Two States, One State, A Lot of Love (Donald and Bibi, Melania and Sara)

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As the White House burns and Israel lurches towards a one state apartheid future, the word used by one Israeli journalist is complacency. The Founding Fathers preside over the happy scene. President Trump was perfectly blase at the press conference where he laid out his vision of the Zionist idea. “So, I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.” Let’s call it the “Two State One State Whatever Solution.” Asked by a brave Israeli journalist about complaints concerning his campaign, Trump promised here at home in the United States to smother all that simmering anti-Semitism in a lot of love.

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Haredi Transgender (Abby Stein)

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In the depressing and dreary state of our political world in the Age of Trump, this is touching and lovely story about the power of transformation and self-creation is life affirming. For those who can’t get behind the Ha’aretz paywall here I’m posting below the piece by Debra Nussbaum Cohen about Abby Stein, who was born and ordained as a Hasidic rabbi and then transitioned from male to female, leaving her community to find new cultural and spiritual connections.

 

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen Feb 14, 2017

NEW YORK – Abby Stein is almost certainly the only ordained Hasidic rabbi who is also a woman. Stein wasn’t female when ordained, of course. She was a young man, soon to be married to a woman also from the strict Satmar community in which they were both raised.

While Stein – then named Yisroel and nicknamed Srully – had long had unsettling feelings about her gender identity, when she married at age 18 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and moved to Monsey, she had no idea that just a few years later her life would be radically different.

But it is. Today Stein, 25, is a Columbia University student, divorced, no longer ultra-Orthodox – and female.

Abby, as she is now known, is a petite young woman with shoulder-length brown hair, whose religious origins are detectable only in the Yiddish accent and cadence of her speech. Estrogen has made her face softer and her body more womanly, and has even induced PMS-like mood swings.

Abby Stein today after undergoing gender transitioning, leaving the religious world, getting a divorce and becoming a student at Columbia University. Debra Nussbaum Cohen
She is happier than she has ever been and plans to work on transgender issues in public policy. She may even one day run for local public office.

The sixth of 13 children, Stein was her parents’ first son. It was an upbringing full of cousins, weddings and Shabbos tisches (Friday night community gatherings) with the rebbe. Her father is related in five different ways to the Baal Shem Tov, the mystical 18th-century rabbi and founder of Hasidism. As such, the family has customs that reflect its status. While in strict Hasidic communities women don’t drive, Stein men don’t either. They don’t eat in restaurants and work only in Jewish education. After bar mitzvah the boys wear white knee socks rather than black ones — something most Satmar men do only after marriage.

When young Stein questioned her father about why they didn’t go to amusement parks during the Passover and Sukkot festivals like most Hasidim, he would respond that those things were “pas nisht” — simply “not done” – by Steins.

Something nagged at the little boy from an early age, although she lacked the language to describe it. In the bathtub at age 4, she’d prick her penis with pins because, as Stein tells Haaretz now, “It just felt like it didn’t belong there. I realized right away that I couldn’t tell anyone.”

She voraciously read articles about organ transplant from Yiddish language newspapers Der Yid and HaMaspik, thinking “someday I’ll get a full-body transplant.” At age 11, Stein added a personal prayer to her bedtime recitation of the daily Shema (confession of faith) prayer: to wake up a girl.

At 15 Stein went to a high-school yeshiva of the Vizhnitz Hasidic community in upstate New York. One day a classmate gave her a Hebrew-language translation of Richard Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?” That led Stein to read “The God Delusion” by atheist Richard Dawkins, and to the discovery in the yeshiva library of books by Rabbi Yitzhak Moshe Erlanger, a scholar of kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.

Students at the yeshiva typically returned home one weekend a month, and Erlanger was in Williamsburg one Shabbat when Stein was there. They spoke for hours and the rabbi gave her an important work about kabbalah to read. “For the first time,” Stein recalls now,

“I realized that gender could be fluid.”

At 17, Stein’s parents conducted the requisite research for a girl recommended by a shadchan (matchmaker) and the two met for a b’show at the girl’s married sister’s apartment. While theoretically either of them could have declined the match, when the prospective groom arrived the table was already set to celebrate their engagement.
“It’s extremely taboo” to turn down such a match, similar to breaking an engagement in the non-ultra-Orthodox world, says Stein.

