By Eli Saperstein on Behalf of the YU Observer
I was privileged and honored to conduct an interview with Professor Joy Ladin about her time and experiences at Yeshiva University. Professor Ladin is leaving Yeshiva University, where she was a professor of English and held the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern since 2003. Following her transition in 2008, she returned to teaching as a woman after previously receiving tenure as a man.
Eli Saperstein (ES): What was your religious background before you came to Yeshiva University?
Joy Ladin (JL): For as long as I can remember, I have been religious, by which I mean I had a sense of God’s presence, a sense that I was in a relationship with God. Because my family wasn’t religious, no teacher or institution told me “God doesn’t talk with children” or “God doesn’t like trans people.” I felt that God and I were alone together, that neither of us could be seen or understood because we didn’t have bodies that showed others who we were.
My mother wasn’t religious but wanted her children to have a sense of Jewish identity, so she found a shul where we could go to Hebrew school. For reasons unbeknownst to me, she chose the strangest shul. It was a mix of ultraorthodox Jews who only spoke Yiddish and people like my family who weren’t even religiously involved enough to place ourselves on the map.
A friend of mine once told me that I was a “feral Jew, a Jew raised by wolves” because no one really taught me what Judaism was. The Judaism I learned about was from reading the Torah and other texts and talking with God. Of course, being Jewish isn’t just defined by a relationship with God; it is also defined by the connection to the local Jewish community and the larger community of Israel. I didn’t have those connections because I knew there was no Jewish community that would accept me as who I really was. I am thankful for what I got from Judaism; it helped keep me alive during a hard childhood and has sustained me throughout my life. But the other part of Judaism, the communal aspect, has always remained problematic for me.
ES: How did you get connected to Yeshiva University?
JL: I guess I would say it was bashert. While I’m sure the Rambam would disagree with me, I am a strong believer that God has a sense of humor and feel that my coming to YU is proof of that.
I did very well in academia, including getting a Ph.D. at Princeton, but though I managed to get a Fulbright scholarship and temporary teaching positions, I couldn’t get a tenure-track job. I had a family with young children to support, so when I only got one job interview after sending out many applications, I was desperate. That job interview was at a school I’d never heard of, Stern College for Women. It was a strange job ad and put together several very different qualifications. They wanted someone who could teach academic writing, which was something I had trained to do in Princeton, someone familiar with Jewish culture, and someone who could teach American poetry and literature. It was like it had been written for me.
ES: What was your experience like when you first came to Yeshiva University?
JL: When I first came to YU, many of the students probably didn’t see me as a “real Jew,” assuming that I was ethnically Jewish but didn’t know what Judaism really was. I had an equally limited sense of my students. I had never known Orthodox Jews, and I arrived at Stern filled with stereotypes which were common among non-Orthodox American Jews, stereotypes that led me to assume that my students were part of a community that was closed off from the enlightened world of which I was there to teach them about. Needless to say, my students immediately disproved the caricatures I had imagined. They were vibrant, lively, curious, and wonderfully ready to engage in conversations. I remember one early Comp class when the students rebelled against what I had told them about my approach to grading, which was designed so that students could see improvements as they learned over the semester — a tool I had learned at Princeton. Cheerfully chanting in unison, they told me that to them, “A is average, B is Bad, and C is Catastrophe.” It was a magical moment and destroyed my preconceptions about what women raised in Orthodox culture would be like.
I arrived at Stern from secular academia, where I had felt estranged because of my own religious commitment and Jewishness. My previous school’s unofficial motto was “Atheism, Communism, and Free Love,” and I was the only visibly Jewish faculty member (I wore a kippah and tzitzit at the time). It was so secular that when one class was discussing a bit of Deuteronomy, a student asked, “Who is this character called God?” So even though no one at Stern shared my background or relation to Judaism, in some ways, it felt like coming home.
One of the things that surprised me at Stern had to do with how students felt about their own lives. Many of the secular students I worked with struggled to feel that their lives had meaning and value. When I came to Stern, I found students whose sense that their lives have value was underwritten by their families and their community and their tradition. It seemed that every single student at Stern knew that their life was important. Judaism told them their lives were important, that if they did not light the Shabbos candles at the right time, something was broken in the universe. I know that religious guilt and shame can be psychological burdens, but if you know God cares what you do and don’t do, your life matters. This was something my secular students struggled with — many of them felt that it was up to them to make their lives mean something. They didn’t feel that they had been created on purpose.
I had never seen the secular culture that I grew up in contrast to any other before, and that was one of the great gifts I got from teaching at YU: it allowed me to see the limitations of secular culture, the tradeoffs that come with individualism, particularly the consequences of defining life in terms of individual freedom, the sense that if I am free to do anything I want to do, that inherently means it doesn’t really matter what I did to anyone else but myself. I had never seen it this way before.
