Noach Dzmura is a Jewish community leader, teacher, writer, and freelance communications professional. Noach Dzmura identifies as male, but was assigned a female gender identity at birth on March 3rd, 1963 in Detroit, Michigan. He was raised in Wheeling, West Virginia, in the Byzantine Catholic tradition. In this profile Noach chose to use feminine pronouns to identify his pre-transition self, as she was born and raised to be a girl and a woman, and then in adulthood, he chose to live as a man. (He chose to use the pseudonym Vickie to identify himself during the first part of his life.)
As a child both Vickie’s father and grandfather embodied careers that were somehow betwixt and between. Vickie’s grandfather was one of the last graduating class of married clergy in the Byzantine Catholic tradition. Growing up, her grandpa was the only practicing priest Vickie knew who had five children and 25 grandchildren. Vickie’s father was trained as an Osteopathic physician (DO) who was practicing medicine in a state that only respected the MD degree. After years of activism throughout the state, Dr. Dzmura and his colleagues were successful in achieving recognition in West Virginia. Dr. Dzmura served alongside peers--MD and DO alike--on the teaching staff at Wheeling Hospital and at Ohio Valley Medical Center and was instrumental in establishing an Osteopathic medical school in West Virginia.
Explaining to Roman Catholic grade school classmates that Vickie and family were Byzantine Catholic rather than Roman Catholic was a daunting task. Students would at times reply with questions about whether Vickie was a ‘real Catholic,’ and with a question about whether a married priest was a ‘real priest.’ When told of Dr. Dzmura’s Osteopathic medical practice, children would parry by questioning whether he was a ‘real doctor.’ As a result, Vickie was shaped by a sense of hierarchical binaries where one pole of the binary was ‘normal’ or ‘real’ and the other was somehow viewed as ‘less than’ or ‘not real’ by the normative culture. The ‘devalued side’ of the binary had a much deeper beauty, and a deeper ‘realness’ for Vickie when viewed from the inside. When attending Byzantine Catholic church, Vickie deeply felt the beauty and mystery of her own tradition, a feeling that was impossible to convey to those grade school peers. In high school she was privileged to work at her father’s clinic, and she experienced firsthand the pastoral and healing presence of an Osteopathic clinician who was beloved by his patients. Attending mass in the dining room of the family home, chanting beautiful melodies in Old Church Slavonic and seeing one’s own grandfather serving as the celebrating priest demonstrated the value of married clergy.
After completing high school Vickie earned a BPh (Bachelor of Philosophy) with a concentration in biology and art from Miami University in Ohio in 1981. In 1985 she entered graduate school in Dallas, Texas. Her early ambition was to become a medical illustrator, but after some very helpful internships and a final project in digital animation, she broadened her focus to medical communications.
During college Vickie became disaffected by the Catholic Church because of its old-fashioned positions on abortion and the ordination of women. She began to study the life of Jesus Christ and discovered an itinerant Rabbi rather than a God. She saw value in things other than religion, doubted the existence of God as she studied the Existentialists, and even identified as an atheist for a brief time.
In 1985 she entered graduate school in Biomedical Media Development in Dallas, Texas. During her first summer in Texas, Vickie was hospitalized with Toxic Shock Syndrome. After being given antibiotics to treat the infection, Vickie suffered an extreme allergic reaction (anaphylactic shock) and her heart stopped beating.
As she spent the rest of the summer recuperating from this medical crisis, Vickie realized that she wanted her life to matter, and did not want to die without having made a difference in the world. She decided that the biggest problem facing the world at the time was HIV/AIDS and that helping people with this disease would be the way she could create the largest impact with her ‘one wild and precious life.’
