After three exasperatingly cautious dates and a month of coy e-mail exchanges, I got tired of beating around the bush and wrote Orie, my American prospect. I told him exactly what I liked about him, how much I liked it, and what I’d like to do about it — promptly, if possible.
“I can’t believe you just came out and said that,” he wrote back, his tone half wondering, half perplexed. “I think I like you too, but … don’t you do anything by the book?”
I took a moment to consider that. “I just did,” I replied, “but the book I know is in Hebrew.”
Of all the social mazes an immigrant must navigate when assimilating to a new, unfamiliar culture, dating is one of the most labyrinthine. In a field so touchy, so reliant on subtle cues and signals, lacking the cultural context can be disastrous. It’s like dancing blindfolded — and barefoot — in a room full of mousetraps.
This is especially true regarding Israeli and American Jews, for whom a common heritage masks vast differences in national culture and character.
By the time Roy Schwartz and Kim Miller met each other, for example, they were both pretty jaded.
“I had to learn the hard way that here, unlike in Israel, dating is a game to played,” said Schwartz. A 32-year-old literature professor at CUNY, Schwartz came here from Israel seven years ago and was enchanted by the gentility and ladylike manners of American women; but when it came to dating them, he kept smashing into invisible walls. “Nothing here means what it seems,” he said. “Every little thing you do or don’t do is judged — from the particular vocabulary you use, to the money you spend, to the frequency of your calls. You are constantly put to the test.” Compared to Israeli dating, where things are generally taken at face value, this was very difficult, he said. “In Israel, there isn’t so much drama about every little thing … maybe because, you know, we have bigger fish to fry.”
Miller, 30, a native New York author, was attracted to Israeli men for their no B-S approach, as she put it, their general readiness to settle down, and their relative maturity (“After the army, Israelis are men; Americans stay frat boys for a while”). But she soon realized she needed a little more coddling to get by than the typical Israeli had to offer. “There was this one Israeli I’d been seeing for a few months, who called me one day and said, ‘There will be no more dates. Goodbye.’ On one hand, great, I’m glad we made a clean cut. On the other hand … where’s my ‘It’s not, you it’s me?’”
“Too much coddling, not enough backbone” is the reason Batya gives for the failure of her American-Israeli relationship. Batya (who asked that her full name not be used) came to New York with her Israeli fiancé at 28, to “make big money” as a cosmetics saleswoman; the money turned out to be kind of small, and her engagement disintegrated amid fights over the rent.
Determined never to date an Israeli again, she decided that she would marry an American Jew — before she hit 30. “I was tired of the bare-knuckle treatment,” she explained. “Americans, they treat a woman like a princess. They’re polite, they open the door for her, they pay for dates [Israelis usually split the bill]. … Besides, there was the green card to consider.”
Batya is a beautiful, olive-skinned Sephardic woman, and men were practically climbing over each other to date her; still, things did not go as she hoped. “After a date, a friend would ask: ‘So how did it go?’ and I’d say, I don’t know. ‘Well do you like him?’ I don’t know. ‘Does he like you?’ I don’t know. Will there be another date — I don’t know, how can you tell?”
Since relationships here form much more slowly than they do in Israel, Batya was frustrated by the pace, and would often move on before the third date. Since Israelis, particularly observant ones like Batya, don’t usually date multiple people simultaneously, that would mean the end of the relationship. A trail of broken hearts was rapidly forming behind her, her own included.
She did, however, find a husband sometime after her 30th birthday, and about a month before her visa expired. “The visa did expedite things,” she admitted, “but I also really did like him. He was Jewish, good-looking, sweet, kind, would have done anything for me. It was a good match.”
“But did you love him?”’ I ask. She thinks about this for a long moment. “I believed that I would, with time.”
But even after nearly a year together, Batya and her husband couldn’t find a common language. “I kept thinking about my Israeli ex. How free I was with him, how I didn’t have to think about the right thing to say all the time, how we could yell at each other — yelling is a good thing, compared to silence.”
“I was trying to make my husband angry, so he’d stand up for himself, be a man,”’ she added. “Instead he just withdrew deeper and deeper into his shell.”
The two divorced before their second anniversary. Batya is now living in Israel, currently alone.
“When Roy first approached me on JDate, I was doubtful; I just didn’t want to date anymore Israelis,” Kim Miller said. Schwartz, in turn, feared she’d turn out to be “just another JAP.” They were both pleasantly surprised. “She was different than anyone else I’d met before, Israeli or American,” Schwartz said.
Perhaps because Miller had to care for herself from an early age (both her parents are severely disabled) she was atypically mature and direct, Schwartz theorized; she transcended the general pettiness of the game. Or perhaps it was the fact that Schwartz had nothing of the crudeness she encountered in other Israeli man. “We’re both a little different from the societies we grew up in,” Miller said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we fit together so well.”
Trying to figure me out, Orie — today my husband — once grilled me about dating customs in Israel. “Wait a minute,” he stopped me, his brow creasing, “you aren’t playing by the Israeli book, either!”
“I think you’re just making up whatever rules suit you as you go,” he smirked “and telling me that that’s how things are done in Israel.”
“Yes,” I answered, honestly, “but that’s how things are done in Israel.”