Gender Diversity and Family Traditions

This spring, in an interesting confluence of time-honored traditions, my child Asa will become a man. To explain the transformation, I need to start by backing up about 13 years, to when I was pregnant. I always wanted a girl child, and when I was pregnant with Asa I wanted a girl so much I thought for sure it would be my karma to have a boy. I made lists of all the boys and men that I really liked, and thought a lot about them, attempting to break down my biases. I wanted a girl because in general I liked females better than males. Aside from my partner Chris, my close relationships were all with women. I didn’t understand sports or the appeal of sports, and even though I’ve never been particularly girly myself, I thought it would be fun to have a child whose hair I could braid and put barrettes in. This last one wasn’t the main thing, of course, what I really wanted was a child I would have a close relationship with, and in my mind that was female. Asa has since told me that these were sexist notions, and that is true.


So, I was pretty thrilled when I got the ultrasound a few days before Asa was born, and the technician told me the baby was a girl. I was so sure I would be having a boy I doubted her words. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yep,” she said, “those are labia.” Asa is actually a boy’s name, but it was the one we chose, partly because it means healer, and Asa was born very medically complicated.

Jenny with Asa 2007

As I said, I have never been particularly girly, and in the early years neither Chris nor I were interested in dressing Asa in clothes all tricked out with pink and glitter and demeaning slogans like “Born to shop,” as is all the rage in capitalism these days. Also, Asa was mostly bald until the age of three, so many people–out at the parks, library, etc.–assumed Asa was a boy. We assumed Asa was a girl, given the anatomy, but, as it turned out, we were also wrong.

Gender Diversity

Asa enjoyed a variety of clothing as a kid, but by grade three was exclusively wearing “boys clothes.” I didn’t think much of it, that’s what I preferred at that age too, but then in grade four, in a classroom discussion, Asa heard the term “gender-neutral” for the first time, and a light bulb went off. Asa did not feel like a boy or a girl, and this was a term that fit. These days, three and a half years later, Asa prefers the term “non-binary.” Asa is not a girl, but luckily for me I did get my wish, in that I have a child with whom I have a close relationship, which is what I actually wanted, the anatomy is so beside the point. And luckily for all of us, we live in a time and place where there is a tremendous amount of support and acceptance for gender diversity, so Asa can be who they are without it being a problem.

We also are lucky to have an accepting extended family, and, at least on my side, one in which queerness is a family affair. My mom came out as a lesbian when I was eight years old. She told me, a little nervously, one day after school when we were walking up the driveway. I didn’t care either way, it was all the same to me, though I already felt more comfortable with women than men, so if she had girlfriends that would be easier on me. When my mom told her mother she was in a relationship with a woman, my grandma was unfazed. “Is she Jewish?” she wanted to know. She was Jewish (the first one, anyway)–hurrah!–and she was exceedingly nice to me. And my grandma told my mom that if she’d had the option, back in her day, she might have gone that way too.

As I grew up I identified as a “tomboy,” and I also liked boys, but, having a queer mom, it stuck in my psychology that heterosexuality was something a woman should grow out of, like a developmental stage. In high school when my friends’ moms were married to men or had boyfriends, I somehow thought, “How immature, aren’t they over that yet?” Even so, I myself remained straight, though a small dose of bi came in for a few years, and I eventually married a man. A man who likes sports! But also a man who was a women-studies major in university, who is a dancer, was into theater as a young person, and who, when speaking to a crowd—as his work often requires—can be mistaken for gay.

Non-binary Theater

Asa is also very into theater. Asa is not just non-binary, Asa is an actor. Asa has been in a number of plays, including the ones we stage in the summer in our front yard, and always prefers male roles. About a year ago we watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof and Asa fell in love with it. I had seen it many times before, and I always cry the entire way through. Then we found out that this year’s spring musical at Asa’s middle school was going to be Fiddler, and we pretty much died and went to Heaven.

Asa loves musical theater, I’m not particularly a fan, but I do love Fiddler, because it’s really good, and it’s really Jewish. It’s the musical of our tribe. Asa prepared long and hard for the auditions, so much so that we had to put limits on how many times in a day Asa could sing the songs. Any song, no matter how gay or Jewish, with enough repetitions, will drive you insane. Asa auditioned for four parts: Tevye, the lead, and three smaller male roles, suitors of Tevye’s daughters. Marriage and tradition are central themes in Fiddler. The musical opens with a big number, a song called “Tradition,” which lays out the roles of each person in the family, according to gender, the roles that constitute the backbone of the society, in their village of Anatevka. Then the rest of the musical is devoted to the challenges to tradition, the breakdown of tradition, the changing of the times around tradition and its adaptations, and the adherence to tradition as a saving grace, and the tensions between these various dynamics.

