Ofer Nissim at a performance Valerie Prushin

From Winning Eurovision to Remixing Madonna, DJ Offer Nissim Has Done It All

If one (gender fluid) man links Israel’s pop music scene to the LGBT community’s emergence out of the closet, it’s the enigmatic Offer Nissim

Very few people know the story behind DJ and music producer Offer Nissim, the major pioneer of the LGBT culture and clubbing in Israel - even before they called it a culture. 

The colorful and gender fluid musician keeps away from the fans who hunger for every unavailable scrap of information. He continues to shut himself up in his apartment and concentrate on music. The few people lucky enough to visit him will find heavy, drawn curtains; he always lives in the dark “like a vampire.”

He opens the door wearing a thin robe and high heels. He sometimes flits into the neighborhood café. Anyone who knows the raucous Nissim at the turntables will not recognize the bashful type who emerges after the microphones are turned off.

Many details are revealed here for the first time, casting light on one of the most intriguing and secretive figures in Israeli culture, details connected to a story that goes way beyond a personal biography: Offer Nissim embodies the story of the maturing of the LGBT community of Israel in general, both accompanying it and defining it.

Nissim no longer wants to be accepted: he’d rather keep his distance. He doesn’t like publicity and he isn’t prepared to be interviewed. He believes the mystery only contributes to his legend, and he is right. 

No coming out was needed

He was born in 1964, the eldest of three children in a family of Iraqi origin. At age 11, he was already editing the weekly hit parade on the blackboard in his classroom. Later, he strung cables between apartments in the building where he lived and operated a pirate radio station, broadcasting to neighbors for an hour a day.

There was no mistaking his sexual identity. “There wasn’t a [single] moment of coming out of the closet,” relates Shimon Shirazi, a well-known gay parties producer and an old friend of Nissim’s. “There wasn’t one of those conversations because there was no need. With him it was clear from the outset. It was enough just to look at him.”

Another person who is close to Nissim relates: “Today his family is very proud of him. Of course there were difficulties, but he always had support from his home.”

As though being born homosexual wasn’t hard enough, Nissim also ignored the dichotomy between masculinity and femininity, an attitude that in its day was incomprehensible. “He was always a colorful, showy gay, when he wasn’t even out of the closet,” says Shirazi. “I loved to look at him, out there, going boldly down the street, not giving a damn, ignoring people’s comments.”

To this day Nissim maintains an androgynous, subversive persona, speaks about himself in the feminine and wears women’s clothing without relinquishing his masculine identity. Together with Shirazi, he is responsible for a widespread and amusing phenomenon in Hebrew culture: “Ohtcha” language, the slang and intonation initially identified with effeminate gayness that is now also common among straights.

Nissim’s musical career started at the Theater Club, on Tel Aviv’s Mendele Street, in an underground space laden with mirrors. “That was the underground,” says Shirazi, “because the gay scene at that time was very boring, exactly the opposite of today.” Nissim was a fixture there from his first moment in 1979, when he was 15 years old. He was employed as a deputy barman, until one night when the place was stuck without a DJ. Nissim seized the opportunity, ran home, packed up his records and rushed back to the setup. He stood there petrified. “My hands were shaking,” he later recalled, “but I did it. I won them over in one second.” He spun them the British synthpop duo Soft Cell and OMD’s “Enola Gay,” and from then on they were his. People came to hear him spin, to see him dance at the turntables with exaggerated moves, talk into the microphone in many accents and join customers on the dancefloor. Evenings began with the call: “Gays and lesbians!” and ended with the ABBA song “Thank You for the Music,” which became an anthem.

At the Theater Club he met his future partner and confidant for the coming decades, Itzik Avneri. Avneri describes it as love at first sight. The relationship quickly led to a family that grew up around the club, of which Avneri would eventually become the owner.

Mark Tso

“At the Theater, we were a group, 14 or 15 people, kids, and that’s where it all started,” says Avneri. This nucleus was joined each night by people whose names everyone knows today. Among them were Gal Uchovsky, Haim Cohen (who became the singer Adam), Yaron Cohen (later Dana International) and Shai Kerem (who became Dana International’s impresario), and radio broadcaster Ofer Nachshon. From its underground anonymity in the 1980s, this group would spring forth to lead the gay community to the heights it has reached today.

During that period, Nissim discovered that the producer’s chair was more comfortable. Nissim, all agree, is a perfectionist, obsessive and compulsive. “He can listen to a passage for weeks and not stop changing it, and the recordings never stop even after the song has been released.”

