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The Israelisby Donna Rosenthal
Chapter Two: Dating and Mating Israeli-style
— Popular joke about Israeli machismo Israelis tend to have a macho bravado in dating and everyday life and reassure themselves that everything will be fine even if it won't. This denial may also be a response to the uncertainty of life here. On a deeper level, it may be a response to our parents' or grandparents' helplessness in face of the Holocaust. — Family therapist Rachel Biale
— Popular joke about Israeli machismo
Israelis tend to have a macho bravado in dating and everyday life and reassure themselves that everything will be fine even if it won't. This denial may also be a response to the uncertainty of life here. On a deeper level, it may be a response to our parents' or grandparents' helplessness in face of the Holocaust.
— Family therapist Rachel Biale
"My parents let me go to clubs in Tel Aviv until three in the morning," says seventeen-year-old Ronit Heffetz. "They're afraid of terrorists, but at my age, my grandparents were running guns for the underground and soon I'm going in the army, so how can they say no? We have to go on living and not be afraid." Even though the second intifada has brought terrorism to the home front, it is still not uncommon to see fourteen-year-old girls hitchhiking to a beach, twelve-year-olds walking home from unsupervised parties at dawn, or an ten-year-old traveling alone on a public bus. Parents know that if their child gets lost, any adult will help her get to her destination. In 2002, Israel had far less street crime involving kids than almost any major American city.
That's one reason Israeli kids are fiercely independent and exhibit more than their share of youthful bravado. Many Israeli parents are reluctant to set limits and encourage their children to be self-sufficient and resourceful, partly as preparation for the army and adulthood. But it's just one way to understand how Israelis develop their unique mating habits. As the world's only Jewish nation, Israel reflects a huge range of mores developed in two millennia of diaspora Judaism. A country with a population half the size of greater Los Angeles, with a shared history shorter than that of the United Nations, is nonetheless home to cultures that were formed in St. Petersburg, Baghdad, Brooklyn, and Bombay — with all the resulting chaos and richness in mating rituals.
And that's not all. In addition to the cultural conflicts within Israel are the even more dangerous conflicts between the Jewish state and its neighbors. Because of Israel's never-ending state of war, it is the only country that requires most of its eighteen-year-olds to leave home and serve with members of the opposite and equally hormonally charged sex. It makes for behavior that Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, never dreamed of. Ronit's eldest brother Ori, a twenty-seven-year-old physics student, lives at home because there are few dorms at Tel Aviv University and renting an apartment is too expensive. He relates a typical Saturday morning scene: "I was in bed with a girlfriend. Ronit was in the army. My two brothers were on leave from the army and sleeping with their girlfriends. All three of our bedroom doors were closed. My mother's voice came over the intercom. 'I'm making brunch. Are you alone or do you have a guest?' Mom's realistic. She knows we're going to do it anyway. There's no game playing with Israeli parents, no bullshitting. They'd rather we do it here where it's safe, than sneaking off somewhere else."
Soon after Ori met his first serious girlfriend in high school, the 1991 Gulf War broke out. With Scuds hitting the Tel Aviv area, her family fled to a hotel in the Red Sea resort of Eilat. "We really missed each other. So she convinced her parents to let her stay with me and my family on weekends," he recounts. "Her mother made her promise she wouldn't sleep in my room. So each morning, she'd get out of bed and sleep in my sister's bedroom. One night we were coming very close to losing our virginity. At the most delicate time, we heard sirens. We grabbed our gas masks and ran down to the sealed room. We sat with my family, hearing the Scuds fall, guessing how close. When the radio announcer reported it was all clear, we returned to my bedroom and tried again. But we were too tense. The next time she slept over, we ignored the sirens. My mom pounded and pounded on the door. I told her we were coming down, but we didn't bother. And we didn't even bother putting on our gas masks. Six months later I went into the army. I wonder if the new improved [gas masks] are designed better to wear during sex?"
During a heightened alert period of the intifada, in August 2002, nearly two thousand mounted police, soldiers, and bomb disposal experts stood watch over Tel Aviv's Love March. No one expected the turnout: well over a quarter million revelers showed up for the weekend extravaganza. It resembled carnival in Rio, with nearly naked Israelis frolicking on the beaches, moving passionately to live music. At an all-night rave party, thousands were dancing away their despondency, kissing lovers, even strangers.
"We just want a sane life," explains Ori. "A few kilometers away in Gaza, Israeli soldiers and Palestinians are killing each other, but we let loose as if all that were continents away. We have what I call national Alzheimer's disease — no one wants to remember the morning's news." After seeing too many friends killed or wounded, Israelis have adopted the motto "Life is uncertain, so eat your dessert first." As with foreign travel, carpe diem isn't irresponsible, it's an escape from the pressure cooker. In this crisis-a-day country, the mood changes constantly, a roller coaster that ascends with each cease-fire and plunges with each new attack. Israelis have learned that fun, sometimes reckless fun, helps them feel as if these times are normal.
In the upper Galilee village of Metulla, on the nervous border with Lebanon, at a club inside a converted shoe factory, 2 A.M. is peak hour. The DJ ups the amps so no one can hear the Katyusha rockets. More than five hundred factory workers, students, kibbutzniks, and male and female soldiers are dancing wildly, as if Hezballah, the radical Islamic Party of Allah, didn't have thousands more rockets and missiles across the barbed wire fence. Even during these uncertain times, patrons aren't drinking much alcohol. (A recent study shows that drinking rates in Israel are lower than in North America and twenty-four European countries. There's so little boozing that Israel has few liquor stores and only in 2002 enacted drinking laws.) It's expensive: a bottle of Scotch that goes for $14 in France or the United States costs $35 in Israel. "We party, flirt a lot. No one has a long-term vision anymore," a student from Tel Hai College shouts above the din. "There are politicians who make me want to tear my hair out, but then I remember that this is a young country, a work-in-progress." His girlfriend flashes an alluring look. He stops in mid-thought and heads toward her.
