Israel's 'First Lesbians.' It Hurts When You're All Alone in the World

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Hana Klein, "Tel Aviv's first lesbian."
Hana Klein, "Tel Aviv's first lesbian."Credit: Hadas Parush

For a long time Hana Klein thought she was the only lesbian in Israel, and maybe in the whole world. She was born in 1951, grew up in Tel Aviv and at 11 realized that her feelings were a bit different from those of her girlfriends. But she didn’t know why. Klein says that in the Israel of the 1950s and ‘60s, “there were no words for it.”

The first hint that she wasn’t alone was at a kiosk selling porn magazines and newspapers; one journal caught her eye. “The cover photo was of two bare-breasted women touching each other, with the caption “Contemporary lesbians.” For the first time she realized that there was a word for what she was.

“People can’t imagine the feeling of something missing in conservative Israel at the time. The atmosphere was that there was nothing. For years I walked around in a desert .... Even when I learned what it was called, there was a feeling that nobody else was like me,” Klein says.

“Those were times without a computer, so you couldn’t Google things, there were no community organizations, there was no place to meet. I tried to bring up the subject with friends and see their reactions, and from them I realized that it wasn’t acceptable.”

Klein was one of the first activists in LGBTQ and feminist organizations in Israel. She started the country’s first organization for lesbians, Alef – an acronym for lesbian-feminist organization. She has often been called “Tel Aviv’s first lesbian.”

Of course, Klein wasn’t the only lesbian in Tel Aviv or around the world, but even into the ‘90s there were few or no representations of lesbians in the media or politics, or on the street. If you were a lesbian, transgender or bisexual woman, the feeling that you were alone wasn’t rare.

In the ‘60s, gay men were already part of Israelis' awareness in the press, in whisper campaigns. Even if many of the references were negative, at least they existed. There was also talk about where one could find “such people,” but while the men sought each other in parks, where were the women?

“The men had Independence Park in Tel Aviv; before that they had London Garden, they had their own places. When I was 17 a male friend told me that. He didn’t say that he was gay. We were friends – almost a couple – just that we didn’t get into bed,” Klein says.

“We used to go to cafés and eat ice cream. One day we were walking along the promenade and I saw a gathering of men and he told me that they were gay guys. I said to myself: The gay guys are lucky. They have the ability and initiative to meet, and we have nothing.”

Haya Shalom. “For me it all began with feminist centers.”Credit: Emil Salman

The answer that Klein was seeking wasn’t far away and was discovered in the guise of political, social and feminist organizations. Compared to the men, casual sex was less of the women's thing. They sought places where they could get to know each other, and the means was finding a shared goal.

The connection between lesbians and feminism has always been strong. Feminism challenged the patriarchal idea that masculinity is the ideal and began asking questions that weren’t asked before about the balance of power between the sexes and the use of sexuality to oppress women. Lesbians in particular felt the need to develop political ideologies that met their special needs in households composed of two vulnerable women.

“For me it all began with feminist centers,” says Haya Shalom, a social and peace activist born in 1944 who helped found groups including Kol Ha’Isha (the Woman’s Voice), the Community of Feminist Lesbians, Women in Black and the Coalition of Women for Peace. “Like all centers like this in Israel and around the world, they attracted lesbians who asked themselves these questions.”

She recalls her feelings when she first read the novel “The Well of Loneliness” by British writer Radclyffe Hall, who was one of the first to describe the lesbian experience. “When I read it I felt that I identified – and that was a terrible feeling,” Shalom says. “I didn’t want to call a spade a spade. I had experiences, but there was no great intimacy because I wasn’t interested.”

In those years she lived in Jerusalem and met a straight woman at work who told her that she had had a relationship with a woman. “She described it as ‘a short and amazing experience’” – and told Shalom to go to Kol Ha’Isha.

“When I got there I immediately felt connected to the place and the women. There was a mixture of a local Jerusalem community and English-speaking women from abroad. There were feminists and some were lesbians. We discussed violence against women, issues of equal work and equal pay. That’s where I had my intimate introduction to women, and I realized that this was me.”

