Fromoneside­o­fame­chitza­h­tothe other—an­in­cred­i­ble­jour­ney

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY SI­MON ROCKER

shuns Lim­mud should look be­yond the num­ber of US min­is­ters present

THERE IS A lot of talk about “Jewish jour­neys” at Lim­mud. But few have trav­elled a path as dif­fi­cult and poignant as Yiscah Smith, a spir­i­tual teacher from Jerusalem who lec­tured on Cha­sidic thought at the con­fer­ence.

Born Jef­frey Smith in Amer­ica, and out­wardly a man, for 50 years she wres­tled with the in­ner tur­moil of feel­ing more a woman.

On her first visit to Is­rael at the age of 20 in 1971, she felt “even more con­flicted” when she came to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“No mat­ter what side of the me­chitzah I went on, it would be the wrong choice,” she re­called in a talk about her life in which she read ex­tracts from her re­cently pub­lished mem­oir, Forty years in the Wilder­ness; My Jour­ney to Au­then­tic Liv­ing.

“I knew I be­longed on the women’s side.”

For many years she be­lieved her predica­ment unique. “I really be­lieved I was the only per­son that would look in the mir­ror and see some­thing dif­fer­ent look­ing back at me.”

Not from an ob­ser­vant fam­ily, she be­came re­li­gious, set­tled in Is­rael, mar­ried and raised six chil­dren. She worked for some years for Lubav­itch in Jerusalem. But by her 40th birth­day in 1991, she was alone and feel­ing that there was “no place for me in Is­rael — that was prob­a­bly the dark­est cloud I ever had to face”.

Yiscah Smith changed gen­der

It took an­other 10 years, when spir­i­tu­ally at rock bot­tom, that she made the de­ci­sion to be­come the woman “I al­ways knew I was… des­tined to be”.

Her re­solve to un­dergo the process of tran­si­tion — which took four years to com­plete — was the “dawn of my own per­sonal re­demp­tion”.

But it also sig­nalled spir­i­tual re­gen­er­a­tion. Just as the an­cient Is­raelites had cried out to God from the midst of slav­ery in Egypt, so she felt that God heard her from “a place of ut­ter help­less­ness and des­per­a­tion”.

Her at­tempt to lead her life as a man had left her worn out and em­bit­tered. But now, she re­called, “I awoke from this dark sleep to sense God in my life.”

The first time she lit Fri­day night can­dles as a woman she felt as if “I went to the next world”.

When she re­turned to live in Is­rael in 2011 now as Yiscah (Jes­sica), she went to the Ko­tel to thank God, this time to pray in the women’s sec­tion. “I went up to the stones and started to cry,” she said.

It took a while for her mother in Amer­ica to feel ready to meet her af­ter her tran­si­tion, but when she did, she re­markedthat­she­saw­some­thing­in­her eyes that she had not seen be­fore: peace.

Then she said to her: “I don’t like your out­fit — let’s go shop­ping.”

Not all of her fam­ily are rec­on­ciled. Only one of her six chil­dren, who is a rabbi, is cur­rently very close to her.

But she said: “If I can be­lieve in Moshi­ach, I can be­lieve my kids will be back in my life.”



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