In 1986 Vickie began to volunteer at Parkland Memorial Hospital Infectious Disease Clinic II where gay men with AIDS were being treated. Vickie was invited to join the National Association of Persons with AIDS by one of her hospital colleagues later that same year and ultimately served as Secretary on the Board of Directors of the Dallas Branch--called the PWA Coalition of Dallas. In 1987 Vickie was hired as Residence Manager for the PWA Coalition’s first major project, an apartment complex for people with AIDS and what was then known as AIDS-Related Conditions (ARC).
It was through this work that she met gay men for the first time in her life and was deeply affected by seeing masculinities that were different from those she had seen expressed by heterosexual men. Rather than having one and only one right way to be a man, rather than having only one right way to be Catholic, rather than having only one right way to be a physician, her experiences led her to the understanding that there are Many and that the truth about life is that the relationship between Many and One is complex, ever-changing and sacred. The men who lived at the residence were some of her first teachers of queer spirituality. These powerful teachings about the mind/body/spirit connection directed her toward a spirituality that was connected with the body rather than separated from it: spirituality that embraced sexuality rather than rejecting it; spirituality that prized self-identification over the norms established by society.
Her early experiences of hierarchical binaries (MD over DO, Roman Catholic over Byzantine Catholic, etc.) and her ability to value the half of the binary that was labeled ‘less than’ or ‘unreal’ by mainstream society, alongside these new-to-her queer spiritual teachings, prepared her to open to the possibility of a radical re-visioning of the Divine as a shape-shifter and of herself as created in a Divine image that is able to transform Itself. These understandings fostered for her the belief she held (later in life) that the radical changes involved in gender transition are driven by spiritual yearnings rather than physical longing.
Vickie often found herself attracted to gay men, but as a female assigned and self-identified female-bodied person, Vickie felt that gay men would not be attracted to her. Since the sexual path that felt right to her didn’t appear to be a viable option and heterosexuality was undesirable, she chose the only other option that seemed available and identified and lived as a lesbian for 10 years. During those years, she became involved in the LGBT community as an organizer and leader-in-training and had the opportunity to attend a leadership networking conference in 1991, shortly afterearning her masters degree in Biomedical Media Development.
At this conference she sat down at the table for “Recast,” a Texas support group for transsexuals. In her naïveté, Vickie made the assumption that the organization existed to help people who felt like a ‘woman trapped in a man’s body’ to become women through surgery and hormones. A young man was the presenter and during his short introductory speech about the organization, Vickie began to realize that some of the man’s proportions were outside of her expectations for men. Very slowly it dawned on Vickie that the presenter had been assigned to the female sex at birth and had chosen to live as a man later in life. This was the first time Vickie had ever imagined the possibility of female-to-male gender transition and the effect of this new knowledge rooted her to the spot. She sat for the entire morning at the Recast table, listening to the presenter delivering the same spiel as group after group came and left during the event.
Afterwards Vickie tried to talk to her friends about this experience and the feelings that were beginning to emerge, but their reactions felt threatening so she shut down the part of herself that was curious and questioning about the person she had met from Recast. In fact, she repressed the information from her own awareness and continued on with life, working at a community college in Dallas, Texas.
In 1998 she moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and entered the software industry as a trainer and instructional designer. While a part of the lesbian community in Pittsburgh, Vickie recalls being frustrated by people who claimed a ‘third gender’. She wondered why one gender or the other might not be considered inclusive enough for people who expressed different ways of being. Ultimately, after a lot of learning about the social construction of reality and a lot of experience with people who expressed many different genders, she had a breakthrough in understanding ‘third gender,’ transsexual, transgender and intersex people. Each person, she realized, had the authority to define themselves as they chose to be understood in the world. When she finally came to this realization, the repressed memories of the transgender man at the Dallas leadership conference surfaced again and she allowed herself to really, deeply believe in other peoples’ right to define themselves as they wished. As soon as she allowed this truth to enter her mind, it was as though a door had opened to questioning her own gender identity. She realized that she, too, had permission to become herself, whoever that might be.
