Kalonymus ben Kalonymus: Transgender History Gets a Pat on the Head

Who was Kalonymus ben Kalonymus?

In Provencal in the 14th Century a child was born to the Kalonymus family, a well known and highly respected Jewish family. The child was examined and someone declared “It’s a boy!” and named Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (Kalonymus son of Kalonymus).

And so history has recorded “him” ever since.

The child grew and learned. He began work as a translator in his twenties and is best known for those translations. But he also wrote some original poetry. Among them is אבן בוחן (Even Bochan).

The Even Bochan

Even Bochan is a mix of biography and satire. One part of Even Bochan, which has traditionally been interpreted as satire, is a long section on how much Kalonymus would have wished to be born a girl.

A Jewish boy’s life at the time, if their family had money, involved endless rounds of studying the scriptures. And many, many Jewish humorists and satirists have poked fun at the endless lists of rules and laws Jews are supposed to follow. In the Middle Ages these laws tended to fall hardest on men, who were held to higher standards than women. So it’s not unreasonable to read:

What an awful fate for my mother
that she bore a son.
What a loss of all benefit! . . .
Cursed be the one who announced to my father:
“It’s a boy! . . .

Woe to him who has male sons.
Upon them a heavy yoke has been placed, restrictions and constraints.
Some in private, some in public,
some to avoid the mere appearance of violation,
and some entering the most secret of places.

Strong statutes and awesome commandments,
six hundred and thirteen.
Who is the man who can do all that is written,
so that he might be spared?

Followed by criticism of the endless studies required of Jewish boys “books, which he may think a bore.” And a long list of other things Jewish boys were expected to learn if they were to be considered educated: multiple languages, ethics, logic, philosophy, astronomy, theosophy, history….

And see Kalonymus to rejecting not his BEING a man, but the requirements expected OF boys and men in Judaism at the time.

But to anyone familiar with the pain of being forced to act out a gender not your own, the following section doesn’t read of humor, but well known pain and longing.

Father in heaven, who did miracles for our ancestors with fire and water,
You changed the fire of Chaldees so it would not burn hot,
You changed Dina in the womb of her mother to a girl,
You changed the staff to a snake before a million eyes,
You changed [Moses’] hand to [leprous] white
and the sea to dry land.
In the desert you turned rock to water,
hard flint to a fountain.

Who would then turn me from a man to woman?
Were I only to have merited this, being so graced by your goodness. . .

Because Kalonymus lived in a time and place where he had no way to identify as a woman and no knowledge that such a thing was even possible, he ends this part of the Even Bochan with hard won acceptance:

What shall I say? Why cry or be bitter?
If my Father in heaven has decreed upon me
and has maimed me with an immutable deformity,
then I do not wish to remove it.
And the sorrow of the impossible
is a human pain that nothing will cure
and for which no comfort can be found.
So, I will bear and suffer
until I die and wither in the ground.
And since I have learned from the tradition
that we bless both the good and the bitter,
I will bless in a voice, hushed and weak,
Blessed are you, O Lord,
who has not made me a woman.

Judaism has traditionally recognized 6 different genders. But it was the rabbis the determined a person’s gender, and whatever gender you were assigned is what you were stuck with.

Was Kalonymus ben Kalonymus Transgender?

We’ll never know for certain if Kalonymus ben Kalonymus was a gender other than the one assigned to him. He may have used satire and humor as a mask and balm for his pain–a tactic familiar to many who struggle with internal pain they have no cure for. Or he may have been exactly what history has always thought him, a brilliant male satirist.

But it is certain that there were many folks through out history who were forced to act out a gender not their own and who will never be known. Far to many transgender children today and in recent history have been dismissed as having “such a wonderful imagination!” or “how funny! you’ll be quite a comedian one day.” Scattered through out history we will find more like Kalonymus, more who may have been speaking out of great inner pain and longing. And if they were, have been patted on the head by history “what a brilliant satirist.”

We have chosen to use he/him pronouns here as those are the pronouns (or rather, the accurate translations of the pronouns) Kalonymus ben Kalonymus used for himself. It is possible that if the possibility had been known to him, Kalonymus would have chosen to use other pronouns. But we can never know.

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