BODY PARTS: a Jewish transsexual lexicon

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BODY PARTS a Jewish transsexual butch lexicon Darcy Leigh

Hair As other people’s mothers’ hair got shorter, greyer, more desexualised, my mum’s got curlier, bigger, more seductive. I knew her glamour was the key to her power: total independence, it seemed, from the culture at large; total sway over every man we met.

Belly My neglectful and bullying father had a big hairy belly. He loved to eat, he said. He had other appetites too, did not seemed ashamed when, on a rare visit, I discovered an A5 porn mag stored with his kippah a cupboard. At home with my mother, we ate to shrink ourselves. Or, when money was tight, we ate to bursting to prove that we could.

Feet I exercised my freedom from the tedious conventions of England with my feet, walked into cinemas and out of shops without paying. By six, I was unbothered by the burden of adult authority, liked wandering London more than going to school.

Elbows Did you know, that at nice Christian family dinners you are not supposed to put your elbows on the table, are supposed to wait for a silence before you speak? Try this: put your elbows, the grubbier the better, on every dinner table you encounter. Go for a good thud as they make contact. Never let anyone, finish speaking - especially not adults, if you are a child.

Tits Teenage girls find power in skin-tight tops and in bent-over smiles. I found mine with bartenders, shopkeepers, and older boyfriends.

Cunt My classmates’ laughter told me that the word I’d learned for my genitals was not English. No matter! My cunt devoured whole social scenes: goth and student, socialist and feminist, straight and queer.

Stomach Starving and binging: alternatives to knowing hunger or fullness. Avoiding ticket barriers, doorways, and public stairwells: solutions to not knowing where the body begins and ends.

Face Two steps for your late 20s, once you’ve seen the worst of men. First, get a job that reduces dependency on men. Second, withdraw all emotional labour. No smiling, no small talk. Let your face fell slack, your eyes unfocussed. This might be impossible. There will be costs either way.

Adipose tissue I moved onto from trying to be thin to trying to work out whether or not I was fat. I resolved to get fatter, so at least I would know. The body positive cheerleaders say to wear clothes that fit, but what is that? I couldn’t tell the difference between a slight brush and severe constraint.

Lungs Outside the male gaze, breathing becomes possible.

Skin Once, I’d eschewed all specificity, wanted to be anyone to everyone. Tattoos were specificity. By my late 20s, I wanted to cover every inch, to be all specificity. I’d learned that it’s just this specificity or that one, that there is no everyone.

Nose The fatter I got, the more butch and masculine, the more my father's nose appeared on my face, his belly at my waist. His teeth appeared in my mouth as my gums receded. Not wanting to encounter his teeth morning and night, I stopped brushing them. They receded further.

Muscle Macho trans man gym culture and skinny transmasculine nonbinary culture feel like yet more misogynist beauty industry and WASP-aspiring assimilationism. The figure of the militaristic muscle Jew might be a violent answer to antisemitic hostility to specifically Jewish masculinities, perceived as effeminate and weak.

Chins I feared my mother would see my exit from our glamour as a betrayal. Instead, as my chins multiply, we find a new candour. She tells me about being the immigrant daughter of the daughter of immigrants. She tells me I was exposed to androgyns in the womb, was born with a tiny penis.

Genes Many Ashkenazi Jews have a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutation, which leads to early onset, aggressive and recurring breast and ovarian cancer. My letter arrives from the oncologist of my estranged aunt, another unwanted inheritance from my father. I’ve heard that we have BRCA mutations because, in our efforts to keep going in the face of attempts at our destruction, we have reproduced in closed circles. I don’t know if that’s true. If it is, then this lethal mutation is also our survival.

Breasts Whispers of BRCA mutations, mastectomies, fear and grief, echo through Jewish community, connect Ashkenazi women accross the diaspora.

