The Big Turnoff: Israeli Shows Lost Their Sex Drive

In a cultural scene that is getting increasingly modest, Israeli theater and television prefer showing death, the army and the Holocaust – to sex

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Miki Leon and Efrat Ben Zur in Gesher Theater’s new production of Chekhov’s 'The Seagull.'
Miki Leon and Efrat Ben Zur in Gesher Theater’s new production of Chekhov’s 'The Seagull.'Credit: Daniel Kaminsky
שירלי גל
Shirley Gal
שירלי גל
Shirley Gal

Boris Trigorin, the super-narcissistic writer played by Miki Leon in Gesher Theater’s new production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” sits on a chair that has been placed on an almost-bare stage. On the floor at his feet lies his lover Irina Arkadina, played by Efrat Ben Zur. She praises him nonstop, touches herself, masturbating as she talks about how big he is. He sits there, getting off on her getting off. The PR materials contained much talk about a nude scene in the play by Joy Rieger, who plays Nina. The audience, though, only wanted to talk about one scene: the masturbation scene.

In it, Trigorin is planning to leave Arkadina and she persuades him to stay. “Yair [Sherman, the director] thought it would be right to take this persuasion to a sexual place,” Leon says. “From there, Efrat brought the idea of laying on the floor and touching herself while she tells him how amazing he is. And I thought what would suit my character is that he would get all horny from this flattery, and so I started to masturbate in the scene too. Of course, Chekhov didn’t write the scene this way 127 years ago. There’s no sex in the original, but today it’s definitely relevant,” he adds.

Anyone who wants to see me naked can google ‘Single Plus’ and watch it

The scene is a smart interpretation of the character, a way to show his narcissism without shouting it from the rooftops. By contrast, Rieger’s full-on nudity scene had many wondering if it was really truly necessary.

“You can debate whether or not it’s necessary,” Leon says. “But just the fact that people are talking about it means we touched on something. Joy strips off right after she says to Trigorin, ‘If you ever need my life – take it.’ So the act itself could be criticized, but it certainly stirs the audience and brings up all kinds of questions.”

A performance of Habima's 'One Night In April.'Credit: Ziv Koren

Is it necessary or not? That is the question. Over the past decade, there has been a huge revolution in the portrayal of sexuality – primarily female sexuality – in theater and on television worldwide. Netflix series like “Bridgerton” and “Sex/Life” are huge hits and endless articles address this very subject. Furthermore, some of the world’s biggest theater stages are surrendering to carnal pleasure – be it “Frankie & Johnny” or “Take Me Out” on Broadway, or numerous productions in Europe. Yet there seems to be nothing left over for Israeli audiences. Why is that?

“You and I live in Tel Aviv,” Leon says. “Just the other day, there was a big Pride parade and people celebrated. Near here, [in cities such as Bnei Brak], it’s a whole other story. More people are becoming religious, there’s a wave of conservatism. Plays that were bought here 20 years ago are not bought today, with nudity being a total deal breaker. The 2002 Gesher production of ‘The Slave’ had nude scenes, and it ran all over the country. Today, the same cities that accepted it then will only accept a production if we omit the nudity. That’s one of the reasons ‘The Seagull’ wasn’t performed outside of Tel Aviv. And a play can only really be a success here if it travels around the country.”

Like a Botticelli painting

A sex scene can be unpacked and shown in 1,001 different ways, with or without nudity,” says Lena Kreindlin, director general of the Gesher Theater. “Some of the sexiest sex scenes I’ve seen happened without so much as a heel revealed. If we feel that it’s necessary and really adds something to the scene, we’ll go for it. When the production of ‘The Slave,’ directed by Yevgeny Aryeh, was staged – the entire stage looked like a Botticelli painting, and Sasha Demidov and Evgenia Dodina were fully nude. It was so beautiful, it was so suited to the medieval period, and everyone talked about it not because of the nudity but because it was high art.

