The first in a two-part series, in which travel writer Sophie Needelman brings her identities as a West Coast American college student to the State of Israel, and begins to unpack.
“Israel from an American Lesbian Perspective” is the first in a two-part series from Sophie Needelman on her trip to Israel.
I recently had the opportunity to travel around Israel through Taglit Birthright, a Zionist organization that brings young adult Jews to Israel. My group of immediate travel comrades were all members of UC Berkeley’s Hillel. I was thus lucky enough to not only travel to Israel, but also to get to experience this trip with other open minded, Berkeley college kids.
In any social situation, I tend to be wary about expressing my sexual identity until I get a good sense of how open minded and understanding the people I am with are. Because my trip to Israel began in the context of the immediate Berkeley group of travelers I was with, I instantly felt comfortable with being open about my sexual preferences—and with college kids, conversation tends to head to a sexual place pretty quickly! My comfort level with the group of Americans I was traveling with definitely played a huge role in my comfort level abroad, regardless of how socially conservative any given area we visited was.
Feeling supported by and comfortable with my beautiful group of liberal Berkeley hippie travelers allowed me to feel safe in every place we visited throughout Israel, and allowed me to really feel comfortable experiencing Israel from a queer perspective not only on my own but with others as well. I was one of three gay students traveling with our group of forty, but everyone we were with was as open minded about sexuality as we are, so it wasn’t difficult to have a queer Israel experience with them.
The Galilee region of Israel
In the north of Israel, we stayed on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee and focused on archaeological and natural attractions. This first part of the country and part of the trip was more touristy: we hiked and visited ruins. Most of the other people we were around were also traveling from abroad and the Israelis we interacted with were extremely low key and mellow, but neither extremely liberal like in some of the bigger cities nor extremely conservative like in the religious areas.
The one major city we stopped at was Tsfat, which is home to the mystic Judaism and Kabbalah movement. Though it had a strong inviting and tourist presence, Tsfat is definitely a religious city and felt relatively conservative because of its die-hard religious presence. However, Tsfat has always been relatively alternative from a religious standpoint because of its focus on mysticism and progressive religious perspectives so the social manifestation of this vibe was a little hard to digest at times.
Other nature-oriented places we visited like the Golan Heights, Mount Arbel, Tel Dan, and the Dead Sea were all places I felt comfortable expressing and focusing on my queer identity because of the international diversity and global vibe present there.
Any place where multiple cultures are coming together is a place that not only invites diversity but also one that holds the potential for great cross-cultural understanding. The beauty about queer culture is that although it manifests differently all over the world, it is something that truly knows no national boundaries and thus has a universal presence and bonding factor. I was proud to represent my identity as a gay American and a gay Jew.
We remained in Jerusalem for the majority of our stay in Israel. Jerusalem is definitely an urban environment with lots of native Israelis, but because it is such a high-profile travel destination there is a huge tourist presence as well. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem was an extremely interesting social situation because the majority of the locals are Orthodox Jews and thus are extremely conservative. Because of this, it was hard to feel comfortable not only expressing my queer identity but also expressing my female and American identities. There were places I definitely felt self-conscious about the clothes I was wearing and the amount of skin I had exposed. Although it was winter and the cold weather didn’t leave a lot of room for exposure, my normal clothes felt alternative and provocative compared to the local dress. There were times I even felt self-conscious about wearing pants instead of a skirt or dress.
Because of the various degrees of differing social elements coming to a head in Jerusalem, the way I experienced the expression of my queer identity was very tied up in my expression of my female, American, and tourist identities. Of course, some areas held more social tension than others. The Old City of Jerusalem, though touristy, is more religiously charged and thus more socially conscious. But many regions of Jerusalem are extremely progressive and urban, so it didn’t feel any different than being in any other city in the world.
The most cutting edge and trendy place we visited was Tel Aviv. This city has always reminded me of Miami: extremely urban and contemporary, and right on the beautiful water of the Mediterranean. We definitely got a sense of open mindedness and forward thinking in Tel Aviv, as well as an inviting vibe of cultural and identity expression. I definitely felt the most comfortable socially here, not only because of the rich cultural presence of the tourists but also because the locals who live in Tel Aviv are notoriously open minded and colorful themselves. Though Jerusalem does have a growing LGBT presence, Tel Aviv is absolutely the gay mecca of Israel and the entire Middle East. This city not only accepts queer identity expression of all sorts, but also encourages it and prides itself on its high level of diversity and support of the gay community. Any time of day or night, I felt completely at home in my queer skin in and around this incredible gay hotspot.
Read the second part, “Gay Israeli Culture from an Israeli’s Perspective,” in which Sophie befriends Jonatan, a gay Israeli soldier.
Image credit: andydr/Flickr