’m not so sure it presents itself to me as traditionally male. I don’t really feel or see myself as a cis dude, for example.
But I am read like that pretty often and also treated like it pretty often by not just straight people, but plenty of folks in the queer community, and it has… I don’t really like it, but I’m also… I don’t like it, and also I’m like trying to work with it in a different way, I think, this year, or trying to be more awake to it this year, and there I think are ways in which possibly during my childhood this hinted at I didn’t feel like I could wear it, right? When I was a woman. Or girl. Whatever. When I was… I was kind of never a girl, but like when I was being ascribed that. I did not feel like I could do it. It didn’t feel… I didn’t feel like I was living into a core component of myself anyway, and to put something on that, even though I, like outside of my religious life, was totally dressing like a little punk rock boy, I didn’t feel like I could break that particular gender construct.
And then it wasn’t until I came out to myself and then embraced my maleness like step one, being like, “Oh, I am not a dyke. Cool.” It’s kind of like tiers I guess of masculinity, and that was tier one. And then I felt like I could put it on, and so possibly this is possible that in this next iteration of self, or tier of masculinity that I’ve reached, that it’s feeling… Kind of presenting a gender… I mean, it was clearly presenting a gender affirming experience for me initially, and it possibly is presenting one now, though it still kind of conflicts with components of my masculinity that are more secular.
So, I don’t know. Yeah. I vacillate back and forth with it.
Emma June: Yeah.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Like I used to have… I used to be… I used to look, present a lot more frum, in that I had peyos, and I’d wear my tzitzits out, and I really looked like a bocher for all intents and purposes, like a little Yeshiva student. Boy student. And I wasn’t really… I wasn’t on purpose going for that. I was just kind of living into what felt like emistic or truthful for me, and now, and it happened to coincide with like traditional Jewish masculine norms, and now I’ve kind of reached some different norms with masculinity and they somewhat bolster that and somewhat are not the kind of image I’m going for.
But then you get into the… I get into the obligation piece, or the piece around… I feel a little bit strange trying to live this life and not be doing the things that the sect deems appropriate.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting to me I think, like there are a number of commandments in Judaism, or mitzvot in Judaism that involve clothing. And those commandments and mitzvot are fairly gendered. They’re very like wear this thing, or shave this, or don’t, or whatever they might be, and so it really can tie feelings of passing, or clothing, or… I don’t know. Just like being visibly Jewish and being visibly trans, or visibly affirming your gender or not, like they can get really tied together.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson For sure.
Emma June: Which is really fascinating to me.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Yeah, I mean as I said, I just… Yeah. I feel like I flag a lot of things I’m not really trying to do. And I’ve done it in the past, or when I’ve been more visibly Jewish in the past, and yeah, like varying degrees of comfort with how that’s getting read into normative narratives, like… Yeah, narratives of gender. Mostly not comfortable.
Emma June: Yeah.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson But also, just as I said, like trying to be like, “Okay. You know what? Maybe there’s some way that I need to surrender to how I’m being seen.” That sounds like a cop out, but maybe there’s something I’m not seeing that other people are. And how they’re treating me. I mean, obviously the world is a broken place and people are mostly not woke, but also we reflect things around us. For better or for worse.
Emma June: I guess another kind of… Well, something I’m curious about is if you feel that you get to, or that you want to, or that you’ve wanted to embody just the mitzvot for men in Judaism, or if it’s felt like… And particularly I’m curious around tallisim, like if it’s been like I will now follow these rules for men? Or if there’s felt like some kind of dissonance or struggle because you’re trans?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah, totally dissonance. Like mikveh doesn’t factor into my life, for example, but I wish it did, and it’s just not safe in most of the places that I’ve lived in and that would be like a non-male thing. I think… I try to light candles every week, right? And that’s a woman’s mitzvah. And I don’t think about… I don’t really think about these mitzvot around their gender lines. I’m aware of them, but I don’t love putting myself into a position where people are reading me as the dude, like when I’m in…, or expectations around Kiddiush, or like leading a space. I don’t know. Yeah, I try not to. I really try to discourage that reading of me. And it’s…it happens anyway. I don’t know.
