Israel’s favorite drag queen is this former yeshiva boy

Lior Yisraelov displays both sides of his character. (Katya Borodin)

TEL AVIV (JTA) –  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.

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

Lior Yisraelov has gone through several transformations in his life. (Katya Borodin)
Lior Yisraelov has gone through several transformations in his life. (Katya Borodin)

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 she 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 (“So you’re a psychology major. Where do you want to be a waitress after you graduate?”). She wrapped up with a slightly raunchy quiz game (“What is the wildest place your boyfriend says you’ve had sex? Wrong. Take a shot!”).

Liran Adani, 32, a video producer at a marketing company in Tel Aviv, saw Suzi Boum perform at her cousin’s bachelorette party last month. Though her recollections were hazy — she blames a day of drinking in a hotel suite — she said the act was definitely a hit.

“All the girls loved her,” Adani said. “It’s fun to see that a man likes to be a woman, and it makes him feel confident and happy and sexy. I interpret it as: Embrace your feminine beauty. You’re beautiful; flaunt it.”

Yisraelov said he makes an effort to be a “nice drag queen.” Because of his background, he said he has a special ability to make Orthodox people comfortable. On a 2014 reality show, he managed to turn a skeptical Orthodox contestant, who initially would not shake his hand, into an enthusiastic drag performer.

“He was a little too into it, actually,” Yisraelov said, laughing. “His wife was begging me to change him back.”

Bachelorette parties may be Yisraelov’s bread and butter, but he does all sorts of events, from bar mitzvahs to company parties to city events, including the massive 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, a 20-minute bus ride from where he lives now, though it can seem like a world away. 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 said he 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 pre-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 graduated in 2011 and went to work 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 this 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.

Arizona, now 39, went on to become the first transgender woman to marry a man under a huppah in Israel. Yisraelov’s other two sisters married and started haredi Orthodox families.

Suzi Boum promoting gay pride. (Maya Bar)
Suzi Boum promoting gay pride. (Maya Bar)

About a year after creating his version of Suzi Boum, when he was 26, Yisraelov met his partner, Yuval Shimron, who quickly convinced him to move in with him. Shimron, now a 32-year-old computer engineer, later began joining Yisraelov in drag performances, which he still does sometimes.

Several months into their relationship, Yisraelov went to his parents’ home for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. An hour before the start of the fast, years of hiding his gay life from his parents suddenly ended when his father confronted him about rumors he had heard: Was his son really living a gay lifestyle? Yisraelov confirmed he was. The family, which did not want to be interviewed for this article, was devastated.

“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.”

“Everyone was worried I was going to become a woman, like Arizona, because that was the path she took. But on that, at least, I was able to assure them: no way.”

Yisraelov explained that Suzi Boum is just a character — at first he wanted to be an actor, and the character helped him overcome his shyness. Now, he said, she allows him to perform for a living.

Yisraelov started doing bachelorette parties at the suggestion of a friend. He quickly found he preferred them to gay events —  there was more interaction and acting. Plus, the straight world was a relatively untapped market and the money was better.

Sensing a business opportunity, Yisraelov got serious about developing the Suzi Boum brand. He perfected his makeup technique, including the all-important illusion of cleavage, by watching YouTube videos. He honed her performance by looking to divas like Beyonce and RuPaul.

A few years later, Yisraelov put his communications degree to use: He built a website to attract clients and sell Suzi Boum merchandise, and created YouTube, Facebook and Instagram pages. That’s when the media began to take notice and he quit teaching.

“He marketed himself to the straight world, which no one else had really done,” said Lazimi, the filmmaker. “The market was empty five years ago, and he went in and killed it. Others are trying to follow him now.”

Suzi Boum is part of the LGBT community’s growing visibility in Israeli popular culture. Assi Azar, a vocal advocate for gay rights, is a beloved TV and radio host, and Amir Ohana, a Knesset member for the ruling right-wing Likud party, is one of two openly gay Israeli lawmakers. Experts say such figures have contributed in recent years to greater LGBT acceptance.

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.

Negative attitudes toward homosexuals are most concentrated in Israel’s Orthodox communities, as well as among Arabs. On Thursday, as Yisraelov put on makeup, news broke that the chief rabbi of Jerusalem and former chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, had called members of the LGBT community a “cult of abomination” and said Jewish law called for them to be put to death.

In Yisraelov’s religious Zionist community — which practices an Israeli brand of modern Orthodoxy and participates in the mainstream culture — attitudes have softened. Ahead of this year’s Jerusalem Pride March, leading religious Zionist rabbis spoke out against homosexuals, with one calling them “deviants.” But community leaders, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Rabbi Benny Lau, condemned the remarks.

Yisraelov’s family, too, has come a long way. He thinks seeing him succeed has helped. These days, he can stop by their apartment after a drag show, still in costume, and have Shabbat dinner. He even performed for his mother and her friends on her 60th birthday. Shimron, Yisraelov’s partner, who  once was banned, is now welcome.

Then again, new pressures are emerging.

“My mom is starting to ask when there will be children,” Yisraelov said. “I tell her to be patient.”