Klein was 24 when she discovered that she wasn’t the only lesbian in the world. It was October 1975, the birth year of the rights group now called the Aguda – Israel’s LGBT Task Force. “I started to study at Tel Aviv University and there was a newspaper called The Mosquito where a mention of an association of gay people caught my eye,” Klein says. “I said to myself: ‘Wow, that’s what I wanted so badly.’”

She says that during the semester she couldn’t find a phone number or an address for the group, but somehow in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth she saw an ad in tiny letters: “Do you want to change the situation of gay people in Israel?” Them came the number of a post office box.

“I wrote a letter and said I wanted to be active. Ziva Ayalot, the only girl in the group during that time, contacted me,” Klein says. “I showed up and saw her with her female partner and I was so happy – I had expected one and here there were two. At that moment I swore a secular oath – that there wouldn’t be a situation where a lesbian woman wants to meet other women and won’t have a way to do so.”

Klein says that after she joined, the number of women increased slowly but surely. “There were already seven women at the next meeting, then 13, and within a year the women’s groups flourished and included 130 members from all over the country,” she says.

“I was so excited I could hardly control myself – who believed that there were so many women; I thought I was the only one. I was happy to meet them just because they existed. After a year love came too, after I met someone whose opinions resembled mine.”

Tel Aviv's Café Batya. "We would sit in Café Batya on Friday afternoon and find out what party would be going on in the evening," Nurit Shein says.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Party time

As opposed to gay men, for the women the partying started only after the political activity did. “Here in Jerusalem social activity outside the organization began,” Shalom says. “Shared meals on Friday, picnics in the Judean Hills and house parties.”

She arrived at one of them after seeing a sign posted at a Kol Ha’Isha meeting. “I went alone, I didn’t know the place or the women. Suddenly I saw someone who had been a good friend of mine in high school 15 years earlier. She was sitting with another woman – and the connection between them was clear to me. I immediately felt part of this group.”

But the parties didn’t remain in Jerusalem. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the Jerusalem group started looking for experiences in Tel Aviv, where the nightclub scene had already begun. “It was an experience – 10 women in two cars driving there,” Shalom says.

Nurit Shein, today Aguda’s chief and a member of the Beshela group for lesbians over 45, started out in the community in the early ‘70s. She was in her 20s and partly out of the closet – a privilege she had because she had lived in England for several years. When she returned to Israel to do her army service she found that the community here was less open.

“In the army I had a one-year relationship with a woman I met there,” she says. “I was out of the closet to close friends, but not in public. There weren’t so many places to go as a lesbian couple; we would only hear occasionally about things from somebody who knew somebody else.”

Shein says most of the meetings centered around political activity, including a feminist conference at Givat Haviva, the education center of the kibbutz federation. All kinds of organizations were established, and from there the scene spread to partying.

“That was the beginning of newspaper ads about men’s parties, but women would come too,” Shein says. “We would sit in [Tel Aviv's] Café Batya on Friday afternoon and find out what party would be going on in the evening. That was the place to come and listen. The parties were usually mixed, and of course there were more men than women. That’s where friendships or couple relationships were formed.”

In fact, in 1976, Shein went to a Purim party in Tel Aviv’s Deborah Hotel, where she met the woman who would be her partner for 10 years.

The story of Klein, Shalom and Shein is nearly the story of the formation of the lesbian community in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. They would play a key role in establishing women’s groups that also include Tzena Urena and the Israel Women’s Network.

Shalom was first part of Tzena Urena, which sponsored study evenings, discussions and culture. Within six months she was taking on tasks, developed quickly and in the ‘80s launched the Community of Lesbian Feminists, CLAF. The motivation came from abroad.

“At an international lesbian conference in Belgium I met lesbians from all kinds of places, some of them tough places – South Africa and Africa. I said to myself, how could it be that there’s lesbian activity there and not here?” Around 700 women were active in CLAF at its peak, and the organization lasted for almost 20 years.