But I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out how to answer your question. Like when I don’t light candles, I then think about how while I kind of embody, I guess inherently embody multiplicity in gender, and so it’s okay that I lit this candle I think, because… Sometimes this thought has occurred to me. Mostly, honestly it hasn’t. Just like I miss candle lighting and I could say “Bshir L’Yom HaShabbes” y’know I could say the Psalm for Shabbat instead and that would be like my way for accepting the Shabbat’s in, or just internally accept it. But there have been times too when I’ve just chosen not to light candles and have deferred to other people in the room to do that. And just rather would say amen, and think about… In those moments, I’ve thought about my own multiplicity and that I’m straddling some really queer boundaries around gender mitzvot and that inherently, yeah, I’m just like… If it’s a binary in the vision of the Torah than I’m adaptive one, live on one side and then live on the other, and that is just like hell the Creator created me.
So, there’s like no way around it.
Emma June: Yeah.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson I don’t know if that answers your question.
Emma June: Definitely. Wow. Well, do you have any remaining thoughts left unsaid? Things you’re thinking about? Questions I haven’t asked you?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Nothing is coming to mind. Just trying to think about stuff around… More stuff around gender and tzitzits. But no. Can’t think of anything. Is there anything else that you were curious about or had on your list of questions?
Emma June: I guess there’s one that I’ll just… I’ll ask and see if you have anything to say, and if it’s… It’s just about feeling like because of the gender binary, I think there’s a way that some people in the trans Jewish community may respond to something like a tallis, or to tzitzit, as something that’s not for them, or not for us I should say, and to me it’s a… I don’t have a personal answer that feels great, but I do think it’s a chance to be creative with our tradition, this tradition we’ve been given, and to find ways to push our tradition. And so, I guess I’m just curious if there have been any particular ways or moments that you’ve felt creative with a tallis?
Simcha Halpert-Hanson I definitely feel like awesome when I’m in a group of queer Jews who are wearing tzitzits or tallisim, because it’s like you’re literally wearing the mitzvah around your body, and it indicates to me that I’m not alone, I guess, in my own… I just feel like it’s so rare for me to meet other trans Jews who are also… or I know there’s plenty of folks out there, but to get to be certainly… share physical space with those people, really rare. And it just indicates to me that… Yeah, that I’m not alone, and that also there is like sacred work that is being done in which trans folks are claiming this thing.
I think it’s so powerful that we are claiming something that’s not… We’re literally not like even a part of the imagination. Well, there’s components of us that are part of the imagination around us, but certainly not really in the Torah, or one could argue. Not extensively. In the ways that you see like… I mean, I just think of the Adam HaRishon, like it can create trans into the first being, for sure, but I don’t know if we really make much of an appearance outside of that moment.
So, I feel like I just personally feel really bolstered when I see trans folks in particular wearing tzitzits, and also when I see women, cis women, wearing tzitzits. And yeah, I know if we’re doing, actually having, attending a Netzitzot tying party, which is like a… It’s like tzitzits for women, like the beged is more for more feminine-leaning folks, so it’s like the shirt part of it is not as straight lines. It’s like form fitting. And I went, and it was so lovely, because it was like… It was mostly cis women, and there was like me and one or two other transmasc folks, and it was just great to be in a room with people who, like again, like that mitzvah’s not written for them either, and to be sharing space with people who are taking it on, and choosing it, and trying to reform, and recreate, and reshape, helps me to… I guess for myself, in thinking about is this for me or how do I take this, I just inherently… I guess like the gift, a gift of being a trans Jew is holding complexity and nuanced intention just inherently. I think anyway Jews have that gift, because we’re like in golus, like in exile, and in this kind of like in-between space of not being redeemed or whatever.
So, I think that our people kind of like on a consciousness level holds attention really well, or have to, and then adding trans on top of that equals even a more plumbing the depths of that tension, holding, and… Yeah, like I know inherently that I don’t exist in the tradition, or like trans folks don’t exist, and yet I’m here, and yet trans folks are here. So, it’s like… Yeah. I don’t know. It’s just like something… There’s something kind of… Some kind of… I don’t know. Maybe mystic orientation or reality to the fact that we are here and are like claiming stuff that’s not for us. And this wisdom of tension holding, and it’s just being like holding that space, and kind of I guess… Maybe it just pushes us to have more amunah or something. More faith in the fact that in either G-d or like… I don’t know, the mysteries of this universe that we can’t answer. Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, that is a very beautiful note to end on, I think.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Cool.
Emma June: Thank you so much for joining me today.
Simcha Halpert-Hanson Yeah. Thanks a lot, Emma. It was sweet talking with you and getting to think more about it.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of this episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode7. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot C-O-M/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-7.
As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in the world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at email@example.com. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge thanks to Sarah Resnick, my producer, and to Home Despot, the incredible musician behind the music. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.