The Short­est Skirt in Shul

  • Review
By – February 20, 2023

Sass Orol’s The Short­est Skirt in Shul is a work of trans-poet­ics that exam­ines Jew­ish obser­vance and Hebrew lin­guis­tics. The book’s engage­ment with Hebrew root words and lan­guage exper­i­men­ta­tion results in some of the most unique Jew­ish poet­ry of our time. These are poems of faith that envi­sion a Jew­ish prac­tice that is both tra­di­tion­al and inclu­sive — poems that insist that Jews need not choose between their Jew­ish denom­i­na­tion and their gen­der identity.

The book’s inves­ti­ga­tion of tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish prac­tice through a trans­gen­der per­spec­tive asks hard ques­tions of patri­ar­chal tra­di­tions. In For­give­ness Sea­son,” the speak­er teach­es their stu­dents about teshu­vah, or repen­tance. Con­tem­plat­ing the morn­ing prayers, the speak­er real­izes that the lines that they once remem­bered as Blessed are you god who didn’t/make me woman” are in fact easy to for­give because it’s true — g‑d didn’t make me a woman.” The poem then turns to the read­er and declares that You did. Yes, You, You Read­er,” imbu­ing the read­er with the pow­er to fin­ish the work of cre­ation by see­ing the speak­er how they are meant to be seen. In Minyan,” the speak­er is called to make minyan so that some­one can say kad­dish. The poem explains that this is a tra­di­tion­al minyan that only includes men, imply­ing that the speak­er has not pub­licly tran­si­tioned. When the speak­er is called to par­tic­i­pate (“Hey man we need a tenth”), they are in front of a mir­ror, where they fon­dle the gelled breasts/​filling out my bor­rowed bra.” The fierce end­ing blends both the mourner’s dif­fi­cul­ties and the speaker’s: One more griev­ing man./Will I not let him weep?” 

One of the high­lights of the col­lec­tion is Crown for Tran­si­tion,” which exam­ines the mod­est dress of obser­vant Jew­ish women. To be wrapped in thick-set cloth and tucked away,” Orol writes, is one way to be a prop­er Jew­ish girl.” The poem stud­ies such mod­esty through the lens of gen­der dys­pho­ria: Plain shirts too loose to tell on my flat chest,/high necks with­out the slight­est hint of breast/​hair. Hair, hair, to be wor­shiped and hid­den … ” By com­par­ing Jew­ish females cov­er­ing their hair as a means of observ­ing Jew­ish law with the speaker’s desire to cov­er their hair so as to appear more stereo­typ­i­cal­ly fem­i­nine, Orol both engages with Jew­ish prac­tices and asks read­ers to expand their under­stand­ing of Jew­ish gen­der iden­ti­ty beyond a lim­it­ed binary. 

Many poems in the col­lec­tion, such as Aleph Pat­tern,” decon­struct Hebrew to its roots. The first stan­za looks at the words אנשים (men) and נשים (women): In Hebrew, the word women is the word men/​with the first let­ter dropped. Not just any letter/​but the first first let­ter, the aleph of the aleph-bet.” The next stan­za shifts to a scene of gen­der affir­ma­tion surgery: 

The steel band secur­ing the forehead

to the hos­pi­tal bed is preheated

but cools quick­ly in the doctor’s curt hands.

Inside every men is a women

you’ll need to ampu­tate to find.

In this poem, the removal of the pre­fix א is likened to an ampu­ta­tion, illu­mi­nat­ing what is already present — that the female exists with­in the male. In Gram­mar Les­son,” the speak­er con­tin­ues this med­i­ta­tion on Hebrew. They start by not­ing that Hebrew is a gen­dered lan­guage: In Hebrew every word is butch or femme. Every word tops or bot­toms.” Some words have a trap between their legs” or only cross­dress among friends.” But they move to the word שושנות (lilies/​roses), which is not a prop­er word” by tra­di­tion­al Hebrew stan­dards, because the speak­er has replaced its mas­cu­line end­ing with a fem­i­nine one — sub­vert­ing Hebrew’s gen­der­ing of gram­mar. They explain that When I make [שושנות] into a word/​I hope it bitch­slaps the flu­ent listener/​as it does now.” The poem enacts the entire collection’s project, which is not to reject Jew­ish prac­tice and Hebrew, but to wake them up to their fullest, most just poten­tial. The Short­est Skirt in Shul is a vital book of Jew­ish LGBTQIA+ poet­ry and a pow­er­ful tes­ta­ment to the Jew­ish oblig­a­tion to wres­tle with tra­di­tion until we can observe it sin­cere­ly, as our truest selves.

Alli­son Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a final­ist for the Berru Poet­ry Award and the Ohioana Book Award. 

Discussion Questions