December 3, 2009
From Salsa to the Chuppah
Some Southland Israeli men look To Latinas as the perfect partner.
With actresses like Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria and Eva Mendez setting a standard for sexiness, it’s not surprising that some local Latinas are capturing the hearts of Israeli American men. But it’s not only because of the women’s appearance — their Jewish suitors are also finding that a Latina’s inner spiritual qualities help them to see past a non-Jewish background.
“Latinas are the eighth wonder of the world,” says Asaf Raz, who flashes an endearing look to his wife, Sara, as they sit together on a couch in their West Valley home.
With olive skin and long brown hair, Sara could pass for a Sephardic Israeli.
“So nice, so calm,” he says, “respectful.”
The pair met at a salsa club, where Asaf, a professional salsa teacher and self-professed ladies man at the time, displayed mastery on the dance floor. Sara asked him to dance — although they playfully debate who actually made the first move.
Born in El Salvador to a Christian family, Sara moved to Los Angeles when she was 3 years old and describes living a sheltered childhood. She had never met, let alone befriended, an Israeli up to that point, but with Asaf she felt an instant attraction. They have been married for three years.
Asaf, a 30-year-old salesman and project manager for construction companies, knew upon arriving in Southern California from Haifa four years ago that he’d likely date non-Israelis.
He dismisses Israeli women — in his homeland and in America — as not for him.
Since arriving from Israel in 2000, David Leiderman, 32, says he also preferred dating Latina women, in part because he has Latin roots. Born in Argentina, Spanish is his mother tongue. Leiderman has a wife, Rosie, of Mexican descent, and two children, ages 3 and 4.
Both Leiderman and Asaf noticed similarities between Israeli and Latin culture that made them feel at home with their mate.
“They love to have fun a lot,” says Leiderman, whose wife converted through American Jewish University (AJU) and studied with a cousin who was also dating an Israeli. “There’s something happy.”
Asaf finds that Latinas display an openness, simplicity and warm hospitality common among Israelis. “We’re very much like an open book. What you see is what you get,” he says.
According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, Jews who have married since 1996 have an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, but specific statistics for Israelis Americans who intermarry are unavailable.
Even population figures for Israelis living in Southern California fluctuate wildly depending on the source — a 1997 Jewish Federation of Los Angeles Jewish population study puts the number at 14,000, while the Israeli consulate claims 150,000 to 250,000.
But anecdotally, many sabras living in Southern California can often think of at least one Israeli American — a friend or the friend of a friend — who is dating or married to someone non-Jewish.
While not all Israeli men meet a Latina spouse in salsa clubs, Yoav Stein met his wife while working at one as a bartender. Yoav says when he and Sonia first met she gave him a hard time when he flirted with her. But after several more encounters she relented to his persistent charms.
Born in Tel Aviv but raised in Toronto since age 4, Yoav wouldn’t categorize himself as a typical Israeli, although his dark skin and thick black hair give away his roots.
Yoav, who moved to Los Angeles about nine years ago to study chiropractic medicine and now runs his own pain clinic in Beverly Hills, says he preferred dating Latinas because of their “look” as well as their nurturing quality.
“They’re very affectionate, and Israeli men in general like to be pampered and taken care of,” Yoav says, sitting with his wife, Sonia, in the living room of their West Hollywood home.
The owner of an event planning and design firm, Sonia was always attracted to Middle Eastern men and dated several Iranians before meeting Yoav.
“I realized that Israelis have a lot in common with Latin men, from my experience,” says Sonia, who emigrated from Costa Rica with her family at age 13. “We have the man of the house and the woman. Israelis have that but it’s not as extreme. We are also taken into consideration. It’s not the macho power you might get. They’re a little more liberal.”
And like any Jewish household, food plays an important role. The men interviewed describe their wives catering — without any complaints — to their needs and desires for a good meal.
“It’s not that we have to,” Sonia says. “I’m very independent. It’s in our nature to ask a man if he wants to eat and to make sure he’s taken care of after a long day of work.”
However, Sonia says she still feels like an outsider among Yoav’s Israeli friends, especially the women. She says there’s a sense among Israeli women that Latinas are stealing their men.
Both Asaf and Yoav say they met some early resistance from members of their family, which dissipated when they got to know the women.
Nevertheless, Sara’s conversion to Judaism was never a condition for their marriage.
“In the beginning when I was with Sara, I didn’t care about her religion,” Asaf says. “I only cared about being with her. When the time comes and you’re in a foreign country, you start to change, whether you like it or not. You find you have to get a little tighter with your beliefs — not that you go to an extreme — because you’re living among goyim. So if you want to stay unique, you need to try a little harder than in Israel.”
Asaf’s father, an immigrant to Israel who served in the Israel Defense Forces for 27 years, instilled within his son the importance of maintaining Jewish identity, especially after suffering anti-Semitism as a child in Columbia. Asaf knows some Spanish from home but doesn’t count his father’s Columbian roots as playing a significant role in his attraction to a Latina.
Since his father took ill about two years ago, Asaf started donning tefillin every morning. Sara has begun to fast on Yom Kippur on her father-in-law’s behalf, and she is about to begin a conversion through AJU.
“Now that he’s been able to be completely open to me to tell me that it’s important to him, I understand that and I don’t mind raising Jewish children,” Sara says.
From the outset, Yoav felt strongly, as his parents did, about marrying a Jewish woman. But as they dated more seriously, Sonia’s transition to Judaism stemmed from her own growing independent interest in the faith.
Sonia grew up in a devout Catholic family; her uncle and cousins are priests and her aunt is a nun. She never felt satisfied with answers offered by the Catholic clergy to her questions about her faith, while Judaism’s reasoning appealed to her.
“My uncle [the priest] said when I had converted that he knew I would go somewhere else,” she said.
She completed her conversion through AJU, and today Yoav and Sonia are members of Temple Beth Am, which she attends on Friday nights and holidays more often than her husband.
“I think when the woman or guy converts on their own, it’s better over all,” Yoav says. “She’s a better Jew than me and most of my friends combined.”
While Asaf has helped Sara become more “Jewish,” he credits Sara for “Americanizing” him and tempering his classically Israeli characteristics, like aggressiveness and impatience.
“I also saw the softer side of him that was very admiring and sweet, aside from that tough, macho image he portrays a lot of the time,” Sara says. “He’s actually a very sensitive creature.”
Her interest in Jewish tradition has grown since their marriage, and she’s looking forward to her conversion as a chance to get answers about Jewish tradition that her husband can’t always provide.
“I did find that his traditions were very interesting, and I enjoy the fact that it brought the family and friends together, the closeness among one another. I think it comes from being Israeli and also Jewish,” Sara says.