Closet Happiness: Meet Father and Son, Yaakov and Noam

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Yaakov was born in 1947, in Binyamina, and Noam in 1985, in Ra’anana.

Yaakov lives in a detached house in Ra’anana; Noam in a rented apartment in Tel Aviv.

Extended family:
Yaakov’s brother, Yossi, 73, is a retiree who worked for the Egged bus company; his sister, Sara, 68, is a teacher. His wife, Zehavit, 57, is the principal of a high school in Hod Hasharon and prepares students for matriculation exams in computer sciences. They have a daughter, Sivan, 37, a family doctor with an HMO, and another son, Omri, 34, a graphic artist. Ya’akov and Zehavit have three grandchildren.

Unforgotten insult:
Yaakov’s parents were born in Bulgaria. His maternal grandfather fought in the Second Balkan War and on the German side in World War I. Both his brothers were killed in the war. In 1924, he sensed that Europe’s skies were darkening and immigrated to Palestine with his family. The previous year, his father’s family had left Bulgaria in the middle of the night for similar reasons. “They arrived at Jaffa port and stood on the quay, not knowing what to do,” Yaakov says. A representative of the national authorities dealt with the Ashkenazi families but left the Bulgarians to their own devices because they were considered Sephardim. My father never forgot that insult his whole life.”

Other side of the tracks:
The two families settled in Petah Tikva. They were dirt poor and sometimes did not have enough to eat. In 1929, Baron Edmond James de Rothschild established a workers’ neighborhood west of the rail line in Binyamina, and the families moved there and were employed in the baron’s orchards. It was there that Yaakov’s mother and father met. “There were clear-cut social classes in Binyamina,” Yaakov recalls. “The landowners lived east of the tracks, the indigent workers lived to the west.” In 1949, the family decided to try its luck in Haifa. Yaakov’s father was employed in an administrative capacity at Rothschild Hospital (now Bnai Zion Medical Center).

Playing it cool:
Yaakov attended a vocational high school, majoring in refrigeration and air conditioning. “My parents’ greatest challenge was for their son to have a profession and have a steady job,” Yaakov says. Following his army service he was a Gadna (Youth Battalions) instructor at the Reali High School in Haifa. One day, while sitting on the lawn with his class, he recounts, “Suddenly I hear the boys whispering to one another, ‘Here’s Zehavit.’ I see this girl of 16 and a half in a Reali uniform, beautiful and sweet. I said to myself, ‘She will be my wife.’ I kept her in my mind but did not contact her, because back then there were ethics: I was a teacher and she was a student. As fate would have it, at the end of the school year we went to Kibbutz Revivim to do national service and I took pictures of her picking apricots. At the end of the school year I called her and said I had pictures of her and the rest is history.” Yaakov studied engineering at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. He owns a firm that designs air-conditioning systems.

Game of the name:
Yaakov’s surname was Levy, but one day, after his army service, he decided he was fed up with getting the mail of all the Yaakov Levys in Haifa. The clincher came in the competition for the “most careful driver” award from the National Council for Prevention of Accidents. “The hall where the annual ceremony was held was packed. I was sitting in the balcony. There was a raffle, and one of the prizes was an inflatable mattress. The winner’s name was announced: ‘Yaakov Levy.’ I made my way downstairs, to the main hall, but then it turned out that another five Yaakov Levys had also come forward to claim the prize. The next day I went to the Interior Ministry and changed my name to ‘Bar Levy.’”

Noam’s birth:
“I was in the delivery room. I remember a special feeling: a minute before there was nothing, and a minute after there was a child who seemed to come out of nowhere.”

Noam in school:
Noam says he was something of a geek, but not to an extreme. He was a good student, disciplined, and did what he was told, but didn’t take studies too hard. “He was a fine student and politically involved,” Yaakov says. “Already in primary school he created a newspaper and printed it with my Mac.”

Rebel with a cause:
Not really. “From a very early age it was very clear to me that I would do what I wanted, and somehow that was accepted,” Noam says.

Army service:
Yaakov was a refrigeration technician and transport officer. Noam was an Arabic-Hebrew interpreter in Military Intelligence on a base in the south of the country.

Neither an actor ...
After his discharge Noam enrolled in Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College to study acting. “I had a dream I had to fulfill,” he says. “After the first semester they told me, ‘You’re a really nice guy, but it seems to us that you don’t really want to be an actor.’ I said, ‘Wallah, you’re right.’ I didn’t really have a burning passion for it.”