No longer dependent on their gay male allies

Nurit Shein. "There weren’t so many places to go as a lesbian couple."Credit: Hadas Parush

So the women who succeeded these trailblazers in the ‘80s and ‘90s had a strong infrastructure of political activity to join, but the nightlife was still lacking. Most venues were controlled by gay men, and many of the women decided it was time to launch their own places and parties.

“I came out of the closet in the early ‘80s when I was about 18 or 19,” says events producer Ilana Shirazi, who was born in 1964. “Before that I had a boyfriend and I wasn’t so aware. I went to a psychologist who told me: ‘Stop fighting the fact that you love what I love.’” A few years later she had already produced the first parties for women only.

“I had a girlfriend from the army who was also a lesbian and we went to Tel Aviv together; we would go to places for straights,” Shirazi says, noting that a café and bowling alley at Tel Aviv’s Shalom Meir Tower served as a meeting place.

“It wasn’t designated for gays and lesbians, but we started going there, a handful of men and a handful of women. I met one woman there and another two, and we became a group of 10 women who knew about each other. We started to realize that there were many of us, but everything was pretty secretive.”

Ariella Landa is now the owner of the Ariella’s House bar and is a founder of Minerva, Israel's first bar for women. She launched such efforts when she was 16 – she was looking for a Tel Aviv bar with women’s evenings.

“That was in 1985,” Landa says “I read an article in the women’s magazine La’Isha about two women, one of whose husbands caught them in bed. That was a big scene. In one newspaper they wrote about how there was a nightclub on Dizengoff Street where they had a women’s evening once a week. I think that was the Metro.”

Then she made a decision. She lied to her parents that she was visiting a friend and instead went to Tel Aviv. She walked down Dizengoff Street looking for the bar, without knowing the address. When she found it she went down the steps, was asked how old she was and lied, saying she was 19.

“I sat down at the bar and didn’t move. I didn’t even dare go to the bathroom,” Landa says, adding that she would now show up every week. “I also took girlfriends with me who hadn’t decided yet.”

The next stage was Shirazi’s parties. “That was already less by word of mouth; there was real advertising – they handed out leaflets and stuff.”

Galit Ben Simhon. “I saw them kissing, dancing, relaxed and not accountable to anybody. That place became a paradise for me.”Credit: Eyal Toueg

Shirazi’s nephew is the events producer Shimon Shirazi, known for his theme and jazz parties since 1991. The two produced mixed parties for men and women from the LGBTQ community and joined other celebrities like DJ Offer Nissim. Shirazi’s first party was a big success.

“At the time the gay guys had Independence Park, and we lesbians weren’t really into casual sex,” Ilana Shirazi says. “We had the idea of throwing a party. The first party I organized was at the Penguin Club; I distributed leaflets and spread the news; 100 women came – it was wild.”

Men weren’t allowed in; even the guard stayed outside. “On the street I saw women arriving; they walked far away from each other, and when they entered they held hands.”

From there Shirazi launched parties known as Sister on Tuesdays; on Fridays there was a guys’ version called Brother. “I started with 100 participants and that kept doubling until in 2000 I had 1,000 women at a party,” she says. “The Penguin was considered avant-garde, and as we grew we worked with the ‘in’ places in Tel Aviv – Allenby 58, the Lemon Club, TLV. That was the major breakthrough.”

But in those years the supply of parties didn’t satisfy Galit Ben Simhon, who was born in 1963. When she was 29 she took her first steps in the community. “When I realized that I was a lesbian I already had a senior position – I was a VP at Yes,” the satellite TV provider.

“I searched in newspapers like Ha’ir where I could meet women like me. I saw that there was a place on Sheinken Street once a month, and they wrote to arrive at 9. I came on time and was there alone – the bar was dirty, with roaches in the bathrooms, really pathetic.”