A scene from 'Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.'Credit: Nati Levy / courtesy of Yes

“‘The Seagull’ is also a play about unrequited love and unfulfilled sexuality, therefore I think the depiction of sexuality here is appropriate for the story. If we want to make ourselves into puritans and imagine there’s no sex in the world, there’s no point in putting on the production. At the same time, when we’re asked to avoid this in certain cities where there is a high concentration of traditional theater-goers, we take that into consideration.”

Conservatism is spreading, and while no one will come right out and say it, we can see the message has gotten through and that – aside from a few examples, which are the exceptions that prove the rule – self-censorship is prevalent in Israeli theater.

“The repertory theaters also have commercial considerations, and a 900-seat hall is not the right medium for intimate scenes,” says Gur Koren, a playwright at the Cameri Theater. “Do we want people to come to plays? Yes. But we did put on ‘God of Vengeance,’ which contains full nudity, and then we were told it had to stay in Tel Aviv. Or there were theaters that bought it on condition that the actress wore a bra.

“When somebody sees nudity on television, they can react however they want – change the channel or maybe even get aroused and start touching themselves. We don’t want that in the theater. We don’t want someone to shout, or to touch himself, or to get up and disturb others,” Koren says. “And we’re also thinking about the actors. Imagine that an actress is the middle of an intimate scene and suddenly she’s being whistled at, or people are shouting comments about her body, or even filming her naked – all of these things have happened at our theater. So we do it when there really is no substitute, but we think very hard about whether it’s critical.”

Mike Vogel and Sarah Shahi in Netflix's 'SEX/LIFE.'Credit: NETFLIX

It’s not just about sex scenes or nudity: commercial considerations also come into play when there is even a hint of sexuality.

For instance, sources in the industry who spoke on condition of anonymity say that until a few years ago, material that dealt with LGBTQ identity was taboo and essentially kept off the stage. But it does seem something has shifted on that subject, at least.

“For several years now, I’ve been less concerned with the question of whether the play will be bought outside of Tel Aviv,” says Habima Theater artistic director Moshe Kaftan. “I prefer to give artistic freedom, and whoever wants to see the show will come to see it here. When I directed ‘The One My Soul Loves’ [based on the shooting at the Bar Noar club for LGBTQ youth], in which you have men kissing, that’s what guided me – and it really isn’t accepted outside of Tel Aviv.

“We encounter a lot of objections and questions of whether the audience can deal with this sort of play – and we’re far from talking about nudity or sexuality here. So yes, we do try to understand how vital the scene is and if it’s possible to create something that’s more modest and implied,” he explains.

The theater directors in towns far from the Tel Aviv hub say one thing, but the Israeli audience – including those who are not regular theatergoers – seems to be saying something else entirely. 
One of the biggest hits in recent years was “April Fools,” an erotic cabaret created by Keren Peles that drew a very large audience, predominantly made up of young women. “It was a play that celebrated femininity and eroticism in the most open way imaginable,” says Kaftan, who directed the musical. “We had a run of 250 sold-out shows in a small theater, and then it moved to the main stage and also played outside Tel Aviv in places like Binyamina. Groups of six or eight women would come together, and then come back to see it again. They came to celebrate freedom, and there was something really powerful about that.”

Yael Tucker and Miki Leon in 'Haravaka.'

Yet this success didn’t make you think that maybe there’s an audience here that wants more shows like this?

“In Paris, there’s a commercial theater that presents plays about relationships, and a national theater that presents classics. Here there is no commercial theater, and therefore the repertory theater, with public funding, deals more with social issues. But now you mention it, I’m eager to find more plays like this. But I’m not consciously thinking about it or specifically searching for it. If it shows up on the table and the story is good – we’ll do it.”

Maybe that’s the problem. The important subject of LGBTQ sexuality only entered the major theaters in a bigger way when gay men took over key positions in those theaters. The increasing number of plays about LGBTQ sexuality also caused theater directors in the periphery to rethink things, and what a huge and important social change this is.