Just how long Nissim and Avneri were a couple, neither of them can say for sure. “Even when we weren’t together, we were,” says Avneri. To this day, Nissim has not really recovered from that relationship. (His current relationship situation is known only to the people closest to him.) What is clear that the relationship between the two was ruptured once and for all just before the turn of the millennium, not long after the pair Offer (as music producer) and Dana International (as singer) took first place in the 1998 Eurovision contest with the song “Diva.”

Dana’s up, Dana’s down

The most significant professional relationship to have come out the Theater Club was that of Nissim and Dana International, who was still called Yaron Cohen then – “a kid we took in from the street,” in Avneri’s’ words. “It was a kick, dressing him up in women’s clothes and putting him on the stage. Today this is called ‘drag,’ but it was simply an attempt to imitate Yizhar Cohen in ‘A-Ba-Ni-Bi,’” the winning song in the 1978 Eurovision.

Yaron Cohen, who then just a teenager, quickly became an integral part of the Theater Club bunch. He and Nissim shared a sense of humor, narcissistic and eccentric personalities, and the same gender fluidity, but Cohen-Dana went a step further.

Dana was Offer’s creation, say friends. Shimon Shirazi adds: “Dana’s persona is very powerful, full of charisma, and Offer was able to identify this as raw material and transform it into a creation.” After years of aiming for center stage, Nissim’s intuition told him that there was something here bigger than he was and he made way for it, while reinventing himself as a producer and director.

Nissim produced International’s breakthrough debut, “Saida Sultana,” which exposed her to a general audience thanks to radio broadcasters Didi Harari and Offer Nachshon.

The idea for the song was born from a series of drag evenings held by the group at the Metro Club. Listening to Whitney Houston’s song “My Name is Not Susan,” Nissim had a vision of a sketch in which Houston performs in Saudi Arabia. They recorded the song on a four-channel tape with “a central bus station effect,” and ran with it to the Metro Club.

The audience was more enthusiastic than they had anticipated. Nissim reworked the song, and a week later it became a radio hit.

Nissim says that even then he knew that the success would not stop with Didi Harari. At the time, he said of the joint work with Dana International: “I’m optimistic, very optimistic, and she’s indescribably pessimistic. She only sees bad things and she doesn’t believe in anything. She didn’t even believe for a moment in the project, while I saw the first significant success and beyond that, I even see success abroad. It could be that because of this we complement each other.”

The year was 1993. The Israeli record company IMP signed the two of them for an album, and Rivka Michaeli invited them to appear on her Friday night variety show, “Siba La’mesiba” (“reason to party”), at the time the country’s most watched TV program. International got prime-time exposure, with Nissim in the background accompanying her on the keyboard.

“Saida Sultana” record sold 10,000 copies, and was followed by International’s second album, “Umpatampa,” whose hit singles included “Yeshnan Banot” (“Some Girls”). By now, Yaron Cohen had undergone sex-reassignment surgery, and changed her legal name to “Sharon Cohen.”

After “Some Girls,” Dana International surprisingly entered the consensus in Israel, and the name Offer Nissim also began to become familiar outside the club. International was named female singer of the year in 1994 on Israel Radio’s Reshet Gimmel, and participated in a pre-Eurovision contest, coming in at second place with “Good Night Europe.”

In 1997, Dana International was chosen by committee to represent Israel at the European song contest in Birmingham, much to the distress of ultra-Orthodox and other objectors. At the same time, the country’s gay “parliament,” key people in the music industry, lined up behind her.

The rest is history: Israel won Eurovision for the first time since 1979. The cries of joy, however, were over far more than the victory in the music competition. Says Shirazi: “It was a tremendous victory for everyone – over the religious, over the radio, over the straights, even over the gay community that until then didn’t even define itself as including transgender people.”

Everyone who wasn’t in the auditorium in Birmingham, in England, came to Shirazi’s Playroom, in Tel Aviv, to celebrate at a victory party. “It was as though a huge chakra had opened,” says Shirazi.

Perhaps the community had won big, but when the celebrations died down, International and Nissim would discover that the price they had paid was higher than they had thought. For one, Nissim was subjected (and is subjected to this day) to extensive contempt from the taste-setters. They scorned music that was seen as too queer, too raucous, too Mizrahi.

The Europeans inundated them with love and the demand for performances overflowed. Everyone was talking about them. And then it all ended.

A few months after Dana International was signed up with the Sony record company, the contract was canceled. There are many versions about what transpired in the conference rooms of the record company, and claims of homophobia on the part of company representatives and a refusal to grant artistic freedom to the two of them – but no one disputes the assumption that Dana and Nissim had simply overreached themselves.

