I Knew I Was a Girl

A transgender woman once destined for the Hasidic rabbinate remembers the moment she first put a thought to the feeling

Screen Shot 2020-01-14 at 1.10.54 PM“LOOK WHO IS HERE!” Zeide Stein exclaimed as I walked into the sukkah one afternoon. “It’s the upshern yingel!”

It’s the boy who is about to get a haircut.

In the Hasidic community, boys get their first haircut on the day they turn three. Until then, their hair is left to grow, and from a distance it is difficult to tell if a small child is a boy or a girl, as both have long hair. There is no specific custom, in fact, saying that girls younger than three can’t cut their hair, but it is a strongly kept tradition not to take scissors to a boy’s hair until his third birthday. If a Bar Mitzvah signifies a Jewish boy becoming a man, then an upshern signifies a Hasidic child becoming a boy.

Sukkos had just ended, and it was the 24th of Tishrei, 5755, my third birthday. A grand celebration had been planned for weeks; in our dining room, my father stood with both of my grandfathers, most of my sixteen uncles, and several great-uncles. It was time.

I escaped from the dining room to the bathroom and hid. I knew what was coming, and I wanted no part of it.

To be clear, an upshern is not just a haircut. Most of the head is shaved by a razor set on a triple-zero blade, and only the sidelocks, called payos, are kept long. Depending on their family’s custom, Hasidic men grow their payos to either the chin or the shoulder. Having long payos—a custom kept today mostly by Hasidic and some Yemenite Jews, though in the past it was common among most East European, Middle Eastern, and Yemenite Jews—is based on a biblical commandment that forbids men from clean shaving the sides of their heads. As a way to show one’s commitment to the word of the Torah, it became customary not only to leave the payos unshaven, but to let them grow out. Over the years, the meaning of the payos evolved to symbolize one’s level of piousness. In fact, the Jews of Yemen used to call them not payos (which means “corners”) but by a term that meant “signs.”

My father had payos, but my mother and sisters obviously did not.

I didn’t want them either.

In the bathroom, my eyes filled with tears.

Why does everyone think I’m a boy? I thought. I am a girl, and girls have long hair. It was the first time I put a thought to the feeling. I am a girl.

Tati came to get me. “Everyone is waiting!” he said. “It’s time for you to get your beautiful payos!” “No, no, no, no!” I protested.

“Don’t cut my hair, I want to have long hair! Why is Hindy allowed to have long hair and not me?”

“You are a holy boy,” Tati said, trying to coax me into submission. “Girls don’t get to have payos, only holy boys do!”

Tati loomed over me, his eyes full of expectancy and impatience. 

I knew I wasn’t going to win. I went with him into the dining room, still crying. I cried all the way through, as first Tati, then Zeide Meisels, then Zeide Stein, then all the uncles, each cut off a piece of my hair, making silly jokes and laughing among themselves.

Only a few women were allowed to watch, because women who are in their menstruating years were not permitted.

Mommy, Bobbe Meisels, Bobbe Stein, and my sisters stood at the kitchen doorway watching. I wanted to run to them.

I later blocked out the rest of the day.

Abby Chava Stein is the tenth-generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. In 2019, she served on the steering committee for the Women’s March in Washington, DC. She lives in New York City.

Excerpted from Becoming Eve, by Abby Chava Stein. Copyright 2019 Seal Press.