Terror, Violence and Constant Hiding: Gay Life in Tel Aviv Before It Became an LGBTQ Mecca

Few gay men in Tel Aviv need to live in the closet these days, but things were much different a few decades ago. Just ask this 79-year-old

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The Gay parade in Tel Aviv 2019.
The gay parade in Tel Aviv, 2019.Credit: Ted Eytan
Gal Uchovsky and Liran Atzmor
Gal Uchovsky and Liran Atzmor

There is absolutely nothing about Tsedi Sarfati's joyous appearance to suggest a grim past. But long before the 79-year-old Israeli theater director became a household name thanks to the local version of "American Idol," his life was one of constant danger, including a humiliating arrest, a terrible beating and years spent living in the closet.

Even during these days of equality and freedom for Israel’s LGBTQ community, Sarfati says he’s afraid that everything could change again. Speaking with filmmakers Gal Uchovsky and Liran Atzmor, the creators of the new documentary series “The Pride Revolution,” he talks about his life over the past 50 years as a gay man in Israel

During the army interrogation they said to me, do you know Johnny and Ronny? Do you know that they’re homos? I said yes. So you’re a homo too?

Tsedi Sarfati

Let’s start with a general question. How is it possible that in Israel of all places, in the heart of the Middle East, in a country that’s traditional, conservative, right-wing and revolves around the army and security, a gay revolution was so successful?

“Listen, I myself don’t understand it. I belong to the generation for which the revolution succeeded. But the scars are still there.”

What does that mean?

“You know, I recently saw the movie about Elton John [‘Rocketman’], and I asked myself, how did it happen that suddenly everything is so exposed and so open? I still don’t really believe it. It’s hard for me to digest it.

Theater director Tsedi Sarfati
Theater director Tsedi Sarfati. 'We were afraid. We were afraid. Don’t forget that at the time it was illegal.'Credit: Amit Hahamov

“You spend years of hiding, pretense and lies. Of living on the sidelines and feeling inferior. Feeling different. Feeling that you’ll never be one of the guys. ‘One of the guys’ is a very Israeli concept. I never managed to be one of the guys – not in my profession, not behind the scenes in the theater, my most natural environment.

“There too I always felt different. I talk about the revolution, and today I also say to myself, it really succeeded and everything is open, but I’m still afraid. I always have a feeling that one day everything will crash. That everything will go backwards.”

One of the first times Sarfati understood the danger awaiting him as a gay man in Israel was during his military service.

“In the army I had a very good friend, gay of course. We didn’t talk about it. But we were good friends. Then he became friendly with some guy who lived on Frishman Street. Maybe that guy hit on him, I don’t know. We didn’t talk about it at the time. Certainly we didn’t mention the name.

“His name was Ronny and he had a friend Johnny. Ronny and Johnny. They were a couple. Then they invited my friend and me over. I was very curious and of course we went, and we were in their house. That’s all. We visited them. And someone in the army tattled that we had a relationship with that couple. Then one day field intelligence called me in for questioning.”

And you were serving in an army entertainment troupe.

“Yes, the Central Command. I remember that day when they summoned me for questioning; I didn’t know about what. During the interrogation they said to me, do you know Johnny and Ronny? That couple. I said yes. They said, do you know that they’re homos? I said yes. So you’re a homo too? Then I realized that it was a threat. That it was a gun to my head.”

They actually asked you? They used that word homo?

“Yes, really. It was like in the movies. You’re on a bench and three men are sitting at a distance and asking you, and they’re army men.

Like a military court.

'I remember that while they were beating me up, I kept telling myself, Tsedi, don’t resist. In other words, I realized that if I resisted it would hurt more'

“It was a kind of court; they called him in too. But each of us was afraid to tell the other, and that was a terrible thing. And of course it created an iron curtain. After that I said to myself, you mustn’t come close, you mustn’t know.”

So actually all the time you were in an army troupe you didn’t dare do a thing?

“Nothing. When they asked I laughed, I said to them, ‘What are you talking about?’ The situation then was that if someone was gay he’d be thrown out of the army. So I also hit on all the girls in the troupe.

But to field intelligence you totally denied that you were gay.