On the beaches, no less than in the clubs, eroticism is out in the open. Teasing touches and rampant flirting are part of the (usually harmless) mating game, Israeli-style. People gesture dramatically, interrupting and challenging each other. The verbal pyrotechnics are not unusual; Israel is a lively open-air theater, a place for animated disagreements, a place for good arguments. Women make approving comments as they admire a well-built windsurfer wearing a postage-stamp-size Speedo. Men visually undress a redhead in tight shorts sitting alone. As she pulls out a Parliament, a man with little round French sunglasses leaps up and flips open a gold lighter. A female alone is never alone for long.
Maya is fourth-generation Sabra — Arabic and Hebrew for the local cactus fruit, a metaphor for native-born Israelis, who are said to have prickly exteriors but soft insides. Glancing at her watch, she notices that her boyfriend was due at this eating place at the Herzliya beach a half hour ago. According to Israeli time, he's not late. Many Israelis don't like being controlled by watches (as they are in the army) or planning too far in advance. Expressions like "lost time" or "saving time" rarely are heard outside the army. Maya's boyfriend, Noam, finally arrives and plants a kiss on her lips. He hands her an English-language version of The Lonely Planet guide to Peru. They discuss Ben-Gurion. Not Israel's white-maned founding father, but Ben-Gurion International Airport, where they'll head after her army discharge. Of course, they'll visit Machu Picchu, but thrill-seeking Israelis consider the lost Inca city tame. "We'll backpack in the Andes and visit tribes in the Amazon. Explore places not on a map. I want to have as many adventures as possible, taste everything," says Maya, glad to be out of the army, where she was a combat medic. "They say being around death teaches you to live. I don't know if it's true, but everyone in my unit wants to go to jungles in Laos or bungee jumping in New Zealand. My parents are less worried about me climbing the Andes than serving on the West Bank."
Noam, a twenty-six-year-old acupuncturist, says his parents convinced them not to go to Thailand. Since the day al-Qaeda bombed Israelis in a Mombassa, Kenya hotel and tried to take down an Israeli charter jet with two surface-to-air missiles, any place Israelis congregate abroad is not safe — especially Bangkok. Traveling Israelis are cautioned not to carry books in Hebrew or speak Hebrew in public. "My parents warned me not to visit any synagogues in Lima or Buenos Aires," says Noam. "The last time they were in synagogue was their wedding. For them, the army was the place to meet and mate. Mom was twenty-one, Dad twenty-three. By my age, they owned an apartment, had two kids and one on the way. Maya and me? We can afford a rented room and a good stereo. No one I know is in any rush to the altar — unless you want to have kids. You know why Seinfeld is popular? This is the scene here. It's about our lives. So is Friends, Sex and the City, and Ally McBeal. Only we lose the best years of our lives in the army. And if we don't start this trip soon, I'll be called to miluim [reserve duty]."
"So, you're on a diet?" the generously proportioned waiter eyes Maya's partially eaten tofu burger. She shakes her head no. "Then why are you eating like you're in Weight Watchers? You're not fat. If you were a little more zaftik, I'd go for you myself," he announces as he playfully pinches her arm. "Hey, things are different now," she says, annoyed. "Haven't you heard? The rules have changed." The waiter winks at Noam, who doesn't consider the waiter's behavior offensive; it's harmless flirting. And his comments aren't meddling, they're a sign of warmth, connectedness. Israelis often dish out advice to strangers as if they were members of a large extended, sometimes dysfunctional, family. The waiter returns with a decadently rich crème brûleé. No charge.
Rumors used to fly when an unmarried couple moved in together. No longer. Most cohabiting couples are young, educated, not very religious Ashkenazim. According to a recent survey, 26 percent of married Israelis lived with their spouse before marriage. (The rate is much lower among Mizrahi Jews and Christian Arabs. It's practically nonexistent among ultra-Orthodox Jews, Muslim Arabs, and Druze.) Note the distinction "before marriage": in some Western countries, cohabitation is an alternative to marriage, but not in family-oriented Israel. It's a modern version of engagement, part of the route to the huppa, says Professor Yohanan Peres of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. "Israelis still have a strong belief that marriage protects the wife and children. Israelis perceive a wedding as an insurance policy, largely related to the sense of siege here. Because people feel danger, they want to be close to someone related by law."
Vered did. She also was sick of the questions. At least five times a day, taxi drivers, bank tellers, complete strangers asked if she was married. When she said no, they asked, Why not? She bought a fake gold ring, and whenever she was asked the dreaded question, she held it up. Then they asked how many children she has. She wondered if she ever would meet someone exciting. Close to her thirtieth birthday, she got to know Yossi, the contractor working on her apartment. Her brother wasn't thrilled. "He likes your blonde Ashkenazi hair. He's an arse." Her brother's crude comment, calling Yossi a stereotypical uneducated, uncultured Mizrahi, angered Vered. "I didn't care what my brother thinks. So Yossi didn't go to college. He's a self-made man. He's caring and attentive. And he comes from a loving Moroccan family. My last boyfriend gave my parents heart palpitations. He was Israeli, but not Jewish. An uncircumcised Russian. I'll never forget my mother's guilt-line: 'My family escaped Poland to build a Jewish homeland. And you want to give me non-Jewish grandchildren?' "
When Vered was promoted to part-time radio reporter, to celebrate Yossi took her to Eilat, one of the few towns in Israel still untouched by terrorism. Moses stopped here with the Children of Israel when they were looking for the Promised Land. During the time of King Solomon, ships arrived laden with gold, wood, and ivory. Eilat has gone from an Old Testament port to a playground for sun worshippers and water lovers. Relieved to escape the realities on land, Vered and Yossi donned masks and fins. Gliding along lacy coral canyons, they saw swirling schools of angelfish, blue-neon damsels, and clownfish playing on the reef. "It was an underwater jewel box. When I told Yossi there were as many tropical fish on the Great Barrier Reef, he was puzzled. I had to explain it's in Australia. 'Why did you go all the way there?' he asked. 'We have everything here.' "
As they walked hand-in-hand near the beach, they saw hair braiders, tattoo artists, body-piercing places. Yossi made fun of them. Vered swapped travelers' tales with kids selling trinkets from India and herbs from China. Her passport is filled with visas. He doesn't have a passport. "To Yossi, a trip to Eilat is going abroad. And he thinks the floating casinos are as good as Monaco. But he tried so hard to please me. Splurged on a swanky hotel, a biblical Disneyland with faux 'ancient' stone arches, but I didn't let him know it's not my taste. I'm the backpacker type. Last time I was in Eilat, I slept on the beach. His idea of a vacation is room service."
