May 21, 2019

Letting Her Passions Be Her Guide

With her flair for drama and A predilection for life-shaping epiphanies, it comes as no surprise to learn that 35-year-old Yonit Schiller was born in the mystical city of Tzfat on Nov. 29. That was the date 35 years earlier, in 1947, when the United Nations voted in favor of the partition of what was then Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish. 

Her auspicious birthday also may have set the tone for her personality. The Torah-observant Schiller professes an “ardent love of Zionism” with a deeply held devotion to the spiritual, facets that she says are infused in every aspect of her twin careers as a licensed tour guide and a professional photographer. 

She simultaneously approaches the subject of her sexuality with disarming frankness and cautious trepidation. The realization that she could see herself building a life with a female partner was one of her many lightning bolt moments and came after a long time on the heterosexual dating scene.

“It was a thought that popped into my head as I walked down the street,” she said.

In 2016, Schiller married Liah under a chuppah in Jerusalem in a ceremony they co-authored that contained blessings without God’s name, so as not to transgress the commandment of taking God’s name in vain. Based on the accounts of her colleagues — some of whom are far more to the right on the Orthodoxy spectrum — the wedding represented a true Kiddush haShem, a sanctification of God’s name. It was a sign that such matters in the conservative capital are beginning to open up, she said, and people no longer have to live in hiding. 

“Whether I’m photographing milestones or sharing an anecdote with Jewish tourists, I’m helping shape people’s experiences.” — Yonit Schiller

“My orientation doesn’t preclude me from being religious,” she said. “If anything, my collective identity and the challenges it brings is something that fortifies me.”

A little over a month ago, Liah gave birth to a baby boy, Yair Tzion. Having received the call that Liah’s contractions had started, Schiller excused herself from a group of American youths she had been guiding in Degania, a kibbutz in northern Israel, and returned to Jerusalem at breakneck speed with a taxi driver by the name of — as coincidence would have it — Yair. That day, Israel experienced some of the worst flooding in recent memory, with thunder, lightning and hail. 

“It was crazy, eerie, amazing and nuts,” Schiller said. “He shot out and I started to wail. I was in this crazy, ecstatic state but also in shock and disbelief.”

Although born in Israel in 1982, Schiller moved with her parents to Buffalo, N.Y., when she was 6 years old. Twelve years ago, while weighing her options after teaching history and English at a Jewish day school in Boston, it suddenly occurred to her that moving to Israel was the obvious next step. Schiller selected the date of her return to Israel to coincide with the date of her move to America.

The Seventh of Tammuz would be a “tikkun,” or rectification of her parents’ decision, she said. Not that she blames them for moving back to the U.S. Her father’s kosher, soy-based cheeseburger joint in Jerusalem was doomed to failure for being ahead of its time and in a decade plagued by a crippling recession.

She reflects on her early childhood in Israel with fondness, recounting vignettes — or “memory bytes” as she calls them — that paint a picture of her enduring attraction to the country. 

Her love for the land seamlessly fits in with her careers, which at first glance seem incongruous. As a photographer, Schiller takes on the role of silent observer behind the lens, but as a tour guide, she is an example par excellence of verbal expression that is out front and center stage. 

“Whether I’m photographing milestones or sharing an anecdote with Jewish tourists linked to their ancestral past, I’m helping shape people’s experiences in Israel,” she said. “And they, in turn, are shaping my life, as well.”