Family dragsters

Drag queens start at one of Jerusalem's hottest venues, a gay bar in the heart of the city.

drag show 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
drag show 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Two men stand in front of a packed bar within spitting distance of the Old City of Jerusalem.
They dress like women, dance like Eurovision song contestants, and they are trying to convince staid, buttoned-up Jerusalemites to let down their hair.
In the Holy City, they are just about the only outpost of gay culture there is. Tuesday through Sunday this might be the world’s straightest town, but on Monday nights, with “Gevald!” on stage, things get a little bit curvy.
Jerusalem has always played the serious religious foil to the hedonistic, fun-loving, partying Tel Aviv. In a recent poll, Tel Aviv was overwhelmingly voted the best city in the world for gay travel and is enjoying a gay tourism boom. In Jerusalem, gay culture is still in its infancy but Gevald! hopes to change that.
Jerusalem has had its share of homophobic incidents – stabbings during the Gay Pride Parade in 2005, anti-gay riots in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, and local politicians like the one who described homosexuality as a plague “as toxic as bird flu.” On one occasion, someone even hit the door of Shushan 4, the downtown bar where Gevald! started, with a Molotov cocktail. But the gay citizens here, in all their unique varieties, are more public now than they ever were.
Gil Naveh, or Gallina Portesbras as he’s known on stage, started a weekly drag show at The Mikveh bar, seven years ago, back when it was still known simply by its street address, Shushan 4. But even before that, there was a drag scene in Jerusalem.
Before the first drag show or even the first gay bar, there were gay parties and at the parties, there were drag queens.
Drag queens in Jerusalem operate in families.
When, at the age of 17, Naveh decided he was ready to get on the stage, the drag queens in town took him under their sequin wings and became his drag “mothers.”
Naveh was a dancer and he knew how to handle himself on stage but he needed the drag mothers to teach him how to do the makeup and clothing and, of course, how to walk around in heels.
After he had performed a little more around town, and finished his stint in the army, the bar at Shushan 4 opened up and gave Naveh an opportunity to expand his act. At the time, it was the only gay bar in the city. Naveh went to the managers and told them he wanted to have his own show.
“What’s your weakest night of the week?” he asked. They booked him for Mondays.
On stage, Naveh created a character for himself that he describes as “somewhere between the good old Jewish mother and the cool lesbian aunt.” The show took off.
It was called “Gevald!” (a Yiddish expression of alarm) because, as Naveh explains, “originally the show was about crossing the line, saying the things you’re not supposed to say. Satirical, provocative, funny.”
Sometimes he danced and lip-synched.
Other times he gave out crusty kugel pudding and taught folk dancing. A crowd began to form around the Monday night performances and as the years went by it grew larger and larger. A shorter Thursday night show was added, and Naveh let his drag sisters Talulah Bonnet and Kiara Duple take over the Monday night act.
The drag shows were what first drew Yaron Gal to the bar. “At that time, there was a small community around the drag show,” he said. “After the show we would go have dinner at 2 a.m. And I got to know them. It was an important part of the community.”
Today Gal is managing that same bar, now renamed The Mikveh.
T he show doesn’t start until midnight, when the drag queens come out of the electricity closet that doubles as the dressing room for their opening number in elaborate outfits and an hour’s worth of makeup.
As the night unfolds, they will wear a dozen different dresses and wigs, each with its own persona: Cher with silver hair, a blue dress and cape, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears. One has a tattoo of a unicorn on the left bicep. They lip-synch songs in English and Hebrew, crack jokes about one-night stands and pull tourists on stage.
The show is different every week.
The crowd is a mix that can be found only in Jerusalem. “You’ve got Palestinians and Orthodox Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews, men, women, gay, bisexual,” Gal says. The whole gay community of Jerusalem is represented. But, for the most part, politics get checked at the door.
Jerusalem also has a sizable gay, religious population. Gay Orthodox Jews face the challenge of contending with centuries of homophobic Talmudic thought and religious rulings. There is an organization called Havruta, specifically for religious homosexuals, with several hundred members. They hold a Purim party at The Mikveh.
Daniel Jonas, the current chairperson of Havruta, says that their main purpose is to let gay, religious people know they are not alone and to provide them with a safe place to socialize.
Because he is the public face of the only organization in the country for religious gays, Jonas often finds himself fielding late-night phone calls from distraught Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox men and women still in the closet, and from rabbis and other members of the community unsure how to handle gay congregants. Religious Jerusalemites who come out of the closet can face a severe backlash, including being made to feel unwelcome in synagogue and, in extreme cases, the severance of all ties with their families and friends.
Jonas tells the story of a gay friend who went to the Jerusalem Pride parade to protest.
“The first time he went to the gay parade in Jerusalem was as a rightist extremist against the parade, because for him it was the only way to go there without being recognized.”
The Mikveh is just two blocks away from Mea Shearim, the dominantly religious enclave of Jerusalem known for residents throwing stones, soiled diapers and trash at people driving on Shabbat and at women in revealing clothing. For gay people living in such communities, going to The Mikveh or an event organized by Havruta can be a huge risk.
Tzachi Mezuman, a former board member and volunteer with the Jerusalem Open House – an umbrella gay organization – says few ultra-Orthodox Jews come to their events, afraid of being outed.
“Ultras – they call, but usually they don’t dare to come,” says Mezuman.
In addition to outreach in gay and straight communities, a speakers bureau and an HIV/Aids clinic, the Jerusalem Open House also organizes the annual Jerusalem Pride parade, an event where the drag queens at The Mikveh play a big part.
Naveh has personally hosted the party at the end of the parade for the past nine years.
Before his show, Naveh explains that drag queens can play an important role in helping gay people cope in hostile environments like Jerusalem. Part of his job is motivational speaking.
“You have to inspire people,” he says. “These people here deal with homophobia that’s unimaginable. Drag is also very strong in the South in the US and homophobic cities all over the world.”
Then Naveh goes on stage and sings Shackles by Mary Mary and Free by Ultra Nate, two 1990s pop songs about freedom.
The crowd, the usual mix of yarmulkes and muscle shirts, goes wild.