Ariella Landa, the owner of the Ariella’s House bar and a founder of Minerva, Israel's first bar for women.Credit: Hadas Parush

Only after two hours did more women begin to arrive, “I saw them kissing, dancing, relaxed and not accountable to anybody. That place became a paradise for me.” There Ben Simhon also heard about other options and Shirazi’s parties, but something was missing. “I realized that no place was designated for women only, that I deserved to have something like that.”

With Ariella Landa and Dalia Shelef she launched the first Israeli lesbian bar. “I was a woman from the business world and wanted a place that would respect me. We said it had to be a place with style, open every day and designated for lesbian women. And so in 1998 we opened the Minerva,” the Tel Aviv bar operating in different incarnations until 2011.

A bank agreed to provide a loan. “We set up the place with an investment of 300,000 shekels [currently $92,000]. Upstairs there was a bar, downstairs a gallery with pictures and a bookstore. We had a courtyard where on Friday afternoons we did launchings and live performances, and we brought in the best DJs. We advertised the place in the newspapers, we sent notices to nighttime editions, and there was also word of mouth. From the start it was a success .... We worked like that for 11 years.”

In 2019, Ben Simhon opened the Panthera in Tel Aviv – a co-working space for businesses headed by women. So in the ‘90s there were more bars and parties, but many women still preferred to meet each other the old-fashioned way – political activity.

“As a young woman I hung around in bars and didn’t like the smoke, the cigarettes and the alcohol; I felt that it was forced on me,” says Michal Eden, who was born in 1969. Today she’s a lawyer and key  LGBTQ rights activist.

Then in a bar on Nahmani Street she saw a newspaper mentioning the organization now called Aguda. “That’s where I discovered CLAF,” she says. “It was revolutionary for me to see leading and opinionated women like Haya Shalom, Dr. Ariela Shadmi, Dr. Tal Jarus-Hakak and her partner Avital, and Hadar Namir.”

Michal Eden, the first elected official openly a member of the LGBTQ community. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

As Eden puts it, “In those years one’s sexual identity was the start of a route for consolidating a political identity. Because I experienced homophobia in my family, which didn’t accept me, I was very interested in LGBTQ activism. Basically my sexual orientation led me into politics.”

In Tel Aviv’s 1998 municipal elections, Eden became the first elected official openly a member of the LGBTQ community. “Visibility was very important then, because not many people were out of the closet,” she says. “They started talking about the need for LGBTQ leadership, but that wouldn’t have happened if feminist women from all over the country hadn’t raised money and supported me, including Marcia Freedman and Shulamit Aloni of Meretz.

“Today we have government ministers and Knesset members, and we should remember that the road was paved by lesbians,” she says, adding that political activity opened other doors. “I found myself in the close circle of politicians and MKs, and that’s where I met my partners, who were parliamentary aides and spokeswomen.”

But in the lesbian community, as always, political activity is combined with parties. As Shirazi puts it, “For years I donated a lot of money to CLAF and cooperated fully with them. We also did political activity. The first wedding of a lesbian couple in Israel was at my party at the Penguin. They wrote about it in the newspapers.”

Since then women in Israel have come a long way. Today women no longer have problems finding a political or social outlet, whether LGBTQ groups Aguda, Hoshen or IGY – Israel Gay Youth. Someone looking for parties and bars no longer has to glean the tiny print of newspaper ads. Shpagat, LiZi and Ariella’s House are among places holding weekly parties that attract hundreds of women from all over the country.

But the work isn’t over. In mid-2021 gay men are still more dominant in nightlife and as leaders of community organizations. “The world today is so different from what it used to be. We think we’re on top and at the peak, but only a few years ago there was a murder at the [Jerusalem] Pride parade and at the [Tel Aviv] Barnoar club,” Klein notes.

“The politicians have joined the community’s bandwagon, but some of them are trying to divide us based on the community's various movements. We have to remember that our strength lies in unity. Preserve what has been achieved and continue. That’s my message.”

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