Transgender in Jerusalem: Meet Yiscah Smith, the inspiring ex-Orthodox Jewish activist who created a life as a woman

Smith, born Jeffrey and raised in Long Island, New York, tells The Independent about her struggle to come out as a woman and being 'honest with God'

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The Independent Online

To many people, Yiscah Smith might sound like a living contradiction. The 63-year-old gives lectures on Judaism, keeps kosher and now lives as any religious woman in Jerusalem might. But Smith tells how a desire to be "honest with God" compelled her to give up her old life as a man.

Smith now commands a packed schedule of workshops, and mentoring sessions, but her struggle to accept herself took five decades. Twenty-five years ago, Smith lived as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man, Jeffrey, with a wife and six children as part of the Chabad Hassidic community in Jerulsalem.  But she felt like she "couldn't breathe".

Her recent book, Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living, has elicited an enormous response. "It's been like a tidal wave of emails and messages. And thank God, because I don’t want my message to be a secret."

However, Smith's own gender identity was a big secret for many years. It was at the age of five, in 1956, when Smith knew she wasn't a boy. She loved watching her mother apply lipstick, but when her mother suggested she watch her father shave "because you are a boy", that was when Smith realised she wasn't.

"It was like: 'I'm a boy? Wait. No. No.' But I didn't say that to her," she says.

She endured bullying at her school in New York, but couldn't identify what the problem was as she didn't hear the word "transgender" until she was a father of six.

"I had a miserable time [as a child], because I was always taunted and teased for being very like a girl. At school, people would say: 'You look like a girl, you throw a ball like a girl, you talk like a girl, you cross your legs like a girl' and I didn’t know what everybody meant because I was just being me. But everybody identified me as a girl."

Back then, Smith felt she could not come out to her parents, and she demurred from friendships as she was so afraid of being hospitalised: "There was no way I was going to tell my mom, which would mean I’d have to tell my father which would have been even more scary," she says. "I was afraid of being close with anyone – I wanted to be close, but I felt they’d find out my deep, deep secrets then they’d reject me and have me committed to a psychiatric hospital."

 

It was only when Smith moved to a kibbutz in Israel in her sophomore year of college that she felt solace in religion. She settled down in Jerusalem with her wife and children, who she declines to discuss, and buried herself in religion to distract from her emotional problems. "It was like having a chronic headache," she says. 

Dressing like any other Orthodox man, nobody in her community guessed that Smith was really a woman. "I kept making deals with God," Smith explains, "which sounds utterly ridiculous but when things are desperate, and when people don’t know what to do, they do desperate things. I kept having this ongoing monologue with God, I kept saying: 'I’ll do more, I’ll be more strict, I’ll be more Orthodox, but please when I wake up tomorrow, I want to be a complete woman. Body and soul. Or take these feelings away.'"

Aged 50, Smith began a four-year process, culminating in the surgery to become a woman. Ditching the traditional costume of Jewish Orthodox men "felt like being able to breathe". She says: "Putting on that outfit every day was terrible, it was like rubbing salt in the wound." Now, she loves the bonding with female friends on shopping trips, and says the highlight of her life as a woman so far was being asked to help pick out her friend's wedding dress. "It was one of the biggest compliments."

Speaking of the "inner turmoil" of her years living as a man, Smith, who moved back to Jerusalem as a woman, says: "I was outwardly living the life that devout Jewish people believe is the truth, and yet I felt like a fraud."

While Smith was living as a man, she underwent marriage counselling with her wife and couldn't even tell her therapist that she was really a woman in a man's body. Instead, she came out as gay, to avoid the hospitalisations he was so afraid of. "I hated myself, because I knew it was a lie," she explains. She left her wife and children to move to the States, where she became a woman.

Smith, who still keeps kosher and regularly prays at the Western Wall (on the women's side), says: "I’ve been very pleasantly surprised that the majority of the religious people in Israel that I interact with respects me for wanting to be honest with God." Some people have cut ties with her and provoked "verbal violence", but she attributes it to "fear".        

Her advice to other religious people who are struggling to come out as transgender is: "Pray to God, to find the strength to be more honest with themselves, even before they’re honest with the rest of the world. Just to trust in God to help be provided with the inner character to be more honest."

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