“Look, what do you mean I denied it to them? I denied it to myself. Only when I was 29, when I left the stage, did I tell myself that I was gay. Before that it was a war inside. It’s something you feel uncomfortable with, you don’t want it. You hope that maybe something will change. That maybe you’ll be like everybody else.”

Theater director Tsedi Sarfati as a young man.
Theater director Tsedi Sarfati as a young man.Credit: Barbara Rosenberg

And then, when you were 29?

“When I was 29 I left the stage and became liberated. I realized it was enough. I’ll live my life the way I want, without any hope of a family or being like everybody else. I started to enjoy life.”

In other words, at 29 you also decided that you no longer wanted to be onstage, to be the person who acts.

“And also that I wanted to be me.”

And then you started to live as a gay man.

“Yes, totally.”

But behind the scenes.

'A police van passed and saw me walking back and forth. If you were walking back and forth, they realized you were looking for something, and put you in the van'

“I had no thoughts about having a relationship with a woman. No, I erased everything.”

The first club

Describe Tel Aviv. The gay scene in those years, the late ‘60s.

“The gay scene was very interesting. Even earlier, I’m talking about 1964, there were two guys, one of them was ... a famous director, a nice guy. He was gay and not in the closet, not at all. Very open, which was quite rare at the time. And he decided with his friend with whom he shared an apartment on Yirmiyahu Street to open a club. There was nothing like that in Tel Aviv.

“I think that [painter and sculptor Igael] Tumarkin was a friend of one of them and he painted a room in their apartment; he did all kinds of paintings on the walls. I remember large leaves and all kinds of splashes of color. And two benches and two cans on which they put candles. And Greek music and a bit of alcohol, a few bottles of wine. You would knock on the door three times and enter.

Theater director Tsedi Sarfati, center, with the makers of the documentary "The Pride Revolution," Liran Atzmor, left, and Gal Uchovsky.
Theater director Tsedi Sarfati, center, with the makers of the documentary "The Pride Revolution," Liran Atzmor, left, and Gal Uchovsky.Credit: Amit Hahamov

“One day, a female friend and I decided to go. But we walked around near the house three times so that nobody would see us entering. There were only two or three other couples in that room. They got up and danced, and it was an amazing thing. There was excitement. You stayed for half an hour and fled and didn’t sleep all night. That was the first club in Tel Aviv where somebody dared to invite people.

“There were other events before that. There was an important journalist at Haaretz, Michael Ohad, who was the No. 1 cultural expert in Israel. He would have parties at his place at least once a month, and invite people one by one. He would collect them with tweezers, as they say. I was also invited once. I won’t forget it; it was hysterical because I saw lots and lots of actors I didn’t know about.”

It was a very Ashkenazi scene.

“Very Ashkenazi.”

Describe the scene to me. Ashkenazi, elite. Kind of bohemian.

“That's right, it was a kind of a bohemian atmosphere. You enter, there are cigarettes, quiet, you smoke, you talk, you laugh. And they’re all Ashkenazim.”

And the ‘70s offered a more bohemian scene in Tel Aviv that you were part of. If I remember correctly, there were apartments where there were parties of everybody with everybody.

'Listen, my generation had lots of reasons to be in the closet. We lived with terrible fears. Not only fears, but threats'

“Yes.”

Everybody on everybody.

“Yes. A lot. A kind of, let’s call it orgies. Also, we were very young, so you played around. You wanted him, so if she was around too, then together.”

You mean there really were orgies?

“Look, what are orgies? A foursome. You know, that’s not an orgy. You try it. It’s nice. So there were a lot of such experiments.”

That was a kind of culture in Tel Aviv?

“It was very natural, because I was also one of those people who started smoking at a very young age. And if you smoke then you hear different music. We also tried lots of pills. All kinds of things like that. We tried to be liberated, as much as possible.”

To experience.

“To experience as much as possible and escape reality as much as possible. That’s how I understand it. It was a different reality. You were living in another world.”

Because of fear?

Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square in the '60s.
Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square in the '60s.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

“No. You’re living in a very small and insular country, and you hear about what’s happening outside and you want it too.”

Did the the Israeli version of ‘Hair’ give you a boost?

“Totally. Everything was open.”

Israel was far behind the world in that period.

“Israel was behind. But even before that there was already a club in Tel Aviv ... [where] people would go, and after the club they’d go to meet up. There was an openness that doesn’t exist today. Much more, in that sense.”

