When I start feeling awkward in social situations, I find something to do with my hands. On coffee dates I’m known for tearing paper cups to shreds. At parties I hold cigarettes that I never actually smoke.
Here—at the Jewish community center—I’m braiding challah bread.
This would be totally fine if I weren’t a genderbending Gentile who is only here to help you (a devout Jew and volunteer) prepare Shabbat dinner.
Folks trickle in for services: women in skirts and sweaters, men in crisp ties. I feel awkward enough in a kosher kitchen on a holy day I don’t even observe. Looking down at my own clothes, I can’t help but feel a little embarrassed.
Plaid shirt with fraying sleeves: ten cents. Baggy jeans with worn out hems (it’s the start of skateboarding season): free. Baseball cap with a glow-in-dark Goosebumps logo: fifty cents.
You never told me I was supposed to dress up for Shabbat.
They probably think I’m your kid brother dragged away from his video games for some force-fed Hebrew before he gets bar-mitzvahed. Actually, I’m a transgender Gentile whose only exposure to Judaism has been through your prayer recitation and recipes—second hand culture cooked up in dorm kitchens on Friday afternoons.
I’m lost. Here and everywhere. And I’m “going through some gender stuff.” That’s what I told you last month. I feel awkward in my body and in unfamiliar spaces—you can see that. So you try to make me feel welcome while I lend a fumbling hand. You introduce me to the Cook, a cute twentysomething with well-meaning eyes who spends weekends whipping up Shabbat dinners like this one.
You use my birthname first. Then you glance sideways at me, uncertain, and give me a chance to correct you. I shake my head.
“You want me to…?” “It’s fine.”
I’ve finished braiding the challah bread and I lean against the counter with nothing to do, shoving my fists deep in my pockets to keep from touching something I’m not supposed to taint with my grubby Gentile trannyhands. The Cook eyes me curiously and takes in my out-of-place clothes. “So, ________, what do you usually do on Shabbat?”
“Nothing. I’m not Jewish,” I confess. “I don’t even know how I feel about the whole god thing.”
“Hey, that’s ok. Thanks for being here to help out. Want to cut up some vegetables?”
I nod, eager for a hands-on task while you go pick up some forgotten ingredients, leaving me alone with the Cook. I’ve already outed myself as a non-Jew, leaving no cultural thread that could tie us into conversation. I prepare for several minutes of awkward silence.
But once you’re out the door, the Cook gives me that curious look again.
“Is there something else you want me to call you?”
“No! Uh, no.”
“You know, I have a lot of friends who try out different names. And I just met you, so I won’t screw it up or anything. Try me.”
Taken aback, I give her my chosen name. “I’m, uh, just trying it out. I used it at this queer convergence last weekend.”
“The one at ______?”
“Yeah. How did you…?”
“I was there.”
And then I get her full story, how she lives in a queer artist’s collective, pouring her nights into puppetry and her days into the Jewish community center. Most of her roommates are genderfreaks of some kind or another. She’s happy to see a familiar face around here.
You return for the dinner, unaware of the conversation that has just taken place, and leave early. You’re surprised when I stay all evening, serving soup and bread and wine. The Cook introduces me to everyone. “This is Malic. He has been helping me in the kitchen today.” No one bats an eye at my pronoun, my name, or my ridiculous clothes.
I walk home late in the evening, hands cracked from dishsoap and Jewish prayer songs in my head.
“So how did you like Shabbat?” you ask when I meet you back at your dorm room. I want to say something about cultural understanding or community or feeling closer to a god I’ve never actually believed in. But I’m fumbling with my words—Awkward Boy once again.
I don’t know what to do with my hands. So I take yours.