“Is your friend just a friend?” asked a man behind me at the bazaar in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. I turned around to find one of my traveling companions popping in and out of tiny stalls in the market. Three Palestinian shopkeepers, guys in their 20s in jeans and T-shirts, were calling after him, and I knew right away what friend they were asking about.
Residents, tourists, and students as well as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim pilgrims were all making our ways through the bazaar in one of the oldest cities in the world. The stone-paved alleys were tight and labyrinthine, and colorful merchandise—some beautiful, some junk—spilled out onto the twisting path from shops and kiosks.
My tour group consisted of 14 gay men and one brave bisexual woman, and though we were decidedly unlike the others in the market, no one much cared, as far as we could tell. Except for a few savvy shopkeepers.
But I wasn’t with the others. I’d been tasked with retrieving the most errant of our group—an East African–born Muslim stylist from New York who evaluated the holy sites throughout Israel based on how “fabulous” they were—and getting him back to our rendezvous spot on time. Adhering to a schedule was not his forte, especially when there was shopping to be done. Rather than get him back on time, I followed him and we took our time looking at bedouin scarves, barrels full of fragrant spices, frankincense, and jewelry. And then, suddenly, I heard that unmistakable tone of knowing in the shopkeeper’s voice. He was asking if we were boyfriends.
“Yes, he’s just a friend,” my friend called back. “Give me a kiss,” he said, walking away but looking back over his shoulder with bedroom eyes. For a split second I pictured the two of us being shouted out of the bazaar, the godless homosexuals chased away by irate Palestinian shopkeepers. Instead, the men just laughed, and one made a kissing gesture toward my friend. They weren’t looking to play smear the queer; they were only flirting to make a sale.
My figurative—and literal—flirtation with Israel started much earlier, at LAX in the line for El Al. The airline is known for its tight security, and the questioning and bag searches were extremely thorough—particularly for me, a single man, a gentile, and with no family in Israel, flying alone. The fact that all the El Al security, to a man, were gorgeous, was a balm for the battery of questions. So what if it’s a cliché that Israel is populated with raven-haired, olive-skinned beauties and that the image of the studly young soldier is so plainly a part of a marketing campaign aimed at American gay men? I had no reason to question the truth of it yet, and I was enjoying the research.
I’d been told that Israel was a gay-friendly place, and the country came through. Never did a cab driver blanche when we asked for the location of a gay bar, and because clubs and venues shift so often there, the cabbies we encountered made it their business to know, at the very least, where one should start the night. A night out in Tel Aviv often starts at 9 or 10 p.m. at Evita, a gay pub where the music is far too loud, so most people stay inside only long enough to order a drink before heading out to the patio to talk and smoke. At Evita the men were friendly and happy to say where the next party was starting—and the parties start late, rarely before midnight.
From there, we got directions to Comfort Men, a club hidden on a quiet, industrial-looking street. The DJs played a mix of international gay fare, Euro-techno, and Arab-influenced pop. At 35, I was at the upper edge of the age curve, but men showed no reluctance to come up and say hi. A dance-floor makeout session made me feel like I was 21 again, and then a post–closing-hour tumble onto the street gave me the chance to feel an actual 21-year-old, a soldier. Unlike most of the other Israelis I met, he spoke no English, and my Hebrew was limited to a smattering of harsh top-of-the-throat utterances that vaguely resembled the words for “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” and a tahini dessert with pistachios. I knew how to ask for halva but not to ask for a man’s name. Turned out, my soldier had little interest in conversation. Fine by me.
The rest of the country is significantly less gay than Tel Aviv. Jerusalem has no dedicated gay bar, only a few small club nights; Eilat on the Red Sea is a popular beach resort city, but gay tourists meet one another just fine on the beach or in any of the boardwalk bars. But the general attitude among Israelis, and even the Palestinians I met—granted, a smaller sampling—is a big “so what!” Palestinian men casually throw their arms around each other’s shoulders, sit close, and don’t fear eye contact the way American men do. Israel has Nitzan Horowitz, it’s first elected gay parliamentarian. The country—culturally Jewish but predominantly secular—has little time or energy for homophobia. Many secular Israelis save their derision for Hamas and Orthodox Jews (they receive government financial aid and are exempt from compulsory military service). Even the Orthodox have backed off their gay-pride protests, since it seems to crack open their cloistered life when children ask what “gay” is, forcing their parents to explain something they’d rather not.
I did get a glimpse of the disdain Israel occasionally feels for its critics. I was in Jerusalem during the Gaza flotilla raid in May, in which Israeli commandos boarded ships headed for Gaza with supplies and eight people were killed, prompting an international crisis that dominated the news. I witnessed the world almost uniformly condemn Israel, led, it seemed, by European nations; a common Israeli response to the European scorn was roughly, “Fuck you! You don’t know what it’s like here.” Despite the international political heat, I never once felt unsafe in Israel’s tightly secured cities.
Maybe I was feeling especially buoyed by some beach time or inspired by a sense of Israeli openness. Whatever the reason, on the long flight home I had trouble sleeping and did something I’d never done before. I walked to the galley and began a chaste flirtation with a flight attendant. Israel had been flirting with me, and I felt like responding in kind.
El Al airlines flies direct to Tel Aviv from Los Angeles, New York, and other U.S. cities.
In Tel Aviv: Alexander Suites Hotel (Alexander.co.il) features sleek design and a gorgeous rooftop restaurant. In Jerusalem: Dan Boutique Hotel (DanHotels.com/Boutique-Hotel-Jerusalem) is stylishly appointed.
$1 = 3.86 shekels (NIS).
Wines, fresh fruits, and the pan-Mediterranean mix of hummus, falafel, pita, and baba ghanoush.
Try Shalom hamudie (“Hello, cutie”) and you’ll get a smile—at least—from a local
Atraf.com is the popular hookup site, but you don’t have to make dates online; it also features current listings of gay bars, clubs, and parties.
Don’t Miss This
The incredible archaeological sites in Acre, Masada, Banias, and Caesarea.
Ultimate People-Watching Spot
The cafés in cities overflow with people reconnecting with friends, especially on Fridays.
Best Place to Splurge
Shop for original works of art in Tel Aviv’s fashionable Neve Tzedek neighborhood.
Easiest Way to Land in Jail
By refusing to answer security questions. They really don’t care if you’re gay. They just want to know you’re happy to see them—and that it’s not a pipe bomb in your pants.
You Might Not Know
The workweek is Sunday through Thursday. Plan ahead because many businesses shut down for Shabbat, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Help Getting Around
Lucas Entertainment will be running its second tour through Israel in May 2011, hosted by porn star Michael Lucas. Details at LucasEntertainment.com/Travel_with_Michael/.