The bride called Stein’s mother every week, but Stein herself had no contact with the bride during the year leading up to their wedding. The night before the chuppah, she went to the rebbe’s son for marital instruction. She was told they were to have sex only on Friday and Tuesday nights, after midnight, in the dark and in one position. Gender identity doubts persisted, Stein says, but “I kept telling myself everything would be fine.”

They lived in Monsey and were soon expecting a child. Stein’s feelings rose up anew, she says. “Gender began punching me in the face.”
Stein got her hands on a smartphone and, in the bathroom at a mall, began her search. “The first thing I Googled was boy turning into a girl. Then I found a Hebrew Wikipedia page about transgender. I couldn’t read English” (Yiddish is the predominant language among the Satmar sect and in its schools).

She also found an online Israeli forum for trans people. “I realized, ‘Wow, there’s a whole world out there’ and that freaked me out,” says Stein. This was before Caitlyn Jenner and the television show “Transparent,” when there was relatively open, public conversation about trans people.

The couple’s son, Duvid, was born in January 2012; a year later, Stein told her wife that she was a non-believer. They talked about leaving Satmar for a more modern community because “we were still trying to make it work.”

Stein joined the New York-based Footsteps organization, which supports people leaving ultra-Orthodox communities, started taking English as a second language at a local community college, explored various online trans communities and opened a Facebook account as “Chava.” With a Footsteps tutor she prepared to take the high-school equivalency test.

Eventually Stein and her wife separated. She worked in Williamsburg and lived with her parents, with whom she was still close; her wife lived with Duvid at her parents’. At first father and son saw each other weekly, until the wife’s parents decided they could not meet unless their daughter was granted a get, a divorce, and Stein promised not to change her appearance and agreed to see the child just once a month.

Hard-hitting depression

After enrolling in a college-preparation program offered by Columbia University, Stein started spending time at the Hillel Jewish students’ organization on campus, and later applied to the school at Columbia designed for students from non-traditional backgrounds. On her application, which required a lengthy essay, she wrote simply, “I grew up in New York City but until I was 20, I never saw a movie, went to a Broadway show or listened to music” – and was accepted.

Once immersed in studies, Stein hoped her gender identity issues would fade, but several weeks into her first semester depression hit hard; she couldn’t get out of bed. A counselor at the university said he thought the student was hiding something.

Yisroel “Srully” Stein, before coming out as a trans woman named Abby. She is happier than she has ever been before, she says today. Eve Singer
By then she had begun using women’s deodorant and letting her hair grow, but wasn’t yet ready to confront gender transitioning head-on. The depression intensified and she looked for a new therapist. At the LGBT center in lower Manhattan, a staffer told Stein she was trans. After working at a Jewish camp that summer, she began to transition.
Stein began taking estrogen and a testosterone blocker in September 2015, and started coming out to friends. One showed up with a bag of women’s clothes, another taught her how to apply makeup. She began going to trans support groups.

Stein still dressed outwardly as male though “emotionally it was getting harder” not to make the full transition. She wanted to tell her parents personally about her decision so they didn’t hear it through gossip. One Shabbat, back at home, Stein says she lit candles — solely a woman’s ritual — which she had been doing privately for a year.

“My mother said, ‘You look different,” says Stein, but didn’t ask any specific questions.
Taking estrogen has changed Stein, in the interim. A receding hairline has filled in and her hair has grown thicker. Her cheekbones have become fuller, she has breasts and her hips have widened. Her son Duvid, now 5, started calling her “Mama” as soon as she got her ears pierced, she says.

Stein started attending Romemu, a Jewish Renewal, egalitarian Jewish congregation in Manhattan, and became close to its rabbi, David Ingber. He offered to speak with Stein’s father, and they met in late 2015.

“It was the first time [my father] saw me wearing earrings. He said, ‘It would be easier for me to talk to you while you’re wearing a kippah,’” Stein recalls.

Yisroel Stein with his son Duvid and his parents. After Yisroel became Abby, a trans woman, she was called “Mama” by Duvid when she got her ears pierced. Abby Stein
Her father, who runs a Williamsburg yeshiva for troubled youth, didn’t say much.
“He stayed frozen,” Stein says. “He said, ‘I don’t believe it [transgender] exists.’ I showed him kabbalistic and Hasidic ideas. He said, ‘Why would you do that – women are so much less than men?’ Then he said, ‘You know this means I probably can’t talk to you ever again.’ He stood up, thanked David for taking care of me. He didn’t say goodbye to me, he just walked out the door.”

