Nirit “Niri” Zachary doesn’t understand the fascination of San Francisco women with Israeli men. “I was married twice to Israeli men, it’s no big deal,” she says laughing, a moment before beginning a new semester teaching Hebrew at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center.
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Zachary, a former Israeli journalist, has been teaching at the center for five years. At first, the students were mainly adult American Jews who wanted to learn the language to improve their communication with relatives living in Israel. But in the past two years, the student body changed to mainly young women of various religions. Dozens of young women come to the center to learn Hebrew to communicate better with Israeli men, who seem to have recently become a coveted commodity in the city. Some of the women are already involved in relationships with Israeli men; others are hoping to improve their chances of finding one.
Friends Angel Fell, 22, and Lindsey Mitchell, 21, are married to Israeli men and planning to convert to Judaism. Fell was the first to realize she was onto a good thing, and after she met an observant Israeli, she hastened to introduce Mitchell to one of his friends.
“American men just watch TV all day, and all that interests them is sports,” she says. “Israeli men are much more family oriented, and even if their family isn’t here, their friends are like family. Israelis have that thing of ‘popping in’ and friends simply drop by or you go to them; it’s fun. Americans don’t have it.”
Mitchell says, “Israeli men are always there for you and always want to give, it’s not like the Americans.”
Since their husbands are observant, both women have begun to maintain a kosher kitchen and observe Shabbat. All for love.
Solidad Aguilar, 40, is a Catholic Peruvian living in San Francisco. She first noticed the qualities of Israeli men in her homeland, where she met quite a few discharged soldiers on post-army trips. Now, in San Francisco, her interest in the genre has been renewed.
“When I meet an Israeli man, even by chance in the restaurant I work at, we have an instant connection and talk as though we’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t have that with other people,” she says, demonstrating quite fluent Hebrew. She doesn’t have an Israeli boyfriend yet, but maybe the Hebrew lessons will help. Meanwhile, she has enrolled in a conversion program due to begin in the summer and is eagerly looking forward to her planned trip to Israel.
The young women filling the Hebrew classes forced Zachary to change the curriculum.
“I realized they don’t want to learn just the Hebrew that is usually taught in Hebrew lessons,” she says. “They want to learn the slang and things that will help them understand the Israeli mentality. I find myself teaching them how to communicate with the mother-in-law and the rest of their partners’ relatives and to understand the behavior and all kinds of habits Israeli men have. There are lots of nuances and expressions they find hard to understand. Many times, young women come to me shocked and tell me their Israeli partner told them to ‘shut up.’ They are upset by such a way of speaking. I explain to them that it’s not out of meanness and that in Israel, you can tell each other to shut up.”
Asked what the women in her class see in Israeli men, Zachary says, “I really don’t know, but some women here get excited just thinking or talking about Israeli men. Most of them are attracted mainly to men of Mizrahi [Jewish Middle Eastern] origin, although I have a few here who are dating Ashkenazis [European Jews]. They like the warmth and close family ties — Mizrahi food. Some have even started listening to Mizrahi music.”
“They want me to teach them Israeli slang: ‘Sababa,’ ‘ahla,’ all those words do it for them,” Zachary says.
Zachary doesn’t think Israeli men hook up with women in San Francisco for a visa, convenience or money. “Most of the young women here are not millionaires. But look at them, it’s not hard to understand what the Israelis see in them,” she says.
The new curriculum turned out to be a success, and the demand for courses is higher than ever. “Today, I have 50 students in four different classes in various levels,” says Zachary. “In one class that graduated, 10 out of 11 girls went out with Israelis.”
Not just for girls
Men with similar aspirations followed the women to class — San Francisco men who like Israeli men. “The first student who came kept saying ‘my husband,’ and I kept correcting him to ‘my wife,’” Zachary says. “Only later did I realize he really was talking about his husband.”
Daniel Ferman, 25, is a Jewish American who first met Israeli men when he took part in a 10-day free trip to Israel through the Birthright organization. Now, he’s in a relationship with an Israeli man.
“In Tel Aviv, the men are very easy, everything is very direct,” he says. “I’m less like that, but it’s fun. With Israeli men you can also laugh about everything.”
Brad Ramey, 47, an American Jew, has had an Israeli boyfriend for the past four years. When he heard of the Hebrew lessons at the center, he enrolled. “When we visited his family in Israel, I realized how important it was for me to speak Hebrew,” he says. “Not all his relatives are comfortable speaking in English, and I want to be in touch with them. We’re moving to Israel for a few years. He wants us to do it, and if it’s important to him, then it’s important to me.”
Asked what he finds so attractive about Israeli men, he says “Maybe it’s their family ties and connection to their roots. In America, you don’t get that so much, perhaps because the distances are so great. My family, for example, lives in Texas, and I see them only twice a year.”
There are no bars or clubs that serve as Israeli haunts in San Francisco, and most of the couples met online, mainly on JDate, which specializes in Jews and Israelis.
Andrea Salnave, 22, a young American bartender, started dating an Israeli she met on the Internet six months ago. She studied cooking in college and specialized in Middle Eastern cuisine, “and he wrote on his card that he liked cooking,” she says.
“I received hundreds of approaches on that site, but what he wrote stuck in my mind, despite the spelling mistakes. American men don’t usually know how to cook, and if they do, they won’t tell you and won’t cook for you. I like the Israeli men’s straightforwardness. They tell you what they like and aren’t shy to say if they don’t like something you made. Even if sometimes he tells me to ‘shut up,’ I understand that it’s okay. With American men you’re like a babysitter, you have to clean up after them, cook for them and take care of them,” she says.
Already, she wears a chain with a Star of David on it and has started the process of converting to Judaism. She still finds time to slip into a bikini and compete in body building competitions. “My partner observes the Sabbath and ‘kashrut’ [“kosher”] and goes to the synagogue and our first conversations were about religion,” she says.
“He told me it would be difficult for him to date a non-Jew, and I realized it wasn’t worth developing a relationship with someone I couldn’t live with. I started taking an interest in Judaism, spoke to a rabbi and found a synagogue that suited me. Life is too short to have doubts for too long. Before we met, I didn’t use to pray to Jesus either. I always felt it wasn’t for me,” she says.
Salnave joined the Hebrew classes at the center just a week ago. “His father came for a month’s visit, and he doesn’t speak English. It made me realize there’s a language barrier and that I need to learn Hebrew to communicate with his family.”
Asked what connects them, she says, “Mainly food and cooking. We also watch Israel’s Master Chef together. I don’t understand why they broadcast it with Hebrew subtitles, although it’s in Hebrew. I also like it that his appearance is very important to him and that he takes care to shave every day. He works in sales and does all kinds of moonlighting, like all Israelis, he knows that if he’s not clean shaven people will buy less from him.”
“Israel should maybe start exporting men, there’s a great demand for them here,” says Zachary. “At the end of the year, we have a party [for the class], and then I meet the boyfriends. The first thing they tell me is not to teach the women everything. There are some things they don’t want them to understand.”