Two theaters, Gesher and Beit Lessin, are run by women (Lena Kreindlin and Tzipi Pines). But beyond that, there are very few female playwrights in Israeli theater and only one artistic director: Shir Goldberg at the Be’er Sheva Theater. Given this, how will female narratives that attract a new female audience – like the one that came to “April Fools” – get into the repertoire? And if the new audience really is out there waiting, why aren’t theater directors actively searching for plays like these?

A performance of Israeli play 'The One My Soul Loves.'Credit: Or Danon

What’s particularly interesting is that barriers are being broken away from Tel Aviv. Take, for example, the comedy “The Evolution of the Sexes,” which was recently presented by the Haifa Theater and is about a successful but bored married couple who decide to experiment with the world of polyamory.

“We also depend on buyers. The consideration of whether the play will sell was not set aside in this case, and it was certainly a courageous decision by the theater,” says Alon Ophir, who directed the play. “While we were working on it, we thought that maybe the subject matter would keep people away, but so far the audience is roaring with laughter,” he adds.

It’s interesting that this production was presented in Haifa.

“Something very good is happening away from the center. There’s courage,” Ophir says. He adds that in Tel Aviv, “you can also see powerful plays like ‘The One My Soul Loves,’ which doesn’t shy away from the taboo of religious and gay people. But when I directed ‘Kizuz’ at the Cameri [in 2012], in which there’s a scene where a couple is under a sheet and you hear them making noises, I was asked to dim the lighting because people didn’t want to buy tickets. It’s possible that, over time, the theaters have absorbed a painful lesson that nudity doesn’t sell, so they censor themselves from the start. You can’t help but think about how if someone takes their shirt off, that means another 15,000 people won’t come to see the play – so does the shirt really need to come off? That’s a question I agonize over. Ultimately, theater lives off an audience. I can be the most artistic, progressive and liberal director, like in Europe. But then the theaters will be empty, so what good does that do anyone?”

Stunning discovery

It seems the Israeli cultural scene has all the difficult subjects covered: loss, bereavement, the Holocaust, death, orphanhood, illness. But when it comes to sexuality – a much happier subject – everyone is silent. On Israeli television, too, where the audience can simply change the channel if it’s not enjoying something, sexuality, and female sexuality in particular, is not depicted very much. Certainly not as the main theme of a show.

A performance of the Hebrew adaptation of Philippe Besson's 'Lie With Me,' at Tmuna theatre.Credit: Eran Even

“Netflix made a stunning discovery: women like sex and really enjoy it,” says Dr. Alina Bernstein, a communications lecturer at the College of Management Academic Studies. “They came out with ‘Bridgerton,’ with portrayals of women who discover their sexuality in explicitly erotic scenes, and I’m really racking my brain to think of where I’ve ever seen anything similar on an Israeli show. It just doesn’t exist.

“The representation of reality on television derives from how the creators grew up and the environment in which they came of age,” Bernstein says. “And maybe the fact that there is no history of sex scenes in Israeli dramas – perhaps due to certain assumptions about who the audience is at home – has had this effect. So we’re lagging behind, and given the processes that our society is going through, I’m not sure we’ll close that gap.”

It’s understandable why the commercial Israeli channels, Keshet and Reshet, avoid presenting explicit sexuality. They are aimed at a broad audience, the prime-time hours are meant for family viewing, and even if they wanted to redefine the boundaries, the broadcasting authority would quickly put a stop to it. But what’s the story with the satellite and cable channels, which don’t face such regulation?

Mirit Toovi, head of drama at HOT, says: “I don’t look at sex as something that stands on its own. That’s like asking if we’ll insert cars into a show. There’s a story, and one of the elements that propel the story is sex. In ‘Dumb’ and ‘The Arbitrator,’ there were sex scenes that contributed to the story. In ‘Hanashi,’ a show that’s going to start airing soon, the heroine – who comes from the ultra-Orthodox world – sets out to explore a violent experience she had as a girl via sexuality.

