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Orthodox Jew wows Israeli gay scene as religious drag queen

This combination of two photos taken on June 18, 2013 shows Orthodox Jew Shahar Hadar before and after he prepares for a show at a drag queen school in downtown Tel Aviv, Israel. Oded Balilty / AP

Just shy of midnight, Shahar Hadar trades his knitted white yarmulke for a wavy blond wig and a pink velvet dress.

Cheers greet him in a packed Jerusalem 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.

Hadar prays during the mourning ritual of Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city, on July 16. Oded Balilty / AP
Hadar buys a woman's dress for his next drag queen show, in downtown Tel Aviv on July 25. Oded Balilty / AP
Hadar carries his new outfit after leaving a shop on July 25. 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. Oded Balilty / AP

But 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 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 advisor — a wholesome guise that stands out among the sarcastic and raunchy cast of characters on Israel's drag queen circuit.

Hadar gets dressed as he prepares for a show at a drag queen school on June 18. Oded Balilty / AP
Hadar has his makeup applied as he prepares for a show at a drag queen school on June 18. His drag persona is that of a rebbetzin, a female rabbinic advisor, a wholesome guise that stands out among the sarcastic and raunchy cast of characters on Israel's drag queen circuit. Oded Balilty / AP

This year, Hadar found acceptance — and self-expression — at Drag Yourself, a Tel Aviv school offering 10-month courses for budding drag performers. Students learn how to teeter on high heels, apply false eyelashes and fashion their own drag personas. Hadar, still a beginner, graduates next month.

The drag school, much like Israel's gay community itself, offers a rare opportunity for Israelis to interact with others from disparate and sometimes warring sectors of society. The school may be the only place where a Jewish settler, a lapsed ultra-Orthodox Jew, an Arab-Israeli and Israeli soldiers have stuffed their bras together. Read the full story.

Hadar has his makeup applied as he prepares for the gay pride parade in Rishon Letzion on July 26. Oded Balilty / AP
Hadar performs his drag queen show at a gay club in Jerusalem on July 29. Oded Balilty / AP