A night out with Jerusalem’s drag queens
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A night out with Jerusalem’s drag queens

The performers of Allah Nash have found an unlikely home and a way to assert themselves in Israel’s conservative capital city

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Yosale is putting on electric blue eyeliner in his family’s Jerusalem home. Noir Styrofoam is donning a black wig, the same color as his beard, while Moksha powders his face.

They are preparing for a show by Allah Nash, the city’s lone troupe of drag queens. The group has made a place for itself despite some intolerance against the LGBT community from religious residents. They perform roughly twice a month at the only gay bar in Israel’s largest city.

Yosale, 23, manages the group and is the only founding member who still performs. He and some friends started the group about two and a half years ago, he said. Jerusalem, in Israel’s conservative capital city, had always had drag queens but the last remaining group relocated to Tel Aviv, he said.

“We said ok, we got to keep up with drag in Jerusalem, it’s always been here,” Yosale said. “And also we like to perform, let’s be honest here.”

Israeli drag queen Noir Styrofoam prepares for a show in Jerusalem. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israeli drag queen Noir Styrofoam prepares for a show in Jerusalem. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Allah Nash found a natural home at the Videopub, where several of the other founding members were working. It is located on a side street about a 10-minute walk from the Old City walls.

All three are residents of the city. Yosale is a Jerusalem native, from a religious family, and spent a year in yeshiva. By day, he works as a cleaner.

“Some days you’re a queen, some days you clean,” he said.

He first became interested in drag after seeing the Israeli drag queen Gallina Port des Bras in Time Out magazine, and first performed at a lesbian bar in Tel Aviv about five years ago, when he was 17 or 18.

Noir Styrofoam said he was inspired by RuPaul, the 56-year-old American drag queen and actor. He started out trying on outfits and practicing lip syncing at home, then opened an Instagram page for his alter ego and began uploading videos.

“The character herself, I just built it starting at home, seeing what clothes I could put together,” he said. “I sewed together weird things, all kinds of gold and green stuff. And until today I’m still not totally sure how my makeup really looks best, every time I change it.”

Israeli drag queens Yosale (left) and Noir Styrofoam (right) take a last look in the mirror before heading to a performance at the Videopub in Jerusalem. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israeli drag queens Yosale (left) and Noir Styrofoam (right) take a last look in the mirror before heading to a performance at the Videopub in Jerusalem. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The “noir” in his name comes from film noir, which he studied in film school, while “styrofoam” comes from the expression “only styrofoam lasts forever,” he said. He first went out in drag at the city’s gay pride parade, where he found an unexpectedly warm reception. He decided to perform after seeing drag queens on stage in New York City.

“I feel like this is my art,” he said. “It makes you feel like you can do something huge, and amazing.”

Israel’s main drag scene is in the more tolerant and lively Tel Aviv, the group said. Jerusalem has been the scene of anti-gay violence, including the fatal stabbing of 16-year-old Shira Banki at the city’s gay pride parade in 2015. Around 25,000 people attended this year’s gay pride parade in the city under heavy security. There were no violent incidents, but police arrested 30 people suspected of trying to disrupt the event, and Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevi told reporters, “There was a serious threat to those participating [in the Jerusalem pride parade].” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat did not participate, saying he supported the LGBT community’s right to march but did not want to offend the city’s religious residents.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk past the site where Shira Banki, 16, was killed in July 2015 after she was attacked by Yishai Shlissel during the annual Gay Pride march in Jerusalem, July 21, 2016. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk past the site where Shira Banki, 16, was killed in July 2015 after she was attacked by Yishai Shlissel during the annual Gay Pride march in Jerusalem, July 21, 2016. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

Yosale says members of the group sometimes get harried in public in Jerusalem, but at the Videopub they are left alone.

“It’s not like people give us a hard time or anything, religious people you might expect — none of that happens too much,” Yosale said. “It does happen around the city, like on a daily basis kind of, but nobody comes there to bug us or anything.”

At Yosale’s, the three friends help each other get ready, giving critiques on makeup and helping apply their long, delicate eyelashes. Yosale’s cat lounges on the bed, and his mother and brother pop in to ask questions. The soundtrack is top-20 pop radio – Britney Spears, Rihanna, Iggy Azalea.

After about two hours, Yosale finally puts on silver high heels, a shimmering black dress and a bright blonde wig.

“Suddenly, I am a woman,” he says.

He packs an extra outfit in a wheeled carry-on suitcase, and the trio gets into two taxis waiting outside.

Drag queen Yosale on stage at the Videopub in Jerusalem. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Drag queen Yosale on stage at the Videopub in Jerusalem. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

At the bar they meet Evelyn Ben, a 21-year-old drag queen from Tel Aviv performing for the first time.

The crowd, mostly 20-something Jerusalemites, filters in around 11 p.m., paying 20 shekels at the door. The stage is set up down a flight of stairs, at the end of a dim, cavernous room with walls made of blocks of stone.

Yosale, acting as emcee and speaking both English and Hebrew, goes on coarse tirades about Trump, Tel Aviv and the crowd, apologizing to his sister, who is filming on her cellphone in the front row. He makes fun of all manner of Israelis and tourists, pulling an American visitor from the crowd for an onstage interview. The audience, numbering a few dozen, laughs, smokes and calls out to the performers.

Above: Israeli drag queen Moksha performs at the Videopub in Jerusalem.

They lip-sync to obscure Israeli pop from the 1970s, Barbra Streisand, and a Russian parody of “Gangnam Style.” Noir Styrofoam, wearing a black shawl, black cardigan, silver wig and tiara does “Let It Go” from the soundtrack to Disney’s Frozen. Yosale gives an animated performance of Israeli pop star Eden Ben Zaken’s “No One.” At the song’s climax, he acts out a suicide attempt, inadvertently spraying the audience with ketchup. No one seems to mind.

The troupe closes with the Swedish duo Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” with all four drag queens and members of the crowd onstage. After the song, Yosale thanks the crowd and invites them to the next show at the Videopub, two weeks later, before heading upstairs for a drink.

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