Hiding in a bathroom stall at the Monsey Hub shopping center, Abby Stein first Googled the only phrase she could think of to sum up her inner being: “Boy turn into girl.”
It was a pivotal moment. Stein had grown up a Hasidic Jewish boy in Brooklyn, a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Soon she would make the life-altering decision to live as her true self, which meant leaving everything she knew behind. She documents her story in her new book, “Becoming Eve: My Journey From Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman,” published by Seal Press.
“I knew I’m a girl, period,” Stein said during a recent visit to Rockland County, where she spent key parts of her childhood, settled after her arranged marriage, and then began discovering who she could be. “At the end of the day, I see this book as a story of a young girl trying to find herself — a universal story.”
Stein grew up in the Hasidic enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Geographically, I was born and raised in New York City. Culturally, I was raised in an eighteenth-century Eastern European enclave,” she writes.
Part of the Viznitz Hasidim, and related to leading ultra-Orthodox families, Stein had deep connections in Rockland. On a recent drive through Kaser, she recognized a few people on the street, pointing out distant relatives. A few recognized her, too. In a supermarket, she heard some men talking about her lineage. On the street, some stopped and stared.
Stein, now 28, lives in New York City. She announced to her parents and the world in 2015 that she was a transgender woman. Stein became what is known as “off the derech,” or path, and left her insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish life and most of her beloved family behind.
Stein’s life growing up as a Hasidic boy left her unable to carry on even a basic conversation in English. As she continued considering a different path, Stein practiced her English and found out about the wider world by studying news media, including lohud.com.
“It was actually one of the first news sites I started reading in English,” Stein said of lohud.
Local news coverage taught her much about the community she lived in, but was oblivious about. She began to pay attention to the East Ramapo school district, as backlash grew amid cuts to public school resources made by a school board with an Orthodox majority; she read stories and comments about various community interactions, or lack thereof, in tiny Rockland.
“I always wondered what the whole Rockland community thinks of the Hasidic community,” she said, reflecting on news stories about tensions in Ramapo.
Rockland provided a launch pad into a wider world.
“The first movie I ever saw was ‘Magic Mike’ in 2012 at the Palisades mall,” Stein said, recounting how she went on a Saturday afternoon, to avoid other observant Jews, still wearing traditional religious garb but without the hat.
“The first bar I went to was in Nyack,” Stein said, recalling that she still wore traditional clothes. She can’t remember which bar, but recalls that she was only 20 and they didn’t card.
Stein said Rockland holds many fond memories. Plus, she said, “My son was born in Good Sam,” referring to Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern. (Stein declines to discuss her child; saying that it is his story to tell, if he chooses, not hers.)
As for the Hasidic community that has, for the most part, shut her out, “I really don’t have any hatred,” she said, but “a lot of pity.”
Stein warned that the community cannot be simplified, as happens so often in the secular world. “It is either extremely demonized or gets overly romanticized,” she said. “Neither one of these narratives is fully accurate.”
Hasidic people are rarely seen as individuals by outsiders, Stein said, even as people in the community rarely understand much about the secular community. “The majority of people in the community would be amazing neighbors if they had education,” she said.
She pointed out that the Hasidic community has virtually no homelessness and is dedicated to performing charity. “There are amazing people,” Stein said.
A ‘stolen’ education
From an early age, Stein demonstrated excellence and often-unwelcome curiosity as a student. Questioning brought trouble.
But, Stein said, a Hasidic yeshiva boy’s upbringing barely provided the skills to support herself outside the boundaries of the ultra-Orthodox community. As detailed in her book, boys learn hardly any math, social studies, science or other core curriculum, and as they get older and attend school for even longer hours, secular studies dwindle away.
That is why Stein supports YAFFED, a nonprofit that advocates for improving education curricula in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. YAFFED has been a major force in a current effort by the state Education Department to boost oversight of academic instruction in non-public schools. The nonprofit’s executive director, Naftuli Moster, is a New City resident.
Supporters of yeshiva education, such as Parents for Education and Religious Liberties in Schools, or PEARLS, have said the long hours of study and the varied topics covered in religious texts provide a holistic education that matches, or is even superior to, a secular public-school education. Yeshiva education supporters also point to success stories, such as a published author like Stein, as proof that yeshivas offer quality education.
“That’s not because of them,” Stein said in quick retort. “That’s in spite of them.”
The journey has been hard. Stein said she worked for three years to get a high school diploma. “So many failed,” she said.
Stein also thinks it’s wrong to focus on those who struggle after leaving the ultra-Orthodox world when discussing the need for equivalent education in yeshivas. “The conversation here isn’t just about the people who leave. It’s about the people who stay,” she said. “We all have to invest important years of our lives, when most people our age were already in college or in a job. They will point to a few people but they are exceptions that prove the rule, because there are so few who get those jobs.”
Stein ended up attending Columbia University, but she needed two years of remedial education before she could try college.
“I did (Rockland) BOCES for a brief period,” Stein said. Her family had derailed her earlier attempts to enroll at SUNY Rockland Community College in Ramapo. “I lived on Morris and Union roads in Spring Valley at the time.”
In addition to her ESL classes, Stein watched videos of English classes for Hebrew speakers, even though she had spoken Yiddish at home. She started at Columbia University in the fall of 2014 and moved into student housing.
Abigail Miller, director of education at the Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education, located at RCC, is reading the book now. “It’s such a powerful narrative,” Miller said. Stein’s story, Miller said, balances a simultaneous love for community and disappointment in it.
The book, Miller said, “allows us to see a very human way of understanding what it means to belong and what it means to not belong.”
In “Becoming Eve,” Stein makes clear her love for the individuals in her life. She shares her admiration for her ex-wife (“I loved Fraidy, and I wanted to be with her. But I also wanted to be her.”) Even after her parents cut ties, Stein makes clear that her “Tati and Mommy” were good and attentive parents to her and her 12 siblings.
Even before “Becoming Eve” was published, Stein had been speaking about her journey.
“In the last two years, I’ve given 300 speeches, and been to 10 countries in 2019 alone,” Stein said. “Three years, four years ago, when I came out I had no expectations that it would be public at all.”
Stein has been involved in other social-change efforts and was named by the Jewish Week as one of the “36 Under 36” Jews who are effecting change in the world.
Taking on such a public role was never her intent, but she appreciates the power of her message. “I used to joke I didn’t plan it,” she said during the course of several phone and in-person interviews. “I want to lean into it.”
Stein sees this part of her journey as a way to not only reclaim her life, but “let someone know they are not alone.”
In a visit to Rockland on Monday, Stein stopped by the Rockland County Pride Center in Nyack, where about a dozen teens were sharing dinner during a youth drop-in support meeting. After sharing some of her story, Stein encouraged the young people gathered to share their unique journey. “Our stories are very important,” she said. “I can’t wait to read your books.”