Just shy of midnight on Thursday, Shahar Hadar trades his knitted white yarmulke for a wavy blonde wig and a pink velvet dress.
Cheers greet him in a packed gay bar as he starts to swivel to a Hebrew pop song, his shiny red lips mouthing lyrics that mean more to him than the audience knows: “With God’s help you’ll have the strength, to overcome and give your all.”
It has been a long and agonizing metamorphosis for Hadar, 34, from being a conflicted Orthodox Jew to a proud religious gay man and drag queen.
Most Orthodox Jewish gay men, like those in other conservative religious communities around the world, are compelled to make a devil’s bargain: marry a woman to remain in their tight-knit religious community, or abandon their family, community and religion to live openly gay lives.
Yet while Orthodox Judaism generally condemns homosexuality, there is a growing group of devout gay Jews in Israel unwilling to abandon their faith and demanding a place in the religious community.
“As much as I fled it, the heavens made it clear to me that that’s who I am,” Hadar said.
He is marching on Thursday — out of costume — in Jerusalem’s annual gay pride parade.
Hadar, a telemarketer by day, has taken the gay Orthodox struggle from the synagogue to the stage, beginning to perform as one of Israel’s few religious drag queens. His drag persona is that of a rebbetzin — a female rabbinic adviser — a wholesome guise that stands out among the sarcastic and raunchy cast of characters on Israel’s drag queen circuit.
“She blesses, she loves everyone,” said Hadar of his alter ego, Rebbetzin Malka Falsche.
The stage name is a playful take on a Hebrew word meaning “queen” and Hebrew slang for “fake.”
Her philosophy — and Hadar’s — draws from the teachings of the Breslov Hasidic stream of ultra-Orthodox Judaism: Embrace life’s vicissitudes with joy.
“Usually drag queens are gruff. I decided that I wanted to be happy, entertain people, perform mitzvoth [religious deeds],” he said.
An encounter with a popular Israeli rebbetzin is what launched Hadar’s inner journey when he was 19.
He began by wearing a yarmulke, a religious skullcap, and reciting morning prayers in his bedroom. He left home to enroll in a Jerusalem yeshiva (religious seminary) hoping that daily Torah study would make him stop thinking about men — it did not.
After a brief nighttime encounter with his roommate at the yeshiva, Hadar said he was booted from the seminary. He transferred to another religious studies center, where a student matched him up with his wife’s ultra-Orthodox friend. They quickly married.
“I wanted to take the path that [God] commanded of us. I didn’t see any other option,” Hadar said. “I thought the marriage would make me straight and I would be cured.”
He felt distressed while being intimate with his wife and would not tell her why. She demanded a divorce. She later gave birth to their daughter, who is 11 years old today. His ex-wife still refuses to let them meet.
After Hadar’s sister met a similar fate to his ex-wife — she divorced her husband because he was gay — homophobic conversation erupted around the Hadar family dinner table. Hadar’s brother reprimanded the family, who had also become religious, by asking: “Are gays not human beings?”
His brother had stood up for Hadar without even knowing it.