From their hotel balcony, they could see the lunar desert landscape and craggy mountains, which reminded Vered of a short story by Albert Camus. "Camus? Yossi never heard of him. And Camus lived in Algeria. But as he massaged me with coconut lotion, I didn't care." Afterward, the pillow talk turned serious. He owns a small plot near Jerusalem and wanted Vered to see some architectural plans. "His designs for a dream house — for us. I started trembling when I realized he was proposing. A huge-hearted guy. But the kind who thinks kitchens have windows so women can have a worldview. I told him I needed time. When he fell asleep, I kissed his face in apology. He'll make a very wonderful husband — for some other woman."
It wasn't until Vered broke up with Yossi that she started thinking she needed someone who didn't like bowling on weekends, someone cosmopolitan. After a few months, she met Yoel, a fascinating mix: a lover of theater, a successful lawyer with stimulating friends from the north Tel Aviv intellectual and artistic avant-garde, a gourmet, and a connoisseur of fine wine. He was also the son of a religiously observant Iraqi Jewish family, a family far more observant than Vered's own. Unlike two thirds of Israeli Jews, Yoel ate only kosher food. And, as if that weren't enough, Vered's secular parents, raised on bedrock socialist values, were taken aback to learn that she was dating an unabashed capitalist, and a successful one, who could afford to pay $300,000 for his one-bedroom condominium and $50,000 for his sports car (though, to be fair, half of that went to the taxes and tariffs on new cars). Never had the advice of Vered's sister seemed more appropriate: "Even rich men need wives."
As is often the case in matters of the heart, the differences that attract are the differences that make for friction. Because Yoel liked to approach life with an open mouth, Vered surprised him with a reservation at a candle-lit bistro overlooking the Tel Aviv port. He liked the sophisticated setting, but when he saw the penne pasta with Portobello mushrooms tossed with bacon bits and sweet cream sauce on the menu, he suggested they leave. He took her to an Italian restaurant that doesn't serve "anti-kosher cuisine." The wine list appealed to him, especially the Moscato from the Golan Heights Winery. (Not long ago, wine was used mostly for religious purposes, and Israelis assumed it should taste like year-old cherry juice.)
She felt a rush of anticipation when he invited her to a family mangal (Israeli barbecue). This was serious, so she went shopping for a special outfit. His parents live near Tel Aviv in Ramat Gan. Many Jews who fled Iraq in the early 1950s live in their neighborhood, perversely the recipient of four Iraqi Scuds during the six-week Gulf War. His mother, active in the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center, researches family trees of the world's 310,000 Iraqi Jews, some of whom are planning tours of the many Jewish sites of post-Saddam Iraq. "When I stupidly said I didn't realize what a developed culture Iraqi Jews had, she made a biting comment. 'Only for three thousand years. When our art and literature were thriving, your Polish grandparents were living in shacks, eating stale bread.' I shot back, 'One out of seven Nobel prize winners are Jews. Are any Iraqi?'"
When Yoel informed her that he wants to "keep his options open," Vered knew his mother was speaking. "Not long after the mangal, I heard he was engaged. A much younger woman from the same Iraqi community, who never would eat pasta with bacon bits and sweet cream sauce."
Some Israeli TV talk shows would be familiar to anyone who remembers the early days of Jerry Springer. Hosts and hot-tempered guests argue like siblings, shouting "Shut up" to one another. The pour-your-heart-out TV confessionals resemble a national village square, where a wacky mix of ordinary Israelis, celebrities, and astrologers tackle such issues as "A guy I just met has been called up for miluim in Gaza. He could be dead tomorrow. Should I sleep with him?" and "Why do so many teenage girls have eating disorders?" Tired of worrying about layoffs, a possible smallpox epidemic, or a Hamas cook poisoning restaurant food, audiences are turning to discussions about how to introduce your nonreligious girlfriend to your parents or the best Internet sites to find a mate: jdate, jcupid, or dosidate (for religious Jews). Radio also is an important outlet, says Tamar Katriel, professor of communications at Haifa University. "Israelis really bare their souls on late-night radio talk shows, because they can call in anonymously. Working-class Israelis use the radio therapeutically to talk about the most intimate subjects and the host acts as a kind of rabbi, advisor, miracle worker."
Romance is a hot topic in slick magazines and newspapers. Outspoken twenty-eight-year-old Karin Arad writes "Sex and the Big City," a column about love trysts for the Tel Aviv weekly Ha'ir. She got her journalistic break when she posted a funny, daring diatribe about men's sexual ineptitude on the Internet. Columnist Shira Agmon pens "City of Pleasures" for a competing weekly, Zman. The audacious twenty-six-year-old gives readers voyeuristic peeks into her bedroom with explicit details about what is or isn't going on beneath the sheets.
Secular Israelis looking for sex without commitment frequently rely on what U.S. college students call a "hookup." In Israel it's yaziz, slang for "a friend for casual sex." (Yaziz is a combination of yedid, Hebrew for "friend," and lezayen, a crude word for sex.) But any sort of physical affection is out for Orthodox Jews, until marriage. Because religious males and females often attend different schools, they're working from "different diskettes," observes one educator. Maybe that's why eyebrows were raised when an article in the right-wing Makor Rishon, a national weekly that runs an advice column for singles, profiled two religious women in their late thirties. Unable to find appealing mates, they gave up and, instead, chose to have children by artificial insemination. So many young religious women complain about disastrous dates with socially awkward students at yeshivot (religious academies) that a respected Jerusalem rabbi published an open letter in the weekly Yerushalayim scolding his students. Shower and brush your teeth, he admonished them. Instead of a taking a woman on a long, cheap walk, spend some money and take her to a café. Don't talk only about yourself or your Torah studies or ignore her while you speak on the cell phone, he warned. "And remember, a woman is a delicate creature, drive her home,...Don't drop her off at some dark and lonely bus stop. If you still don't understand that, you're a fool." His parting rabbinical advice: "Don't judge her by looks alone, and even if she's from the 'wrong' religious community or studies in university, don't dismiss her outright. Give her a chance."
