A pair of eight-year-old twins celebrating their one-year aliyah-versary are as different as can be. “N” wears rainbow and loves playing with her hair. She likes dresses and makeup, and her nails are sparkly pink and blue. She goes to Capoeira, but what she really loves is dance. “S” loves collecting and fantasizes about working as an investor. He has a book full of valuable Pokemon cards and a vast knowledge of Israel’s war history.
On the outside, N and S are just like any boy-and-girl twins. But until recently, N wasn’t known to her classmates as a girl, and that’s because she was born male.
The subject of transgender children is one that has only recently reached the limelight in Israel. People don’t particularly know how to handle the subject.
On the one hand, there are those who believe that if a child feels or thinks a certain way they attribute to a particular gender, they should live however they feel comfortable. On the other hand, many say it is an unnatural thought that mustn’t be encouraged by schools or parents, and that they must instead be taught to embrace the sex with which they were born.
In modern gender studies, some draw a line between sex and gender, and the two are defined as separate entities. In their view, while sex refers to the molecular breakdown of someone’s chromosomes – male or female – gender refers to a feeling.
When N’s Herzliya school decided to assist the parents in allowing N to transition in her school, they defined gender identity as “the sense of personal belonging of a person to a gendered category: boy/man, girl/woman etc. that does not inherently match with their gender as it is assigned by society according to biology (male/female) upon their birth.”
N’s story is nevertheless unique. While transgender rights among children are debated under the claim that children at young ages do not really understand what they want, N’s parents say there was never any doubt about her identity.
“We knew who she was from the time she was very young, maybe two,” said Jennifer, N’s mother. “She would only be interested in girls’ toys, girls’ clothing; at birthday parties, she didn’t understand why people were getting Legos and trucks, she just wanted Barbies and princesses.”
“We knew who she was from the time she was very young, maybe two. She would only be interested in girls’ toys, girls’ clothing; at birthday parties, she didn’t understand why people were getting Legos and trucks, she just wanted Barbies and princesses.”Jennifer
Jennifer shared that there was an “obsession from a very early age with princesses and mermaids.” She and N’s father, Matan, explained that they have both worked in the education sector and therefore knew that children’s interests change and evolve, and were very patient and understanding. So they introduced N to both boys’ and girls’ toys and objects, only made easier by the fact that S is her twin brother and has the interests of what their parents call a “boy-oh-boy-boy!”
Even though they stand firmly by the belief that no children’s toy or item is inherently gendered – i.e., truck toys are not just for boys and dolls are not just for girls – they nevertheless saw N always gravitating toward the traditionally girly items. “Even at preschool, in the two-year-old classroom, the teachers sent us some cute pictures and N was always in the dress-up area, always in the dresses,” Jennifer said. “At around four, she would really get upset when people would buy her boy gifts and make us return them.”
When N was four years old, without any prior knowledge about what the word “transgender” means or anything of the sort, N started telling her parents she was a boy-girl. When they asked her what she meant by that, she said, “Well, I know I’m a boy, but I don’t really want to be, I want to be a girl.”
That’s when Jennifer and Matan let her dress as a girl at their and other family’s homes. She would wear “fabulous clothing” such as dresses and skirts. “Everyone found it really cute and funny, but to N it wasn’t funny, it was who she wanted to be.”
At six years old, N found out what drag is and started to call herself a drag kid. She’d dress up and put on little shows in the living room. Soon after, she started to ask her parents why she could not dress as a girl, “as me,” when she was outside.
When N was seven, she and her family made aliyah. Shortly after, she told her parents, “I’m a girl.”
“You used to say you were a boy-girl, then you said you were a drag kid,” her parents responded.
“No, no,” N said. “I’m a girl.”
THAT’S WHEN the challenges began.
N was living as a girl comfortably and happily at home, with family and even at her after-school activities, but in school she was “playing dress-up” as a boy. N began going to different therapists, including a gender specialist. After months, she said she couldn’t keep pretending to be someone she was not.
