I’ve been told, for years, that things are never all black or all white, but shades of gray in between. And I believe that. But I didn’t consider that these shades of grey could be applied to gender as well. The subject came up recently at my synagogue, when the clergy added their preferred pronouns onto their email signatures. None of the clergy members identify as nonbinary, but there are young people in the congregation who do, and this addition was meant as a sign of respect for them.
This is all new to me, and I’m still not sure I understand why someone would identify as nonbinary, rather than seeing themselves as a woman with some traditionally masculine qualities, or a man with some traditionally feminine qualities. But I realized quickly that I would need to think about this in more depth now that I’m teaching in the synagogue school, because Hebrew is a gendered language, like Spanish and French, and there are no clear ways to refer to a person who is nonbinary. Even if none of my students identifies as nonbinary yet, they may have family members who do.
English, surprisingly, is a much more egalitarian language than most, and nonbinary individuals have taken to using the pronoun “they” to describe themselves. The flexibility of the language, and the constant additions that have made English so hard to learn have also made it more capable of meeting our needs as society evolves. Hebrew, on the other hand, is an old language based in a male-dominated culture. If there is one man in a group and the rest are women, we have to use the Hebrew word for “men,” period. If a group of children is equally mixed between boys and girls, we have to use the Hebrew word for “boys” to describe the whole group, because there is no non-gendered word for “children.” This gender preference shows up in all of the Hebrew prayers, which led me to the obvious conclusion, growing up, that God must be a Man.
When I first read some Hebrew blessings written in female language, a few years back, I felt wildly uncomfortable. It just sounded so strange! And I’m not the only one who found the change uncomfortable, and unsustainable. Women have been trying to push the Hebrew language into more gender equality for decades, without much success.
This whole topic feels prickly and uncomfortable for me, because I default to male gender words in Hebrew without thinking twice. I automatically say boys or men, or refer to male doctors or teachers. And even when I say or write “I” sentences, as part of my refresher Hebrew lessons, I default to male verbs automatically, because it doesn’t occur to me that I might be talking about myself.
I decided to search online to see how other people have been addressing this issue and I found a few articles about a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder who worked with their Hebrew professor to come up with a possible non-gendered addition to the Hebrew language. The two of them were inspired by the introduction of gender neutral terms in Spanish (though I haven’t come across these in my Spanish lessons so far, and only recently heard the term “Latinx” to refer to people of Latin American descent without referring to gender). The system the teacher and student came up with adds a neutral gender pronoun to Hebrew, and a way to construct gender neutral conjugations, at least in the present tense.
This new system has been controversial, and people have found it hard to learn. It’s also not the only attempt to address this problem. A Jewish summer camp in the States (not the one I went to) came up with another gender neutral term, specifically for “Camper,” in Hebrew, though they don’t seem to have gone further than that into adding new conjugations. It’s hard to know if either of these ideas will generalize to society at large, or if a new system will be inspired by them, or if none will take off at all.
And the fact is, it’s been hard for me to get used to using the word “They” to refer to an individual, in English, so I can’t imagine the discomfort Hebrew speakers must feel at being told to learn a whole new system in order to speak their own language correctly. But if we leave things as they are, with no gender neutral terms, where does that leave the people who feel like neither gender describes them? How can they ever feel accepted if they can’t be referred to correctly by their communities?
As a society, we make so many assumptions and have so many expectations about ourselves that are attached to gender. Would that change if we all used gender neutral language? Would we lose something that makes our lives meaningful by referring less often to gender? I don’t know. I’ve always considered myself female, and despite whatever discomfort I have with societal expectations of women it still seems like an accurate description of how I experience my gender. But it intrigues me to think about this question, of how much might be roiling under the surface of this dilemma of language. How much of our lives have actually been determined by the language we use to describe ourselves? And what kinds of surprises might we find if we take some small steps towards change?
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?