I had never had the experience of being in a real community, a community where everyone, for better or worse, knows everyone else. By the time I arrived at Stern, “community” had become a buzzword in secular circles, used to refer to any group of people who share a certain characteristic. Stern showed me the difference between this metaphorical kind of community and a living, breathing community, where you are known intensely by the people around you. When you’re sick, people pray for you and bring you food; when you aren’t there, they gossip. You are never only yourself; you are always also who you are to others. Community is a crucial dimension of humanity, and if it weren’t for teaching at Stern, I might never have understood what it means.
ES: Now that you are retiring from Stern, looking back, what do you think were some of your most notable and positive experiences?
JL: Actually, I’m not retiring. My plan was to work at Stern for the rest of my life, but I’ve been getting sicker for many years with an incurable, steadily progressing illness which, among other things, has given me a form of heart failure. Because my heart can’t maintain adequate blood flow to my brain, when I sit or stand for any length of time, I get dizzy, weak, and can find it hard to think or speak. I got through my last pre-Covid semesters by lying on the floor in my office between classes; when the Dean said that fall teaching would be in person, I knew that I was no longer physically capable of being the teacher my students deserve.
In terms of notable experiences, getting hired at YU saved my life and has shaped it in crucial ways. I grew up as a teacher at Stern, learned to think about teaching in new ways, and to experiment with pedagogy. Unlike many universities, which would have either counted my creative writing or my scholarship toward tenure, YU counted all my writing, which freed me to pursue all the projects that interested me, and enabled me to earn early tenure (I applied for it when my second literary work, The Book of Anna, a novel combining poetry and prose written in the voice of a fictional concentration camp survivor, was accepted for publication; by coincidence, it was brought out in a new, expanded edition this past spring, just as my time at Stern was ending). A few years later, my combined creative and scholarly writing earned early promotion to full professor.
ES: Based on your time at YU; If you could highlight the most valuable things for you at YU, what would they be?
JL: For me, the best thing about YU has been my students. I’ve taught undergraduates at Princeton and other top schools, and I’ve never met students who, year after year, are more serious about life, or better equipped to learn what for me is the key truth about literary study: the truth that when we read and interpret texts, we reading and interpreting ourselves, so that when our interpretive abilities grow, so do our lives. When we were talking about literature, we weren’t only talking about literature; we were talking about real life. What could be better than getting to work with students like that?
I know that some students – I’m looking at you, survivors of my Composition classes – felt I was pushing too hard or demanding too much. The truth is, I felt I owed it to you – I owed it to your Creator, the One who made you and entrusted you to me for a little while – to help you to grow into the greatness I saw in you. I never had a student who didn’t grow during our work together, and I never stopped feeling awe at the miracle of their becoming.
ES: What are some things you wish you would have done during your time at YU?
JL: I wish I had been aware of LGBT students’ struggles from the first. Before I received tenure, I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know how YU was treating LGBT students. I had all the privileges that came with living in a heteronormative society as a (seemingly) heteronormative person. Even after I came out myself, because I didn’t want to scare students away, I never challenged the unofficial don’t ask, don’t tell policy that continues to make it uncomfortable for people at Stern to talk about LGBT lives and issues. Ironically, there are some non-LGBT teachers who feel much freer to talk about LGBT topics than I did, but some have told me that they feel constrained as well. Of course, this kind of silence is not just something that happens in Orthodox communities. As I say when I speak to non-Orthodox groups, such silences often fall whenever we merely “tolerate” people who are different. We act as if because we allow them to be there, everything has been resolved, and there’s nothing to talk about. This is a form of denial and bad faith in which I was complicit before I came out. Since I’ve come out, I hope that by being openly who I am at YU, I have done some measure of teshuva and helped make things better for the LGBT Orthodox community.
Professor Matt Miller shared a quote with the YU Observer: “As chair of the English department, I can say that Professor Ladin will be sorely missed. When I was first hired at Stern 12 years ago, Professor Ladin was someone who went out of her way to make me feel comfortable and welcome. I know she has done the same for countless students over the years, and of course, for many students in the LGBT+ community, her presence has been especially valuable and inspiring. While her students think of her as ‘Professor Ladin’, I think of her as ‘Joy,’ and I am proud to call her a friend.
Shayna Herzsage, a recent graduate of Stern who majored in Neuropsychology and Creative Writing as well as the previous Managing Editor for the YU Observer, gave a quote to the YU Observer: “My first set of interactions with Professor Ladin in English Composition & Rhetoric were incredibly negative – almost comically so, considering how our connections evolved. I was frustrated, I was angry, and I was excited to end my first semester and never see her again. Since then, I took her for one more class, helped her with research for a project, and worked with her in the Beren Writing Center. My first-semester self would be scandalized to know my undergraduate life would intersect with Professor Ladin so much, but I am glad I had such a privilege.”