Categorized | Jewish Religion

Judaism and mistaken gender identity

By David Strom

David Strom

David Strom

SAN DIEGO--Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living by Yiscah Smith is an amazing memoir of a woman trapped in a man’s body. For most of Yiscah’s life, she lived a lie. She lied to her parents and siblings; to her wife and children; to her friends and workmates; to the communities and societies she interacted with; but worst of all, she lied to herself and thus lived a self-destructive life as an unhappy man.

As a twenty year-old man in 1971, Yiscah flew to Europe during summer break from college with no particular destination in mind. Once on the plane to Frankfurt, Germany and after reading many travel brochures, Yiscah decided to travel to Israel. On the plane from Frankfurt to Israel, Yiscah struck up a conversation with Susan, another American traveler to Israel. In some sense, this attraction to Susan shocked Yiscah. As a man, he felt he should be attracted to her, but if he were really a woman she/he should romantically feel closer to men. But he didn’t. Confusion about his sexuality consumed his thoughts.

Once in Israel, Susan and Yiscah visited some of her family on a kibbutz. Here Yiscah hoped some of her/his anxiety and mental anguish would dissipate through work and travel. It didn’t. Most of the time was taken up playing out the expected roles of young men i.e. student, lover, son, brother, and just fitting in to men’s world. “I convinced myself that if I went along with incessant demands made on me, God would reward me with living a somewhat normal life—having not a clue what normalcy meant.”

Yiscah was raised in a “parve” Jewish home-more secular than Jewish. Religious Judaism didn’t offer mental or spiritual guidance for this confused young person seeking a path to peace of mind. While at the university in late November of 1971, the leader of the local Hillel told him about a singing rabbi who was appearing on campus. The singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach walked into the auditorium and greeted the audience with the warm greeting: “Shalom, holy brothers and sisters.” Yiscah, he/she, instantly felt connected to the “deeper part of me, the part of me that transcended gender dysphoria and the confusion and pain it produced.” Instantly he became Yiscah’s  “rav” as a spiritual leader and guide.

Marriage is usually a happy day for family and the wedding couple. Yiscah, he/she, was marrying Susan. She was extremely happy. Yiscah, he/she, was accompanied by his two best friends, “clarity and confusion.” He/she felt guilty and anxious about entering a new phase in life.

Shortly after the wedding the young couple returned to Israel. Yiscah felt more relaxed and less tense in returning to Jerusalem. Yiscah always felt a great spiritual pull by the Western Wall and when visiting it, but the usual confusion reined in his mind despite the holiness of the moment. Yiscah knew that s/he should go through the men’s section to visit and pray at the Wall and knew, also, that he really would feel truer to his “real” self if he prayed on the women’s side. Guilt accompanied her/him as he joined into the worship and prayers on the men’s side of the Wall.

Slowly the married couple found their way to religious Orthodox Judaism. They became “Chabadnicks.”  Eventually Yiscah, following her/his passion, became a teacher in a Chabad yeshivah for girls. Yiscah loved this job and was liked by all the students that s/he taught.

After many happy years as a rabbi teaching Torah to young women, her/his job was quickly ended. He was accused of being “gay.” Quickly the Lubavitcher community dropped her/him and family as friends. They were no longer wanted in the sheltered Chabad community. Yiscah’s wife and children did not understand her/his problems, nor did she/he.

Divorced and feeling disgraced and misunderstood by his children, Yiscah returned to the United States.  Abandoned by those s/he loved, “unstable, insecure, overwhelmed with confusion”… Yiscah felt like a complete failure as a human being.  Also s/he let go of “Orthodoxy” and traveled to Manhattan.

In the U.S. Yiscah began living as a gay person. Sitting in a Manhattan park s/he read the paper the “Advocate.”  It was then that Yiscah discovered there were others who had similar identity problems. S/he was not alone!

With opened eyes Yiscah felt and knew she would take the path of a sex-change operation to change her gender confusion. However, she was not spiritually ready.

By 1997 Yiscah, s/he left New York for San Francisco. Within a month s/he found and dated Richard. They became close friends. He was a Catholic and s/he a lapsed Jew. They lived together and were very happy with each other. One day with complete clarity Richard said: “You want to be my wife. I am gay, and I don’t want a wife.” He continued: “For your own good, for your own well-being, for your own tikkun, do what you need to do to become who you really are! And I will always be there supporting you as your loving friend.” And he was and still is to this day.

The quest for Yiscah’s true identity went into “low gear.” S/he got many different type jobs i.e. like working at Starbucks where she slowly was able to tell some of her administrators about her wish to become a woman. They were respectful and supportive of this endeavor. They evaluated her on performance and eventually promoted Yiscah into the “store management training program.” Yiscah knew also that to be true to her/himself returning to Jewish Orthodoxy was important for her/his spiritual soul, with God as guide.

“Before moving from one stepping-stone to the next” on the journey to becoming a woman…, “I gave myself time to consider s/he believed it was God’s will, God’s plan… I considered the consequences, both to myself and to those around me.”

Over fifty years old and tortured by the many years of uncertainty about gender identity, but yet with the strong belief that God was directing and guiding her life, Yiscah began hormone replacement therapy (HRT).  She began shopping with girlfriends for clothes and shoes. Every step in learning this new culture and environment “felt normal and correct.”

What should Jeffrey/Yaakov-birth name of Yiscah-take as her new name on birth certificate, credit cards, driver’s license etc.? Jeffrey transitioned into Jessica and Yaakov into Yiscah. Jewish tradition believes that Yiscah, mentioned only once in the Book of Genesis “was the matriarch Sara’s name before she married Avraham.”

On October 5, 2005, Yiscah had her transgender operation. Physically, but not spiritually, she was alone. She recovered quickly and truly enjoyed her gender change. She felt like a whole person no longer trapped and lying about being something she wasn’t. She was a woman.

By October 5, 2006, exactly a year since the operation, Yiscah’s mother was mentally ready to see her new daughter. She remarked: “Jessica, you don’t have to say a thing. I have never looked into your eyes and seen what I see now. I always knew your entire life, that something was not right.  I felt it but had no idea what it was. I have never seen what I see now. I see you happy for the first time in your entire life.”

That was a powerful life changer for Yiscah Smith. She has a warm relationship with her mother, but not her father who is still puzzled and disapproving of the change in gender. The rest of her siblings and her own children are still not in sync with the true Yiscah, a happy woman and teacher living out a fulfilling life in Jerusalem.

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Strom is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University.  Your comment may be posted in the space provided below or sent to [email protected]

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Copyright 2015 San Diego Jewish World

One Response to “Judaism and mistaken gender identity”

  1. Karla Ober says:

    Thank you, David! You’ve encapsulated Yiscah’s journey beautifully!

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