40 years in the wilderness; my journey to authentic living | Yiscah Smith | TEDxJerusalem

Published by Darron Toy on

Translator: Theresa Ranft
Reviewer: Denise RQ What is, isn’t and what isn’t, is. That is how I lived most of my life. How I saw myself, no one else did. How everyone else saw me,
I surely did not. One time, when I was around 5 years old, I remember watching my mom
prepare to go out for the evening. I was entranced. When I grew up
I wanted to be just like her. Suddenly, she said to me, “Why don’t you go into the bathroom
and watch your father while he shaves?” Confused, I asked her, “Why?” I asked myself, “What part of me
would rather watch my dad than gaze at my mom?” Waking me out of my trance,
she said, “Because you are a boy.” I said to myself, “A boy?” From that point on I knew I was a girl, who somehow was held captive
in the body of a boy. I began to live a life that was not true. I hope that telling my story today
will help inspire others who are struggling to live lives
of truth and authenticity. At 20, I am running. I’m not sure if I’m running away
from myself or to myself. But I know I’m running, in utter despair. And in that year, in 1971,
I ran to Israel to work on a kibbutz. A place where the “we”
is more important than the “me”. A place where maybe I could forget,
should forget about myself, and the demons
that are haunting me day and night. I visit the ancient Western Wall
in Jerusalem, a special place of prayer
in Jewish history. I am excited to touch the stones, yet, I am overwhelmed by pain,
my daily chronic anxiety. As with others religions, traditional Judaism requires
a separate space for the men to pray, and one for the women,
with a divider between the two. I have to choose: am I male or female? What do I do? So simple for most, so heart-wrenching
and anything but simple for me. I feel such inner turmoil.
I say to myself, “If I enter the women’s side, where I know
I belong, I will cause unwanted attention. If I enter the men’s side,
where the world dictates to me I should, I will experience feelings
of self-betrayal.” But I sensed I just had
to touch those stones. So, with mixed emotions,
I entered the men’s side, excited, but despising myself for once again not being authentic
about who I really am, especially in such a holy place. On that hot summer day, as I rested
my aching head against those cool stones, I felt embraced. I felt something
other than pain inside of me, I felt home. What a surprise! Right then and there,
something changes inside of me. As I walk away from the wall, for the first time in my life,
I’m excited to be Jewish. I also feel that I’ve just made
two new best friends: clarity and confusion. (Laughter) I am sure I want to experience
more of my Jewish identity and learn about Israel. But… …where do I fit in? Just like at the wall. Can I fit in? At 24, in New York, I am immersed
in the Jewish orthodox religious world, and I’m making deals with God. I’m saying, “God, I will be observant
and maybe you will release me from those demons
that are haunting me day and night. Please, please, help me feel
I’m no longer a woman, or change my body
so it’s no longer that of a man.” Well, as probably all of you
can imagine, nothing changes. (Laughter) I tell myself,
“Oh, God wants me to try harder.” So, out of desperation, I do. By 34, I am now living in Jerusalem, as an “ultra” orthodox man,
with a growing family and a growing beard. And then as I turn 40, in 1991, everything I’ve built my life on
begins to crumble. As Iraq is firing missiles towards Israel,
I am feeling under attack inside of me. I had built
this huge, tall skyscraper of a life, whose weak foundation
was fear and desperation. The life I led fell out from under me, I go through a painful divorce,
breaking up a loving family. I lose all my teaching positions. Due to my divorce, I am told I am now
damaged goods, unwanted. And then, a prominent rabbi tells me, “You should leave.” After 20 years of trying my best
to live someone else’s life, I felt like such a fraud,
that in fact, I did leave my home, the Jewish way of life, and Israel. I realized I kept my end of the deal, but God did not keep his. So, I returned to New York,
lonely and alone, blundering. I asked myself, “How can I be authentic
in a world that doesn’t encourage me so, and actually makes it so difficult?” And then, on my 50th birthday, I woke up to the most painful, disconnecting,
lonely day in my life. I had no more energy left to breath air into someone else’s body, while I myself was becoming lifeless. On that day,
I made the monumental decision to begin my gender transition journey. (Applause) It actually wasn’t so difficult,
it had to be made, it saved my life, in a flash. My dark, lonely life
became illuminated with the awareness that the time have arrived
for me to begin living the truth. At that point,
I just called up to God, and said, “Will you help me?” And help there was. To me, authentic living
meant no longer living in fear with the shame and guilt
that accompanied my life, of infidelity to myself, and enslavement to others’ expectations
of how I should be living my life. Authentic living granted me freedom
and a sense of self-worth to now being faithful
to my essence, my soul. My journey was
as much spiritual and healing as it was that of a gender transition. I began to feel quiet inside,
serene, even gratitude. But more importantly, I began to feel a part of the world, rather than apart from the world. I did return to traditional Jewish living,
but now, in truth, as a woman. And then the day came for me to return
to Jerusalem, where my journey began. On my 60th birthday in 2011, for the first time,
I approached the wall as Yiscah. Wow! What a miracle! (Applause) Forty years before, at this wall,
as a 20 year old, I painfully entered the men’s section. And now, as a healed woman, I proudly entered the women’s section
where I always knew I belonged. And on that hot summer day, as I gently
brushed against those cool stones, I realized something,
something startling: if a man stands as close to the divider
as possible, and a woman does the same, there are only
a few centimeters between them. Those few centimeters
became my 40-year journey in my personal wilderness. It took me 40 years to cross over those few centimeters. So indeed, my life has transitioned into what is, is and what isn’t, isn’t. Thank you. (Applause)


