Winnipeg’s Ben Baader saw his life pass before his eyes, when his journey as a trans Orthodox Jew was made into a play

Ben Baader

Ben Baader found it wonderful to see a play based on his own extremely unique experiences.

“The actors did an outstanding job,” he said about Narrow Bridge, which chronicles the transitioning of the main character from female to male—and from being a secular Jew to living in the framework of Orthodox observance and practice.

Written by Winnipeg playwright, performer and director Daniel Thau-Eleff, the play ran in March 2023 at the Berney Theatre on Winnipeg’s Asper Jewish Community Campus.

It tells the story of a character named Sholem who transitions genders while discovering Orthodox Judaism.

“It was very moving to see it,” said Baader, 64, who teaches European and Jewish history at the University of Manitoba. “It tells the story of what it’s like to come out as trans and fall in love with Torah and with God.”

Originally from Germany, Baader’s trans journey began as a child when he felt gender ambiguous while growing up. He lived for years as a lesbian before coming out as trans while studying for his PhD in New York in the 1990s.

When he interviewed for the job at the University of Manitoba, he was in the midst of his transitioning journey.

“They were completely lovely about it,” he said of the history department. “Very generous and understanding, welcoming and thoughtful.”

When his stepmother died in 2008, and his mother in 2010, he was deeply impacted by their deaths.

“Through their deaths, I began to experience light,” he said, adding it was like they were “channelling light” to him.

Through that experience, he began to embrace religious practices such as daily prayer and ritual observance. At the same time, his studies in Judaism became less academic. “The more I read Torah and Talmud, the more I felt that ocean of light coming from between the letters in the texts,” he said.

“I started to fall in love with the text. There was a depth of radiance. I was moving from the academic to the experiential.”

Unlike with his transitioning genders, at first Baader didn’t tell anyone about his newfound religious practices and observances; he kept that in the closet. But once he started keeping Shabbat, more people knew.

“If you have to be home on Friday nights and you can’t go to meetings on Saturday, you can’t keep that quiet,” he said.

When it came to choosing a Jewish tradition, Baader decided on Orthodox Judaism. “For me, that’s the place where there’s the most light and devotion,” he said, adding he attends an Orthodox synagogue in Winnipeg and sits on the men’s side.

But not all trans Orthodox Jews are so lucky while transitioning, he said. Many stop attending services until their transition is complete.

“Most disappear, go underground, move and show up somewhere else later,” he said. “There is a huge amount of loneliness.”

As for the play itself, Baader noted it was impossible to compress his whole story into a short, fictional production.

“But it reflects my experience,” he said, adding there was “an extremely positive reception to the play. It seemed very timely as synagogues and other places of worship struggle to integrate trans people. It seemed to hit a nerve.”

Of his moving from non-practicing Jew to Orthodox Judaism, Baader said it has helped make him be more alive and awake.

“I have such a deep awareness of the Divine presence, it’s become so visceral,” he said.

Quoting a verse from the Koran, he said: “’Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.’ I feel connected to the light that flows all around me.”

While there are no plans currently to stage the play again, playwright Thau-Eleff is open to mounting another production.