My two brothers, they can bring girls home to sleep the night — but me? I can't," Avivit Betzalel says with a resigned shrug. She lives with them and her widowed mother in the same apartment her Iranian- and Afghanistan-born parents raised her and her seven older siblings. Growing up in this rundown Beersheva neighborhood of Mizrahi Jews who immigrated from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, Avivit refused to abide by her older brothers' overly protective rules. "When they were asleep I used to sneak out to meet my friends. One morning, my married brother came over and warned me: Don't do it again. He's really conservative; he won't even let his family have a TV in the house and he goes to synagogue every day." He's a black-hatted local leader of Shas (an acronym taken from Shomrei Torah Sephardim, or Sephardic Torah Guardians), a Mizrahi religious and political movement. "When I was drafted, he told me to ask for a religious exemption. He said, 'Guys and girls together are not acceptable. A girl belongs at home, not with guys.' But I think it's everyone's duty to serve." Her mother, who wears a headscarf, encouraged her to flout his warning.
"Liberating" is the word Avivit uses to describe life as a clerk on the military base deep in the Negev. "It was mind-opening. Four hundred soldiers from different worlds. Religious, antireligious," Avivit recalls, running her manicured nails through her dark brown hair. "I met all kinds of guys. A few made fun of me for not turning lights on during Shabbat. The officers hitting on [female] soldiers, that shocked me. Even though we had lessons on sexual harassment, some girls think officers are like rock stars. I didn't meet anyone special." After the army, Avivit returned to Beersheva, which, like much of Israel, is saturated with biblical history. Here, Abraham, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim patriarch, at the urging of his wife, Sarah, cast out his concubine, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael, who became the father of the Arabs. Today, Israel's fourth-largest city is trying hard to become modern, but it's still a provincial place in Israel's backyard. "Not much to do. Only a few bars and restaurants and one really great club," says Avivit, who got a job as a legal secretary.
She met a guy who lives in Tel Aviv. The big city, ninety minutes away by bus, intrigued her more than he did. "For me, it's New York. So much to do, all kinds of restaurants and clubs that don't close." She was taken aback by Shenkin, a bohemian street in Tel Aviv, full of funky clothing designers, openly gay men, street guitarists, and Peace Now supporters. There were men taking vegetarian cooking classes and buying books like Emotional Intelligence and women who weren't afraid to ask them on dates. "Honestly, I was a bit afraid. I didn't know anybody there. My whole family, everyone I know lives in Beersheva." And the boyfriend? She'd never dated an Ashkenazi Jew or known anyone who laughs during Woody Allen movies. In her world, no one has ever heard Yiddish or cares if there is a Hebrew word for angst. Her illiterate mother speaks Farsi and faltering Hebrew. Avivit felt cross-cultural battle fatigue. "I decided I click better with Mizrahi guys. We have the same humor, like the same music. It feels more natural. We understand each other. We don't need to explain things."
Her religious married sister, who works in a Beersheva insurance office, told her about a client who said, "I want a woman like you. Do you know anyone?" Avivit agreed to meet him. "He was outgoing, full of life. And from my neighborhood, so we had a lot in common. I'm not so religious anymore, but I still keep kosher and light Sabbath candles. And I want a guy who has faith in his heart. The next date, he drove me to his apartment. As we watched a video, he pulled me close. 'I love your eyes, they're like the ocean.' He touched my hand and said, 'I like your skin, it feels like silk.' He's not a poet, but it was hard not to fall for his words. Okay. I'm not naïve. He was flattering me, even though he didn't know me. But I liked it. I could feel myself falling for him. By our next date, I tried watching the video, but couldn't concentrate. In no time, we were kissing, really deeply. He wanted more. I controlled myself and I said, 'No. We have to go step by step.' After that night, everything felt right. When he told me he believes in the Cinderella slipper story, a woman who is the perfect fit, my fantasies went into action. I could tell he was ready to settle down. He's already twenty-seven. And my family is pushing me."
When he didn't call, Avivit was confounded. She was tempted, but avoided passing his small grocery store. Trying to console herself, she listened to romantic Mizrahi songs of pain and longing. Then a girlfriend insisted they go dancing at the Forum Club. "Both floors were really crowded. My girlfriend saw a gorgeous guy, and as she made her move, I saw it was him. When the heart breaks, it doesn't make a sound. Enough with blind dates. There's a tradition that God sets the number of people you have to meet before finding your soul mate, that every one brings you closer to finding the right one. I believe everything has its season. A time for war, a time for peace, a time for love," she says, paraphrasing words of Ecclesiastes. "Who knows? Maybe this is my season."
Two years later, Avivit decided to find an apartment near Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv. Wandering into a coffee shop, she asked the manager if he needed a waitress. He gave her the job and became her first serious boyfriend. He's brought her to the vegetable stall where his Baghdad-born father works. His parents like her enough to include some religious traditions in their Sabbath dinners together.
North of the mountain town of Safed, the spiritual capital of the school of Jewish mysticism known as kabbalah, a winding Galilee road leads to a ravine fragrant with almond and peach blossoms. Single men and women from all over the country come on pilgrimages to a modest stone shrine, the tomb of Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel, a tzaddik, or saintly man, who lived more than two thousand years ago. His religious thinking was so lofty, it is said that when he studied Torah, the spiritual heat would singe birds overhead. The sage died without ever having married. Tradition holds that when he got to heaven, the Lord asked him what favors He could bestow. The bachelor rabbi declared that what he wanted most was to help others enjoy what he had missed in life. That's why inside the shrine, men and women, separated by a screen, are praying for a match made in heaven. Sometimes, from the women's side, one can hear weeping sounds. Men and women reach out to touch the tomb from opposite sides of the divider. Some purposely forget their prayer books — with information about themselves and phone numbers inside. Others post "seeking a soul mate" messages on the walls with their email addresses.
