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Isn't it better to live in New York? An Israeli Supermodel Speaks

Imagine my surprise when Israeli model, Bar Refaeli, with whom I was speaking high above Ground Zero last February, suddenly shouted over her shoulder in Hebrew, "Abba, may ayfo ha'ima shelcha?" ("Dad, where's your mom from?")

Her father was accompanying her at the launch of Sports Illustrated's 2008 Swimsuit Issue. In 2007, Refaeli was the first Israeli to appear in the annual issue and appears in it again this year, which included the Dead Sea in the location shoots.

Bar Refaeli February 14, 2007
Bar Refaeli, Israeli supermodel. Fred Prouser/Reuters

The 22-year-old is not all about being Leonardo DiCaprio's girlfriend and a jet-setting model. Her family is very important to her: her protective father, 53-year-old Rafi Refaeli said, "One of the family's always with her... all over the world," either he, Bar's manager mom or the elder of her two brothers. Rafi's proud of Bar being in the magazine because "it's famous all over the world."

Bar's handlers did not allow journalists to ask about her famous boyfriend; however, I did ask Bar, who hails from Hod HaSharon outside of Tel Aviv, if her parents care if she marries someone Jewish. She didn't directly answer the question, but instead replied, "My parents always taught me that people are people no matter what--without any relations to race, religion or color, so I treat people as they are. I don't judge them for their background, and I like people if they have the same values as I."

And what are those values?

"Oh, God, I can't just say it like that on one foot," she continued, "but just be very honest and true with yourself, and your environment. Be fair, be good, be generous."

(The Talmudic origins of "standing on one foot" did not escape us. The Talmud relates how Hillel was asked by a non-Jew to reveal Judaism while the individual stood on one foot. He replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.")

It's not important to Bar to bring up her children Jewish. "You know, I wasn't brought up Jewish," she said. "I don't really believe in religion. I don't see myself as a very religious person. It's just another way of separating people. It's another way of saying, 'You're different than I.' I don't like that. I don't think there's any difference between people.

"We celebrate holidays. We celebrate Hanukkah and all the Jewish holidays. I also enjoy celebrating Christmas. I just enjoy both worlds. Yeah."

Rafi concurred that it is not important to him if Bar's husband is Jewish or if his future children are. He did say that his family has a Shabbat dinner each week.

Bar is a sabra (native-born Israeli) and so are her parents. Her grandparents are Jewish and hail from Italy, Lithuania and Poland. Rafi's father took on the Hebrew name Refaeli when he arrived in Israel. The derivation of both Rafi's first name and surname come from the angel, Raphael, from the Bible.

Although being Di Caprio's girlfriend certainly put her on the map, Bar began modeling in commercials when she was 8 months old. She enjoyed being in front of a camera as a child and pre-teen and continued in commercials and photo shoots. She took a three-year break while she had braces on her teeth, and then signed with a modeling agency when she was 15 and started photographic modeling for fashion catalogues.

Di Caprio's visit to Israel in October of 2007 caused quite a media frenzy. Bar told Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot: "I won't bring anyone famous to Israel because there is a chutzpah here that you won't see anywhere else."

She has also been the subject of controversy when she skipped compulsory military service by getting married to a family friend and then getting divorced not long after.

"Why is it good to die for our country?" she told Yediot Achronot. "Isn't it better to live in New York?"

She has no regrets for being a draft dodger. She said in the same newspaper, "It paid off big-time." The paper stood by its story when Bar's lawyer sent a letter stating that the comments were taken out of context.

According to Rafi, it's not important to have Bar live in Israel. "I like her wherever she loves to be, and if she's happy, I'm more happy."

A Yiddish word meaning audacity, for good or for bad; commonly used to imply something was gutsy. Derived from the Hebrew word for "insolence." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Laurie Heifetz

Laurie Heifetz is an entertainment and travel reporter. She writes for the New York Post, Nick Magazine and the Forward.

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