State of the Union / The princess and the soldier
In a tale as old as Birthright, American girl meets Israeli soldier and stays.
Ashlee, 28, is something of a seeker.
She grew up an only child, between Glenwood Springs, Colorado, where her dad built condos, and Miami, Florida, where her mom moved after their divorce. Eager to "do her own thing," Ashlee graduated high school early and, with no college plans, moved to a surfing village in Costa Rica.
There she waitressed, sold jewelry and did a stint as a chef on a sailboat before packing it up and heading to San Francisco to study fashion design at art school. But after graduating, she found herself increasingly interested in food, not fashion. So, she headed back to school – this time to study nutrition in Seattle.
During these same years, K, 24 – whose work for the Israel Defense Forces requires that he not be identified further and that Ashlee's last name not be used – was focused like a laser beam.
The eldest of three sons born to a Yemenite-Israeli father and a Uruguayan mother who met on Kibbutz and opened driving schools together, K was the kind of kid, he professes, who always knew what he wanted.
He joined the Young Maccabi youth movement in eighth grade, and was heading the 10,000 strong national association by the time he graduated high school.
He spent a gap year volunteering with underprivileged kids, and was then accepted into an elite army unit, where, five years on, he is zooming up the ranks. When he is released in two years, he plans to go into politics and become Prime Minister.
"I often wonder how he is able to be so sure about everything," says Ashlee.
It was in Seattle that Ashlee, whose father is Jewish, started dropping by Hillel. She also joined a Jewish community group that grew organic vegetables and, sort of on a whim, signed up for a 10-day Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. It was June, 2010 and her first time in Israel.
"I joined the group on a Thursday in Tiberias," says K, who was one of the five Israeli soldiers chosen to spend a long weekend with Ashlee’s Taglit group. "We come in uniform and they make a big deal out of us. They do a ceremony and we run in calling out, 'Achim, Achim, Achim' ['Brothers, Brothers, Brothers.']"
"Yeah, it’s a little embarrassing," he admits. "But these Jewish programs are very well thought out. They really know what to do to get Americans emotional and excited."
"All I was thinking of, actually," recalls Ashley, "was, like, when’s lunch?" But, she noticed, K was an immediate Taglit hit. "He said he spoke Spanish and Portuguese – which he doesn’t really – and he was tan. Everyone was on him."
"It was a caricature," K agrees sheepishly. "I sat down on the bus and one girl sat next to me. Another stood beside me and the ones in front turned around and leaned over me."
"Taglit trips are like 10-day soap operas," explains Ashlee. "Everyone is hooking up. But I was not into that."
When they reached the Kinneret, K changed out of his uniform and put on a wrap sarong – which led to the first words the two exchanged.
"I passed by and said 'cool pants,'" reports Ashlee.
Not, she stresses, because she was into him, but because she is into fashion, and they were indeed cool pants. She was wearing a black bikini, a big black hat and sunglasses. K is not that into fashion – but he was immediately into her.
"She looked like a princess," he says.
Back on the bus, they sat together.
"It was natural. I didn't feel I was trying to impress him or he was hitting on me," she says. "He couldn’t even explain what he was doing in the army. We just talked about whatever."
K had been in the United States several times on fundraising trips for his youth movement and school, and had found kids his age there to be immature. But Ashlee was different.
"I liked her views about things," he says.
That evening, the group went to sleep in a Bedouin tent down south and the two put their sleeping bags next to each other.
"The next day we started holding hands and everyone called us honeymooners," says Ashlee. "All the other girls were upset. They all wanted face time with him, and thought I was hogging him."
"Other people were also hooking up. But this was another level," K says.
When Taglit ended and the group boarded the return flight, Ashlee stayed behind: "I spoke to my mom and she was like, 'Are you sure you want to stay with someone you just met?' But she trusted my judgment." Ashley did not check in with dad, she says, since they rarely speak.
K took Ashlee home to his parents in Givat Ada. While he spent his days in the army, she played basketball with his younger brothers, went to the Dead Sea with his dad, to the north with his best friend and shopping or to the beach with his mom.
"Usually it’s weird if you meet a boyfriend’s family. But with them I felt comfortable from the beginning. I felt it was my house. They gave me the code. We went grocery shopping. We cooked. I spent a lot of time just hanging out," she says. "It had been a long time since I had been with a family."
Two weeks later, with a summer job back home waiting and the question of the next semester looming, Ashlee freaked out.
"I was like, what are we doing? We live 12,000 miles away. He is 23. I am 27. He’s in the army. I’m in school. I decided I had to leave. I booked my ticket. He wanted me to spend the holidays with his family. But he understood."
The night before the flight, K took Ashlee camping on the beach. He told her he loved her.
"I had never said that to a girl before," he confides. "I had never met the right girl."
With Ashlee he had known. He had known the first time he sat down next to her, on the bus.
"I was like ‘Whoa, what’s going on here," says Ashlee. "I did not say anything."
The next day, she couldn’t pack. She called her mom again. "I am falling for this guy, for real," she said. "Don’t be afraid," mom replied. Ashlee stayed.
They spent Rosh Hashana at K’s aunt’s house.
"I don’t eat gluten, so his aunt made a gluten-free meal. It was not even like ‘Oh here, Ashley, here is your food.’ They all ate gluten free. My own family would probably not even do that," she says.
Eventually, Ashlee did return to the U.S. to finish her degree. For a year, she and K emailed, texted and talked. They read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance out loud to each other over Skype. They sent packages. They discussed options.
K got a big promotion in the army. He could not even tell her exactly what it was. Ashlee admitted she was ambivalent about Israel. She saw herself more as someone living on an organic farm in the U.S. But after graduation, she packed up everything she owned and made Aliya.
"I came for love," says Ashlee. "But I also figured it was good to get out of my comfort zone."
The two moved to Nitzanei Oz, a small moshav near K’s parents’ home. Ashlee has started a small business, making healthy gourmet food products – like honey with ginger and sea salt blends – which she then sells at local markets. K has gotten into her projects and helps out with the packaging and planning. He translates for her and makes appointments. On his days off, they go to the market together.
"It’s hard to be so dependent on him," says Ashlee. "But we feel right."
K mushes her hair and holds her hand.