Her parents have not spoken with her since. Stein called home before the Jewish New Year last fall but got no response from her mother, who answered the phone. “It is painful,” says Stein, who likes baking challah her mother’s way.

Speaking out

Stein had her name legally changed from Yisroel to Abby Chava. Now her birth certificate, driver’s license and school ID indicate that she is female. In an emergency room recently after being hit by a car, a doctor asked when her last menstrual period was.
Stein and her ex-wife haven’t spoken directly since their divorce. The woman’s new husband turns Duvid over when Stein comes to pick him up.

Today Stein wears a triangle charm necklace. Two corners bear symbols for male and female, while the third indicates transgender. She is dating a woman. And she is on a waiting list for sexual reassignment surgery.

At Columbia she’s majoring in political science, and women’s and gender studies. She teaches Hebrew school at Romemu and at the Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, and recently started a part-time community engagement job at the Manhattan borough president’s office.

Stein is also writing a memoir, and someone is making a documentary about her. As the only Hasid in America to come out publicly as transgender, she is in great demand as a speaker from Limmud Jewish education organization, to college and LGBTQ groups. She also runs an online support group for Hasidic trans people.

Most importantly, Stein notes now, she has never felt better.

“I experienced cycles of depression since I was 12,” she says. “Now I have mood swings, but I can deal with that by watching Netflix and eating pickles.”

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Fascists (Stephen Bannon & Julius Evola)

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Read here this stunning piece in the NYT that tries to draw a connecting line between Stephen Bannon and the Italian Dada Fascist Nazi theorist Julius Evola, about whom we are learning was a political theorist is steeped in apocalypse and racialist hierarchy. The NYT piece mentions that Evola has “caught on” with European fascist movements in Italy, Greece, Hungary, and with the American alt-Right promoted by Bannon at Breitbart.  The smoking gun is the Skype presentation that Bannon delivered in 2014 to a group of Catholic Traditionalists at the Vatican. What is unclear is the whether or not the man in the White House actually subscribes to Evola’s political theory. It would be a stretch to call Bannon’s brief nod to Evola as “complex” only because the thinking would be better characterized as sloppy and incoherent.

It’s a rambling mess, but you can read the whole transcript here.  I’m posting below in italics the relevant sections from the Vatican presentation. Most of the speech is directed against banks and bankers and the crony capitalism that along with secularism is seeping so-called Judeo-Christian values. Openly aligning with UKIP in England and with National Front movements on the continent, the stance is nationalist. Repeated mention of “Judeo-Christian values” should not obscure that the screed against banks bankers is part of an anti-modernist theme that was once central modern fascist theory. One suspects that the fact that the one bank mentioned is Goldman Sachs, where Bannon once worked, is not merely happenstance.

But what about Evola? Read below to see how the mention of him on Bannon’s part came in response to a question about Putin. On the one hand, in the main body of his presentation he describes this new Tea Party populism as “center right” and expresses confidence that that racist and anti-Semitic “baggage” of what we are now today calling the Alt-Right will be “washed out” if properly “policed.” On the other hand, the response to the question regarding Putin and klepto-capitalism is sloppy, slipping and sliding seamlessly from a passing reference to Evola as part of Putin’s ideological background to Putin’s support of the Traditonalist values that Bannon is himself promoting. The very mention of Evola, an obscure theorist, suggests genuine erudition, and also to the most probably certain fact that Bannon spends a lot of time trolling around fascist and Nazi literature, or at least websites. Reflecting a sloppy mind, Bannon does not stop at that bright red line that a fascist Nazi-leaning theoriest should have marked, but plows right ahead to embrace Putin as a fellow traveler.

The alliance that Bannon wants to strike with Putin has to do with Putin as Traditionalist and an enemy of Islam. All of this should remind one of the way fascist sympathizers s in the United States and England supported Hitler and the Nazis in their struggle against the common enemy of Soviet Bolshevism. From what follows below, it seems that Bannon gets much of his information about the war of Islam against the West from Twitter, Facebook, and then CNN and the BBC. The idea he expressed that in 500 years people will be talking about Stephen Bannon and his role in this great war of civilization suggests both incoherence and a dangerous megalomania. As fascist and even Nazi-like thinking, what clearly stands out in Bannon’s Vatican presentation is how “Islam” stands in for “the Jew” as the great threat to white Christian national traditions.

