Smith, Yiscah. “Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living”, Wooded Isle Press, 2014.
Yiscah Smith is 64 years old. Today, she lives in Nahlaot, in Jerusalem. It took a journey to get her to this hip Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. She was born in Long Island, as Jeff Smith, to a Conservative Jewish family. Jeff married a woman, they became more religious, moved to Israel and had six children. Jeff became Yaacov but a few years later, Yaacov’s identity began to unravel and he realized that he was not being who he is meant to be and that in order to be that person would require him changing almost everything he had done until then.
In her memoir, Yiscah shares her joys and struggles with her own spirituality, gender identity, and commitment to living true to herself. The story she tells is one of a man, facing his truth, embracing the woman she was always meant to be, and returning to her faith with wholeness and authenticity. This is an important story and it very probably will inspire and empower many others who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to wholeness.
We get an authentic view of how, after forty years of wandering through her life as a traditional male, she finally comes home as a woman. The story is a brutally honest recounting of a life but this is in no way a sad story—it is a spiritual look at how someone survives after living “incorrectly” for forty years. We see Yiscah become honest with herself and thereby becoming who she is today. Quite basically, this is the story of a religious and spiritual Jew finding their path to their true gender and not the outward one they were born with and it is also a handbook self discovery.
The opening passage is quite difficult to read but it definitely makes us sit up and take notice. A young boy is watching his parents dress for a night out in New York. He prefers to copy his mother’s beauty and grace, rather than his father’s masculinity, but he has been taught to conform to the gender to which he was born. This sets the stage for forty-years of self-denial, pain and heartbreak as the author moves all over the world, desperately trying to find her place in a series of communities that do not understand her. She risks everything– family, faith, career, home in order to embrace her true identity, and we read of her suffering and her losses as she comes to terms with her true self. We witness metamorphosis from the body of a miserable, depressed man to a self-possessed, gracious and confident woman. She shows us that living as anything less than one’s authentic self is unfair and not only to ourselves, but to our loved ones.
We see that Yiscah knew as early as five-years-old that she was inhabiting the wrong body and this was reinforced by her family, friends, and teachers that she is a boy, a son, a husband, and a father. The real issue here is finding a way to explain that which cannot be explained. There is a great deal to think about while reading and, for me, at least, this is the real purpose of literature.