Set to premier in the U.S. in January, the Israeli film I Was Not Born a Mistake tells the story of Yiscah (né Jeffrey, formerly Yaakov) Smith, from secular American Jew to Chabad rabbi to secular gay man to a transsexual, religiously observant teacher of Judaism. Smith, drawing on various bits of kabbalah and ḥasidic thought, has even created a Jewish transgender theology, which, Sarah Rindner writes, is “not . . . much different from what many self-styled self-help gurus offer spiritually hungry audiences.” But, to Rindner, the “emptiness” of this theology is not “the most urgent question the film raises.”
What human wreckage is left in the wake of an adult’s quest to discover an elusive self, when that quest overshadows obligations to others? The film implies that while living as a secular gay man and even after adopting the identity of a religious woman, Smith maintained a relationship, however strained, with his children, all of whom remained ḥasidic. But when Smith’s children begged for their father’s memoir not to be published, lest it humiliate them, Smith, after vacillating, ignored their concerns. In Smith’s own rather disturbing words, “I am not going to go out of tune so they can be better.” Only two of the six children remain in contact with Smith.
Despite this, the audience for the screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival gave the film a standing ovation. I would like to believe that I was not alone in wondering about those children and whether viewers might have been better served to hear some of their voices.
Although Smith comes across sympathetically in I Was Not Born a Mistake, the film’s vision of womanhood as defined by lipstick, colorful formfitting clothing, and standing on the women’s side of the m’ḥitsah is shallow and brittle. Orthodox Judaism seems to appeal to Smith in part because it offers a role to play. A secular woman can dress androgynously in a T-shirt and jeans and do most public things that a man does. In contrast, in order to appear as an Orthodox woman, Smith must wear long skirts or dresses, pray in the women’s section of the synagogue, and perform rituals reserved to women (such as lighting Sabbath candles) rather than those reserved to men (such as putting on t’filin). Motherhood, and motherly devotion to children, are absent. For Smith, it seems, Orthodoxy is a bit like the exaggerated femininity of the drag queen. . . .
Smith’s story illustrates the rupture of those relationships that demand that we transcend ourselves, and are therefore the most meaningful—such as that between parents and children. That rupture opens up an endless void, which the new-age spirits of self-discovery will never be able to fill.