As the drama, in our house, of the months of preparations, and the two weeks of auditions unfolded, I kept in close conversation with my cousin Leora. Leora is her own kind of queer and gender-diverse, feeling very strongly, spiritually, that she is a gay man. She lives as a woman and has not chosen to make any external transitions, but that doesn’t make her any less queer or trans. What matters, at least in the book of our family, is how you feel and identify. It’s the same for me, the queer community is also my community, even though I’m straight. Queerness is something I personally have in common with queer people, even though it actually isn’t.

Leora was very excited for Asa, and even invoked something metaphysical from her own past to bolster Asa, The Spirit of Queer Tevye’s, because when she was a teenager, and very into theater, she had a role in her high school’s production of Fiddler, and her gay friend landed the lead. She sent us a picture of the two of them in costume, with a few others of the cast. In Asa’s gender journey, Leora has been a terrific ally.

At last the auditions were over, and two days ago the decisions for the casting came down, and… drum roll please… Asa got Tevye! Not too shabby, especially for a grade seven kid, who had competition from grade eights, who were taller and possessed deeper voices. Yes, yes, not too shabby at all. The whole mishboucha is pretty excited.

Barat Mitzvah

Coincidentally, there is another queer and Jewish family event happening this spring, in that we will be celebrating Asa’s “barat” mitzvah, our non-binary take on the traditional Jewish rite of passage, the bar mitzvah (bat mitvah for girl), wherein the child, upon their thirteenth (or twelfth, depending) birthday, becomes an adult in the eyes of the community. Asa has been long preparing for this too, studying Hebrew with my dad over Skype each week, and beginning to write their speech on the portion of the Torah they will be chanting. Like many things with us, this will be a DIY affair, at our house with a small number of friends and relatives, a papier mache Torah, and a rainbow tallis (the traditional prayer shawl) sent by cousin Leora. There will be music, there will be food, and there will be a rendering of tradition adapted for the times. In this way, this spring, Asa will be a man on stage, a ritual adult at home, and as always, the child of my dreams.

Jenny Jaeckel is the author of forthcoming book House of Rougeaux. This historical family saga will be available everywhere books are sold in April, 2108. See description here.

Also coming out in audio, performed by Bahni Turpin.

Immigrant Frugality

Two days ago I discovered a podcast called The Mash-Up Americans, a show hosted by Amy Choi and Rebecca Lehrer, two hip, culturally mixed first- and second-generation American women. I’ve only heard two episodes, but I’m pretty sure I’m already a big fan. So far I’ve heard them talk about their upbringings, choices in parenting their children, and heard them interview (among others) wunderkind Hasan Minhaj. The way they deal with the complex themes of race, culture and nation are nuanced, beautiful, and so so smart.

In each of the episodes I’ve heard the hosts have asked and discussed the question, posed to children of immigrants, “What do you spend money on that your parents don’t?” I suspect this is one of their signature questions, and is one that reveals a lot about a person’s experience with family and culture.

Vaguely Ethnic

My parents are not immigrants, they are second-generation Americans with a touch of first-generation, since my dad’s mother emigrated at the age of nine. All my grandparents spoke Yiddish which, typical for their generation, they spoke at home when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying. Even though I’m a third-generation American, I really resonated with the question about spending money differently from your parents. It tends to be a Jewish thing to retain an identification with being an immigrant, even if you aren’t. It’s part of the cultural identity and has a very long history.

For a little context on money-spending, my grandparents were working class, lived through the Depression, and raised their kids with the assumption that they would go to university. Both my parents were the first in their families to do this. When my dad was in school his father ran a janitorial service, that my dad and his brothers worked for. My grandfather eventually put himself through school, becoming a respected professor of education. The money question from the podcast highlights the frugality of the immigrant parents, and my family was no exception on this front.

