Blue and white and pink: Israel’s first LGBT culture festival debuts in Bay Area

Nine years ago, an Israeli diplomat working in San Francisco had an idea: Bring an Israeli pop superstar to the Bay Area for a goodwill appearance.

The superstar, however, was singer-songwriter Dana International, one of the most famous transsexuals in the world — and Donny Inbar’s superiors back in Israel didn’t quite share his enthusiasm for the idea.

In fact, they kind of freaked out.

“Oh no, not a transvestite!” was the message Inbar received from the foreign affairs office.

Although officials in Israel finally relented — and also realized that Dana wasn’t a transvestite — their initial hesitation showed just how worried they were about letting a member of the LGBT community be a spokesperson for the Jewish state.

But that was then and this is now.

A much more enlightened Israeli foreign affairs office is actively, enthusiastically and financially backing a groundbreaking, four-week event called Out in Israel. It’s the first concerted attempt to bring Israeli gay culture en masse to the United States — and, not surprisingly, it’s happening in San Francisco and surrounding areas.

“This is a new concept,” said Inbar, noting that this is the first time another country has sponsored an LGBT cultural event in the United States. “LGBT arts and culture [from other countries] have been presented everywhere, but not as a festival for a whole month. The aim is to expose people to the good art at these events. If they open up and want to learn more about the complex issue called Israel, that’s incredible.”

Out in Israel is being co-sponsored by the S.F.-based Consulate General of Israel, the Israel Center and a host of other local Jewish organizations.

Featuring a panoply of artists, thinkers and activists, the festival had a kickoff event April 1 and continued with an April 8 double feature at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. But it really gets cooking on Thursday, April 15, with more than a dozen events between then and April 29, and most are free and open to the public.

Rami Baruch (left) and Roy Horovitz in “The Timekeepers”

The lineup includes screenings of LGBT-themed films from Israel, music, dance, literature, lectures  and even a four-course dinner prepared in part by Israeli TV star Gil Hovav, the Holy Land’s gay male version of Rachael Ray.

Films include “Jerusalem Is Proud to Present,” which portrays the efforts of Israel’s LGBT community to host a pride parade in Jerusalem, and “Yossi & Jagger,” a gay love story set in the Israeli military.

All visiting artists are A-list celebrities in Israel. They include choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf, who will perform their quirky modern dance piece “4 Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer.”

Author Yossi Avni-Levy, a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature, will speak about his experience as a gay foreign diplomat. Jay Michaelson, a columnist for the Forward and the Huffington Post and the author of several books, will anchor a panel discussion titled “Queer Perspectives on Zionism.”

The idea for Out in Israel originated with the S.F.-based Israeli Consulate late last year. And this time, there was no hesitation back at the home office in Israel, like the kind Inbar experienced in 2001 when he was a cultural attaché for the consulate.

“I felt a lot of encouragement from the ministry of foreign affairs,” said Akiva Tor, Israel’s consul general in San Francisco. “I brought it up, asked for funding and got what we asked for. This is clearly what Israel needs to be doing if it wants to be a country that’s better understood.”

To help put the event together, the consulate turned to Inbar, now the associate director for arts and culture of the Israel Center, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Inbar played a key role in planning and coordinating.

Said Inbar, who is gay: “We would particularly like to reach out to the LGBT Jewish population [in the Bay Area] that is not connected to Israel or has not been to Israel.”

From the dance piece “4 Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer.”

But even beyond that, the festival is aiming to attract people from the local LGBT population at large. And in so doing, it is aiming to shake up a few long-held notions about the breadth of Israeli society, which would be just fine with Lisa Finkelstein, director of the LGBT Alliance.

“In the LGBT community there is a diversity of opinion [about] Israel,” said Finkelstein, whose agency is a program of the JCF

and one of the festival’s co-sponsors. “We are truly a pluralistic community, just like in Israel.”

For a first-time festival, Out in Israel is ambitious in scope, with events taking place in several Bay Area locations throughout this month. Planners felt from the start that this was the right region to test a festival like this.

“In the eyes of the Israeli LGBT community, San Francisco is kind of the [utopia] of LGBT life,” Tor said, “and there is an absolute desire to connect to this region, to the Jews of this region as well, and create some sort of synergy that will continue.”