“There was a time when she would cry every day before school.”Matan
“There was a time when she would cry every day before school,” Matan added.
“It was time,” Jennifer sighed. “So, we met with the school psychologist who was through the municipality and with the counselor, teacher and special-needs teacher. Everyone was amazing. We made up a plan.”
Introducing the class
Yet there was a problem. They were told they could not move forward with the plan, which involved telling the other children and parents about N’s identity, until the principal – who had been away sick at the time – returned.
On June 26, the school notified N’s parents that a letter went out to the class parents.
“Tomorrow, N’s parents and a broad team from the school will come to the class and tell his personal story by reading an age-appropriate book that tells the story of a girl who was born a boy, much like the student in the class who will, from now on, be referred to as a girl,” the letter said.
The book in question is called I am Jazz and tells the story of real-life Jazz Jennings, a transgender YouTube personality and Human Rights Campaign Youth Ambassador who came out of the closet as a young girl, too.
“The school accepts all students, and we see this process as an opportunity to learn socially and morally [for the students]. The acceptance of children like this as normal children is crucial and important for their self-image, their safety and their welfare, whether it be mental or social,” the letter continued. “We wish to highlight that gender identity is not sexual. Gender identity is an identity, and it touches on the personal experience and privacy of the person.”
That same night, they held a Zoom meeting for any parents wishing to express their concerns or raise questions. “We thought five people would come to the Zoom, or anyone who had issues with it,” Jennifer said. “There must have been 50 people there, and the response was so positive. The parents were saying, ‘We’re with you’ and stuff.”
The next day, Matan and Jennifer went to the class while N stayed home. They presented the program they had planned along with the entire educational team, during which they read I am Jazz to the class. “The school surprised us and bought us the book in Hebrew,” Jennifer said, grinning as she held the well-worn English book and the minted copy in Hebrew, within which are letters of support and love from N’s classmates.
“At the end of the book, we told them, ‘N is like Jazz. She has the body of a boy and the brain of a girl,” she remembered. “They were like, ‘Oh, okay. Whatever.’”
“It’s hard for people to look at things that are outside of their normal structures: boys and girls,” Shay-lee Ben-Or, adviser and lecturer to parents, educational staff, therapists and youth on LGBTQ+ and healthy sexuality, explained to the Magazine. “But children don’t struggle with it like adults do; they understand it very simply.”
The questions that followed showed the students’ young age; they asked if N is a girl because she loves doing cartwheels or because she is growing her hair out. Another child said she has a gay uncle, so she understands why they did this during Pride Month.
The school psychologist explained in turn that there is a difference between being gay and being transgender; one is who you love, and the other is who you are inside. The parents then told the kids they would prefer for them to address her as a girl from then on, as Hebrew is a gendered language.
“Well, you know, N can be herself now and we’ll all love her,” one little girl said in response, looking at the parents, who looked back beaming and teary-eyed.
The next day, the class went out on a picnic and snacked on pink-and-blue cupcakes: the colors of the transgender pride flag. While they all played together at the picnic and at school the next day, they all made a point to address N with female pronouns.
“Nothing ever was spoken about bodies, nothing was ever spoken about surgeries because there’s nothing happening physically to N, she’s just living like a girl now,” Jennifer said. “We are not planning anything [medical] for N. She knows about [gender reassignment surgery] and she knows that is an adult decision for when she is grown up. If she wants hormone blockers in a few years, then we’ll look into it, but she is still too young.”
The switch was flipped
“There was a time when she didn’t speak any Hebrew at all, because when we came here the kids didn’t speak Hebrew,” Jennifer said. “On her first day back in class out as a girl, we got a call from the teacher who said, ‘Everything is great. N’s been speaking in Hebrew.’”
She described it as a flipping of a switch. If, once, N would cry in the morning before going to school or an activity, she now went happily along.
She also had playdates lined up with a number of classmates, boys and girls alike – something that had never happened before.
“They are trying to promote an agenda.”Elad Zadikov
Issues began to unfold after the class’s lesson on N.