Did you ever hear the joke “How was the copper wire invented?” Answer: “Two Jews fighting over a penny.” Ha, ha, right? Yeah, well that kind of joke isn’t funny at all. It’s just another joke based on stereotypes to keep minorities down. You could spend all day unpacking a joke like this, but one of the things it does is take the concept of frugality and turn it into something competitive, vicious, and laughable.

Once I heard the writer Sandra Tsing Loh, in a radio story, talk about how her Chinese immigrant father, though he was a highly paid engineer, used a Frosted Flakes box as a briefcase, or when the elbows of his sweater wore out he simply wore it backward. It’s funny, especially how Tsing Loh tells it, but memories of poverty die hard. I myself was raised with something akin to this kind of frugality. My dad has shirts that were once a cotton-poly blend, but that are so old that the cotton has, over time, washed away. They are entirely transparent, but as my dad says, “They’re still good!” My mom once had a shirt that was the big anomaly in her closet because, as she said, “I actually bought it new.” Their frugality, which I inherited as DNA, goes way beyond clothing, but you get the idea.

More than money-spending habits, frugality could be called a way of being in the world. It helps you make the most of your opportunities, shields you from disaster, views waste as shameful and keeps you from using more than your share. It has something of the “Waste not, want not” vibe, combined with the lofty “Live simply, so that others may simply live.”

The Kind of Frugal…

Thankfully I didn’t turn out to be a hoarder, actually I’m a bit of a minimalist, but I do notice a contrast with my partner Chris whose heritage is mostly Irish and whose immigrants came over a little earlier than mine. If Chris doesn’t want the crusts on his bread, for example, he throws them away. This is alien to me. First of all, in my book, you eat it whether you like it or not. But if you really don’t like it, you make it into something else. Our child, Asa, doesn’t like the crust on the sourdough bread I make and typically serve for breakfast. I don’t mind cutting those off, but I turn them into French toast when they’ve accumulated enough.

Some would read this and chalk it up as evidence that Jews are stingy. Maybe it’s one way we’ll never really shed that immigrant status. When one of the hosts of The Mash-Up Americans asked Hasan Minhaj what he spends money on that his parents don’t, he said sneakers. In a different episode, one of the hosts answered for herself that her thing was booze. I wonder though if, in other ways, they are frugal like their parents. I bet it’s a hard one to fully escape.

When I heard the podcast question I thought about it for myself. What do I spend money on that my parents don’t? For a long time I couldn’t think of anything. I’m just as frugal as they are. And by the way, they aren’t frugal as a unit. They have been divorced for 30 years, they are separate frugal individuals. Finally I did think of something, something I would guess constitutes as much of a contrast to the worldview of the parents as sneakers and booze: I go to a chiropractor, and regularly.

Since around 2001 I have regularly seen a chiropractor, different ones in different cities, but the same style, and spent many thousands of dollars to do it. All of these dollars have been personally life-saving, and I’m very grateful I’ve had the resources. Separately I’ve tried to get my parents to go too, when they’ve had back problems or other health concerns. I’ve tried to get them to go to acupuncture and other things I think would help them, but they won’t do it. They won’t even try it once.

Both of my parents have lived in California almost their whole lives. They lived in many communes in the ‘70s and ‘80s (see my childhood for more info on that). They eat organic, they vote Democrat, they felt The Bern, my mom is a lesbian. They are not strangers to alternative lifestyles. But bodywork? For their health? Forget it. It’s not on the radar.

Jenny’s Mom with Jenny’s Thrify Grandmother

When it comes to clothes, and many other materials in life, I’m exactly like my parents. My partner and child and I dress in second-hand clothing and sometimes even that’s not enough. Asa’s jeans last year were the previous year’s jeans (bought second-hand) with patches and extensions I sewed on myself. Asa was into the artsy look. But then those got too small, so a couple of weeks ago I found five pairs of jeans at a thrift store which, thanks to a sale and the dollar rack, cost a total of $12. I felt my Grandma Eve, my mom’s mom, who worked for years in a thrift store, smiling down at me from Heaven. With a little alteration (one of my super powers) they fit Asa perfectly.

So Asa is eating bread crust French toast and wearing recycled clothing and I’m confident I’m instilling frugality in the next generation. But we also both go regularly to the chiropractor, since I consider it an important piece of our wellness plan. “Save your pennies and your bread crusts, and see your chiropractor.” Maybe Asa will say one day, “Listen to Grandma.”