Prof’s transition journey inspiration for play
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For Winnipegger Ben Baader, transitioning took two forms — from female to male and from being a secular Jew to an observant and practising Orthodox Jewish believer.
Baader, 64, teaches European and Jewish history at the University of Manitoba. Originally from Germany, he came to the province to be a professor in 2005.
His trans journey began as a child; he felt gender ambiguous while growing up. He lived for years as a lesbian before coming out as trans while studying for his PhD in New York in the 1990s.
When he interviewed for the job at the University of Manitoba, he was in the midst of his transitioning journey.
“They were completely lovely about it,” he said of the history department. “Very generous and understanding, welcoming and thoughtful.”
When his stepmother died in 2008, and his mother in 2010, he was deeply impacted by their deaths.
“Through their deaths, I began to experience light,” Baader said, adding it was like they were “channelling light” to him.
It was a slow process, but it caused him to start embracing Jewish religious practices such as daily prayer and ritual observance.
At the same time, his studies in Judaism became less academic. “The more I read Torah and Talmud, the more I felt that ocean of light coming from between the letters in the texts,” he said.
“I started to fall in love with the text. There was a depth of radiance. I was moving from the academic to the experiential.”
Unlike with his transitioning gender, Baader didn’t tell anyone about his newfound religious practices and observances; he kept that in the closet. But once he started keeping Shabbat, more people knew.
“If you have to be home on Friday nights and you can’t go to meetings on Saturday, you can’t keep that quiet,” he said.
When it came to choosing a Jewish tradition to be part of, Baader decided on Orthodox Judaism.
“For me, that’s the place where there’s the most light and devotion,” he said, adding he attends an Orthodox synagogue in Winnipeg.
Since Baader looks male, he fits in when he sits on the men’s side. But not all trans Orthodox Jews are so lucky. Many stop attending services until their transition is complete.
“Most disappear, go underground, move and show up somewhere else later,” he said. “There is a huge amount of loneliness.”
The transitions in Baader’s life are the inspiration for a new play titled Narrow Bridge that will be staged March 11 to 19 at the Berney Theatre on the Asper Jewish Community Campus.
Written by local playwright, performer and director Daniel Thau-Eleff, it tells the story of a fictional character named Sholem who transitions genders while discovering Orthodox Judaism.
Thau-Eleff feels grateful to be able to tell Baader’s story. “I’ve been lucky to be part of his journey,” he said.
As for the play itself, Baader notes it isn’t about him. “But it reflects my experience,” he said, noting the timeline is compressed and other fictional elements are introduced.
In his real life, his transition from non-practicing Jew to Orthodox Judaism has helped make him feel complete.
“I have such a deep awareness of the divine presence, it’s become so visceral,” he said. “Everywhere I look I see the face of God. I feel connected to the light that flows all around me.”
Baader and Thau-Eleff will also discuss the play on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. at Limmud 2023, Winnipeg’s annual Jewish cultural festival at the Asper Centre. The title for the presentation is Transgender and Orthodox: two friends, a journey, and a play. For more information, go to limmudwinnipeg.org.
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John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.