Coupled up

Written by
Lior Phillips
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Between differences in race, religion, and culture, it is challenging to maintain relationships in an increasingly global world - especially one with rapidly changing norms regarding intimacy. In Israel the diverse cultural landscape can be overwhelming, and finding out how couples from different backgrounds date, mate, and relate, is full of trials and tribulations. Here's a host of “mixed” couples (half Israeli, half non-Israeli) on how they make it work:

ELI VANUNU, ISRAEL and SARAH VANUNU, AUSTRALIA

“You told me on the first date that you would know the person you would end up marrying a week after meeting them,” said Sarah to her husband Eli, smiling at him across the kitchen table of their home in the heart of Florentine. Eli’s face lit up, “And it happened! I proposed after eight days!” In 2004, a week before Sarah finished her six-week backpacking tour in Israel, she met Eli at a jazz gig in Jerusalem. “Tell me three things about yourself, two truths, and one lie,” said Sarah, recounting Eli’s first words to her; they sat playing this game back and forth all night. Throughout the next week they managed to cram what normal couples do in months of dating into eight days: they traveled to Sinai, went for dinners, and visited Eli’s family for a Shabbat in Haifa. Five months passed and Eli moved to be with Sarah in Australia for a year, but a culture shock like no other ensued and the two fought constantly. Eventually they moved back to Israel for good, which the couple agrees better suits their relationship. Today, with two adorable children and a story fit for the pages of a romance novel, the old adage rings true - when you know, you know.

EYAL ELLENBOGEN, ISRAEL and SHARA GRIFENHAGEN ELLENBOGEN, UNITED STATES

Shara and Eyal were introduced by a mutual friend in the same apartment where the couple now lives. From a simple “hello” grew friendship, then a year-and-a-half relationship, and finally an engagement. Since expectations of how to act during a relationship are culturally relative, surprises came up throughout their courtship. According to Shara the biggest difference in dating an Israeli is how quickly they move compared to American men. Within two weeks of dating Shara had met Eyal’s friends, family, and even gone to a family wedding - a love-timeline that would have spanned months in America! Similarly, co-parenting their son has brought differences to the surface. “We sometimes have to work a little bit to find our common parenting ground,” said Eyal. “We work to ensure that he speaks and understands English so he can communicate and bond with Shara’s family.” Despite interpersonal differences, the couple can’t imagine their bilingual family and community-rich life anywhere other than Israel - or with anyone other than each other!

CHEN SHEVEL, ISRAEL and DORON SHEVEL, SOUTH AFRICA

Before Chen met Doron she’d never met a man with manners. “She laughed at me when I opened the door for her,” recalled Doron. Before Doron met Chen he was used to a slow relationship progression. A week after the two met he was perched on her parent’s couch experiencing what she called “the Friday evening inquisition” - questions about his work, family, and home life. Despite these differences, the immediate connection that initially brought them together 10 years ago is still palpable today. He is giddy when recalling their engagement, and she gushes about his role as a father to their son, Yonatan. “He’s the best father,” said Chen. “[He has] such a paternal instinct, while still being affectionate.” Together their differences are merely quirks, and they both find themselves saying they “couldn’t ask for anything more.”

KASA BAYISIN, ETHIOPIA/ISRAEL and PHILLIP HARBOR, UNITED STATES

“It’s actually the most Zionist love story ever!” said Phillip Harbour, smiling at his now-fiance, Kasa. The couple met at Ohio State University when he offered a helping hand in hanging up a map of the State of Israel. At the time Phillip was a student, and Kasa was a representative of the Jewish Agency. “Even though we are different and come from opposite ends of the world there are so many relatable experiences between the two of us,” said Phillip. In addition to a shared religious upbringing both come from small agricultural hometowns, were raised in conservative families, and speak two languages. Despite commonalities, some cultural variances are (literally) lost in translation. For example, in one instance it was Phillip’s knowledge of Hebrew that lead him to misjudge Kasa’s yelling of “oof die!” as the literal translation, “go die” instead of its true meaning, “enough already.” However, even if Phillip settles an argument with a slew of polite “I’m-sorry’s” and Kasa is more used to a straightforward speak-your-mind-or-forever-hold-your-peace conversation, it is their shared values that transcend cultural barriers and afford the couple with a dynamic that is uniquely their own.

