Episode 9: Adrian
I had the honor of tying tzitzit for Adrian Marcos in the Sephardic tradition. Then I had the honor of getting to interview them. What a blessing! Adrian is a Mexican-Filipino American who just graduated from university with a degree in biology, English, and religious studies.
Some definitions from our conversation:
Top Surgery: Surgery performed on the chest as part of gender reassignment, especially to remove breast tissue and produce a "masculine" appearance of the chest.
Siddur: A Jewish prayer book
Aliyah: the honor of being called up to read from the Torah
Minhag: Jewish religious custom
With any questions or comments, email me at email@example.com
Fringes Podcast Transcript
Transcript by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello 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 on the bottom of them. Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing someone who’s tzitzit I actually got to tie in my work at ADVAH. I reached out to see if they’d want to talk and here we are now. This is Adrian.
Adrian: Hi, I’m Adrian. Pronouns they/them/theirs, and I guess I’m gonna be interviewed today.
Emma June: Yay. Thank you so much for talking to me. I guess we’ll jump right in with kind of the first question I’ve been asking everyone, which is what are your first memories of tallitot? What are your first memories of tzitzit? Are they the same? Are they different? Kind of what does that bring up for you?
Adrian: So, my first memory with tallitot was probably during my first Yom Kippur, which was about a year ago. And that wasn’t like a religious thing or anything, like me putting it on wasn’t religious. It was just because I got cold. I was recovering from top surgery and I was dumb about a lot of things, so I’m just like, “Let me grab this and wrap up and be warm.” But I guess my official getting to wear a tallit for the first time was I think when I got the ones that you tied the tzitzit for, and yeah, that was more of an actual experience, because I got to say the brachot and put on… Like, knowing that I was putting it on to fulfill the mitzvah instead of just trying to stay warm during services.
Emma June: Yeah. Have you worn your new tallis to services?
Adrian: Yes. Yeah. There was a guy who’s like, “Oh, where’d you get that?” And I told him where I got it from. So…
Emma June: Wow.
Adrian: It’s fine.
Emma June: So, you’re talking about wearing a tallis to services and I guess I’m curious what it means for you to wear your tallit?
Adrian: It makes me feel more a part of the tribe, because I have something, like I have a tallit of my own instead of having to borrow one, or like look at the ones at the little gift shop we have at my synagogue, and be like, “One day I’ll be able to afford one of you.” It’s mine. I don’t know. It kind of feels like an affirmation of I am Jewish enough to wear this now kind of deal.
Emma June: Yeah.
Adrian: So, it definitely makes services a lot more personal for me, because it’s different when you’re bringing the Torah around. Like if you don’t have a tallit, you touch it with your siddur, and like it’s different kissing the spine of a siddur, compared to kissing the tzitzit.
Emma June: Yeah. Could you talk a little bit about what it feels like to kiss the tzitzit? Like why that’s special?
Adrian: It’s just there’s less distance, if that makes any sense. Like you know, siddur, siddurim are kind of big, so like there’s more distance between you and the Torah, where as like with the tzitzit, at least for me, what I do is like I’ll wrap it around my finger and then I’ll touch the covering for the Torah scroll, or if I’m like up for an Aliyah, then I’ll use that and touch where the yad is pointing and then I’ll get to kiss it and it’s like… It’s my item, or like an extension of me, rather than the siddur is like it’s a hard, kind of like not very flexible, at least the ones at my synagogue. They’re very hard and not very flexible. So, it’s like more rigid and everything.
Emma June: Yeah. That’s really beautiful. I’ve never thought about it that way before. Wow. Well, when I… So, part of how we got in touch is because you wanted your tzitzit tied with the Sephardic tying, and I was curious if you could talk a little bit about what that in particular means to you?
Adrian: So, I’m pretty sure it’s been like implied by this point, like I converted to Judaism, and the Minhag of my synagogue is like Ashkenaz, but I am half-Mexican, half-Filipino, so like I have more… I don’t really have ties to that area of Europe. I have the more… I’m more tied towards Spain, so I’ve been kind of looking into the customs of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, because like all the stuff within the Ashkenaz world doesn’t quite mesh with me.
