Considered the gay-friendliest country in the Middle East, Israel offers LGBT tourists a smorgasbord of experiences. From the carnal to the cultural, a veritable rainbow trail increasingly stretches the length and breadth of this tiny yet tantalizingly diverse country. Here are 10 queer hotspots not to be missed, six within Tel Aviv, and four beyond as well:
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‘Tel Francisco’ (The heartland of the action)
Tel Aviv is the epicenter of Israel’s LGBT scene; the undisputed queer Mecca of the Middle East. Some estimate that gay people constitute 15% of the city’s population, numbering tens of thousands of locals – and ever-growing hordes of tourists. Before them is a feast of dedicated venues spread liberally throughout the city core, though there's no particular ‘gayborhood’ – giving the city a queerer feel numerically than it actually has:
1. An incomplete guide to the Pink City’s throbbing queer nightlife
Like your men stocky, sinewy and/or hairy? Check out the party line Beef Jerky or the Beef Meat Ball night at Shlagzana. If campy Madonna music and patrons are more your thing, visit the grey lady of Tel Aviv’s gay scene, Evita, where you’re most likely to hear hits from Dana International – the transsexual Israeli winner of Eurovision 1998.
Women looking for women? Head to Florentin’s new girls-only Barvaz bar or spend a Wednesday night at Shpagat, and if you’re in town in October, taste the delights of the "Lethal Lesbian" annual film festival. And on and on and on – a simple Google search will deliver you no shortage of what’s on and where, or check out Atraf.com (as per Step 5).
Fancy the quintessentially warm Tel Avivian night air? Take a stroll down elegant Rothschild Boulevard, where gays, straights and everything in between strut their stuff amid sushi stalls, espresso stands, sculptures and pampered canines. There’s also fashionista Sheinkin Street, and iconic Meir Park, a social hub for LGBT Israelis, site of its main community center, the traditional starting part of the city’s pride parade (see Step 2 below), and now proud home to a memorial to Nazi barbarity’s gay victims.
2. Haj of the Pridestanis: Tel Aviv’s annual LGBT parade
From bronzed muscle-gods and elaborately decorated floats to pointed political placards and masses of rainbow flags emblazoned with the Star of David, Tel Aviv’s annual gay pride parade is a must for those who want to experience Israel’s at it’s gayest, and some would say its freest (and still others at its most degenerate) .
Starting from Meir Park and snaking its way through car-cleansed streets to a massive party on Gordon Beach, the June parade draws hordes from Israel and around the world (100,000 in 2013!) for a festival of unabashed, Levantine-flavored sexual rebellion. If you can brave the notoriously unforgiving summer weather and throngs of sweat-laden half-naked bodies, or manage to find a shady balcony lining the route, this mass pilgrimage is not to be missed.
3. Beach bums: The Ganges of Tel Avivian hedonism
In the religion of many Israelis, gay and straight the same, the Mediterranean Sea is the holy of holies – an outdoorsy, uber-informal culture that venerates feeling and looking good.
Hilton Beach, ironically (or poetically?) positioned opposite Tel Aviv’s gender segregated religious beach, and easily identifiable by its rainbow umbrellas, is an open-air butchery, packed with gays (straights welcome too!) swimming, sunbathing, exercising, beach batting and old fashioned six-pack-seeing. Tanlinephobe? Go off the clothed track to Ga’ash Beach, about half an hour drive north of Tel Aviv. Though not exclusively gay, Israel’s only official nude beach is certainly the only of its type on the eastern Mediterranean.
4. Dim Lights, Hopefully No Cameras, 24-7 Action
For the even more uninhibited, Tel Aviv boasts a growing number of sex venues and erotica shops. Sauna Paradise and City Sauna perpetuate the libertine legacy of the Romans and hamam-loving Ottomans, with special-themed nights including ‘no towels’ and even mixed-bisexual (women included!) evenings.
Stores like Sexy Shop and the Eroscenter chain sell everything from cherry-flavored condoms to his-and-her dildo sets, and there’s even a ladies-only option called Sisters at the fashionable Tel Aviv Port, which, according to its website, is “based on the belief that sexual enjoyment is a basic right of every woman.” Such sentiments – let alone bountiful merchandise – are part and parcel of most major western cities, yet in the Middle East – where homosexuals and sexually independent women are frowned upon – that Tel Aviv has such establishments, legal at that, is wondrous to some.