Michael Green · May 11, 2015 at 7:53 pm

Awe inspiring , bravo and G-d Bless

Bob Kunikoff · May 12, 2015 at 3:19 am

Such a moving TEDx Talk by my dear friend Yiscah.   A long journey, but so well worth it, not only for yourself but for those who follow.

Alison Sands · May 12, 2015 at 7:36 pm

Yashir Koach, Yicah.  Well done.  So glad to see you flourishing.

Lisa Lambert · May 13, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Spoken from the heart.. mazel tov on your successful journey.

Yottabee · November 22, 2015 at 3:21 am

Yiscah's riveting chronicle of these forty years is as compelling as it is artfully precise. I'm savoring it little by little. Whatever our struggles and/or challenges in life, she provides powerful impetus to face them with the boldest of authenticity!

Carol Sassoon Greenspan · November 25, 2015 at 3:03 am

wonderful wishing you the best

דוד מאיר · January 31, 2016 at 6:12 am

He is still stuck in the wilderness, but in the Spiritual Wilderness of the mind, He was never truly deliver, most of his stories never occur and he knows that very well.

Jake Riches · July 30, 2016 at 2:32 pm

Thank you to +TEDx Talks, and thank you to everybody who show your support and warm wishes for Yiscah and for the message she gives, I cannot express how much it means to me. Like Yiscah herself, you and your words are all a gift from G-d.

I have the same experience as Yiscah describes: Before I felt apart from the rest of humanity, it has been an incredible experience to feel I am part of mankind, even to empathize, and that was something I had difficulty doing when I was physically female because everything in me was so at odds with everything that all I ever felt was anxiety and very misunderstood – I hardly understood much myself. But now, at least, the way lies open.

Yisca Smith is a beautiful example for all of us and she has given me hope that I did not have until I heard her speak.

jewels 426 · February 27, 2017 at 6:30 pm

strange fact I just noticed today that October 1st 2017 marks 40 years since the passing of my grandfather my first memory was walking up to his casket at the funeral which I was told by my parents I never attended I was three

Jessica Maden · March 3, 2019 at 4:27 pm

That was very inspiring!
And the last message concerning the stones at the western wall was so poignant and pertinent!!!!

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