So, having a tallit with the tzitzit tied in the Sephardic style just makes me feel more connected to my roots and allows me to connect more to the way that I practice.
Emma June: Totally. That’s really special.
Emma June: Wow. Yeah. I feel very touched by that and by the opportunity that you gave me, actually, because I’m part Sephardic and I had never tied them that way before. Well, I guess something I’m also curious about is like how you approach a tallis, like as a trans person, or how you identify with or don’t, or how you… Oh my gosh. I’m doing a bad job asking this question, but the question is really like how you approach choosing and wearing a tallis, like from the gender that you occupy.
Adrian: So, it’s taken a lot of self-reflection, and a constant reminder to stay off of Reddit, because… Like don’t get me wrong, r/Judaism is… It’s really cool. Tons of information there. But it’s like it has its bent, and as a Reform Jew, I’m just kind of like, “Okay. I should not come here for any Minhag answers.” So, like I’ve kind of approached wearing a tallit and I also… I just got like a tallit katan, which is like the shirt one. There’s a better way to describe that, but it’s the shirt one. And I’ve started to wear that on and off, and I approached it kind of like the same way I did when I started testosterone. It was like it wasn’t that I was trying to become a guy. It was like me trying to become more comfortable in my own body.
So, when I’m wearing a tallit or if I’m wearing a tallit katan, tzitzit, it’s not because I’m trying to present as a guy, or because like, “Oh, I think I’m a guy, therefore I have to do this mitzvah.” It’s… No, I’m a Jew, and I want to try out this mitzvah, because as a Reform Jew, you’re supposed to try out all of the commandments, all 613 of them, and then see which ones work and which ones don’t for you personally. So, maybe I’ll wear a tallit katan full time at some point, maybe I won’t, but this is helping me discover, inform how I practice my faith and everything.
Emma June: Right. Could you talk more about what it feel like to wear a tallit katan for you?
Adrian: Yeah, so yeah, I just started pretty recently, and I’ve gotten a lot of questions, because people will see the fringes and be like, “Oh, what’s that for?” But it’s also mainly from my family, because I live with my grandparents and they’re Catholic and I’m not, and it’s the first time… There’s like no Jews on my side of the city. I live on the older side of San Diego, so I’m pretty sure I’m the only Jew there.
But it’s like you’ve got the physical reminder that you’re wearing something. It’s more than wearing a kippah, because after a while, you kind of forget it’s up there until you go to do your hair. And then your hand gets caught on the clips and you’re like, “Ouch! Okay, that’s there.” With the tallit katan, it’s like for me, I have one that’s like a shirt, so you can wear it in place of an undershirt, so you feel it against you. And you kind of have to be more mindful about how you move, because a tzitzit could get caught, and then you’re like, “Oh!” That happened a few days ago and I was like, “All right, I gotta keep that in mind.”
But it’s also kind of like a weight. The fabric itself is super lightweight, but it’s like there’s enough of the garment there that you’re kind of reminded that it’s a presence around you, so like how G-d is… or like if there is a higher power, could be everywhere, but at the very least it’s kind of surrounding you, or at least observing, so you have that connection, if that makes any sense.
Emma June: Right. No, it does, and the commandment wants the tzitzit to be tied to something with four corners, and I feel like thinking of corners and being surrounded makes a lot of sense together. Totally. Yeah. Do you feel like there are… I guess I really think that it’s a really interesting place to exist, like at kind of this intersection of wanting to wear or own yourself in being Jewish and then kind of having to deal with a lot of ritual objects that are made for particular genders, or are supposed to look a certain way.
Emma June: On really binary genders. And that… I guess I feel like, oh my gosh, we have to be so creative to be able to make a tallis our own as trans Jews, and I guess I’m curious if there have been any moments in your life with your new tallis, or with your tallit katan, or whatever, where you’ve felt really like, “Oh, I’m figuring something out here. I’m doing something special.”
