Yiscah Smith: Activist, Leader, Hero — January 2016

We are a species that categorizes. Categories permeate every facet of our lives, as categorization is a natural process for us to organize the world around us. Essentially, humans naturally dissect one another into compartments, or identifiers. Consider how others identify you.

Odds are you are categorized by your year in school, age, race, interests, faith, affiliations, political beliefs, decisions, etc. Such markers can confine us into boxes with rigid edges, and allow our identities to be defined, at least in part, by stereotypes and mere judgments.

Yiscah Sara Smith, however, is a living testament of redefinition and self-identification. Now a 63-year-old transgender Jewish Orthodox educator and activist living in Jerusalem, Smith transitioned into womanhood after a long life of marriage and parenthood, but also of concealing her true identity.

In her novel, “Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living,” Smith details the difficult course her life took in simultaneously grappling with her faith and sexuality. As a proud woman who transitioned despite the stigmas and complexities of the Orthodox Jewish community, Smith remains committed to her faith, God and advocating LGBT awareness.

She pushes our preconceived boundaries of the inclusivity of religion to unorthodox sexual identities and opens up the discourse about them.

In Israel’s contemporary narrative of LGBT and transgender characters, however, advancement and illumination for transgender lives has already been increasingly progressive. Dana International, for instance, is an Israeli internationally acclaimed performer, artist, and singer who has rippled through the European music industry and marked her place in history for transgender people.

After winning the European Song Contest, singing “Diva” in 1998, Dana’s victory showed volumes of progress for the recognition of LGBT communities in popular culture. Following her success in the European Song Contest, Dana International went on to produce many singles, immersing herself in Israel’s rich music industry, and even starring on song contests such as “Kokhav Nolad. “Dovetailing on Israel’s progress as a rising nation, inclusively tolerant of unorthodox sexualities in the middle East, her victory propelled her career and reputation further.

Additionally, this last February, Israel appointed its first transgender military officer. Although 21-year-old Lt. Shachar faced a history of violence, sexual heteronormativity, and sexual intolerance, this instance in military history is paramount to the progress of LGBT communities, not just in Israel, but all over the world.

Models of the past are being broken, stigmas are being challenged, and boundaries are being pushed. Characters worldwide are pushing for a space to illuminate their own identities.

As of late, the transparency for LGBT people, and specifically transgender identities is increasing worldwide. Television shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “I am Cait,” “Transparent,” “Sense 8” and “Glee,” along with movies such as “The Skin I Live In” and “The Danish Girl,” all emphasize the growing acceptance and tolerance of dissident sexualities.

Especially with the immense frenzy following Caitlyn Jenner’s transition and stardom, transgender identities are beginning to be seen in a completely different light. However, with Jenner dominating the spotlight, many had never heard of figures like Yiscah Smith. Due to the opening minds of those in the 21st century, however, Smith is fortunate to have her story heard, and in a more positive light with great admiration and open arms. Yet, such is not to diminish her bounds as an LGBT and Jewish figure in Israel. Her ability to not only embrace her sexual identity, but also remain proud of her conviction to her religious identity is brave and commendable. This convergence of unity is one that opens up the possibility for tolerance in the realm of gender and sexuality globally, and especially in the realm of religion.

Yiscah Sara Smith, formerly Jeffrey Smith, embodies a narrative that challenges the preconceived notions of religion in regards to sexuality. Historically, socially, and culturally religion and sexuality have been very dissonant topics, religion often ostracizing and isolating certain sexualities outside of heteronormative structures.

Smith, having raised a family of six and with a wife for most of her life before transitioning, forces viewers to inquire more on the topic.

According to the article, “Understanding Transgender Issues in Jewish Ethics,” published by Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, it states, “The Talmud contains hundreds of references to other categories. These include, for example, the androgynos (a hermaphrodite with male and female organs), the tumtum (someone with hidden or underdeveloped genitalia), the eylonit (a masculine woman) and the saris (a feminine man).” Countering colloquial beliefs of religion stigma toward divergent sexual identities, these Judaic texts express otherwise: “It is clear from even this short list that the Talmud recognizes that sex organs do not necessarily make people purely male or purely female. The Talmud also recognizes that an individual’s gender orientation does not necessarily match his or her sex organs.”

Additionally, these revolutionary ideas regarding sexuality arise once more, “This perspective is underlined by the Mishna: ‘The androgynos is like a man in some ways and like a woman in some ways, like both a man and a woman in some ways, and like neither a man nor a woman in some ways.’ (Bikurim 4.1).”

And most succinctly, the article illustrates that, “While the Talmudic rabbis did not know about chromosomes or hormones, they certainly understood that sex and gender are independent variables, and they made it licit for people to be true to themselves in regard to gender expression.”

Yiscah Smith sheds light on concerns and possibilities that communities have grappled with for generations and lifetimes. Her struggles and more importantly achievement, pride in her identity and faith, provide hope while carving space for progress for the future.