... Nor prime minister:
After the brief drama fiasco Noam became a political science student at Tel Aviv University. “I had an intense interest in politics from an early age and I thought I would even get to be prime minister,” he says. “During my studies I was active in the Labor Party and worked with Einat Wilf. After Ophir Pines-Paz resigned from the Knesset and Wilf entered in his place, I became her media adviser and spokesperson. That period taught me more about politics than I will ever learn in my life.” When Wilf left Labor to join Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut party, Noam abandoned political activity in the Knesset. He is currently a project director for the Geneva Initiative group.

Doll house:
Noam came out of the closet seven years ago. He traces everything back to when he was seven years old. “My mother and I passed a toy store and I saw a big pink Barbie doll house that I really wanted. But I couldn’t ask for it. Even then I knew it wasn’t right, and I knew I was different from the other kids in the class. So I played a trick. From a very early age I had a love of buildings, so I told my mother I wanted buy the house without the dolls, only because I loved buildings. It worked. During my whole childhood and adolescence I had the feeling that something was not right with me, but I preferred to repress it and I was unable to give it a name. I remember praying that I would wake up in the morning and disappear be like everyone else. I didn’t share the feeling with anyone.”

Night message:
After two failed attempts to have a relationship with female soldiers on his base, the penny dropped: “I told myself, ‘Noam, you’re gay, that’s who you are.’ I was about 20. For half a year I tried to process and digest the implications. I fashioned a script of who I would tell when I came out of the closet. I had a close female friend on the base and I told her one day that we needed to talk. We sat on a bench on the base in the middle of the night. She was sure I wanted her. I told her I wasn’t capable of saying what I wanted, so I took out the phone and sent her a text message: ‘I am gay.’”

No more monsters:
On New Year’s Eve 2005 Noam came to his parents, sat them down in the living room and said, “’Dad, Mom, I want to tell you something and it’s going to be hard.’ I had hardly breathed in the hours before that, I was in a state of hysterical tension. Fortunately, everything went just fine. My father was much more surprised, but it was all suddenly clear to both of them. For everyone, the most dramatic moment is when you tell your parents, and I had the good fortune to be completely accepted by mine from the first moment. For me, that ended the process of coming out of the closet, at least in terms of consciousness. It allowed me to be very liberated with my sexual inclination. I have had a partner for the past two years and there are no more monsters in the closet.”

The sky didn’t fall:
“We saw Noam in torment for a year or so, and we couldn’t understand why,” Yaakov says. “He became more and more introverted. It occurred to me that maybe he was gay, but our horizon was too narrow to develop that possibility. When he said it was going to be a rough conversation, we knew. We told him we had thought about asking him what was happening to him, and he said, ‘It’s a lucky thing you didn’t ask, because that would have disrupted my plan for coming out.’ After he uttered the word ‘gay,’ I saw the tension in his face and his body melt away.” Yaakov is active in the gay-lesbian community and even takes part in pride parades, holding a sign that says “My son is gay so what?” He also gives talks on the subject to high-school students and to parents whose children have come out of the closet. He recently wrote a book (self-published) entitled “The Sky Is Not Falling” describing the process his family went through.

Noam thinks his father talks a great deal; Yaakov thinks Noam outdoes him at that. “In the third minute I know what he will say in the tenth minute,” Noam says, “but he doesn’t give up.” Yaakov is irritated by the ideological arguments he has with his son, and what bugs him most is that Noam argues with adolescent fervor, fixating on a subject and not letting go. “Even if I am persuaded by him, I have a hard time admitting it,” Noam says.

In general, Noam regrets nothing and notes that mistakes are an essential part of life. Yaakov: “The only thing my wife and I regret is that we were unable to be with him in the difficult year he went through.”

I will never be like my father:
Noam believes he will be exactly like his father. Like in a Greek tragedy, where the end is known in advance: “I know there is no escaping the tragic sense that you are becoming increasingly like your parents,” Noam says. “Even if he is a nag, I know that in a few years I will be a nag just like him, even if it bugs me now.”

Most important in life:
“To be independent,” Noam says. Yaakov: “Not to be a salaried employee.”

Noam wanted to be an architect, then a famous actor and finally prime minister, but all his dreams were shattered as though they had never existed. “When I worked in the Knesset I understood that I did not want to be either a cabinet minister or prime minister,” Noam says. Yaakov wanted most of all to be a longshoreman.

Noam, left, and Yaakov Bar Levy.Credit: Ilya Melnikov