The Israelites fleeing Egypt, and Albert Sobel, the transgender protagonist of my novel Lola Flores, share something in common. Their freedom requires traversing or immersion in a body of water, source of life.
Following the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites find themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Reed Sea. “Then Moses held his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind” (Exodus 14:21). The Israelites pass through walls of water. When the Egyptians follow, God brings the sea down on them.
In 1929, Albert Sobel, a talented 18-year-old pianist and singer—also a Polish-born American Jew—seeks to free herself from the constraints imposed by her body to become the woman she knows herself to be. “Lower Manhattan. Pike Slip . . . East River . . . Albert stands on a wooden dock . . . Removes jacket, shirt, trousers, shoes . . . leaps into the water.”
The Israelites’ flight from Egypt, which Jews worldwide will retell during Passover seders tonight and tomorrow night, represents a new chapter of the story begun in the book of Exodus. Ingratitude and a slave mentality condemn the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. God denies even Moses entry to the promised land. Ultimately, generations born into freedom will cross the Jordan River into Canaan, marking another new beginning.
Albert’s escape from New York to Cuba also involves a perilous journey. Havana marks the start of a new life as Lola Flores. For a quarter-century, Lola struggles with imposed restraints and inner demons.
If Lola is so talented and beloved—between emotional and professional crashes—why doesn’t she come out? Trans women today, including actors like Laverne Cox, are accepted by much—though hardly all—of the American public.
Lola Flores lives in a different era. In 1930s Havana and later in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, she must live in a shadow world.
But wasn’t any real-life transgender woman known a century ago? Yes. Somewhat.
In the late 1920s, the painter Einar Wegener began transitioning to her female self, Lili Elbe. She was fictionalized in the novel and film The Danish Girl. But Lili Elbe was not an internationally known performer dependent on audiences; she also gave up painting. Sadly, she died in 1931 following the third in a series of gender-reassignment operations.
In the novel, Lola meets Lili Elbe in Berlin. After Lili’s death, Lola fears surgery and restricts herself to prescribed hormones. She also knows that revealing herself will doom her career.
American attitudes changed during Lola’s lifetime. In 1952, a young New Yorker named George Jorgensen underwent gender reassignment surgery in Copenhagen and returned as Christine Jorgensen. She made headlines—I remember—and soon launched a nightclub career. Lola meets Christine. (My research included a biography of Lili Elbe and Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography.)
Lola Flores ends with an epilogue related to its prologue. Both take place on the water. A ship enters New York Harbor (where my father and his family arrived from Warsaw in 1906). The epilogue reveals something new and makes a statement about American freedom.
The journey to freedom in a land adjacent to two mighty oceans continues. May all voyagers reach safe shores.
Happy Passover . . . and Happy Easter. May this season bring you joy and a renewed commitment to freedom for everyone.
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