But outside nobody knew.

“Nobody knew.”

There was more openness.

“Right.”

So explain it.

A gay couple at the parade in Tel Aviv, 2019.
A gay couple at the parade in Tel Aviv, 2019.Credit: Igor Zed

'I don’t want to open my mouth too much or I’ll be sorry, but I’ll say this: I was arrested once by the police. I was 24 or 25, and I was arrested because I was walking on Hayarkon Street'

“It was a totally closed world. It was called the bohemians. Bohemians at [the café] California, at Café Kassit. You met at night, everybody with everybody.

Were you afraid that people outside would know? That they would know you were gay?

“We were afraid. We were afraid. Don’t forget that at the time it was illegal. We all ignore that. I don’t want to open my mouth too much or I’ll be sorry, but I’ll say this: I was arrested once by the police. I was 24 or 25, and I was arrested because I was walking on Hayarkon Street. I’m not talking about Independence Park, but about Hayarkon Street on the road next to it.

“At 2 A.M. I was walking and a police van passed and saw me walking back and forth. If you were walking back and forth, they realized you were looking for something. And if you were looking for something, they put you in the van.”

So they arrested you?

“They arrested me. And then Yossi Sarid [starting in the ‘70s a left-wing legislator, cabinet member and Haaretz columnist] had me released.”

Were you beaten too?

“I was beaten once.”

By the police?

“No. A terrible beating. I was already 28, even 29. I had already almost come out of the closet. I had a friend in Germany who came over, and he really wanted to know where you could meet and find people here. I said, listen, there are no clubs here, but there’s a place on the beach, where the Sheraton is today. There was a kind of staircase where you would go up and go down and meet. It was 10 P.M. Something like that.

“And we walked. He was dressed a bit provocatively; he was wearing bell-bottoms and a colored shirt, a bit over the top. Then a gang with a dog tied with a rope passed by. They saw him and started to attack him.

“I said to them, what do you want from him? Leave him alone. He didn’t know Hebrew. He spoke German. He was very feminine, I admit. You didn’t have to explain, you didn’t have to hear him. You saw. Even his hair was dyed a little, which was terrible at the time. So he ran away. That was right by Gordon Street. The houses there were small, so he entered the yards and knocked at doors. And ran. They ran after him. I screamed and they lost him.

“Suddenly they noticed me. They said, yalla, are you a pervert too? Then I made a mistake, I panicked and started to run too. It’s like with an animal. They ran after me, and one street before Ben Yehuda they laid me down on the road and banged my head and pummeled me. I stayed on the road until somebody picked me up and brought me to Ichilov Hospital. And that was a trauma for 20 years.”

That’s terrible.

“Yes, but what’s amazing is that I remember that while they were beating me up, I kept telling myself, Tsedi, don’t resist. In other words, I realized that if I resisted it would hurt more. And I was afraid about my teeth the whole time. So I remember all that to this day, the feeling. It’s strange, it stays with you your whole life. From then on, of course, I was afraid to go near those areas.”

It probably puts you in the closet in some way that I can’t even imagine.

“Listen, my generation had lots of reasons to be in the closet. We lived with terrible fears. Not only fears, but threats. What I told you about the police, that was also a pretty bad trauma. All those things, that stays there. It doesn’t run away.

You have it inside your body.

Theater director Tsedi Sarfati in 1975.
Theater director Tsedi Sarfati in 1975.Credit: Yaakov Agor

It’s in you. It exists. After all, you know that it happened. Maybe it will come back? It could come back in a flash. The world turns upside down in a second. Whatever happens, we’re a minority.”

How to survive a plague in the Middle East

And in the ‘80s when AIDS came along, suddenly there was pressure to start coming out of the closet.

“No, I don’t remember it like that.”

What do you remember?

“I remember that AIDS was frightening. Very frightening. The tests were at Kaplan Hospital [in Rehovot], and at Kaplan you had a number. My number was 81. They didn’t call you by name, and you had to wait three weeks to hear if you were all right or not.”

Did you have a permanent number?

'There was an article about me and they wrote, he came out of the closet. So one journalist wrote, what kind of a joke is that? A 70-year-old came out of the closet?'

