March 24, 2019 09:00:00

Abby Stein grew up in New York City, with no access to the internet, no knowledge of Halloween, and only a few words of English.

Her family are Hasidic Jews, an ultra-Orthodox religious group that was founded in Europe during the 1700s.

And Abby — who was raised as a boy — says when it comes to gender roles, social integration and even hairstyles, the Hasidic community still lives in a time vacuum.

“Geographically, I grew up in Brooklyn, but culturally I grew up in some pretend 18th century Eastern Europe,” she says.

“They don’t use the internet and TV, but they do use lights, telephones and cars.

“They are trying to recreate this nostalgic view that they had of life [back then].”

At home, Abby and her 11 siblings spoke Yiddish — a language used by Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. At her Hasidic school, she learnt a traditional form of Hebrew.

Abby also studied Aramaic, the ancient language believed to have been spoken during the time of Jesus.

When it came to English — the de facto language of the United States — Abby barely knew her ABCs. She learnt the language properly after leaving the Hasidic community as a 20-year-old.

“No-one I knew could really have a conversation in English,” she says.

‘Everyone says that I’m a boy’

Today, Abby is a public figure for transgender and ex-Orthodox communities. But as a kid, she had no idea that there was a world outside of the Hasidic community.

“I had zero outside friends, and by outside I’m not just talking non-Jewish — I’m talking non-Hasidic friends,” she says.

“The community is extremely sheltered. It’s not just living a strict, conservative religious life. It’s an entire culture that exists in a bubble.”

The isolation didn’t stop her from questioning what she was taught to believe.

“When I was three years old I got the side curls that Hasidic boys get,” she recalls.

“I’m like, ‘Everyone says that I’m a boy, but that is not accurate’.”

By the time she reached adolescence, Abby was also questioning her religious identity, reading books about evolution and biblical criticism.

“I got to a point where the lifestyle didn’t work for me, not just because of my gender identity, but also because I didn’t believe it,” she says.

But she knew nothing of the LGBTQ community and so — as the then son of a rabbi — she agreed to marry a woman.

“In our community, you’re born, you breathe, you eat, and when you’re 18 you get married,” she says.

“I remember thinking in my wedding ceremony, ‘I should wear the gown, I’m on the wrong side here.’ But I didn’t know about any other choice.”

One transition to another

After the marriage, Abby followed in her father’s footsteps and gained a rabbinical degree.

“Part of it was because I legitimately wanted to know [more about Judaism], but part of it was also, ‘If I’m going to rebel, I need to know what I’m rebelling against,'” she remembers.

But Abby’s ordination as a rabbi didn’t provide the answers she craved.

“I went online for the first time in January 2012, which is when I learned that the transgender community even exists,” she says.

Soon after, Abby joined Footsteps, a non-profit organisation helping people leaving the ultra-Orthodox community.

The decision sparked a chain of events: Abby separated from and later divorced her wife, she physically and religiously left the Hasidic community, and, after obtaining her high school diploma, she started college at Columbia University.

But the angst around her gender identity remained.

“You know the term, ‘You’re going to pray the gay away’? I was just hoping it was going to disappear somehow,” she says.

“Finally, the second semester is when it all dawned on me. I was fully integrated [into secular life], and I was like, ‘I need to transition’.”

From isolation to online sensation

Abby started hormone treatments in September 2015 and came out publicly in a blog post in November.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to change my name on Facebook, put a new picture, and send out this blog post to everyone I know and be like, ‘This is who I am, moving on’,” she says.

Abby had no idea just how far her story would travel. Overnight, the post was viewed more than 20,000 times and soon national newspapers like The New York Times were calling.

“Before I knew it, by the end of 2015 … my life was fully public,” she remembers.

Since then, Abby has embraced her role as a public figure for transgender and ex-Orthodox communities.

Despite calling herself a “bad millennial” — she prefers phone calls over texts — Abby has embraced new technologies to start an online and now in-person support group for transgender people.

As part of her current visit to Australia, Abby will be speaking in Melbourne at an event organised by Footsteps.

The loss of living openly

Despite her work with Jewish communities, Abby says she wouldn’t call herself “religious”.

“To some extent I’m an atheist,” she says.

“But I’m very proud of the [Jewish] culture — I think we have our issues, but as a whole I think Judaism has a lot of [positive] messages.”

Since coming out, Abby’s parents and most of her siblings have stopped talking to her.

But coming from a big family has meant she’s not completely alone.

“I do have a relationship with two of my siblings and about 10 to 15 of my cousins,” she says.

“Most people don’t have more than two siblings or 10 to 15 cousins, which is maybe a bit of dark humour.

“My family is actually the only thing from the Hasidic community that I miss. Everything else, like holidays and the food, I just do that anyway.”









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