Gay fathers in Israel, in real life and in sitcoms

Brian Schaefer / New York Times News Service
Published Dec 30, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

“The New Normal” 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, NBC

TEL AVIV, Israel — On weeknights at the Gay Center here, a four-story building in the heart of the city, parking a stroller is about as hard as parking a car elsewhere in town, which is to say, nearly impossible. The tyke-sized traffic jam is one indication of the gay baby boom that has taken place across Israel in the last several years.

“A kid last week said to another kid, ‘I have two moms,’” recalled Idan Netzer, who oversees the center’s preschool, which opened in November. “And the other kid said: ‘So what? Daniel in my kindergarten has two moms, too.’”

It’s been a big year for gay parents in Israel. In May, a committee of the Health Ministry recommended that surrogacy be allowed for gay men. (Currently they can only travel abroad for that option.) A month later, organizers of Tel Aviv Pride, one of the city’s largest annual events, splashed images of two real-life gay fathers and their children on publicity materials and a banner next to Town Hall, making them the faces of the festivities.

But the societal change really hit home with the premiere in November of “Mom and Dads,” a series on the cable channel Hot. This comic drama, starring three of Israel’s most popular actors, is about a gay couple raising a child with a single woman.

If that sounds familiar, it might be because the basic premise, on the surface at least, bears a striking resemblance to the American show on NBC, “The New Normal,” which just landed in Israel as well, appearing opposite “Mom and Dads” on another big cable network, Yes. While the American show mines laughs from outrageous characters and snarky one-liners, “Mom and Dads” focuses on the complex dynamics of the parental triangle, layering their insecurities and complicated emotions with wry humor.

The shows may be fighting for viewers, but they’ve already won the battle for acceptance. For the most part Israeli society, which has made long and quick strides in gay rights in the past two decades, has reacted to the baby bump and the programs about it with nonchalance. Even the country’s sizable religious segment has merely shrugged at the series.

“As soon as the gay community became a parental community, I think acceptance by society became smoother,” said Doron Mamet-Meged, founder of Tammuz, a business that helps couples, the majority of them gay men, have children via surrogates in India.

One reason may be a heavy cultural focus on making families, and the subtle social pressure (and not-so-subtle familial pressure) to procreate that stems from tradition as well as modern Jewish history.

The population balance between Jews and Arabs has political implications, so demographics are an Israeli obsession. In building families, gay parents contribute to the national project of maintaining a Jewish majority. “For Israelis it doesn’t matter how you make a family,” said Mirit Toovi, who heads Hot’s drama department and gave the green light to “Mom and Dads.” “If you make a family, you’ve done the right thing.”

Avner Bernheimer, a creator and writer of “Mom and Dads,” also wrote the breakthrough gay Israeli film “Yossi & Jagger” in 2002. Bernheimer said that while his father accepted him when he first came out, it wasn’t until he had a child that he really felt embraced. “I think it was easier for him to have a gay son with a grandchild,” he said.

Bernheimer pitched “Mom and Dads” in 2007, when he and his partner were in the process of having a child with a single female friend. The show, in large part, dramatizes their experiences.

“It was the easiest sale ever,” he said of the pitch. Gay characters had appeared on Israeli TV by then, but not gay families. This was pre-“Modern Family,” so there wasn’t precedent. Tellingly, Israel skipped over the party-boy phase (“Queer as Folk”) and the professional bachelor phase (“Will & Grace”), seemingly uninterested in a gay bedroom until a crib arrived.

Parenthood “is more visible, it’s more practical, more possible,” said Itai Pinkas, a former Tel Aviv City Council member who brought the court case that led to the Health Ministry committee’s recommendation and who has 2-year-old twins with his partner through a surrogate in India.

“People feel more stable about their general civil rights,” he said. “That’s an atmosphere in which you’re more likely to think about having children.”

From left, Yehuda Levi, Maya Dagan and Yiftach Klein in the Israeli show “Mom & Dads.” The show, which features a gay couple and their child, is just one indication of changing attitudes about homosexuality there.