A tree outside Rabbi Uziel's first-century tomb is festooned with dozens of multicolored scarves, headkerchiefs, and strips of cloth. To enhance their chances, women leave them as lucky charms, to remain connected with the place. At a makeshift stall near a creek, an entrepreneur sells amulets and holy books and dispenses advice to despairing singles. According to Jewish tradition, during the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, God is especially close to the people of Israel and at this critical time answers prayers. People tell stories of those who searched for love in all the wrong places — until they prayed here and found the right mate. "I want a home, and children. The Jewish calendar revolves around the family. Judaism isn't for single people. God says it's not good to be alone," says a twenty-three-year-old on an outing organized by Shas for religious Mizrahi women longing for a husband. "My sister, she poured her heart out to God here. In only two weeks, she met her basherte," Hebrew for beloved, partner, intended, or soul mate.
Not all supplicants are as religious. The manager of a spa relates how she tripped at a gravesite and literally fell into a man's arms. A lightning-quick romance led almost immediately to marriage. The secular cynic no longer was a disbeliever. So why is she back? "Time for a replacement," the divorcée explains. Fashion models, singers, and actors come here on the great spousal search. A gossip columnist broke the story of a Tel Aviv hairstylist who flew several of her single high-powered husband-hunting clients on a chartered plane to this shrine. Ex-hippies, New Age enthusiasts, social gadflies also believe the place is a pipeline to God. A physician whose patients include many scientists from the Weizmann Institute came to pour out hopes for her daughter. "It worked for my eldest. I'm about to be a grandmother." Each year, a quarter of a million divorced, widowed, and never-married Israelis visit, even in the middle of the night.
Dating strategies for the desperate run from ancient to New Age. Some Israelis enhance their chances by rearranging bedrooms using Feng Shui principles; others boost theirs by taking guided imagery seminars or transcendental meditation. Nearly 60 percent of Israelis are interested in mysticism, astrology, numerology, and the supernatural, according to a recent Gallup-Israel survey. Most devotées are women between eighteen and twenty-four years old. Bookstores sell 101 Israeli Mystics, many of whom apparently work miracles for clients' love lives. There's Malka-Haya, who is in touch with Maimonides, and a deceased "kabbalist Yehiel," who speaks through his granddaughter. The angel Raphael communicates with a parapsychologist named Limor. A master medium who lives near the sprawling Intel Pentium 4 chip plant in Kiryat Gat says his waiting room is filled with people seeking romantic counseling. Practitioners often are divided by ethnic origin: astrology is primarily an Ashkenazi profession; experts in practical kabbalah and reading coffee grinds are mostly Mizrahim.
The first convention for professional Israeli matchmakers took place in Jerusalem in 1998 and was attended by several thousand mostly religious women. Since then, their numbers have been rising steadily. For ultra-Orthodox Israelis, it's something out of Fiddler on the Roof: "Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match..." Other Israelis, out of the army and universities and fed up with the sex-for-fun party scene, who want to find someone serious also are turning to matchmakers. "They go to advisors for everything," explains one matchmaker. "They use personal trainers, investment counselors, and head-hunters. Why should dating be any different?"
Liaura Zacharie considers matchmaking a Zionist mission. She was shocked to discover the soaring single Sabra rate: more than a third of adult Jewish Israelis are unmarried. She got into the profession by accident: "I went crazy seeing young, professional, idealistic immigrant friends losing hope of finding mates, ready to leave the country. Judaism revolves around family life. Being religious and single here is difficult. So my husband and I organized a party for them. Instead of thirty singles, more than a hundred showed up. And most were Sabras. I didn't realize there were so many singles in terrible trouble." After that party, she set up a dating service, Eden 2000, which has helped almost twenty thousand Israelis, from yuppie Orthodox to the not-so-religious, on their quest for love, running a web dating service, organizing hikes, ski trips, and kosher safaris to Kenya — before the al-Qaeda bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa. Most of her clients are in their childbearing years, which makes her happy: more than 30 percent of Jewish men age twenty-five to forty-four and a quarter of women of that age are unmarried. It's a very serious national problem, she continues. For a strong Israel, Jews need to marry and multiply. The country can't afford the singles rate of France or the United States because it's under "demographic siege." The government has given Zacharie a seat on the National Council of Demographic Planning, which is concerned that Israeli Jews are losing the "war of the wombs." Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Muslim; it's estimated that by 2025, 33 percent will be Muslim. "Israelis are more marriage-oriented than people in other Western countries, but they're slowly changing. Jewish, Druze, and Christian Arab marriage rates are declining and people are marrying later," notes Professor Sergio Della Pergola, a demographer at the Hebrew University. "But not Israeli Muslims. They're marrying earlier. They've turned against modernism and moved back to traditional patterns."
And, sometimes, not so traditional.
After the doctor bumped into a car in the hospital parking lot, he left a note on the windshield. The unusually polite, apologetic note impressed the nurse. They met in the cafeteria to discuss the damages. For almost a year, they continued meeting. It seemed platonic. Both in their thirties, they were cautious. Neither want their real names used. Adil is a Muslim Arab widower whose wife had died in a car accident. Yaffa had upset her religious Jewish parents by breaking off her engagement to a man they liked. She brought Adil home. Her grandparents speak Syrian Arabic. He speaks Galilee Arabic. Over dinner, everyone spoke Hebrew. Her family was cordial. But behind the scenes, there was pleading.
Adil invited her to his all-Muslim village in the Galilee, which is more than half Arab Israeli. His parents and other relatives were very hospitable. After she left, his mother said she would find him a suitable woman from the hamula, the extended family. He wasn't interested. Some of his cousins had broken with tradition and chosen Muslim spouses without family involvement. Why couldn't he?