As a young screenwriter, I wrote whatever was in my imagination. Now I can’t help but also think about the actors who have to actually do these things

“Today, there’s a lot of focus on #MeToo, on questions like ‘What is flirting?’ and ‘What is harassment?’ I see it with the writers and students,” Toovi says. “It all depends on what the writers bring. If writers don’t come with a larger-than-life love story, it won’t happen. And it’s very complicated to write this kind of content, which requires more nuanced, precise and subtle writing. Few writers are able to do this well, so we also have a crazy shortage of romantic comedies and romantic stories in general like ‘Very Important Person.’ We have a much easier time with content that’s harsh and not intimate, with shows about the army or violence.”

Toovi’s counterpart at Yes, Dganit Atias Gigi, thinks the industry is going through a natural maturing process.

“Relative to the state broadcasting authorities, you could say we at Yes are the most edgy with shows like ‘Sisters’ – where the writers put in everything that came into their heads – or the sex scene in the drama ‘The Chef,’ which goes on for nearly four minutes. We produced ‘Johnny and the Knights of Galilee’ [aka ‘Milk and Honey’], a show about a group of gigolos, in which just about every episode had some kind of wild sex scene,” she says, citing the exceptions.

“There were limitations about what we could put on the advertising billboards, and we couldn’t air promos before 10 P.M., but still we went for it,” Gigi continues. “So yes, I accept the premise that we’re in more conservative territory here – I can’t say we’re any different than the American networks. But I think it has to do with the maturation process the industry is going through. If you think about it, we’ve only been making television shows here since the mid-1990s, and it takes time. And maybe we’re bolder when it comes to other types of content like espionage, the military, talking about death and loss.”

“Johnny and the Knights of the Galilee,” which ran for just one season in 2015, is truly unusual on the Israeli television landscape. “The first time I screened the material for Yes, I decided to show the fifth episode – in which there’s a sex scene with a strap-on [dildo],” recounts director Dani Rosenberg. “They were a little surprised, but I received full backing. There were some radical things in there, like role-playing where [lead actor] Oz Zehavi played a Palestinian at a checkpoint, which showed how sexual fetishes mix with the Israeli reality.”

Change in surprising places

“As a young screenwriter, I wrote whatever was in my imagination,” says Ester Namdar Tamam, whose credits include “Red Lines” and “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.” Now I can’t help but also think about the actors who have to actually do these things. In the past, when I wrote a scene with sexual elements, the only factor as far as I was concerned was the story. Today, I’ll ask myself 10 times whether the actress really needs to be naked on screen.

Is there really no new way to depict sexual assault? When we make a movie about the Holocaust, we don’t have to show Jews crammed into cattle cars

“The aim of my work is not to make people horny,” she explains. “I’m more concerned with doing things that express social criticism, and sometimes sex and romance are tools that help to convey different messages so the viewers will stick with me. But to me, it’s a means and not an end.”

However, social critiques and their effect sometimes come from on-screen portrayals of sex. “Bridgerton” taught young women around the world that it’s okay to masturbate and insist on an orgasm. Here in the Levant, too, a drama like “The Lesson” [aka “Zero Hour”], also had a significant social effect – albeit from an unexpected angle.

The cast of Israeli drama 'Milk and Honey.'Credit: Ohad Romano / courtesy of Yes

“The show had scenes that brought up subjects like body image, which dealt with the change that Lianne [played by Maya Landsman] is going through, in the way she copes with revealing more of herself to another person,” says Deakla Keydar, the show’s creator.

“There wasn’t any nudity, but there was explicit dialogue. After the broadcast, a lot of women wrote to say thank you for portraying healthy and reciprocal sexuality between an overweight teenage girl and the guy who loves her and is attracted to her. It’s not something I planned from the start, but it happened. I don’t think a show can change reality when it comes to things like racism, but changes can occur in surprising places like this.”

