“One of the first questions my mom asked when I said I was going to make aliyah was, ‘Is it because of the gay community?’” says Sam, 25, originally from Rochester, New York, who moved here almost two years ago. “My answer was no.”
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The real reason for his move, he says, was a mix of Zionism and an interest in studying this country’s business culture, but he admits that Tel Aviv’s out and proud identity was a huge draw and one of the reasons he knew he would settle in that city rather than any other.
Tel Aviv has long been Israel’s gayest city. But in the last several years, it’s also become one of the world’s favorite gay cities, dubbed the “gay capital of the Middle East” by Out Magazine in 2010, and crowned best gay city in the world by a 2011 American Airlines survey.
Elle Jones, originally from Virginia, says she actually prefers Jerusalem but now lives in Tel Aviv for both professional reasons and because her girlfriend really likes it. Together, they have more of a community here.
“When I first moved to Jerusalem, it was hard for me,” explains the 27 year-old, who moved to Israel five years ago and says she didn’t come out until after her arrival. Jones adds that although she liked Jerusalem’s vibe, she didn’t feel connected to anything there, whereas in Tel Aviv, “I started to make friends; there are always new people to meet. I feel I have more roots in Tel Aviv.”
For all the caution and uncertainty that may accompany gays and lesbians testing the waters of a new culture (Can I come out in ulpan? Is it safe to kiss my partner publicly? Is there a minyan or synagogue where I’ll feel welcome?), their sexual identity can actually be a unique blessing.
Many gay and lesbian immigrants report that the ability to walk into a gay bar on any given night and walk away with a few new friends − Israelis to boot! − is something their straight counterparts can’t easily pull off. Part of this has to do with the immediate kinship of the gay community that transcends international borders, with its small and intimate size, and part also has to do perhaps with what could be called the “fresh meat” factor. Indeed, the community, for better or worse, quickly becomes your circle of friends, your dating pool, your source of professional contacts and, in some senses, your family.
“One of my biggest networks in this city is the gay community,” say Sam. “The gay community here is so pronounced and accessible.”
For Effie Feix, who hails from Porto Alegre, Brazil, and who made aliyah in 2010, Tel Aviv was both the one place in the country that provided the vibrant urban life she desired, and where she knew she would be able to do what she couldn’t do in her homeland: find a Jewish partner.
“The Jewish community in Brazil is not so big and being gay is frowned upon,” says the 23-year-old high-tech worker, who adds that she realized that a life in Brazil would mean a life largely in the closet: “I would never find a Jewish partner in my hometown.”
As with other new immigrants who come to make a new life here, partnership is often forefront on the minds of gays and lesbians. After all, says Sam, “when you pick up your life and go around the world, you’re forced to think about those things.”
It turns out that while a gay identity may make for a strong bond, it often isn’t enough to overcome the linguistic and cultural barriers that have dogged the attempts of many immigrants, gay or straight, to connect with an Israeli.
“Moving to Israel to find a Jewish partner was a huge part of my decision,” says Dana (not her real name), a 26 year-old from California. “I dated a few Israelis and it did not work out so well.”
For her part, Feix has an American-born girlfriend, as does Jones. Sam's longest relationship with an Israeli was three months: “Dates in Hebrew don’t go so well,” he says. This is apparently due to language and cultural differences, as well as to different expectations. So basically, the young gay and lesbian Jews from around the world who come here with hopes for a Jewish partner and think Tel Aviv will provide a handsome pool of prospects, often find that they have really come here to find each other.
And while Jerusalem does have a few gay venues, it can’t compete with Tel Aviv’s smorgasbord of nightly options (though most are male-focused), brash openness and the sensuality that inevitably drips from any beachside town.
“I knew from every time I ever visited Israel that I would only live in Israel if I was living in Tel Aviv,” says Nachshon Ben-Tzion, a 25 year old from Philadelphia, who moved here in 2007 to join the army. “From a young age I loved and felt connected to this city ... It feels like home in many ways.”