Soon after Yaffa moved into Adil's apartment, they discovered his friendly Jewish neighbors were no longer welcoming. She found another note on her car's windshield. This one warned: "You're screwing an Arab." After someone sprayed "You're a traitor" on their front door, they searched for another apartment. At first, landlords assumed he was a Mizrahi Jew who looked like a young Omar Sharif. When they heard his Arabic-accented Hebrew, they found excuses. Renting was especially tough, with suicide bombings in Jerusalem fanning suspicions. Finally, they found a place. Jerusalem has two geographies: the one you can find on the map, the geography of place, and the one hidden in people's minds. Before this intifada, it was easier to ignore Jerusalem's darker map. Now they couldn't. They discovered a new geography — the geography of fear.
When the couple announced they wanted to marry, the reaction, in their words, was "Romeo and Juliet gone nuclear." Adil's father and brothers forbade him from entering the village again; they threatened to kill him. Only his mother continued to talk to him. Yaffa's family and friends begged her to leave him. It was the first time she had seen her father cry. They thought their love could transcend the escalating hatreds of the intifada. Nothing is simple in Jerusalem anymore. Not even love. After two years, they didn't have to tell each other what they knew: the perpetual tribal conflict had beaten them down. They retreated into their separate worlds. Love can't thrive in a situation without a solution.
In a country with one Muslim Montague for every four Jewish Capulets, not many Muslim-Jewish Israeli couples live together openly. One love story became a national sensation. It was born on September 13, 1993, the day Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn. A Palestinian and an Israeli director signed an agreement to stage an Israeli-Palestinian coproduction of Romeo and Juliet. The setting for Shakespeare's tragedy of familial feuds was west Jerusalem, not Verona. The Montagues were Arab Israelis and Palestinians; the Capulets, Israeli Jews. When Romeo wooed his Juliet in the garden, he spoke Arabic; she answered in Hebrew. The tale of great passions and great hatred between two noble families became a metaphor for the tale of two nations unable to live together or separately. "The Arabic-speaking Montagues and Hebrew-speaking Capulets are here to stay — same as us," the Israeli director Eran Baniel said somberly. "The only alternative to peace is death."
Not long after Romeo and Juliet finished its tour in Israel, France, and Germany, Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land was released. In this Arabic-Hebrew documentary, eight Montague/Capulet couples caught up in the conflict tell their stories. There is a Jewish Israeli who converted to Islam to live with her Palestinian husband in Gaza and a Jew who is married to a fiery Muslim Israeli whose brothers threaten to kill her. According to the Nazareth-born film director, Michel Khleifi, "Thousands of other mixed-faith couples live together in the Holy Land, most of them secretly."
Gil Shelef calls the mixed Arab-Jewish port of Haifa his "pocket of peace." He resembles a white Rastafarian with dark dreadlocks concealing his eyes. But when he met Natalie at a friend's party, he could see clearly. "Exotic looking. Not really dark skin. Sexy pout and the right amount of angst." They live in the same neighborhood, but their backgrounds are dissimilar. He speaks Hebrew, Arabic, English, and Spanish and reads Chekhov in Russian; his parents moved to Haifa in 1971 from St. Petersburg. She is part Ashkenazi, one of the founding families of Haifa, and part Egyptian Jew. "I liked that Natalie doesn't care about status, doesn't have those phony Tel Aviv values." To illustrate his point, Gil tells what happened with another woman when serving in the prestigious Navy Seals, the Special Forces unit famous for capturing the Karine-A, a cargo ship smuggling fifty tons of Iranian weapons to the Palestinian Authority. "It was a blind date and right away, she was coming on to me. I didn't know why, until she started asking about my job. I told her that I'd been transferred to an unimportant desk job because I injured my knee and, poof, her spark went out. If you don't have a fancy title, Tel Aviv women run in the opposite direction. Natalie didn't mind at all that I'm a bartender, a part-time bartender with no career goals."
Gil invited Natalie to the bar-café where he works, a cozy watering hole where friends, lovers, and bohemians discuss politics, recite their latest verses, and listen to the three-pack-a-day voice of singer Tom Waits. "I love the place, it's like my living room." They had drinks with some of his friends: a Muslim-Jewish student couple from the Technion, the son of an Arab member of the Knesset (Arabs make up 10 percent of the Knesset), and a staunchly secular Muslim engineer unhappily engaged to a religious woman from Umm al-Fahm, an all-Arab town run by the Israeli Islamicists who prohibit alcohol. "It made me happy that Natalie was enjoying the chill-out music and the scene — it's one of the few binational bars where Arabs and Jews hang out. I went to fix her a salad. When I returned, I assumed she was in the toilet, but she didn't come back. Finally, I found her outside. She said it was too crowded and smoky. It took a while until she opened up. 'I don't feel comfortable with Arabs. Is it okay if we leave?' I said, 'It's okay if you leave. Let's end it now.' In Israel, politics touches everything, even dating."
Not all soldiers live on bases. For those who commute from home, it's the life of a civilian when they're not in uniform. Twenty-three-year-old army intelligence officer Roi rarely puts on his khakis when he drives from his family's suburban duplex to the late-night shift on a secret base near Tel Aviv. "It's away from the front. No sense of war. A room, just computers and telephones. Very few people, just a skeleton staff of nineteen-year-olds. I'm in charge of computer systems, answering phone calls if people have problems. Usually, there's nothing to do. Our main job is staying awake. We listen to cool music on Galel Zahal (the army radio station). Conversations are mostly sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Military police can't enter because it's a classified area, so we wear T-shirts, sandals, and army pants. If nothing is happening, you can take a nap on one of the mattresses. Sometimes we don't nap."
He recalls a hot summer night. "I wandered around wondering, 'Will tonight be exciting or not?' If you're looking for it, you can find it. I saw a cute girl, just out of basic training. Normally, she wouldn't even dare look an officer like me in the eye, not one with my [high-ranking] insignia. But I was wearing a T-shirt and acting really macho, like the Marlboro guy. And it was very late. Everyone was gone. Just a guy and a girl and the rules, well, they don't apply."
