A love song for Jerusalem, sung in two genders

Yiscah Smith’s multiple entries to, and exits from, Israel echo the Jewish people’s cycle of exile and redemption

Yiscah Smith (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yiscah Smith
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jeff Smith turned 20 in the summer of 1971. En route to Europe, expecting to visit assorted Mediterranean beaches with his backpack and his buddies, something starling occurred.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, Smith realized he wasn’t headed for Europe at all.
He was initially alarmed, as the realization of his true destination of Israel dawned on him. It wasn’t an obvious choice for a young man whose only connections to Israel thus far had been the tin charity boxes from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund’s “Plant a Tree in Israel” campaigns, which he received each year from his Conservative American He - brew school; and a college sociology course in which he became fascinated with Israel’s kibbutz system.
“When we landed at the airport in Israel, people clapped. That was a shock. I saw normal-looking adults kissing the ground and reciting prayers. I asked myself, ‘What is this country about that it makes people cry, clap and kiss the ground?’ I had to find out for myself.”
Smith stayed in Israel for the entire summer of 1971.
Ironically, he wasn’t able to find work on a kibbutz; there were more volunteers than kibbutz placements that summer, so he was left to wander around Israel on his own. In this way he discovered Jerusalem, and began a lifelong love affair with the city.
“The minute I entered the old central bus station in Jerusalem, I felt immersed in the sense of being home – the sounds, the smells, the dynamics, the energy. Intuitively, I felt at home. This began the process of my becoming both an avid Zionist and a religious Jew. There were many comings and goings before I finally made aliya, but ever since that moment, my compass has always pointed to Jerusalem.”
Between his early glimpses of Israel in 1971 and when he eventually made aliya with his wife and child in 1977, Smith underwent an important transition from non-observant American Jew to religious Zionist. Jeff Smith, a 20-year-old American Jew who fell in love with Israel and the Torah, became Ya’akov Smith, oleh to Safed.
Two short years later, the necessity for specialized medical care for their second child sent the family back to the US. During those years, four more children were born. By 1985, Smith, now a father of six, returned to Israel with the entire family, only to leave yet again in 1991.
An even more dramatic transition was necessary before Smith could fully reclaim a permanent place in Israel.
Born with a male body, Smith knew from early child - hood that he was always meant to be a woman. Ya’akov Smith gave up everything he loved – his family, his home in Jerusalem and his life as a religious Jew and teacher of Torah – to become his authentic self.
Although over the subsequent years there were many business trips to Israel while working for an Israeli tour company, coupled with visits to see the children, Smith would not return to live in the Jewish state for nearly two decades.
Those years included many dark and lonely times, living a non-observant life, cut off from the source of all that had once animated his life. And yet, in all that time, there was never a moment that Jerusalem didn’t continue to beckon Smith home.
After his gender transition was completed in 2005, Jeff became Jessica, then Yiscah. By 2006, while living and working in Seattle, Washington, Smith returned to a fully observant Jewish life and to teaching Torah, this time as a woman. Having conquered her personal demons and come home to herself in the fullest way possible, the time to move back to Israel, healed and whole, had finally arrived.
Upon returning to the Jewish state in 2011, Smith faced the urgent task of changing her name and gender on her Israeli passport and national identity card. Having been through a similar process after her gender transition in America somewhat diminished her queasiness.
Instead of quaking with discomfort, she took a matter-of-fact approach. Stepping up to the front desk at the Interior Ministry’s office in Jerusalem on her first full day back in Israel, Smith opened her mouth and was surprised to hear that the Hebrew she hadn’t spoken in seven years came out clearly and succinctly.
“I was very well-received,” Smith explains about her renewed encounter with Israel’s bureaucracy. “I stayed focused on my goal. I explained simply, ‘This is what I need; please advise me on what I have to do to reach this goal.’ They sent me to Room 111 and I got what I needed without any undue complications.”
Now living contentedly in the diverse Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot, Smith reflects back, comparing her feelings about life in Israel today with her previous experiences.
“When I made aliya in 1977, and when I returned in 1985, I knew deep inside that the life I was living – being married to a woman, teaching Torah, living as a man – couldn’t be sustained because I wasn’t being authentic. Deep inside, I was crumbling. My whole life was built on a very shallow foundation.
“Since returning to Israel in 2011 as Yiscah, I feel a sense of serenity inside. Now I can say I’ll be here, God willing, until 120 when I breathe my last breath.
Since I’m now fully at home with myself, I’m able to be completely at home in Israel.”
Regarding the relationship with her original family, out of a desire to protect their privacy, Smith never comments about them publicly.
Despite the multiple hurdles she faced in settling in Israel permanently as her authentic self, Smith advises other people not to give up on making aliya, even when they are faced with trials. “We’re not just making aliya for ourselves – our aliya is for all future generations. As a result of all of my packing and unpacking throughout the decades, I have 13 grandchildren living in Israel.
“It was a small price to pay to help my family reconfamiklnect to our history; that’s the bottom line. As a result of our multiple attempts at aliya, their mother and I have given Israel to the next two generations in front of us – and that makes it all worth it.”
■ Yiscah Smith’s book Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living is available on amazon.com and directly from the author. To purchase a copy or to book Smith to speak about her journey, email yiscahsmith@ gmail.com.