“Each of them blamed the other, but both of them are to blame for this,” says a close friend from that period. According to Avneri, “The moment they tasted that taste of money, like other singers, everything got spoiled. She came to the table with Offer as if they were Elton John and Princess Diana. Most people begin at the bottom, but not them! We want this and we want that. Dana wanted too much and she pulled Offer along, because she was accustomed to her success here in Israel.”

The result was a quarrel and the separation of the two “divas.”

“It was a miracle that it had held up until then,” says a friend. “They are [both] loud, dominant types, and there was so much money and fame in the balance that their egos couldn’t deal with it. It was inevitable.”

The big bang did not end with only the rupture between Dana and Nissim. The success and the money also broke up other members of the veteran Theater Club crowd. Later Nissim would also quarrel with his good friend Shirazi and of course with Avneri, his beloved.

“He started making money and he changed,” says Avneri. “I was in shock. Suddenly the money issue, after I’d always arranged things for you. When this beautiful thing became material, I left.” Avneri also left night life in general, setting himself up as a skipper in the Jaffa port where he anchors his boat, Sababa 5, and uses it to take tourists and groups out on the water.

The rupture between Dana and Nissim remains in effect to this day, though the two did experience reconciliation of a kind when in 2016 they jointly recorded a song by singer, songwriter and composer Maya Simantov – by means of whom Nissim would re-invent himself, for the third time, shortly thereafter.

At center stage

In the years that followed, Nissim spent more time at home, and licked his wounds. He abandoned producing and focused on DJ work. In 2003 he issued his first album and soon met producer Yinon Yahel, who was working with Simantov, then still an unknown singer. One morning the phone in her office rang: On the line were Yahel and Nissim. They asked her to write lyrics for a new melody they had written. She quickly wrote down the first thing that came into her mind.

The piece they recorded, “Searching,” became a hit, thanks to which Nissim was signed by Peter Rauhofer’s prestigious Star 69 record company. Nissim admired Rauhofer, a DJ and producer who had been one of the founders of gay club scene in New York. “His dream was to sign on” with Rauhofer’s company, says Simantov. The trio, Yahel, Simantov and Nissim, produced song after song at a dizzying pace and in 2005 Nissim’s debut international album, “First Time,” was releasled by Star 69.

The songs and remixes that Nissim created entered into collections and spread rapidly. He was invited to more and more parties and gay pride parades around the world.

“I asked him,” says Simantov, “do you believe it? You are a superstar. He suddenly moved from a place backstage with Dana International to center stage, and received the appreciation he deserves in his own right.”

The collaboration between Nissim and Rauhofer came to an end in 2010. In an angry Facebook post, Rauhofer accused Nissim of distributing an unauthorized a remix he had made for Whitney Houston. The scandal led to a bitter quarrel, and by the time it ended, Rauhofer was already very ill, dying in 2013 from cancer. After his death Nissim wrote: “Peter was the person who gave me my first international recognition. Rest in peace, my friend, and thank you for all you taught me.”

In ecstasy, shirtless

In recent years, Offer Nissim’s career has sailed along calmly and steadily. It was enough to see the shining eyes of the thousands of fans in Pavilion 1 at the Tel Aviv Convention Center last Hanukkah, for the launch of his new album, “Love.” Even Rita, one of the country’s most successful singers, came onstage as a surprise, to delirious screams from the masses.

Outside, security guards could not hold back the crowds and fences toppled over. Gays and lesbians and transgender fans on towering heels jumped over them to forge their way into the building because, “Ofra has already come on.” Five thousand fans eventually crowded into the space, most of them shirtless, dancing in ecstasy.

Five years ago, Nissim conquered another personal Everest when he was chosen to record a remix for Madonna. The recordings became the official versions she used in a tour. “He always said that one day he would produce for her,” relates a woman friend, “and he really did it.” Nissim was also invited to play the warm-up act for Madonna’s performance in Israel. He also produced remixes of “The Pop Kids” by the Pet Shop Boys, and recorded a track with Jennifer Lopez. And U2’s forthcoming album will include a remix by Nissim of it song “Love is Bigger than Anything.”

Nissim still doesn’t grant interviews. He has already succeeded in making himself a legendary figure: Why mess with that? Just as he knows how to take the most interesting sounds and transform them into a something new, so with himself, he knows when to reveal and when to block, when to wave his arms and when to smile bashfully. He knows how to read his fans and how to touch them and above all – he does this from a pure place that the audience identifies and gives itself over to with pleasure.

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