Adrian: It was definitely like the first time I put on the tallit katan, just because traditionally it is such a… It’s like a male-only thing. It’s kind of like me trying to figure out, “Well, why do I want to wear this?” And it’s not because, like I said, it’s not because I wanted to be a guy. It’s just because I wanted to explore the mitzvah and maybe explore the connection to G-d. Like I don’t… I personally don’t think that wanting to do a mitzvah has to be tied to gender, especially because like I’m not binary, so no gender, and if I want to do a mitzvah, I should be able to do a mitzvah. I shouldn’t have to have extra bits down there to do it. You know? I’m a Jew, regardless of what’s in my pants or what’s not in my pants. You know?
Emma June: Totally.
Adrian: So… Yeah.
Emma June: Yeah.
Adrian: There’s a part of me that has that imposter syndrome. I think it is because I did convert, where like I’ll look at my tallit katan and I’m like, “Am I really… Should I really be wearing this? Am I allowed to wear this? Should I be doing this?” And I’m like, “I’m not Jewish enough to do this,” type of deal. And then I have to stop myself and be like, “Yes, I am Jewish enough to do this, because I’m a Jew.”
Emma June: Yeah.
Adrian: I don’t need anyone else’s approval to do this. I just need my own approval.
Emma June: Right. And like if Jewish people can’t wear these things, who can?
Adrian: Yeah. Exactly.
Emma June: Totally. I’m really with you with that. I guess are there things that I haven’t asked you or that you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I have all of these thoughts about tallitot,” that we didn’t even touch on?
Adrian: I guess just how tallitot are advertised, you know, because I’ve been like… Up until I found ADVAH Designs website, I’d been looking at this website, like Ben’s Tallit Shop, and I’d look at it and I was like, “I’ll probably get a tallit from here.” And then it’s like boys, and men, and boys, and men, and I’m just like, “Or maybe not,” because I’m not a guy, but if you go looking for “women’s” tallit, or tallitot, they’re just like silk shawls, and I’m like, “But that’s not what I want either.” So, it was like trying to find a tallit that was gender affirming, and that’s what I found with ADVAH Designs, like it was colorful, but not like uber “girly” if that makes any sense.
Emma June: Yeah.
Adrian: It’s like I just kind of wish it wasn’t men’s tallit and women’s tallit/things that could pass off as just silk shawls type of deal, like tallit should… Like even women’s tallit should look awesome, you know?
Emma June: Hell yeah. It’s definitely something, like working with people who buy from ADVAH, a lot of people come in. We don’t label them in any gendered way, but people will be like, “Oh, which ones are your women’s tallit?” And we’re like, “There’s no such thing. Anyone can wear any of them.” And people get very flustered and they’re like, “But this one has purple in it, so it’s gotta be a woman’s tallis.”
Emma June: It’s pretty shocking how attached and ingrained all of that is.
Adrian: Yeah. That’s why I ended up getting the two that I did, because one looked like the trans flag almost and then the other one was like a darker… At least to my eyes, it looked like a darker, “more mature” version, so it was like I will get both. And they’re not… Wearing them, I’m like, “Oh, this doesn’t scream uber masculine, but it doesn’t scream uber feminine, either.” It’s just like one has a lighter color palette, so maybe I’m feeling a little lighter that day. Whereas the other one has a darker color palette and maybe I’m just really tired, but I still want to go to services, so I’ll wear that one.
Emma June: Yeah. And it’s interesting to me, at least, that like a way that you can express how you feel Jewishly is through this kind of clothing item, and how… Yeah, like I often feel that way about clothing with my gender, and it’s really cool to reframe it and think about it with Judaism, too.
Adrian: Yeah. We have a lot of the older people at my synagogue, they think I’m a guy, and like I haven’t corrected them, but they’re all older and everything, so again, I also present masculine, like I’ve got the butch haircut, I wear jeans and trainers, and my voice has finally cracked, so I don’t blame any of them for thinking that I’m a guy, but getting to wear a more neutral looking tallit kind of adds to the androgyny, so it kind of like helps me balance out. It’s like, “Oh yeah, they’re gonna call me he today,” and I’m about 95% okay with that, but I know that I’m not a he, and here’s my tallit to show the world that I’m not 100% a he today.