“A permanent number. She’d say to me on the phone, who’s speaking? I would say, No. 81. They checked me from top to bottom. It wasn’t only a blood test. I think they themselves, the doctors, didn’t know. They examined your body. They examined you from all sides. They asked questions. After examining you they’d send you in to the doctor and he asked questions.

“I think what happened as a result of AIDS is that people could no longer hide  mainly in America and later here, because so many people died in America. And so that President Ronald Reagan would invest money to find a cure, people who got sick had to identify themselves by name. Then people were pressured, so designer Perry Ellis, who had AIDS and went to visit the Reagans, for example, would tell them: I’m Perry Ellis and I’m gay.

"But that pressure to come out of the closet as a result of AIDS existed over there. Not here.”

Didn’t you feel that maybe you should come out of the closet and do something?

“I never felt a need to come out of the closet, because socially I wasn’t in the closet. Look, I wasn’t in the closet even before I said to myself that’s it, this is your life. When I was 29. Even before that, with friends, with my small social group, I was open. It was clear to me what and how I was, and I didn’t give up on life.”

The trauma isn’t erased

At what point did you realize that there was a significance to coming out of the closet?

“I never understood the significance. Because I said, I’m in my world, in the world of theater. The only thing I opposed was media exposure. Even today I hate it, because I couldn’t digest that basically I’d be classified as a gay guy before being classified as a director.

That’s absurd, because you’re an admired and successful director.

“It makes no difference.”

So what difference does it make that you’re gay?

“But it exists. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

It’s in your heart.

“No, it’s more interesting to the public too.”

But the public doesn’t care. The public knows that you’re an important director. And if you’re gay so you’re gay.

A Tel Aviv outdoor cafe in the late '60s.
A Tel Aviv outdoor cafe in the late '60s.Credit: GPO

“But the same journalist will write 'that gay director,' and I didn’t want that. Today I no longer mind anything very much.”

But in those years you were behind the scenes. Then when you came to “A Star is Born” in 2004, suddenly you became a prime time star.

“Yes. My face became familiar.”

Then it turned into a discussion.

“Right.”

I remember a conversation we had about that, on “A Star is Born.” You said to me, tell me Gal, I could be out of the closet already, but I don’t want to come out of the closet. I don’t have the strength to come out.

“I don’t want the drums and the music, for people to say ‘wow.’ I remember that there was an article about me in Yedioth Ahronoth [in 2011] and they wrote, he came out of the closet. So one journalist wrote, what kind of a joke is that? A 70-year-old came out of the closet. And that disgusted me.”

It insulted you.

“It annoyed me. Of course.”

You say to yourself, what do you people want from my life?

Revellers stand on a balcony during the gaya parade in Tel Aviv, 2019.
Revellers stand on a balcony during the gay parade in Tel Aviv, 2019.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“On the one hand, you want me to come out of the closet. And then you say, a 70-year-old, that’s a disaster. The hell with it. What do you want?”

Okay, but you’re past that. That’s it. Everybody knows. Everything’s fine. And you see that nobody thinks that that’s the most important thing about you.

“It’s not the most important, but if there are comments on the internet, they’ll discuss mainly that.”

I don't think anybody's discussing it.

“Enough, it makes no difference, I already have one foot in the grave.”

How is it possible that you’re still carrying around this thing, that you don’t want them to say you’re gay?

“Because for my generation you can’t erase what it went through. It’s a generation that grew up differently. With terrible traumas. It was a problem. The directors had a problem with it. I think that’s true to this day.”

To this day?

“If there are feminine nuances, it’s not simple. If he’s talented they’ll take him, but if an actor is identified by his gay attributes, that is, he has all kinds of gestures and something about his way of speaking, then a director will prefer a straight man, of course. The actor might be more talented than the straight man.

“On the other hand, I get it. He’s playing a straight man, you know. There’s a problem with that.”

Are you envious when you look at all the young actors who are coming out of the closet today?

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I would want that. When you say ‘come out of the closet,’ it’s not so clear to me. It means to live freely, big deal. So what, so I’ll be a liberated gay man? What will happen? What will I get out of it?

“No, how will it be different? Only theater interested me, the stage, my career. I’m a careerist. This issue wasn’t the most significant for me, because I always knew I’d manage. I managed somehow.”

Much more than “managed.”

“You look at the younger generation and you say: The way they live, are they happy? I don’t know.”

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