Wrestling with Mourning on Transgender Day of Remembrance

November 20th is Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). It is a day of mourning, a day to remember and honor the lives of those who were lost to anti-transgender violence. We remember both the ones whose names we know and those we don’t. Each one a universe. Each one irreplaceable. Each one a unique child of G-d.

But how can we do justice to their memories, mourn their loss, when we find ourselves inundated with tragedy, sometimes numb to the pain so that we ourselves may survive? How do we honor a day of mourning when every day feels like a day of mourning? We are bombarded with tragedies. The massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh. A mass shooting at a bar. Dozens killed in California fires. Voter suppression across the country. The senseless murder of people of color. It’s hard to recount all of the horrific traumas and tragedies of just the last few weeks, much less of the last year.

Our rabbis teach us that there is a difference in the way we process the mourning and remembrance of a personal loss and that of a historic or communal one. For a collective loss, we start slowly and build, recalling the events and sadness and then move into a more intense time of mourning. The Three Weeks is a good example of this. This period of mourning recalls the braking of the two tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. It begins on the 17th of Tammuz and leads up to the destruction of the First and Second Temples three weeks later on the 9th of Av. It reflects this slow progression of mourning – where we decrease our joy over a period of time, eliminating foods and activities that bring us pleasure, culminating in the fast of Tisha b’Av.

In contrast, however, when it comes to a loss of someone in our family, G-d forbid, the order is reversed. The first seven days of shiva is the most intense, primary period of mourning. For 30 days, the period of sheloshim, there is a secondary, less intense period of mourning when mourners return to most regular activities but continue to observe certain restrictions. And then when mourning the death of a parent, there is an additional 11-month period, shanah, where there are the fewest restrictions for the mourner as a way to reintegrate into a world that is now missing a loved one.

This distinction between individual mourning and collective or historic mourning makes sense. When we lose someone close to us, we don’t need structure to help us acknowledge the moment, to get us into a space where we can feel its power. To the contrary, when we lose a loved one, we need scaffolding to help us process our overwhelming and often incapacitating feelings to move us forward.

For some, TDOR may feel more like remembering the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av — perhaps because we don’t know any of the transgender people who were murdered, or because we may not feel vulnerable in the same way because of our race or class privilege, or because we are cisgender.  For others, whether we feel a particular connection to victims of anti-trans violence or not, we are so overwhelmed by daily news of gun violence, the attempted erasure of transgender people by the administration, the surge of white nationalism, and the ravages of climate change, that we are anesthetized to these deaths, unable to meaningfully remember as we are called to do.

Whether we require a slow progression to reach the spiritual and emotional place to mourn those murdered as a result of anti-transgender violence or we experience it as the acute loss of a loved one, remember we must. As Jews, we have a communal responsibility to feel the pain of others and to do something about it.  We cannot accept a society where some people are treated as less human than others.

Remembering, not unlike Jacob’s wrestling in this week’s Torah portion, is a call to action. Jacob finds himself alone when he returns for the “small vessels,” a metaphor for Jacob leaving his family and returning for those who were left behind. Gen. 32:25.  It is in this moment — Jacob remembering those left behind — that his worthiness to lead a nation is revealed, and with it a new name, Israel. Another noteworthy consequence of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel is that we, as his descendants, are no longer allowed to eat from the displaced sinew (hindquarters), the gid hanashe, which the Zohar says corresponds to the 9th of Av. This prohibition is to remind us that the struggle for equality and inclusivity – not leaving anyone behind – is one that we each must fight for in every generation.

TDOR provides us all with an opportunity. Our rabbis teach that the best way to remove the evil of the world is by doing good. In remembering and honoring the memories of the transgender people lost this year to anti-transgender violence – that is, leaving no one behind — we recommit to transform the world by ending transphobia. Whether in our words or deeds, through legislation, in religious communities, or elsewhere in the world, on this Transgender Day of Remembrance, let us wrestle with everything we have to end the fear, hatred, and violence.

This post was co-authored with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, CBST’s Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies.

About the Author
Seth M. Marnin is an attorney, civil rights advocate, pursuer of justice & Keshet board member.
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