Shortly afterward, Vickie experienced a powerful revelatory dream that she later identified as a kind of shamanic initiation. Through this revelation, he gained an understanding of himself as ‘a man inside a bag of female skin’. This revelation brought clarity to Vickie concerning many aspects of ‘difference’ he felt in his life and particularly with respect to his attraction to other men as a gay man. He took the required steps to follow the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care for gender transition at the age of 38. He changed his name to Lucas (often called Luke), and through the court system changed his gender marker on legal documents from F to M.
Lucas attended a pagan group affiliated with a Unitarian Universalist church in Pittsburgh and ultimately became a member of the UU church. At this time he began thinking about attending theological school and becoming a minister. During this time Lucas attended his first Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service at a synagogue, called Bet Tikvah, in Pittsburgh. This was an LGBT group that met in a small chapel of a larger synagogue. Never before had he encountered queer spirituality in the context of an organized religion. While pagan groups and UU churches are inclusive, they are not primarily driven by queer identities. Lucas remembers this queer Shabbat service as extremely empowering. It had never occurred to him that the queer experiences of our lives could change the shape of traditional rituals, in ways that made them particularly meaningful, accessible and relevant to queer people. Queer spirituality brought the power of self-determination Vickie had found in pagan circles, into the fold of organized religion. Ultimately, these experiences provided for Lucas the tools to transform the conversion ritual when he publicly aligned himself with the Jewish people and Jewish traditions several years later.
After discovering Bet Tikvah, he moved to Berkeley, California in 2003 to attend Starr King School for the Ministry. His goal, to become a UU minister, was already in jeapordy as Lucas knew in his heart that Judaism was the theology and tradition that most resonated with him. And while one may be a UU minister and be a Jew, Lucas did not feel that was his path. He considered as ultimate goals both the rabbinate and a doctorate in Jewish Studies with a concentration in gender and sexuality. (He is still considering those options among others.)
His decision to convert to Judaism was roundly affirmed when he attended services at Chochmat Halev synagogue in Berkeley and saw Maggid Jhos Singer, a transsexual man, leading the service. Before this moment, he had never seen a transgender person serve as a religious leader. Through Jhos’ message that day, Lucas heard Torah that was specifically meaningful to his own life and, in addition, through the giftedness of Jhos’ leadership, Lucas saw how a transgender message had relevance not only to transgender people, but for everyone in the congregation. After the service Lucas introduced himself to Jhos and thanked him for the teaching, and Jhos, thinking they had met before, called Lucas “Noach.” Lucas right on the spot adopted Noach as his Hebrew name, which is also the name he uses to this day as a ‘professional Jew’.
Deciding to convert to Judaism, Noach also wanted to switch the focus of his graduate study, from UU ministerial training to Jewish Studies. He left Starr King and began studying at the Richard S. Diner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in 2004.
After receiving his MA in Jewish Studies, Noach began his second career in 2009 when he was afforded the opportunity to edit the anthology, Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community. The anthology won the Lambda Literary award in 2010 and addressed some of the intersections of Jewish life, ritual, prayer and education of gender variant bodies. Noach has also done freelancing work for Jewish and liberal religious non-profit organizations as a marketing and communications professional.
In 2012 the organizations Nehirim, Jewish Transitions (of which Noach is the Director), and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry gathered a cohort of transgender Jewish spiritual leaders for learning, camaraderie and celebration. At the closing event of this gathering, Rabbah Emily Aviva Kapor ordained Noach with the title of “Rav,” as an elder of the community. He felt this unorthodox yet rooted-in-tradition ordination was an unexpected and amazing blessing, and that the group of people present for this moment validated and offered support for what at times has felt like a lonely task.
Noach currently lives in the East Bay area of California. He serves as Director of Jewish Transitions www.jewishtransitions.org an organization that values the sacred in every gender, especially during embodied, traditionally gender-specific rituals that mark profound life transitions, such as conversion and burial.
(This biographical statement written by Sonny Duncan in collaboration with Noach Dzmura.)