NETA SPECTOR, ISRAEL and EMMA CABRERO, SPAIN

Emma and Neta met at a one-off Purim party, and spent their first date at a Mexican restaurant in Tel Aviv - a choice of cuisine that is foreign to both the Spaniard and Israeli. But food preferences are merely quibbles compared to the couple's harder-to-define cultural differences, including being brought up with different religious anchors on two separate continents. “Because I am dating a Jewish man and I live in Israel, I now celebrate the Jewish holidays and have Shabbat dinners,” explained Emma. She believes that while Judaism doesn't define Neta, it translates some of their cultural differences, and that seeing him in his element - supported and surrounded by family, an integral part of Israeli and Jewish culture - helps her understand him even more. Since Emma and Neta both speak to each other in their second language - English - it is often challenging to fully describe the depth of their emotions. "I guess because both of us are empathetic, we always understand what the other is trying to say," said Neta. Despite limited vocabulary and cultural variations, the couple have been profoundly willing to dive heart first into their life of differences, together. 

ADAM AZAGURY, ISRAEL and DANIELLE GISCHEN, SOUTH AFRICA

Five months after Danielle and Adam met at the Galina nightclub in Tel Aviv she made Aliyah. What started as a vacation romance and a one-off first date has rapidly turned into a meaningful relationship. “Adam has become my support system here, as my family is still in South Africa,” said Danielle of her life in Israel. Although their differences are apparent, in overcoming the cultural variances of different hometowns and mother tongues, they have grown closer. The couple isn’t held back by friends and family that live in separate countries and speak different languages, rather they enjoy learning about each other’s differences and finding similarities. “We are lucky to have grown up in a similar way, with similar values,” said Danielle.

MATAN ATTIAS, ISRAEL and KRISTÓF JOSEPH STEINER, HUNGARY

Eight years ago at a club in the heart of Budapest two slightly tipsy strangers crossed paths; one, a med student from Israel, the other a TV host for Hungarian Music TV. Three weeks later they moved in together and during a long weekend trip in London, Kristof popped the question over a bottle of red wine and a box of brownies. In 2011 they set sail on a boat from the Jaffa port to celebrate their union with friends and family from Hungary and Israel. For Kristof and Matan, it’s crucial to offer their loved ones the chance to see their life in Israel - a country which has shaped the foundation of their relationship. Even if their biggest arguments stem from cultural differences, like whether the sweet Hebrew nickname "mamie" directly translates to a corny pet name for a Hungarian grandmother, and if Kristof pronounced Matan's name incorrectly for an entire year, living in Israel has defined how they interact with one another. After years spent moving and living between different neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, the two truly believe that the Holy Land and its mixed cultural bag of religion, gender, and race, is the place where they feel the most at home. They want to raise their children here, and agree that with a clear mind and an open heart you can transcend any cultural difference. “We have our own language,” said Matan. “After all these years we understand each other even without words.”

TOMER FINK, ISRAEL and RACHEL SHAPIRO FINK, UNITED STATES

Rachel and Tomer met on the very last weekend that Rachel was in Israel after completing her Masters, and following two years of long distance dating she landed in Ben Gurion for good. “I always wanted to make Aliyah,” said Rachel. “But that’s not to say I don’t have my moments living here.” Six years after meeting the couple still display cultural stereotypes: she the “sensitive and scheduled” American, and he the “impassioned” Israeli. At the same time they still revel in trying to understand and embrace these differences. For example, with a young daughter, and a new baby on the way, they both appreciate the open-door policy and more-the-merrier attitude taken by Tomer’s family - a quintessentially Israeli norm, which is different from the geographic proximity of many Americans to their parents. “We’ll always be a little bit defensive of our own culture, but we’ll also always be fascinated by each other’s differences,” said Rachel. Today their relationship is a mix of spontaneous decisions, birthdays planned at the last minute, and conversations seeking common ground - and just like that, six years have passed.

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