An Orthodox Jewish man reveals how he has come to accept himself as a gay person living in Israel, from living life closeted in his early adulthood married to a woman to becoming one of the few religious drag queens working in Tel Aviv’s downtown circuit.
Shahar Hadar, who works as a telemarketer by day, becomes his drag queen persona rebbetzin Malka by midnight.
The 34-year-old has explained how like most Orthodox Jewish gay men, especially those in other conservative religious communities, he was compelled to live his life either closeted, marrying a woman and remaining close-knit to his religious community, or to abandon his family and religious life completely to live as an openly gay man.
Mr Hadar said: “As much as I fled it, the heavens made it clear to me that that’s who I am”.
While Orthodox Judaism generally condemns homosexuality, he revealed that there is now a growing group of devout gay Jewish men in Israel demanding a place in the religious community.
His drag persona is rebbetzin Malka Falsche, who is a female rabbinic adviser.
The stage name is a playful take on a Hebrew word meaning “queen” and Hebrew slang for “fake.”
Mr Hadar explained that a rabbinic advisor, which is someone who provides advice, consultation, and support for the Jewish community, was a more wholesome alter-ego to stand out against the other more sarcastic and brash members of Israel’s drag queen circuit.
He said: “She blesses, she loves everyone.”
Her philosophy, along with Mr Hadar’s, comes from the teachings of the Breslov Hasidic stream of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which is to embrace the variety of life with joy.
He added: “Usually drag queens are gruff. I decided that I wanted to be happy, entertain people, perform mitzvoth, or religious deeds”.
Mr Hadar explained how at age 19, an encounter with a popular Israeli rebbetzin launched his journey to inner acceptance.
He originally left home to enroll in a Jerusalem yeshiva, or religious seminary, hoping that daily Torah study would eventually turn him straight.
After a brief sexual encounter with his roommate at the yeshiva, however, he was kicked out the seminary.
He explained how he was transferred to another religious studies centre, where he eventually ended up marrying a woman.
He said: “I wanted to take the path that (God) commanded of us. I didn’t see any other option.
“I thought the marriage would make me straight and I would be cured”.
He said he felt distressed while trying to be intimate with his wife, and wouldn’t tell her why. She eventually demanded a divorce.
His ex-wife later gave birth to their daughter, who is 11 years old today, but still refuses to let them meet.
Mr Hadar also explained that his sister also divorced her husband after finding out he was gay.
This event caused homophobic conversation to erupt at his family dinner table, with his whole family seeming to condemn his gay identity, but Mr Hadar revealed that his religious brother unknowingly stood up for him that day.
His brother asked: “Are gays not human beings?”
A few months later, in 2010, Mr Hadar mustered up the courage to march in Tel Aviv’s gay pride parade.
When he returned home that Sabbath eve, he finally told his mother he was gay.
He said: “I thought it would be the blackest day in my life,” but his mother came to accept him for who he was.
Mr Hadar also explained how life as an Orthodox Jew has made it difficult to integrate into mainstream gay culture.
He explained he used to tuck his shoulder-length side-locks under a cap to fit in at bars. Eventually, he decided to shear off his side-locks and trim his beard to thin stubble so that he could increase his luck on the dating scene.
Mr Hadar said he is still looking for love, but this year he added, he found acceptance at ‘Drag Yourself’, a Tel Aviv school offering 10-month courses for upcoming drag performers.
Students learn how to balance on high heels, apply false eyelashes and fashion their own drag personas. Mr Hadar, still a beginner, is set to graduate next month.
The drag school offers a rare opportunity for Israelis to interact with others from diverse and sometimes opposing social sectors.
Of all the students in his class, Mr Hadar said he was the only one to show up wearing a yarmulke.
Gil Naveh, who is an experienced Israeli drag queen and director of the school said: “I think it’s fabulous. He stays true to who he is.”
He wrote: “My attitudes and perceptions of Israel have changed dramatically and it’s also changed the way that I reconcile my sexuality with my religion”.
“France has voted for the law of love,” said one of the married men. “For us it’s very important to be a bridge, especially here in the Middle East, so that what’s happened in France, and the way we are received and embraced here, can become an example for the rest of the Middle East.”