Emma June: Yeah. That’s really awesome. I’m smiling. You can’t see. That’s really awesome. Is there anything else still on your mind?
Adrian: Do you wear a tallit?
Emma June: I do sometimes. I wear the one I got at my bat mitzvah to services sometimes, but I don’t feel super connected to it, and I wear a tallit katan occasionally, as well. I think I wore it more a few years ago, and I’ve been feeling like, “I don’t know how to wear this.” I don’t know. Yeah, I think I’ve been feeling a lot of confusion about what I’m wearing and when, and I think about it a lot, because I work with tallitot.
Emma June: And I guess part of the thing happening with this podcast and this project is about me not having a lot of answers and feeling like nobody talks about it, and just wanting to know, like what other people are doing and how they connect to a tallis and how they get creative and get out there. It’s been really amazing to hear a lot of people talk, and definitely to hear you share, because I think people… I think that our trans Jews are really creative and also really confused, and curious, and unsure, and that’s also kind of heartening, even though it’s hard.
Adrian: Yeah. It’s like you mentioned, like no one really talk about, is like when I was looking, I just… I wanted to see if there were other non-binary people out there, like other non-binary Jews who wore a tallit katan. I was like, “I cannot be the only one who wears one.” And I found… It was like a handful. Not even a handful. It was like less than a handful of blogs on Tumblr, and I threw the question at one of them. I was like, “So, how did you come to the decision to do this? You do wear one.” And they’re like, “Yeah, I do. I just haven’t lately because I have cats and they seem to think my tzitzit are toys.” And I was like, “That’s fair.”
But yeah, just knowing that there are other non-binary Jews out there, like that makes me feel a lot better. It makes me feel a lot less awkward about wearing one, you know?
Emma June: Definitely. Definitely. Yeah. And it’s… It can be scary, too, like it really marks you in the public eye if they’re not tucked in.
Adrian: Oh yeah. And it’s like the area, so where I go to school, there’s an Orthodox synagogue like right down the road, like probably… I won’t say like a 10-minute walk. Maybe like a 10-minute run from my main campus, and I’ve driven past it, and I’ve seen people wearing tzitzit, but they’re all men. They’re all guys. So, that, it’s just there’s no representation, if you know, like no one who’s AFAB, or looks fem, feminine, or anything like that. It’s just it’s all Orthodox guys wearing their tzitzit. I’m just like, “I’m a Reform Jew and I want to do this representation, please. Someone?” You know?
Emma June: Yeah. It’s definitely, like where I live, I live in Boston, and there are a number of… I know a handful of queer Jews who will wear tzitzit, and it sounds really, really brave of you to be doing that without knowing other people doing it. Truly. And really self-aware and awesome. Because I think I tried it because I saw somebody I knew doing it and then I said to myself, “Oh my G-d, you can do that?”
Emma June: What? I never thought of that! But-
Adrian: There’s… Sorry, you go.
Emma June: No, no, no.
Adrian: There’s this… It was a post that I saw on Reddit and it was like it was about a girl who had posted about wearing a tallit katan, and I thought it was cool. She’s like, “You know, I have every right to wear this.” And all of the comments, at least on the Reddit post, were just negative about it and I was like, “Oh. Okay.” It’s like it was before I finally decided to bite the bullet and buy a tallit katan for myself. It was definitely a gut punch. It’s like, “Oh, this AFAB person is being kicked to pieces.” And then I’m like… It took me a few weeks to be like, “But it’s Reddit. Like… It’s Reddit.”
Emma June: Yeah. It is. And it’s still like an attitude that exists in certain parts of the Jewish world.
Emma June: Even if it sucks that it does. Yeah. Wow. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of that.
Adrian: No problem. I’m happy to ramble.
Emma June: Me too. I really love hearing people ramble, so I really appreciate it.
Adrian: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to just talk about it.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project sponsored by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of the episode, please check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode9. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-9. As always, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. Thanks to my producer, Sarah Resnick, and to Home Despot, talented musician behind our intro. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.