Be My Israeli Valentine

Cross-Cultural Dating Can Be Fraught With Unseen Pitfalls


By Nathan Jeffay

Published February 14, 2012, issue of February 17, 2012.
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Valentine’s Day is our annual chance to signal how much we love someone or perhaps would like to start a relationship. Such gestures can be tricky, though, in a place like Israel, where cultural differences complicate the back and forth of romance. That is especially true for American-Israeli couples. Aliyah among single American Jews was up 9% last year, which can create an echo boom in romantic encounters between sabras and American singles.

Despite the difference in conventions, research suggests that Americans and Israelis are good matches. Ben-Gurion University academic Ayala Malach Pines, who in 1999 first wrote “Falling In Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose,” has studied the priorities of Americans and Israelis in selecting partners. According to her, Americans and Israelis “are looking for similar things in love,” such as companionship and reciprocity. “The differences are more differences in style than in substance.”

Understanding those contrasts can mean the difference between a rosy glow or seeing red. Here are some points of potential friction for American and Israeli singles starting down the dating path.

Fixups: Blame it on a relative lack of boundaries. In Israel, almost anyone will try to set you up on a date — from the mailman who has a single poker companion to the grocery store cashier with a lonely sister.

Rafi Poch, a writer for a Jerusalem comedy troupe that caricatures immigrant experiences, said: “You walk into the post office to pick up a package, hand over your ID card. The clerk sees from the card that you are single, and says, ‘Do I have a girl for you!’”

Americans should think before they answer. When an American declines the offer of being fixed up with a date, the Israeli who made it can feel rebuffed.

The Brush Off: Knowing how to say no to a prospective date is another area where cultural differences can complicate the dating scene for Americans and Israelis. Shai Tirosh is head of events at ConnecTLV, a Jewish Agency-funded project that helps immigrants with absorption and organizes social gatherings where singles can meet. He said, “Israelis will hit on girls all the time, and you have to know, if you want to, how to dodge it.”

When faced with unwanted advances, Tirosh said, “An Israeli girl will just ignore it and walk away, while Americans will often think it’s rude and not do so, which gives the impression that she wants the attention.” If a man asks a woman out in America, “maybe” is usually understood as a rejection; in Israel it is often taken to mean “yes,” he said.

What Dates Really Mean: As in America, dates in Israel span a wide range of activities, from a walk in the park to dinner and a show. The meanings, however, are vastly different.

“I remember someone sent me a message asking me out for coffee, and I was offended,” said Serena Goldin, a 34-year-old woman who moved to Tel Aviv from New York last summer. “In New York, coffee means they don’t take you seriously, that you’re not worth taking for dinner, whereas here it means, ‘Let’s sit for hours and talk.’”

Going Dutch: Perhaps the biggest miscommunication, however, comes when the bill arrives. In Israel, men are not expected to pay the entire bill on a date.

“Like many Israelis, I started dating when I was a soldier, and my dates were soldiers, too, so we were both getting the same small stipend and we both pitched in,” said Yaniv Greti, a 32-year-old man from Rishon Le-Zion. “The habit sticks, and though some Israeli men like to pay, it’s not at all necessary.”

Casual to Serious: Once a couple does start dating, the relationship leads quickly to long-term commitment.

“Here, you have to make decisions quickly. If you’re serious, you go for it,” said Ari Gottesman, a Tel Aviv resident in his 30s who emigrated from New York.

Monogamy is normally taken as a given. “The open relationship that’s so common in New York does not work well here,” Gottesman said.

Goldin offered one possible explanation of why Israelis get serious fast: “Here, there’s a constant presence of how short life can be, so if you feel something, you say it and commit.”

Nathan Jeffay is the Forward’s Israel correspondant.


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