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(photo credit: Meredith Price)
When London native Simon Marks met Mimi Sebban at a summer ulpan in Jerusalem back in 1998, sparks flew. But Simon had no idea after their brief tryst that Mimi would actually accept a casual offer to visit him in England.
"She just turned up at the doorstep really," jokes Simon, smiling at Mimi across the table.
"I was invited," Mimi says quietly, unruffled by Simon's playful antics. "And even though I had to choose between the guy I was dating at the time who lived in Israel or starting a relationship with Simon, who had gone abroad, my choice was clear," explains Mimi. "As soon as I met Simon, I dumped the other guy."
Mimi was born and raised in a large family in the suburbs of Paris. After she completed a law degree at Paris Nord, she made aliya to Israel. Simon grew up in the Northwest corner of London, completing his law degree at the University of Manchester in the north of England. "Because my father is Israeli, I always had an idea I might one day come here."
When Mimi landed in Israel at the age of 21 in 1998, she was determined to stay. She completed a one-year program to convert her French law degree at Hebrew University and then started her career here. For Simon, the path to aliya was more complicated. "I came over the summer in 1998 before I started my two-year stage in law to study at ulpan. That's when I met Mimi," says Simon. "But I wasn't certain I wanted to live here."
The pair survived a two-year, long-distance relationship that slowly grew into something more serious. In 2000, Simon made aliya and on November 25, 2001, the couple married in Paris.
Their first child, Nathan, was born two years ago and Mimi is expecting their second baby in March.
"Somebody had to give," says Simon of their long separation. "I was in England and Mimi had gone to Paris so we could be closer for a few months, but the line of least resistance was to compromise and come to Israel. It was really either that or break up."
But it was too difficult financially and psychologically, and the young couple returned to England in 2003.
"There were no good jobs for lawyers, and bombs were going off every day. It was just too much of a struggle, but we left planning to return one day with deeper pockets and better jobs," says Simon.
After three years in England, they moved back to Israel this summer with their two-year-old son, Nathan.
Mimi's parents were both born in small villages in Algeria and moved to France during the Algerian war for independence. Upon their arrival in the southern port city of Marseilles, the North African Jews were given a choice: France or Israel. Mimi's maternal grandfather went to Israel with his family, while her paternal grandfather chose Marseille, separating her betrothed parents. "My Mom eventually left Israel and joined my father in France," says Mimi. They went on to have six children, of whom Mimi is the youngest.
Simon, who is sandwiched between two sisters who also live in Israel, is a third-generation English Jew of diverse heritage. His maternal grandparents came to England from Eastern Europe around the turn of the century, while his paternal grandparents moved from Turkey to Jerusalem around the same period of time. "I'm a mixed breed," says Simon. "My birth surname was Mizrachi until my Dad changed it to Marks."
His parents met when Simon's father was living in England and working in various jobs.
"At the moment, things are a bit cramped," says Simon. They are building a four-bedroom, semi-detached house with a small garden in Modi'in due for completion in March. In the interim, they are living in an apartment in Rishon Lezion owned by Mimi's parents. But they are not alone. Mimi's sister and husband, who were supposed to move into their new house by the end of August, are currently sharing the space. Yet, although it will be nice to have more space and privacy, parting with the live-in babysitters may not be so easy.
Always early risers, since the clock turned back an hour Mimi and Simon's wake-up call now comes even earlier. "We wake up at 5:30, get Nathan ready for creche, have breakfast and head out the door to work," says Mimi.
Simon takes the train to his office at Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, and Mimi takes the car to her office in Rehovot. Both work during the week and try to go out on Thursday evenings with friends. "We usually end up regretting going out when we have to wake up with Nathan at 5:30 on Friday morning," says Mimi.
"We have a lot of single friends, but we can't follow their lifestyle any more," says Mimi, who adds that 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls make going out at 10:30 p.m. nearly impossible. Simon's best friend from England lives in Ra'anana. "Most of our Israeli friends we actually met when we lived in England," says Mimi.
"I used to go to the gym," says Simon with a sigh. These days, he still manages to find time to run outside three times a week, but the gym is a thing of the past. Last year, Simon ran the London Marathon, but between working, spending time with family and regular runs, little time is left for hobbies. Mimi agrees. "I don't even have time to read any more," she laments. "I don't have time for anything of my own."
Meeting in the middle on religious issues has been critical for Simon and Mimi. Raised in an Orthodox French home, Mimi has become less observant while Simon, who was educated in a secular household, says he is much more observant than before. "I never wore long skirts or anything like that," says Mimi. "But I wasn't watching television on Shabbat either."
Mimi works as a paralegal in a patent attorney's office in Rehovot, just a few minutes down the road from her current home in Rishon. Simon is in corporate law and specializes in IPOs (Initial Public Offerings) for companies in the United Kingdom. Both Simon and Mimi found their positions before moving back to Israel, and are currently enjoying being able to work here, at last, in their respective fields.
A native speaker of French, Mimi now speaks perfect English with a British accent. "I didn't speak a word of English before I met Simon," she says. "And I've lost a lot of my Hebrew. It used to be better, but now I mainly use French and English so it's gotten rusty."
Simon says he also wants to improve his Hebrew because it comes in handy at work. "I speak passable French, especially after living in such close quarters with Mimi's family for the past few months."
"I think part of being Jewish is being destined to be a minority," says Simon. "The irony of making aliya is that you are still a minority. In England, you are a minority because you're Jewish, but in Israel, you're still a minority because while you may be Jewish, you're still not Israeli. We're still part of a smaller sub-group."
With successful careers, one beautiful son and another child on the way, as well as a new house in Modi'in, Simon and Mimi say they can't imagine living their dreams in a better way. "I want to feel more settled," says Mimi, "but we just want to lead a happy, normal life."
Simon agrees, but says that discovering more of Israel's landscape and rising just a little bit later in the morning would be great too.
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