They entered a restricted room lined with computers. On the wall, a few maps. And for comic relief, Iraqi and Syrian flags and photos of Saddam, Arafat, and Assad. He locked the door. They were undressed, breathing heavily, when an officer knocked and demanded, "Open up, I need to use the [secure] phone."
"Come back later," Roi tossed back.
"Just give me two minutes. No one starts wars in the middle of the night."
There was no term in Hebrew for sexual harassment until Israel passed the world's most far-reaching law against it. "This legislation does more than protect women from unwanted advances. It changes the very meanings of masculinity and femininity in Israeli society," states Hebrew University Law School's Dr. Orit Kamir, who coauthored the groundbreaking legislation that the Knesset passed in 1998 after extensive lobbying from Israeli women's groups. The law targets sexual harassment in the workplace, the army, schools, and restaurants, on the streets — everywhere. It also forbids gay bashing. It allows flirting, off-color jokes, and consensual affairs. However, consensual sex between superiors and subordinates is forbidden. If the man is a woman's superior, she can lodge a complaint against him for sexual harassment or sexual attack, even if she agreed at the time to have sex. "It's not that we're trying to regulate sexual relations or to prevent romance," explains attorney Rivka Shaked, who represents women in the civil service, which is Israel's largest employer. "We are trying to prevent men from abusing their authority. When the man has power and the woman is a subordinate, you can never tell: Did she really agree? Or did she give in because she was afraid that she would lose her job if she didn't?"
The law, which is tougher than that of any other country, bewilders and angers some men. Some complain it puts them in sexual straitjackets, threatening Israeli romance. Under the law, flirting is legal, but sexual harassment isn't — and it's not just in Israel where the line between the two is confusing. "When I was young, we used to tell women, 'Your eyes are like two cups of Turkish coffee.' I agreed to vote for the bill only after I became convinced that this still will go on, that it wouldn't put an end to romance," said Ruby Rivlin, now speaker of the Knesset. A reporter for Ha'aretz wrote that "the law takes away an important male freedom of expression, the freedom to flirt." Israel is roughly ten years behind the United States in the evolution of the public discussion of sexual harassment. What some Israeli men consider normal may be shocking in Manhattan but not in the Mediterranean. Many Israeli men have difficulty believing that an admiring look at a woman's exposed legs, a playful pat on the buttocks, or a remark about her breast size is offensive. An army officer complains, "We've reached a stage where I can't kiss a woman soldier on the cheek when she's discharged." Women's groups are trying to educate men about inappropriate sexual comments and unwanted physical contact. As Yael Dayan, who, until the 2003 election, was a member of the Knesset heading the Committee on the Advancement of the Status of Women, puts it, "It's not to create a situation where there's no courting in the workplace or where every touch leads to a police complaint. But when a woman says no, she means no" (a word her late father, General Moshe Dayan, a notorious philanderer, ignored — or, possibly, rarely heard). "Israel is a place of contradictions," adds Shulamit Aloni, a veteran civil rights activist, former minister of education, and founder of the left-wing Meretz political party. "On one hand, the sky is the limit for women in civilian life, but we also live in a patriarchal and macho society — patriarchal because the rabbinate, which is very backward, controls marriage and divorce, and macho because of the army."
Women in the military often are viewed as men's helpmates, according to the late sociologist Dafna Izraeli of Bar-Ilan University's Gender Studies Program. "Traditionally, the military has had an aura of permissive license. A prevailing attitude is that men serve the nation and the women serve the men. It's no secret that the Israeli military is a hothouse of exploitative sexual relationships. Commanding officers often get 'the first pick' of female recruits. It's still not uncommon for pretty young female soldiers to become their 'trophies.'" In Israel's world-renowned air force, men regularly said, "The best men go to the pilots' course. The best women go to the pilots."
Although army regulations have prohibited sexual relations between superiors and subordinates for decades, they rarely were enforced. If a young female recruit complained about a senior officer harassing her, little happened. Even in cases of confirmed rape, officers quietly have been discharged, often with full pensions and privileges. Israelis realized the country had changed when, in 1999, the Supreme Court blocked the promotion of Brigadier General Nir Galili after a nineteen-year-old soldier on his base accused him of having sexual relations with her.
"Dozens of other cases like Galili's are never reported," says Nitzan Arbib, a soldier in the Education Corps, who, among her other duties, arranges mandatory sexual harassment lectures every few months for the five hundred men and eighteen women in her combat unit in the West Bank. "If I'm lucky, three or four show up and yawn in my face." She also sets up separate classes for their male commanders. "I sent a bullet-proof jeep to bring a guest speaker, a social worker, to our base. At least thirty officers promised to attend. I checked and double-checked and they all assured me they were coming. When I brought the speaker to the room, it was empty. We waited and waited. I made phone calls and got comments like this: 'Another lecture on sexual harassment? It's so boring.' 'I'm too tired, I was out fighting.' 'I've got chores to do, I forgot.' The commanders need the course more than their soldiers; some of them act like fifteen-year-olds. One guy said, 'The girls are crazy about me. They're here to sleep with guys, why else would they volunteer for a combat unit?'"
When Chen Nardi, commander of a basic training camp for combat soldiers, was promoted to lieutenant colonel, a fellow officer asked him, How are the girls? "When I reminded him that I'm a senior officer, that the women under my command are my subordinates, and that I'm married, he called me a freier [sucker]. After all, he said, 'having fun with the women is just part of the deal.'" Nardi, who now runs the Movement for a New Manhood and offers workshops in male-female relationships, observes that "changes in Israeli military and civilian society are revolutionary. Laws are challenging our definitions of masculinity and femininity. Women are demanding their rights and men are learning to treat them as equals. But some men don't realize the rules of the game have changed. They just don't get it. Men in high positions in the workplace, academia, and the military find it hard to stop their sexist, macho rituals and still think they have the privilege to make lewd sexual comments or demand sexual favors from women subordinates." He emphasizes that the army, by nature, "is a hierarchical, macho institution, where senior military brass can treat young, attractive recruits as perks. Because our survival is threatened, the warrior who defends our country has a particularly esteemed position. The general is like a great father to us all — he will protect us. Is it any wonder that Mordechai committed the crimes he did?"
