Bookish in the Mitten

Book reviews, book recommendations, book talk, and a little knitting

Published in November 2019 by SealPress.

On October 1, 1991 a baby was born who, twelve days later, would be named Yisroel Avrom Ben Menachem Mendel. Yisroel, who was raised as an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jew and is a rabbi, is now Abby Chava Stein, a woman.

I always take memoir with a grain of salt; this skepticism started with the discovery that A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey, marketed as a memoir, was partly fictional. As I recall, the publisher or the author tried to save face by saying that memoir is not the same as autobiography.

Because Abby Chava Stein has a robust online presence, it’s pretty easy to authenticate the book by reading her blog and other online pieces by or about her. Her blog (http://www.thesecondtransition.blogspot.com) reflects and supports her statement in the book that she did not speak English until she left the Hasidic community. Abby’s English in her early posts, while perfectly understandable, has some subtle grammatical errors that one would expect with a new English speaker; those errors are not present on her later posts, presumably because her English improved with continued usage. Abby can also be found on YouTube (just google her). So – she is real and her story is also real. On to the review:

Although Abby is straightforward very early in the book about her conviction from at least as early as age four that she is a girl (not “I should be a girl” or “I wish I were a girl,” but a definite “I am a girl”), most of the memoir details her life – as a boy, teenager, and young man – in the Hasidic community of Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn – and of the steps she took to leave that community before later coming out as a woman. She writes with the true voice of a person who loves and values family, community, and heritage. This makes her internal struggle with Hasidism, a culture that has strong and non-negotiable gender roles, and with her birth gender that much more poignant.

Abby’s conviction that she is a girl is a thread that runs through a large part of the book, but she does not take action until after she has married and fathered a son. The gender-linked religious ceremonies held for her son are Abby’s last straw, and she needs to move forward. Little space is devoted to the story of leaving the community and then, about three years later, coming out as a woman.

This book prompted my searching online to learn more about the Williamsburg neighborhood and about its Hasidic residents. I suggest you do the same. Her voice on The Second Transition (her blog) is real, warm, and touching – even a little wistful. Abby is also on Facebook as Abby Stein.

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