I think it’s a little bit more complicated. When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he’s got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism. A lot of people that are traditionalists are attracted to that.

 One of the reasons is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States. They’d rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.

I’m not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents, because he eventually is the state capitalist of kleptocracy. However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.

[[[And then here’s Bannon’s takeaway against Islam]]]

If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places… It bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.

 And I would ask everybody in the audience today, because you really are the movers and drivers and shakers and thought leaders in the Catholic Church today, is to think, when people 500 years from now are going to think about today, think about the actions you’ve taken — and I believe everyone associated with the church and associated with the Judeo-Christian West that believes in the underpinnings of that and believes in the precepts of that and want to see that bequeathed to other generations down the road as it was bequeathed to us, particularly as you’re in a city like Rome, and in a place like the Vatican, see what’s been bequeathed to us — ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me? What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?

 Because it is a crisis, and it’s not going away. You don’t have to take my word for it. All you have to do is read the news every day, see what’s coming up, see what they’re putting on Twitter, what they’re putting on Facebook, see what’s on CNN, what’s on BBC. See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions. It’s very easy to play to our baser instincts, and we can’t do that. But our forefathers didn’t do it either. And they were able to stave this off, and they were able to defeat it, and they were able to bequeath to us a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do what I call a gut check, to really think about what our role is in this battle that’s before us.

 

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Graduate Students Should Know (Recommendations)

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What I hate about graduate education and the job market for exiting graduate students is how opaque the system is and the way this opacity contributes to doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and self-loathing. I’m beginning to decide to share with graduate students those parts of my letters of recommendation for them where I conceptualize their dissertation projects for the persons to whom I’m recommending them. There are two reasons. One because the adviser’s encapsulation of the project should be part of the ongoing faculty-advisee conversation, and should contribute to the crystallization of their own conception of their work and to their own self-conceptualization as scholars. Two and relatedly, because they should all know that their work is terrific, is regarded as such, and is being presented as such to others. This goes for all of you. This should be seen as both a salve and a goad to further excellence. Also, if a dissertation project is dull, well, who’s fault is it really if not the mentor’s and the institution’s?

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Satanic Portrait (Stephen Bannon on the Cover of Time Magazine)

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Jack Romm reads the picture here at the Forward. “Bannon’s left eye looks roughly just below the camera, almost on center, almost at the viewer. And it is towards this eye that we are initially drawn. The position of Bannon’s hand naturally draws our attention to this side of his face, and his finger points up, drawing our gaze to the eye. But it is the right eye that proves more interesting. Bannon’s right eye gazes to the right, off center, out of frame (this lazy eye is yet another marker of his physical ailments). He is looking, in effect, at two things at once. He is sitting for the photo with his left eye, but his mind is elsewhere, somewhere off-camera, somewhere hidden. It is unnerving in the way that all duplicity is unnerving. We can’t help but feel that this photo is a distraction, that, while we look, there is something going on behind us. A plot betrayed by Bannon’s gaze.

This may as well be the picture of the devil. The cover photograph of Stephen Bannon reflects and at the same time generates the fear and loathing provoked by the Trump Administration among large parts of the American public. Black framed in red, the picture is satanic in its portrait of political power, the corruption of democratic norms.

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Little Green Liberty Out in The Distance

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Berkeley Riot (Not A Safe Space for Neo Nazis)

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I’m only of mixed mind regarding the violent riot at UC Berkeley shutting down the talk by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. This episode at Berkeley is much like the now famous one that involved Richard Spencer on his trip to Washington D.C. getting punched in the head by a BlackBloc activist. I can neither support nor condemn this kind of reaction.  But campus free speech codes are going to have to come to terms with a new political reality, namely the rise of the racist far right on the American political scene. I am tempted by the argument that the constitution of morality and politics depends upon the drawing of definite red lines that cannot be crossed without the provocation of a grave public consequence. That is to say that, normatively and descriptively, neo-Nazis and crypto Nazis have no “rightful” place on a university campus. But even if one supports giving neo-Nazis a university free-speech platform and while it is undeniably true that the violence gave Yiannopoulous a larger platform, it also is true that Republicans, mainstream or otherwise, should be forced to either condemn or own the alt-Right.

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