REHOVOT, Israel — Social worker Enatmar Hillel is still slightly embarrassed when she tells what happened to her several months ago, shortly after she and her lawyer husband had advertised in a Tel Aviv paper for someone to look after their children when both were at work.
The first job applicant she ushered into their apartment took one look at her and, seeing she was black, immediately asked: "Where is the lady of the house?" Though rather taken aback by the question, Enatmar smilingly replied: "I am the lady of the house."
Such misunderstandings are not unexpected, as the Ethiopian immigrants usually found in middle-class Israeli neighborhoods are apt to be scrubbing floors or weeding gardens. They are not — as is the case with Enatmar — partners in an interracial marriage.
When Enatmar Selam and Ari Hillel wed several years ago, the event was widely reported in the media: not only are marriages between Ethiopian immigrants and "white Israelis" unusual, but the Hillels are part and parcel of the Israeli elite.
Ari's father Shlomo, who has been awarded the Israel Prize, was an ambassador to several African countries, a member of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations, a minister in two governments and Speaker of the Knesset.
At the moment, however, the role he most values is that of grandfather to Noga and Ayelet, the lively daughters of Enatmar and Ari. While he accepts them unconditionally, of course, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that color prejudice is completely absent from Israeli society.
Officially, it is unacceptable. Unofficially, it exists.
That is certainly the impression of Morit Avraham, an Ashkenazic sabra whose husband, Ethiopian immigrant Naftali, is a graduate of Haifa's Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and an officer in the Israeli air force. When, for example, Morit went to pick up gas masks when a second Gulf War seemed imminent, the guard asked her why she wanted two. Pointing to her son Noam, who was standing at her side, she said one was for him.
"Oh, I didn't realize he was your son," the guard replied shamefacedly, "I guess he must be adopted."
Does social and economic integration lead to intermarriage, or is it the other way around? Tel Aviv University sociologist Yochanan Peres believes it is the former.
He points out that Enatmar and Ari would never have met, fallen in love and married had they not both attended Tel Aviv University.
One place where Ethiopian and Ashkenazic groups are unlikely to interact and intermarry is in the so-called development towns. Largely populated by Sephardic immigrants, most of those communities have never taken off, nor have they attracted people from European backgrounds. So there is little intermarriage in those communities except when a member of the second generation meets a soulmate while serving in Israel's coeducational army.
It is the army that was responsible for the fact that Mira and Shimon Lachani met, though they didn't meet within its ranks.
Mira, who grew up in the Tel Aviv area and is the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland, came to the Galilee development town of Kiryat Shmona during her army service working with the populace of that town. There she and her khaki-clad friends lived in a rundown neighborhood largely populated by Moroccan immigrants, including the Lachani family.
Nature took its course, causing some distress to Mira's family, who were less than enthusiastic about the fact that their daughter had fallen in love with a man whose parents had come from Morocco. They have since come to like Shimon, who is the manager of a large electronics factory in the Kiryat Shmona area.
Yet Shimon has not forgotten the initial failure to accept him, which he regards as typical of Ashkenazic Israelis.
He points out, for example, that many personal ads in Israeli newspapers highlight the fact that the would-be bride or groom has a "European background."
Moreover, Shimon still recalls the time when — after being singled out as the outstanding soldier in his army unit — the officers who came to congratulate him thought it worthy of note that "even a Moroccan" could be an excellent soldier.
Shimon has a high prestige job and a lovely home but he still believes the gap between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Israelis will remain for many years.
While many Moroccan immigrants and their offspring have a feeling Ashkenazic Israelis look down on them, that is not the case with people who came from Yemen, in the southwest corner of the Arabian desert.
They feel at least equal to the "Europeans" and are fiercely proud of their heritage.
Thus, even though Nachshon and Dorit Dagan of Rehovot were both born in Israel, Nachshon, a technician whose parents came here from Poland, defines himself as a sabra while Dorit, a bank clerk whose grandparents made the long trek from Yemen to the Holy Land, stubbornly insists she is a Yemenite. Her ethnic heritage is apparently so important to Dorit that the first man she married was also a Yemenite.
Moreover, her three sisters did the same. But none of the four marriages lasted, and when sisters remarried it was, in all cases, with Ashkenazim.
Nachshon's first wife was from an Ashkenazic family. But having left the kibbutz and come into contact with people from a variety of backgrounds, he fell for a Yemenite woman the second time around.
Dorit's family is more traditional than that of Nachshon. To make the family feel at ease when they visit, the Dagans keep a kosher home. But the Dagans do not attend synagogue and don't light candles on Friday night, which is a common practice among even minimally observant Israelis.
The only deep-seated disagreement between Dorit and Nachshon is in the political sphere: She supports right-wing parties and he gives his vote to the leftists.
Another couple, Limor and Ido, have yet to stand under a marriage canopy, mainly because Ido is still in uniform. But they've been sweethearts almost from the moment they met in a high school classroom, and they clearly plan to be together for the rest of their lives.
Though Limor's family is primarily of European origin while Ido's parents came from Mideastern countries, the young couple consider themselves sabras, pure and simple. Indeed, it seems strange to them that parents once bridled at the idea of cross-ethnic marriages.
"Today," says Ido, "most parents are only concerned about a potential spouse's character, not his or her ethnic origins. And among people of our generation, this is certainly the case."
Sociologist Peres reports some fascinating studies and statistics about integration under the chuppah.
*Some 24 percent of all Jewish marriages in Israel are "mixed," compared to less than 10 percent several decades ago. A random distribution of marriages would bring the figure for Sephardic-Ashkenazic matches up to 50 percent.
*The divorce rate for "mixed couples" is 24 percent, which is lower than the figure for pairs in which husband and wife are both Ashkenazic (30 percent) but higher than the rate of breakups among the "pure Sephardic" group (20 percent).
*Sociological studies show that children from "mixed" families are more popular and successful than other youngsters. Their multicultural background seems to prepare them for making friends with almost every kid in the schoolyard.