American women who marry Israeli men face a culture clash

Friday, August 15, 1997 | by

RUTH SELIGMAN



To come to Israel as a single woman and find your Israeli Prince Charming would appear—at first glance—to be the ideal way to integrate into Israeli society. Not only do you have a husband who speaks the language and who knows his way around the country, you also have his family, whose presence should help to smooth the process of adjustment.

That's the fairy tale. The reality, as conversations with more than 20 American women married to Israelis reveal, is different. The baggage of cultural mores and behavioral patterns the husbands bring to the relationship may complicate, not help, these intercultural marriages.

No story is exactly the same. The woman who came to Israel out of idealistic convictions at age 18, meeting and marrying her husband there, has a different experience from the one who met her husband while he was in the United States and came to Israel only because of him.

In other instances, backgrounds may be so similar that the marriage cannot truly be called cross-cultural. Both Miriam Grunbaum and her husband are the children of German-Jewish immigrants. After World War II, her parents went to the United States; his, to Palestine.

"Both of us were raised in homes that were more German than American or Israeli," says Grunbaum. "Even today, my husband is more correct and more polite than the average Israeli, and so am I."

Still, despite the variables, there is surprising agreement among the American wives—similar reactions and observations, and shared experiences that reveal the differences between American and Israeli outlooks.

Barbara Bar-Yaakov, a graphic artist and mother of two sabras, or native-born Israelis, always regarded herself as a liberal, committed to civil rights for African-Americans. Yet when she applied her convictions to Arabs, her husband thought her naive.

"I trust Arabs who are Israeli citizens while he doesn't," she says. "He feels that liberalism is a luxury that Israel cannot yet afford. I cannot really understand why Arabs and Jews cannot live together peacefully."

Another difference in these intercultural marriages is the way each partner perceives his or her Jewishness. Doris Kellman, 31, a social worker, grew up in a small town with only 250 Jewish families. The Reform temple was the focal point of Jewish life, providing a sense of community and a way to express her religion.

Kellman has fond memories of "going to temple on the High Holy Days, fasting on Yom Kippur, singing and dancing around the Torah on Simchat Torah." She would like to give her children the same experience, but her husband, a third-generation sabra, believes otherwise.

"He doesn't see the need to demonstrate his Jewishness by performing rituals or going to the synagogue," she says.

Like many Israelis who are "secular" Jews, the fact that his country is a Jewish state is enough. Its day of rest is the Jewish Sabbath, its state holidays are the Jewish holidays, its language is Hebrew. Bible study and Jewish history are part of the school curriculum.

Kellman says she is being forced to examine what it means to be Jewish in a Jewish state, "especially when you are not Orthodox." Her husband laughs at her when she lights Shabbat candles on Friday night or uses special dishes for Passover.

"For him, there is an all-or-nothing element to religion," says Kellman. "The synagogue he doesn't attend is an Orthodox one."

Laurel Avissar, a dental assistant who has been in Israel for eight years and married for three of them, says marriage to an Israeli provides "an inside look at Israeli society—good and bad."

As a single woman, she was unaware of the strength and intensity of family ties in many Israeli households. Her marriage gave her new insights.

"My in-laws are not the only ones who expect their married children to grace their table every Friday night or, failing that, to visit on Saturday," says Avissar.

In contrast to her own parents' philosophy of "live and let live," Avissar's in-laws involve themselves in all aspects of her married life. "The fact that I'm not Israeli gives them a wedge for reminding me that I don't really know how things are done here," she says .

She points to her son's brit as a typical example of the difference between American and Israeli cultures. Although Avissar's parents were in attendance and both she and they envisioned a small, private affair, her Israeli mother-in-law took over, "cooking up a storm and inviting mobs of people."

Many American parents find their daughter's marriage to an Israeli as much a learning experience for them as it is for her. More than one of the American women married to an Israeli reported that her parents were surprised to find that they were expected to help buy and even furnish an apartment for the newly married couple, as Israeli parents customarily do.

In the United States, the bride's family's obligations tend to end with the wedding, notes Avissar. In Israel, parents tend to provide financial help "on what seems to be an ongoing and permanent basis."

Since learning is a two-way street, intercultural marriages often have an enviable richness. "We're bringing about some changes as well as being changed," says Judith Even-Ari, an active U.S. feminist who married "a typical macho Israeli."

Despite that, Even-Ari, a Jerusalem resident, has managed to create with her husband "sharing frameworks" for child care and household chores. So have many of her American friends married to Israelis, she says.

"Even my mother-in-law, initially shocked when my husband got up to clear the table at her house as he does at ours, now takes this behavior very much for granted."