Israeli star in spotlight for her singing and her past
Dana won a contest and received wide acclaim. Her sex drew barbs.
June 18, 1998
TEL-AVIV -- She steps into the room, smiles coyly and tosses her head so that her resplendent black hair cascades over her bare shoulders. With her creamy skin and discreet jewelry -- just a small Star of David earring dangling over her collarbone -- she looks like one of those dark beauties in a "Visit Israel" travel poster.
Flashbulbs click. Potted plants crash to the floor and chairs topple as photographers jockey for a clear shot of the statuesque beauty who is the latest sensation in Israel.
At a time when religious and secular Israelis are bitterly divided and the peace process seems to be dying, the singer known as Dana International seems to be about the best news around. When her hit song "Diva" earned Israel the grand prize last month in the internationally televised song competition, Eurovision, it gave Israel a much-needed morale boost.
The catch is that she was originally a he -- a former bar mitzvah boy, born in Tel-Aviv under the name Yaron Cohen.
"Even in Sodom there was nothing like this," Shlomo Benizri, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and Knesset member, said upon hearing of Dana's song award.
If the more conservative custodians of Israeli culture are infuriated about the emergence of a transsexual as the country's most celebrated pop performer, it makes Dana even more popular among secular Israelis -- even those who are not great fans of her disco style of music.
"This is an achievement for civil liberties and human rights, above and beyond the song's achievement," Yael Dayan, a Labor Party member of the Knesset and daughter of the late Moshe Dayan, said when Dana made an appearance in the Knesset last month.
Dana, who seems almost demure offstage, shrugs off the symbolism of her success and the denunciations by the ultra-Orthodox.
"I'm not a political person, I'm a singer. I'm not dealing with symbols. I just want to live my life," the soft-spoken singer said in an interview in the Tel-Aviv apartment of her publicist.
"I believe in God, but I like freedom. I don't think that God cares if I turn on the lights on Friday night, or if I drive on Saturday... God cares about our souls, not our bodies," she said.
Even before Dana's song prize irritated the ultra-Orthodox, Israel's religious tensions had come to a head when ultra-Orthodox religious parties torpedoed a modern-dance performance by the acclaimed Batsheva dance company April 30 because male dancers strip down to their underwear.
Then, on May 9, Dana burst upon a stage in Birmingham, England -- where Eurovision was held this year -- waving the Israeli flag to celebrate her victory in the song contest. "Next year in Jerusalem," she shouted to the crowd, twisting the traditional Jewish prayer call into a reference to the Eurovision custom of holding the contest in the country of the previous year's winner.
Haim Miller, the ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor of Jerusalem, vowed to block the contest from Jerusalem. "It is a shame and an embarrassment... Let it [Eurovision] stay in the land of the Goyim," Miller said. Other religious politicians rushed in to denounce Dana as a pervert and an abomination. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, under fire for allegedly caving in to the religious in the dance flap, came to Dana's defense.
Netanyahu congratulated Dana and said Jerusalem would indeed host Eurovision in 1999. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a fellow Likud member, denounced his deputy mayor as a "blabbermouth" and pledged his opposition to "all cultural censorship." Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav, also of Likud, invited Dana to his office so that he could be photographed kissing her cheek. The Knesset's Education and Cultural Committee invited Dana to speak -- on freedom of expression.
Dana International was born Yaron Cohen in a working-class neighborhood of Tel-Aviv in 1969, she says, although her official resume says it was 1972. Her family came from Yemen. She identified with girls shortly after puberty, switching from jeans and T-shirts to fishnet stockings and high heels by high school.
"When I was 14 or 15, I knew I wanted to be dating boys," said Dana, curling up in an armchair in the skin-tight jeans in vogue among Israeli women.
Unlike her flamboyant onstage presence, she dresses conservatively in everyday life; her only concession to campiness is long fingernails decorated with stripes and polka dots. She speaks matter-of-factly, in richly accented but otherwise fluent English, about her sex-change operation in London in 1993.
"There was not one day that I became a woman. It is a process and at the end of the process, you are what you want to be," she said. "Every human being is changing during the years. But it is such a small detail." Israel Peretz, principal of Tel-Aviv's Ankori High School, which Dana attended, remembers Yaron Cohen as overtly homosexual, but well-accepted by his peers. "He was such a charmer, always very funny, amusing his classmates and teachers in a very unassuming manner... He spent most of his time with the girls -- the girls all worshiped him. The guys just accepted him. I don't remember any bad incidents. He was part of the scene," Peretz said. By the time he turned 18, the age of mandatory military service, Yaron Cohen was already dressing as a woman. He reported to the recruitment office, but was excused from the army when he told them he intended to have a sex-change operation. That left him free to pursue a performing career in gay nightclubs in Tel-Aviv.
At first, Dana could only get gigs in drag shows, not breaking into mainstream stages until after her second album was released in 1994. Her albums, some containing Arabic songs, were banned last year in Egypt after an Egyptian newspaper denounced her as a "shameless Jewish prostitute."
A serious relationship with a man broke up. Her father was jailed briefly, according to the Israeli press, on charges of beating Dana's mother. Dana was estranged from her family for several years, until they reconciled themselves to her sexuality.
"I knew Dana when she was Yaron Cohen, and she was an ugly boy, in my opinion," said Revital Zion, a longtime friend. "It wasn't so easy then. People weren't as nice to her as they are now. Sometimes, even in Tel-Aviv, people would yell things like 'homo, homo.' "
Dana is dismissive of the difficulties she faced before becoming a celebrity.
"It is easier to be a transsexual in Israel than an Arab," she said pointedly. She is similarly nonchalant about the criticism of the ultra-Orthodox. She observes some kosher dietary restrictions, avoiding pork or mixing meat with dairy.
"I don't care what these people think of me," she said. "They don't read the newspapers that carry stories about me. They don't play the radio and listen to my songs. Why are they wasting their time worrying about me?"
Dana's life and career remain grist for incessant commentary in Israel's voracious tabloids and on talk shows. Among the more sensational items: A rabbi recently decreed that Dana could be counted to make up a minyan, the quorum of 10 men traditionally required for Jewish prayer. And a 19-year-old ultra-Orthodox woman was kicked out of her house after she was caught with a Dana cassette.
On the popular television talk show, Popolitika, host Tommy Lapid set off a storm by telling an ultra-Orthodox guest: I'd rather have a son like Dana than one like you.
Since Eurovision, the same competition that launched the career of the Swedish band Abba, the Dana phenomenon is spreading beyond Israel. Dana's manager, Ofer Nisim, announced last week that Dana had recently declined a proposal to join the Spice Girls to replace the departed Ginger Spice. Sony Music signed Dana to an artist's contract. An English-language single of the winning song "Diva" is on top-10 charts in Sweden and Finland.
There are no immediate plans for Dana to perform in the United States. Dana's managers are focusing now on England and Scandinavia. "I see my destiny being in Europe right now," Dana said in the interview. "I'm not so patriotic that I wouldn't live elsewhere if I had to for my career. But I'm always going to be an Israeli. I love my country, and I'll always come back."
by Barbara Demick, Inquirer staff writer