Tel Aviv’s labyrinthine, dilapidated Central Bus Station, which sprawls over 2.5 million square feet, houses a bizarre assortment of stands selling cheap clothing and cell phones, a Yiddish library, two synagogues and tattoo parlors catering to Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. But when I visited the M.C. Escher-like building last summer, along with a group of American rabbis who were studying at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, nothing could have prepared us for the space occupied by transgender artist Gil Yefman, whose tiny studio is tucked away on an upper floor of the station.
Walk into Yefman’s studio and you will encounter colorful doll-like figures composed of yarn that hang from the ceiling, dripping bulbs of various bodily fluids (also made of yarn) from every orifice. One wall features a still of an actor playing a prostitute (of ambiguous gender), I later learned, whose breasts and legs are covered with tefillin boxes and straps; the figure’s very short skirt is made from a tallit. On one table lies elegant French fabric that, upon closer inspection, is patterned with kaleidoscopic images of Holocaust victims in mass graves. On another table, a collection of knitted yarmulkes includes a pink one that looks like a breast with an erect nipple. As the self-effacing, soft-spoken artist fielded questions from the group, it was clear that we were all disturbed, fascinated and intrigued by his work.
After coming home from Israel, I studied up on Yefman. I learned that he spent several adolescent years living as a woman before returning to life as a man; these transformations are documented in “Let it Bleed” (Little Big Man, 2016), a book by his sister, New York-based photographer Rona Yefman, that is jam-packed with eye-opening pictures, including some nude ones, of the two siblings experimenting with their gender identities. I found out about Yefman’s struggle to be accepted into the Israeli army, which was not sympathetic to his refusal to conform to gender norms.
In sum, I discovered how much Yefman values what he calls “basic chaos,” which is the result of “breaking apart everything you’ve been raised on” to achieve the state of “not knowing anything, even who you are.”
I caught up with Yefman last week while he was in New York, preparing for an upcoming show at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in Soho. He told me that he is drawn to yarn because of its association with craftswomen and “tactility that you cannot refuse — we either play with it or wear it.” Yet not all of his yarn is made of wool. For a recent work, “Valley of Wet Bones” (a take-off on Ezekiel’s surrealistic prophecy about the resurrection of the dry bones), Yefman sliced plastic bags into strips and turned them into yarn, from which he crocheted massive bones that he filled with real soil and plants and hung from the ceiling, thus highlighting the environmental degradation caused by plastic.
For his Holocaust-themed textile art, Yefman takes Jacquard fabric, typically used for curtains and upholstery, weaving onto it what he calls “repressed and saturated Holocaust imagery,” as if intended for home décor. (He also embeds swastikas into colorful organic glycerin soap bars.) These grotesque images, which resist domestication, relate, Yefman said, to the “patterns of behavior” that have become ingrained in the ways in which we commemorate the Holocaust.
“transgenderism cannot be defied and negated. It’s deep and humane. It gives freedom to the human spirit.”
Finally, the stabbings at the 2005 Gay Parade in Jerusalem moved Yefman to create the video project “One Summer Evening,” for which he dressed the aforementioned performer as a sacred prostitute clad in ritual objects. The work is inspired by an early 20th-century poem of the same title by Israeli poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, who satirized observant Jewish men who waited until the end of the Sabbath to seek extramarital liaisons. His intention, Yefman explained, was to “lower the sanctity of these objects and raise the status of the people whose lives were degraded, so that they would be on the same level.”
Heady stuff, but Yefman, whose work is regularly on display at major museums — the nipple yarmulke is also on sale at museum stores in New York, Tel Aviv and Herzliya — is becoming a force in the global art world. And transgender people are becoming increasingly visible in Israel. Just a few weeks ago, iconic transgender artist Gila Goldstein passed away; her death was covered extensively in the Israeli press.
“People underestimate confusion,” Yefman reflected. “When you allow yourself to be confused, you raise yourself to a higher consciousness.” While his art may be discombombulating for those who are still grappling to understand what being trangender means, Yefman insisted that “transgenderism cannot be defied and negated. It’s deep and humane. It gives freedom to the human spirit.”
Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College. He writes about theater for the paper.