“Dear parents, read this letter and tell us if this makes sense to you,” said the Israeli Forum of Parents for Tradition in response, sharing the letter sent to parents from the school on their Facebook page. “Would you let a seven-year-old watch pornography?”
As the school had reached out to Jennifer and Matan and said they were ready to proceed with the program, they understood that they meant the principal had signed off on it. However, the principal released a statement soon after saying she had not approved the lesson and would not have allowed it to occur, had it been brought before her.
“Due to parental inquiries, it is important for me to note that I have expressed my opposition to the actions taken, but due to the decisions of the parents of the child and of a team of specialists, other bodies decided to advance this,” the principal said in her letter.
She claimed that the actions taken were done hastily, without any chance of examining the issue in detail and getting the proper approvals from all stakeholders, including the parents of children in the class.
Jennifer and Matan explained they had no idea that the principal was not involved in the decision, but rather that when the school reached out and said they will be sending the letter out to parents, they understood that to mean they had the principal’s approval.
The story began to make headlines nationally. “The moment that the story began, a sort of dissonance began,” said Dana Oren-Yanay, a Herzliya city council member. “The moment it reached the public eye, this narrative began that claimed that the process this girl is going through is null and void and can potentially harm other children.”
The moment it reached the public eye, this narrative began that claimed that the process this girl is going through is null and void and can potentially harm other children.”Dana Oren-Yanay
That was when Herzliya’s then-deputy mayor Elad Zadikov, who is haredi, entered the picture. Zadikov, soon after, tweeted about the event, claiming the homeroom teacher is a lesbian, and that N made aliyah especially so she can come out as trans in school, alluding to this being because she was not permitted to do so in the US.
He also claimed that from that point on, N was allowed to come in a dress to school and use the girl’s restroom. He said that the children are embarrassed and confused, finally claiming this was perpetrated by a “progressive regime” acting “oppressively.”
In reality, little of what he said was true. The homeroom teacher is not a lesbian, N did not make aliyah specially to come out of the closet, she is not permitted to come to school in a dress (there are school uniforms) and she is not allowed to use the girls’ restroom – rather, there is a non-gendered bathroom she uses instead.
“Out of Zionism, we decided to leave everything and come here,” said Matan, who explained that their family had made a massive financial sacrifice in making aliyah due to the cost of living. “With all of the treatments, the therapies, that N needs, it’s all out of pocket, it’s all private. So there’s this huge sacrifice, and then we’re faced with this hatred, and it’s a stab in the back.”
“Gender, especially in Israeli society, is very strict as a structure,” Ben-Or noted. “People are worried because the thought of trans people automatically reads to them as ‘surgery.’ This is an outdated thought, and it is not what trans means today. When there is a trans little girl it just means she can do girly things, dress in a girly way and be addressed as a girl. Physical changes are not necessarily made.”
“Parents who were scared to express their thoughts, turned to me,” Zadikov, in turn, told the Magazine. “The principal offered that they go on summer vacation and that at the beginning of the next school year, he can come dressed like a girl.” The Magazine tried to reach out to these parents, as well as other municipal officials who oppose the measures taken, without success.
He said he believed they rushed the process in order to “lay the groundwork” for the next steps the parents wanted to take with N; what process he meant; he did not clarify.
“The principal told me that they went over their heads, a couple of psychologists and a teacher,” explained Zadikov. “I believe this process for a seven-year-old is insane. There are statistics about this. It is gender dysphoria. Most kids come out of this when they go through puberty. When they start this process, it can cause massive issues going back and can cause massive mental and emotional harm. They are trying to promote an agenda.”
A municipal meeting was held soon after Zadikov expressed his opposition publicly, during which both Zadikov and N’s family and the school were permitted to speak. The mayor, who listened most of the time, decided to suspend Zadikov for half a year. Zadikov resigned soon after.
