Former yeshiva boy is Israels favorite drag queen

To become Suzi Boum, it takes Lior Yisraelov about an hour.

It’s a routine Yisraelov has nailed down: First he shaves, then he applies layers of makeup. Next, fake eyelashes, and finally the blond wig, the glittering clothes and the over-the-top accessories.

Over the years, Suzi Boum’s look has stayed more or less the same. But Yisraelov, 33, has undergone several transformations — from a yeshiva boy to an openly gay Arabic teacher to Israel’s most in-demand drag queen.

And, to varying degrees, his Orthodox Jewish family and his country have changed along with him.

The two faces of drag queen Lior Yisraelov photo/katya borodin

“Each time I came out with another revelation, my family eventually accepted it, even if they weren’t happy about it,” he said recently while doing his makeup at his Tel Aviv apartment. “And Israel has made me famous.”

Yisraelov was getting ready to perform at a bachelorette party. Fresh out of the shower and clean-shaven, he looked boyish and lanky, wearing only athletic shorts. But as he caked on makeup, Suzi Boum began to emerge. With the addition of the wig and a sequined dress, she was complete — and promptly headed out the door to work.

At the party, Suzi Boum burst into a roomful of tipsy women, who screamed with delight. She transitioned seamlessly into a lip-sync performance of an Israeli engagement song, then moved to roasting the bride-to-be.

Suzi Boum is part of the LGBT community’s growing visibility in Israeli popular culture. Still, Israel remains a relatively conservative society. Forty-three percent of Israelis deem homosexuality unacceptable, and 22 percent would not want to live next door to a homosexual, according to respected surveys.

Bachelorette parties may be Yisraelov’s bread and butter, but he does all sorts of events, from bar mitzvahs to company parties to the Tel Aviv Pride Parade. For the last several years, Suzi Boum has made appearances on a variety of TV shows.

“I would say he’s the most successful drag queen in Israel,” said Dekel Lazimi, 28, a filmmaker who is making an online video series about his friends in Tel Aviv’s drag scene. “Lior is the only one that has really broken out of the gay scene and into TV and stuff.”

Yisraelov grew up in a religious Zionist community in south Tel Aviv. He was the youngest of four children in a Bukharan Jewish family.

During his final year of high school, after more than a decade of yeshiva learning, he put on women’s clothes for the first time for a Purim party. He also started dragging his friends to gay clubs as a lark, though he knew it was something else.

“When I started realizing I was gay, I was sitting every day and learning Torah, Talmud, Gemara and Mishnah. And you learn this is one of the most prohibited things in Judaism. So you look up at the sky and you ask God: ‘Why did you make me something you don’t want me to be?’ ” Yisraelov said.

“You can’t talk to your rabbi or your family,” he added. “But when you pray to God, there’s no answer.”

After finishing a yearlong army preparatory program in northern Israel — where he performed in drag for the first time at a New Year’s Eve party at a local bar — Yisraelov moved back home and continued doing the things expected of a young religious Zionist man. He fulfilled his mandatory army service, commuting to military headquarters in central Tel Aviv to work in intelligence as an Arabic translator for three years. Then he earned degrees in Arabic and communications from Bar-Ilan University.

He went to work in 2011 as an Arabic teacher at a secular middle school in suburban Tel Aviv. He also gradually moved away from Jewish observance. At the same time, he was slipping out of his parents’ apartment at night to dance and hook up under the neon lights of the city’s burgeoning gay scene.

Yisraelov had an experienced guide: His oldest sister was transgender and changed her name from Erez to Arizona. A former drag performer herself, she bequeathed the name Suzi Boum to her younger brother when she retired from the craft in 2008.

About a year after creating his version of Suzi Boum, when he was 26, Yisraelov met his partner, a computer engineer who convinced him to move in with him.

Several months into their relationship, Yisraelov went to his parents’ home for Yom Kippur. An hour before the start of the fast, his father confronted him about rumors he had heard: Was his son really living a gay lifestyle? Yisraelov confirmed he was. “My mother cried. She asked, ‘Why do I deserve this? What did I do? What didn’t I do? Where did I go wrong?’ ” Yisraelov recalled.

His dad, he said with a sad smile, “fasted for a week instead of a day.”

Despite their disappointment, his parents did not reject him. And on another visit months later, Yisraelov dropped the final bombshell: He was a professional drag queen.

“I always say I came out three times: as secular, as gay and as a drag queen,” he said. “And I understood why it was hard for them each time. But I figured if they could get over the fact that I was gay, they could get over the fact that I wear dresses.”

Andrew Tobin
Andrew Tobin

JTA Israel correspondent