What’s Hebrew for Interfaith Marriage Is Part of Israel, Too?

By Laurie Heifetz

A Hebrew Lesson profiles some of the new immigrants who are struggling to learn Israel’s first language in the traditional ulpans, including Chin (front, C) and Dong Dong (front, R), Chinese women married to Israeli men.

Israel’s landscape is changing, and interfaith marriage is part of the new scenery.

That’s one conclusion to be drawn from the fascinating and sometimes humorous documentary A Hebrew Lesson, which was recently shown as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival. In the 123-minute film—whose Hebrew title, “Ha’Ulpan,” refers to the intensive language immersion course for new immigrants to Israel—several people are involved with interfaith relationships. There is Anabel, a German woman, who is not Jewish, but has a Jewish-Israeli boyfriend. And there are Chin and Dong Dong, two women, who are not Jewish, from China who are married to Jewish Israelis. (Rounding out the main cast of characters are Marisol, a Peruvian-Jewish woman; Sasha, a Russian-Jewish man; and Yoela, their lively Israeli teacher.)

Although the film, which followed its subjects for eight months, isn’t solely about interfaith relationships and intermarriage, it does raise some interesting questions. InterfaithFamily.com spoke to filmmaker-producer Elinor Kowarksy on the opening night of the Festival, January 8th.

What happened with Annabel, the beautiful, charming 35-year-old German woman who was dating Yoav in the film? You mentioned that after the film, they couldn’t resolve their differences.

She wanted to get married and have children. And he felt that he wasn’t sure yet about the relationship, and wanted to take his time. He’s younger than her, and she felt that she couldn’t wait any longer.

But it wasn’t because she wasn’t Jewish?

They had a lot of differences about how to raise the children, and I think for him, it was also a problem. He never said it up front, but this would always be an issue between them.

She didn’t want to convert?

No, she didn’t feel like converting. It wasn’t an option for her–not because she was religious in any other way. (She’s an atheist.) She didn’t see how this is related to their relationship.

That they split up in the end really took me by surprise. Wasn’t he in love with her–didn’t he want to marry her?

You know men; sometimes they take longer.

How did Dong Dong, the Chinese documentary filmmaker, meet Guy?

They met on vacation in China.

Dong Dong’s parents were opposed to her marrying an Israeli. What religion are they?

I don’t know. They were opposed because for a Chinese girl to marry a man who is not Chinese, it’s crazy. It’s marrying a foreigner. Just so you know, of course, they already liked Guy, and they came to Israel. They spent more than two months in Israel to help her with the baby. And so things changed a lot with them as well, once they met her husband and they learned to love him.

She didn’t convert either, did she?


And so their children won’t be considered Jewish according to Israeli law. And what about Chin–she got married in China, so they had a Chinese wedding. Is that recognized in Israel?

Yes, you can register as married. If your marriage is recognized in a different country, then you can register in the Ministry of Interior as married.

So when Annabel was talking about getting married in Germany–

In Germany, you can get married, but in Israel, you cannot get married through the Rabbinic Court.

She could’ve left, got married in Germany and come back to Israel.

If he would’ve agreed.

Are there a lot of intermarried couples in Israeli ulpans?

You see a lot of women that come because of love–that immigrate to Israel after having an Israeli boyfriend. That we saw a lot. But I cannot say anything about percentage because we never researched it at that level. We didn’t do any statistics.

The class in the film–was this a class you put together?

Yes, it was, but in general, in Tel Aviv, you will see more stories like that.

What did Chin’s husband, Ehud, do for a living?

He’s actually a producer for NBC in Israel–he’s a producer for foreign TV crews.

What’s their age difference?

[He’s] about 20 years [older].

When she was leaving for a trip home, he half joked that she might not come back and said, “Where am I going to find another Chinese wife?” You could hear a gasp from the audience.

This is what’s true about him. He loves her a lot, but he also has his macho way about him. He can say such a sentence, without understanding what it really means.

What was the reaction in Israel to the movie, and also more specifically to the interfaith topic?

I don’t think the intermarriage was such a big issue for the viewers. I think most of them were interested in the human stories and each and every character. People identified with things that they felt. So it’s more of an emotional reaction, identifying with the characters and their stories. The intermarriage didn’t get that much attention.

A Hebrew Lesson was recently shown as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.


About Laurie Heifetz

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