Rape scenes, which are about violence and not sexuality, also have a significant social effect. “I filmed a rape scene that was set in the 1920s in Jerusalem, and we showed how things were hushed up and all the huge shame that surrounded this,” says Hila Saada, who appears in “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” (which also features subtle sex scenes devoid of violence). “And that’s such a valuable thing. The responses I got afterward were chilling, and showed me just how important it is to talk about this.”

Then there is the question of whether today, at a time when open discussion of sexual violence is more common than in the past, it is still necessary to show rape on screen.

“That’s interesting: Is there really no new way to depict sexual assault?” Keydar says. “When we make a movie about the Holocaust, we don’t have to show Jews crammed into cattle cars. So in our world, where there is already a consensus about what constitutes sexual assault, are there really no other ways in which rape can be depicted?”

This same question arises in the theater too, where it appears even harder to deal with the subject.

The play “After the End,” produced by Habait Theater and directed by Tamar Keenan, is about a couple (Maayan Blum and Shiri Gadni) who are stuck in a shelter after a nuclear attack, and it contains a rape scene. “This play happens in a real shelter under flickering neon lights, and this scene is totally dark except for one neon light,” says Keenan. “But the audience’s eyes adjust to the dark. They see him pull down his pants and pull down her underwear and lie on top of her as she cries and screams. I wanted viewers to be exposed to a very violent and powerful scene, but one where the actors would be comfortable in the situation. Which is why we chose to play with the lighting, so in their minds the audience fills in the rest of the scene, which is much more extreme than what is actually shown.”

‘They wrecked our rehearsal room’

#MeToo’s influence has seeped into television content – and rehearsal rooms too, apparently. “A rehearsal room needs to be a place where you feel safe, and it isn’t. The sexual harassers simply ruined it for us,” says Keenan. “I mainly see it with the young generation of actors: intimacy is hard for them.

“Younger actors no longer have the sense of security to go all out on things the way actors used to,” she says. “For most of my acting career, I played women who were sex objects in comedies, sometimes with men who were quite old – and as a young actress I rehearsed kissing with them from the first rehearsal and sometimes even at the audition. What used to happen in just over a minute now takes a month and a half. So, I as a director can’t tell them, ‘Now kiss.’ But when they feel secure enough, it will happen.”

It is not only the actresses one has to be attentive to in sex scenes. “Sex scenes can be hard and unpleasant for me too,” Miki Leon says. “I also felt embarrassment in a scene in “Single Plus” [the 2012 film by Dover Koshashvili], for example. It’s an intimate situation, and you know that they’re going to see your penis on prime time. A man can also feel like a piece of meat who is being used and tossed out.”

Within this environment, in which sensitivity is pretty much mandatory, a new profession was born: the intimacy coordinator, whose job is to ensure that everyone on the set is comfortable.

“In many cases, these scenes end with stating, ‘Then they slept together,’” says intimacy coordinator Erga Yaari. “Screenwriters aren’t used to writing explicit, intimate scenes, and there’s no detailing the type of nudity. So, actors raise in personal conversations with me things that aren’t always pleasant to raise in front of the director – like if they have pimples on their ass and don’t want a close-up shot. I convey this information to the director, who thinks about appropriate lighting and angles.”

Is there a difference in the process between male and female actors?

“There are many wrong assumptions about sexuality. For example, that men need to learn about consent and women about maintaining boundaries, and only they have body image issues. When I speak with male actors, the conversation starts with ‘It’s important to me that she feels comfortable.’ And then I ask, ‘What about you, what are your fears?’ Suddenly, there’s a relief, that [they] have a place too.”

Actors are required to be more sensitive than ever, raising new questions. “It’s clearly scary,” Leon admits when I ask about the fear of unconsciously hurting someone. “So, we talk in advance, and I always tell my partner what I’m going to do and I ask if it’s okay. It’s important to discuss things in rehearsal and understand the boundaries.”

And today, when content is uploaded to Pornhub, do you fear this online exposure?

“Am I afraid? No. Anyone who wants to see me naked can google ‘Single Plus’ and watch it. Let them enjoy!”

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