Womb To get tested for a BRCA mutation the patient is required to complete a course of ‘genetic counselling’ until the doctor is satisfied that they are sane enough to survive a mastectomy and hysterectomy. This involves demonstrating that the patient would be suitably distraught by the loss of their breasts and reproductive future. The patient must also show that they would be sane enough to cope with not having a mastectomy and hysterectomy, because most doctors would prioritise women’s reproductive future over a lethal diagnosis.

Jewbs Even if you are estranged from your whole family and know almost no Jews with boobs, I do not recommend Googling “Jewish boobs”. Apparently, we used them in concentration camps to seduce guards and secure survival, are still using them to control society, via men, from behind the scenes. Apparently they make up for our faces, ruined by our noses.

Teeth In black and white photos of great grandparents I’ve never met, I see my father’s teeth, his nose, and realise that they’re not all his: they’re all of ours, and nobody’s, and mine. I start brushing them.

Tongue I am studying biblical Hebrew. I don’t know enough to tell you in an intellectually honest way that there have always been Jewish trans genders in our sacred texts and our society. I wish I did. I can’t roll my ‘r’.

Wound My father’s anger is probably a response to his fathers anger which is one response to forced displacement and assimilation. Starving is another. Genders proliferate.

Heart My blood still moves faster when he comes near, but it is getting harder to tell the difference between fear and love.

Hand Yad is the word for the ritual silver hand that we use to avoid touching the sacred Torah scroll. I find a photo of my dad holding one at his bar mitzvah. My 13-year-old father, becoming a full Jewish citizen, looks exactly like me at 35. When I stop panicking, I move my hands over the shabbos candles: women’s ritual work. Then I put the photo on the wall and pretend it’s me.

Wrinkle It’s a joke, that we look like teenage boys isn’t it? Hilarious. Or is it just another way of infantalising butch women, queer women? Is transition a way out?

Testosterone The consent form says the patient may become immediately infertile and their womb may need removing regardless of their age. The consent form says that fat may redistribute to the belly, that the belly may become hairy. It says the patient may regrow the tiny penis that they lost.

Moustache Body hair can be passed off as ‘Ashkenazi Jews are just hairy’ until at least 12 months on T. 12 months of heightened transnational solidarity with hairy women.

Vocal chords Post-menopausal cis women take T too. Has my mother’s voice dropped just a fraction? I listen for another connection between us, for the next phase together. I see a trans voice coach when my throat starts to hurt. They say I can learn to roll my ‘r’ by bouncing it off my ‘t’.

Knuckles I get ‘home’ and ‘exile’ tattooed across my knuckles, separated by a Magen David. I know tattoos are taboo in Judaism, we’ve had them forced on us. Queers know all about reclaiming taboos, though, and subverting weapons. Now I am marked to Jews as a bad Jew, and to the world as a Jew.

Lips In Schul, or on Zoom, Ashkenazic and Sephardic melodies exceed language, collapse time and place. The shapes taste right in my mouth. I am tens of centuries of Jewish history, an awkward congregant and wild queer Torah student. I am somewhere between continents and generations. And I am right here.

Cock The doctor asks: how would you like your diasporic body part? Will you choose what probably would have been, an assimilated, uncut British cock? Or what you wish had been, or are supposed to wish had been: uninterrupted generations, cut? What about what could be, a new tradition of bodily autonomy? Of course, she didn’t say that. Imagine!

Scars I accepted my tits as part of me and I loved them. I thanked them for bringing me solidarity across genders and generations. I let them go. Now we have scars in common.

This zine is indebted to trans and queer Jewish zinesters, especially Rena Yehuda Newman, Micah Bizant and Avram Katzman. It is inspired by scholars of the Jewish body and Jewish masculinity, particularly Daniel Boyarin. My endless gratitude goes to trans, queer and feminist students of the Torah and Jewish history, not least author of Beyond the Pale, Elena Dykewoman, who helped me locate my self in history.

The project Gender Bites: Wild Tongues provided the artwork, design elements, prompt and support for this zine.

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