He's referring to the spectacular fall from glory of veteran army general Yitzhak Mordechai. It was Israel's most publicized sexual harassment trial. In March 2000, the former defense minister and political leader, who aspired to run for prime minister in 1999, was convicted of sexual assault against two women. Despite the severity of his crimes, Mordechai received an eighteen-month suspended sentence. Some women called the punishment a slap on the wrist; others called his conviction a victory for women's rights. The trial has spurred women to come forward to tell stories of improper advances to newspapers and on talk shows. Before the law was passed, as many as half of all Israeli women said they had been harassed, and three-quarters were afraid to complain or convinced it would do no good. Since then, the number of women reporting cases has risen sharply. At least fifty officers found guilty of sexual harassment have been dismissed. Still, according to an army spokesperson, only one in three victims files a complaint.
Then there are those who wish their superiors would make an improper advance. A strong-willed woman who worked in army intelligence complained about not being able to make a formal grievance. "I prayed he'd make a sexual move, so I could file a complaint. Unfortunately, he never did. My commander was the kind who goes mad and punishes you if your shoes are dirty. He didn't know what to do with an intelligent, left-wing girl," recalls Efrat. "If I made even a slight mistake in the difficult translation work he gave me, people heard him yelling at me through the window."
One day, a high-ranking officer visited her top-secret base in the Galilee to train her and a few other select soldiers in advanced Arabic translation. "He was so handsome. Very tall, light blue eyes. A part of the attraction was his insignia. It's an aphrodisiac. But his sexiness was much more than that. I really wanted him and planned my moves very carefully, trying to be witty and cute, running my hands through my hair. Three weeks later, 'Ami' left without even noticing me. But I couldn't stop thinking about him."
After seven months, the nineteen-year-old thought she had a valid reason to call the twenty-two-year-old officer. "My commander still was making my life hell and I was desperate for help." Efrat phoned Ami at headquarters in Tel Aviv and asked for a meeting. "He said no, that everyone in the army whines. I insisted it's really serious, that my commander was torturing me. He didn't believe me, but finally agreed to see me when I was in Tel Aviv on leave. After I told him my horror stories, I convinced him to help get me a transfer. As I left, I don't know why, I just blurted out, 'There's something else. I'm really in love with you.' He was shocked, didn't know what to do. He said very formally, 'I'm your commanding officer. Any relationship is forbidden.' Even if he were interested, he follows the rules, so it means I'd have to wait more than two years until my discharge.
"For two days, I was embarrassed, a zombie. On my last night of leave, he called and said, 'I've thought about it and we're going out.' We went to a movie in a mall. As we were walking out, a girl from the base spotted me and yelled out, 'Efrat! What are you doing here?' When she saw Ami, her eyes got wide. We hadn't even held hands, but by morning we were the talk of the base. In the army, a secret is something you tell to one person at a time."
Israel is one of the world's most densely populated countries. It's nearly impossible to remain anonymous. One soldier asked the phone operator for the number of a woman he'd met in a bookstore. "Forget it," she said. "Why?" he demanded. "She's back with her boyfriend." Israelis wear skimpy bathing suits, but women don't go topless as in France or Italy. Just think who might be on the next beach towel — your teacher, your dentist, your neighbor. Israelis don't crave solitude. Put Israeli strangers on a long stretch of beach and within minutes, they'll be close together gossiping. Try dozing on an airline with Israeli passengers. Even before takeoff, strangers are in the aisle talking noisily. Closeness promotes cohesion, but it also means that people know the intimate details of each other's lives. It's a group-oriented society; people often have difficulty understanding the exotic Western concept of "private space." From kindergarten, Israelis are taught the importance of belonging to a hevreh, a close-knit group of friends from school or scouts or the army that stay together for life. It's in the army that the most lasting friendships are forged. It's also a powerful matchmaker.
So, how did Efrat's romance with her commanding officer go? "Wonderfully. Intense. After I got out, I broke up with him. I want to experience lots of men. My mother married her officer. She and my dad are divorced. When they dated, the army songs were about women waiting for the brave soldier to return from battle. I like today's songs. About daring women going off to explore the world on their own."
Unlike Efrat, whose base has over eight hundred men and women soldiers and a disco three nights a week, Ilana was the sole woman soldier among ninety male combat soldiers. Her job was sorting mail. "I'll never be a beauty queen, but they treated me like a rare orchid. There's a saying: 'In the desert, every thistle is a flower.' I had a boyfriend back home and they respected me. Not one of them made a pass. I was like a psychiatrist to this broken hearts unit, hearing stories about girls who dumped them. These guys are lucky if they get home twice a month. They sit in the mud. Then in the broiling heat. Guarding. Going after terrorists. Their guns are part of their bodies. I saw a sign that describes their lives: 'America: 9/11. Israel 24/7.'"
Now Ilana is a junior marketing executive. "The atmosphere in our office is relaxed, friendly, and fun," she says. "Men aren't shy in blurting out what they feel. If a guy thinks my blouse looks sexy, he'll say so. Israeli men have a healthy respect for sexuality. It's not like when I visited England. You could be naked and they'd pretend not to notice. Here, when I'm in a meeting, it's like it was on the base. A man might stroke my arm and say, 'Your smile is so beautiful.' To me it's a compliment, not sexually suggestive. My boss calls me motik [sweetheart]. To him, it's affectionate. Sometimes I use innocent flirting to soften him up. And I've gotten him to give me assignments that guys working above my level can't get. After a meeting, he might give me a friendly hug. It's not threatening. If we got upset every time men squeezed our hands or made flirty comments, we'd never get any work done. We'd be too busy filing complaints."
The IDF is not, despite all the stories above, a dating service. It has a somewhat more serious purpose, as is seen in the next chapter.
Copyright © 2003 by Donna Rosenthal
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