Breaking the mold

Yiscah Smith speaks of her struggle over gender identity, of her search for self, and of the growing openness to discuss transgender issues.

Protesters gather in Jerusalem on Saturday night after the Gay Pride Parade stabbings. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protesters gather in Jerusalem on Saturday night after the Gay Pride Parade stabbings.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Growing up in the 1950s on Long Island, New York, Yiscah Smith did not even have the language to describe her gender dysphoria, she says. It was not until she was in her 40s that the word “transgender” became part of her vocabulary.
It has been a watershed year for the transgender community, in part due to the very public pronouncement by American Olympian and reality TV personality Bruce Jenner that he was transitioning to a woman. Caitlyn Jenner was introduced to the world in June.
“I think it affects dialogue,” Smith says of Jenner’s proclamation. “For example, I can be at a Shabbat table now and someone will be more proactive to say ‘Yiscah, what do you think about Caitlyn Jenner?’ where three years ago, no one would say anything to me.
“People are more open to speaking about things, even if they don’t support, even if they have opinion against, which to me is okay because it all begins with dialogue instead of the pink elephant in the room where no one wants to even mention it.”
Smith is a self-described Jewish educator, spiritual mentor and author, who teaches Torah, Jewish philosophy, and Jewish history both in Israel and online. She recently published her memoir, Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living, where she tells her story of grappling with her spirituality and committing to living as her true self.
From the age of five, Smith says, “I felt I was supposed to be a girl but my body was that of a boy.
“I didn’t feel I was being punished, I just felt that I was handicapped, because I couldn’t be completely me.”
Seeking a form of immersion into a community that was larger than her individual self, Smith moved to Israel in 1971 at the age of 20 to work on a kibbutz over the summer.
It was during this trip and a visit to the Western Wall that she found herself challenged and enlightened.
“Two opposite, very paradoxical things happened that day that really were major happenings in my life that decided a lot. One was I was really confronted with having to make a decision – boy or girl? “If I chose to go on the side where I felt I really belonged, which was the women’s side, you could imagine the tumult…. But if I would have gone to the place where the world said I should – because of my body – then I would have once again despised myself, because my problem was that I wasn’t being authentic, I wasn’t being real.”
Smith says that before her trip to the Western Wall, she had never considered spirituality or being a spiritual person. Despite this, while leaning her head against the stones, she felt something deep inside, she says. She believes that this was her first real encounter with Israel, Judaism and her soul.
“I felt something deep inside that was not gender related, and it said: ‘You’ll be okay; one way or another, you’re in a place where you’ll be okay,’ and I left the Kotel feeling really excited to be Jewish for the first time,” Smith said.
Smith made aliya in 1985 and was married, as an Orthodox man to a woman, and fathered six children.
Having pushed her sense of self “way down as a deep, dark secret,” Smith’s world came crashing down in 1991 when she got divorced and decided to leave Israel.
“I left Torah, I left Israel. I didn’t think there was a place for me here. I wanted to start being real; I couldn’t act anymore. I felt like I really wanted in, that was sincere.
I wanted to be in a relationship with God, with the Jewish people and with Israel.”
Smith transitioned in 2001 while living in the US and returned to Israel in 2011.
She says that her experience since returning to Jerusalem, and the neighborhood of Nahlaot specifically, four years ago has been surprisingly supportive and that she was genuinely surprised at how little transphobia she experienced.
“There’s such a concoction of a rainbow of humanity here and I thrive in that.”
Her philosophical outlook centers on a faith of acceptance and that there is no singular group that owns transphobia, just as there is no particular group that owns racism and sexism.
“There are as many openhearted people in Jerusalem as closed, as many closed people in Tel Aviv as open. Throughout the world, I travel all over, and wherever I’ve gone I’ve seen that there are some people that are just bigoted and they just discriminate.”
This leads Smith to her most important message: “The person that did not accept me the most was the person that came to accept me the most, and that was me.”
While real change takes time, in Israel there appears to be an alignment occurring where both the government and younger populations are coming together to bring about change and support for transgender communities.
Smith says that in recent times “things have changed a lot for the transgender community.
That the army provides professional intervention to help people move through the transition, including hormone replacement therapy, psychological counseling, Kupat Holim [health fund] pays for the surgery – I mean these are steps that the United States is still not near.”
Israeli law obligates public healthcare clinics to fund sex-change processes, if the requester is fit to undergo physical sex-change therapy.
During their military service, soldiers are cared for by the Health Corps, which is obligated to follow the same laws as any other public healthcare clinic. Therefore the IDF, under Israeli law, funds both hormonal treatment and sex-reassignment surgery.
Her message for Rosh Hashana is hopeful and encourages honesty with oneself and closer connection with God.
“The degree to which you want God to judge you favorably, judge yourself favorably.
The degree to which you really believe you want another year, make decisions for your own life to show you really do want to live another year.”