Along with the Forum of Parents for Tradition, Zadikov held a protest outside the Herzliya Municipality regarding the decision, claiming a clear undemocratic bias. “Many concerned parents from around the country participated for a united and common goal,” the Forum said. “Join us at our next events and take part in the fight against progressive tyranny that directly affects our children.”
“They’re shutting us up, it’s undemocratic,” Zadikov claimed. “There are dozens of parents who oppose this. They forced their agenda on the parents. The children learned to accept this extreme problem that pushes them to be confused. For example, this book I Am Jazz; Jazz is extremely mentally unwell today.”
Indeed, Jennings expressed in 2021 that she has struggled severely from mental health issues, resulting in extreme weight gain. However, she does not relate this to her transition.
In general, transgender youth have a remarkably high suicide rate. This is due, for the most part, to a particularly high chance of falling victim to bullying.
“They ask, ‘How can people know when they’re seven?’” Ben-Or said. “In response, I ask: When do you know that you are cisgendered [gender identity conforms with birth sex]? They respond: ‘I’ve known since forever; it hasn’t been a question.’”
City council member Oren-Yinay seemingly agreed with this policy, stating that it is parents’ and local leaders’ “responsibility to give these children educational tools from a young age to understand what this process is.”
She claimed, “We need to explain and educate from a young age, to show that they are not alone and that they can ask questions. That’s our next change in Herzliya: To make education on gender identity start at a young age.”
Ben-Or stressed that school is where experimentation needs to take place, in contrast to Zadikov, who said that this only confuses children. “These spaces need to be a place to play however they want, with whatever toys they want, without caring about what’s between their legs,” Ben-Or said.
“The concern is also that they might question their own gender identity if they see this around them. It does not work that way. If someone questions their gender identity, they will do it regardless of their surroundings, but being surrounded by a large range of gender identities makes it easier to accept oneself. It lets them know that they are not alone.”
N is happy. Her family is supportive. She feels as though she has come into her own. She can speak Hebrew and she’s surrounded by loving friends. Her story, despite the massive conflict, is in her personal life a win.
But the issue is slowly but surely becoming a global one, that’s spreading in Israel, too. Just last month, Sheba Medical Center announced that it would be opening an LGBTQ+ clinic with more appointments being opened for gender-affirming surgeries for transgender people.
So, the bigger question remains: How can everyone emerge feeling safe and happy in such circumstances, which are anything but trivial, while also being accepting of the other? Is there a method of making everyone feel accepted in their classrooms?
As the issue advances and becomes more central in everyday life, perhaps in more conservative communities as well, the question will come up more and more, and only time will tell.
Getting to know ‘S’
In the process of writing this article about “N,” I had the pleasure of getting to know her and her brother “S”. While N’s story has been shared in detail, I would like to give a nod to S, who is – no other way of putting it – astoundingly remarkable.
When I arrived at the house, only the parents were home – and their big Labradoodle, Finn. We were joined an hour later by N and S, who had just returned from summer camp.
A few minutes after shyly meeting me, S came, tapped me on the shoulder, and asked me – and yes, these were his exact words – “Would you like to see my investments?”
My jaw dropped. Mind you, this is an eight-year-old. I nodded and he took me to his room: the typical room of a little boy, clothes strewn all around and a mysterious-looking potted plant on the counter. He reached out behind it to a little safe. Hiding the code from me, he sprung open the door and pulled out a small handful of bars of pure silver.
“You know GRAS the jewelry store?” his mother Jennifer asked me. “You can buy pure silver or gold there. He’s investing in it.”
You can imagine my shock as he gently placed the bars of silver back in the safe, only to pull out a booklet of extremely rare Pokémon cards.
He then opened the cabinet below to reveal a vast array of archaeological artifacts.
“This is a 2,000-year-old Roman bowl... and this is the straw!” he said, showing me each object.
S was then able to recite some of Israel’s largest battles as though they were laid out on a tapestry before him. At this point as he ran off to taunt his sister in regular brotherly style.
“You realize your children are incredible, right?” I asked Jennifer.
“Yeah,” she said, smiling. “Yeah, I do.”