5. Digital dalliances: The online universe of queer Israelis
Rather meet your partner-in-fun from behind a smartphone or computer screen? Israel’s Atraf site is the prime online meeting point for LGBT Israelis from across the country, as well as serving as a veritable craigslist for everything from nutritional and back-hair-obliteration services to massages of the happy ending variety. Sign up to the international site – no need to acquire the ancient Israelite tongue to taste the fruits of modern Israelites – and sort potential hook-ups (or potential nice Jewish husbands to take back to NYC with you?) using the tags and categories specifying anything from age, body type and skin color to whether they ascribe to vegetarianism, non-smokerism, not to mention their preferred position on the active-passive spectrum. Other worldwide apps such as Grindr, Scruff and the more vanilla JDate are heavily populated by the natives as well.
6. Blood, square and surrogacy
Another worthy stop on the trail is Rabin Square where its namesake, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who repealed the IDF’s prohibition of openly gay soldiers serving) was assassinated. The surrounding cafes, restaurants, bars and connected boulevards are also sprinkled with card-carrying Israinbowites, including ever-growing brigades of double moms and dads pushing baby prams.
Owing to Israel’s small geographic yet gigantically dissonant socio-cultural landscape, driving just an hour or two out of ‘Tel Francisco’ can be, in terms of attitudes toward LGBT Israelis, like driving from the Bay Area to the Bible Belt. Yet despite the traditional divide, there’s a growing pink presence throughout cities across the country.
7. Go East: Pink outposts in Jerusalem
Compared to its coastal antithesis, Jerusalem’s LGBT venues are more limited. Both the Mikveh Bar and Video Bar serve the embattled though defiant community, augmented by the weekly Saturgay night at Oliver Twist bar and a few other reoccurring events. The city’s annual pride march is a controversial saga, with three people stabbed in the 2005 event, and the current route heavily sanctioned as to not inflame the sensibilities of religious residents. The Jerusalem Open House on Ben Yehuda Mall, which organizes the march, also provides LGBT Jerusalemites with guidance and counseling services, and, for some historical profundity, visit Yad Vashem, the moving national Holocaust museum, which makes (albeit passing) reference to the thousands of homosexual victims of Nazi terror.
8. Go North: The gayification of the Galilee
Often marketed as Israel’s Tuscany, the Galilee offers rustic scenery, historical sites, and, specifically for rainbow-trailers, a growing number of same-sex venues, private gay tours and a plethora of B&Bs not so subtly lusting after the pink shekel. Haifa is hands-down the north’s queer capital, boasting the dedicated Puzzle Bar, the new OverKitsch gay line at the Syncopa bar, weekly dance parties at the Newton Bar, and even a sauna, Sparta Bar, situated in the adjoining town of Kiryat Atta. Consult the Atraf bible for sporadic parties in other northern localities.
Beyond the nightlife, Ya’ar Ha’Ge’ava (lit. The ‘Pride Forest’), nestled in the Beit HaKerem Valley, makes for a poignant picnic spot, established by the local branch of Israel’s Aguda LGBT rights organization as an expression of the desire to strengthen the roots of LGBT Galileans. After more nature fused with gay Israeli cinematic history? Ascend Mt. Hermon, Israel’s highest mountain, where much of the hit film Yossi and Jagger film (See Step 10) was shot – and maybe even reenact the famous snow-ball throwing love scene with someone special.
9. Go South: Sun, sea, salt and Sodom
Israel’s desert Negev region is also starting to develop an archipelagic LGBT scene. Ashdod recently staged its first pride parade, as did Be’er Sheva, which hosts the Monroe “multisexual” dance parties at the Grace Bar. The Red Sea resort city of Eilat will celebrate its fourteenth pride festival in May, 2014, and also holds the Solar Festival at the end of the summer season, an expo of top global gay clubbing brands. Tired partying and want to mix it up with some biblical history? Visit Mt. Sodom at the southern end of the Dead Sea, a unique natural salt formation close to where, at least according to Abrahamic tradition, God incinerated the sexually-deviant city. Don’t let the thought of being reduced to a sulfuric puddle dampen your great gay southern detour.
10. Trans-Israel cultural treasures
Still other key stops on Israel’s rainbow trail involve not crisscrossing the country but rather sitting stationary for a couple of hours. As pre-departure homework or trip down-time, gay-themed films such as Yossi and Jagger, billed as Israel’s Brokeback Mountain, The Bubble, featuring the convoluted love affair of an Israeli soldier and closeted Palestinian, as well as Eyes Wide Open, centered around the similarly explosive relationship between two ultra-orthodox Jerusalem men, make for some seriously taboo-busting viewing.
After some mainstream though gay-created Israeli pop? Check out heartthrob Ivri Lider on YouTube. Want some (intellectually) meaty reading? Delve into Producing Desires by Israeli academic Dror Ze’evi to gain a jolting insight into the rich LGBT history of the Middle East. Or how about something decidedly profane? Take a peak at Michael Lucas’s Men of Israel – hailed as the world’s first all-Jewish porno and set in spectacular locations across a doubly Promised Land.