Over the last few years, the banner headlines out of Israel’s LGBT community usually weren’t good: threats of violence at Jerusalem gay pride parades and a double murder at a Tel Aviv teen center last summer.

But in reality, Israel remains the most tolerant, gay-friendly nation in the Middle East. Gays and lesbians are integrated in all levels of society, from politics to business to the military.

Yossi Avni-Levy

“People may gravely disagree about ways of solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but surprisingly, the vast majority is really liberal toward gays and lesbians,” Inbar said. “Even in Orthodox society there’s a lot more acceptance. It’s really amazing. And we’re really proud of it.”

Gay Israeli actor Roy Horovitz has benefited from that liberal attitude. He will take part in Out in Israel when he co-stars in “The Timekeepers,” a 2001 play by American writer Dan Clancy that caught on in Israel and has since toured the world in Hebrew and English versions.

The play tells the story of an elderly Jewish watchmaker and a gay German man, imprisoned in a concentration camp and thrown together to repair watches for their Nazi overlords. As they work together, suspicion gradually gives way to friendship.

Horovitz plays Hans, the gay German, while Rami Baruch plays Benjamin. The two will bring their production to Out in Israel with an April 25 performance at the JCC of San Francisco.

For Horovitz, the play conveys the full spectrum of human emotions, despite its grim setting. And he’s pleased how the play shows that the pink triangle was worn side by side with the yellow star during the Holocaust.

“I never knew a play that mentions the gay holocaust,” Horovitz said.  “I thought it was important to remind people there were other minorities in the Holocaust.”

The actor first read the play eight years ago in a small Tel Aviv café. Director Lee Gilat had discovered it after a short premiere run in London. She had Horovitz in mind to play Hans, and Baruch to

play the stately, tormented Benjamin.

(Fun fact: Being a committed method actor, Baruch spent many weeks studying watch repair, and actually fixes broken watches during the show).

Horovitz and company launched a Hebrew-language production in 2002. It was a hit, and gave rise to touring across Europe and parts of the United States (in both English and Hebrew).

How tough was it for the actors to juggle languages?

“It was very challenging,” Horovitz said. “We had to practice a lot and we took many appointments with a speech coach. Because the characters are German, we didn’t feel obliged to have the perfect accent. Now we’re in our sixth year [doing the play] in both languages and we don’t feel any different.”

Horovitz noted how “The Timekeepers” always impresses audiences by expanding the terms of the Holocaust.

“The fact that a group coming from Israel — Jews, Hebrew speakers — is presenting a show that not only focuses on the Jewish victim but also mentions others, always takes people by surprise,” he said.

As important to Horovitz, he found “The Timekeepers” challenges some audiences’ notions about the quality of art and culture coming out of Israel.

The play, he said, “changes peoples’ opinions regarding Israel because they only hear about the political situation, and now they get a new perspective.”

Music has always been a prime vehicle for changing perspectives, too. In recent years Yael Deckelbaum has emerged as a leading Israeli singer-songwriter, both as a solo artist and with her female trio, Habanot Nehama (the Comfort Girls).

She will perform two concerts for Out in Israel, one in Berkeley on April 20, and one in San Francisco the next night.

The daughter of an Israeli woman and a Canadian immigrant, Deckelbaum, 31, is an out-and-proud lesbian. But you might not guess it listening to her music.

With one exception: She had three songs included on the soundtrack to “The L Word,” Showtime’s popular lesbian-themed series.

Influenced by artists such as Joni Mitchell, the Jerusalem-born Deckelbaum is equally comfortable singing in Hebrew or English. Her latest CD, “Ground Zero,” is her first all-English album. Her lyrics draw on nature metaphors to convey a dreamy spirit of love, whomever the object of her affection might be.

That’s the spirit Tor hopes to bring from Israel to the Bay Area.

He linked that openness to Israeli arts and culture, which have blossomed in recent years. He admitted it’s not yet at the level of other Western societies but “there’s a huge energy in the sense that something new is being created,” he says. “That applies also to LGBT creativity.”

Said Inbar of the Out in Israel festival: “This can shed light on one wonderful facet of Israeli life and culture. Several great Israeli artists happen to be gay, but it’s incredible art, and that’s what counts.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.