Wine therapy: A race to the finish

A couple who captured the hearts of the Israeli public on a reality show are just as much fun off the screen.

Derech Hagefen Restaurant (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Derech Hagefen Restaurant
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Their troubles began when instead of playing golf and babysitting their grandchildren, married couple Ronney Zaltzman and Andrea Simantov decided to be daring and sign up for the Israeli version of The Amazing Race. They came fully prepared, with determination, motivation and oodles of life experience. And yet, despite the best of intentions, their dreams of winning the grand prize came to an abrupt end in Madrid, when a raging bull rammed into Zaltzman’s legs in a challenge that required him to play the matador.
In their emotional farewell during the fifth episode, Zaltzman heroically hobbled on crutches to the finish line, with Simantov supporting him the entire way.
And while it took the local Israeli audience time to digest the cultural differences of the unusual pair, eventually they fell in love with the endearing couple and grew to appreciate their unique sense of humor.
This is a second marriage for Simantov (58) and Zaltzman (61). It was reassuring to discover that they are exactly the same quirky, fun-loving team even when not on camera. Not knowing how they felt about steak after such a close encounter with an angry bull, I decided to forgo the beef and instead took them to a gourmet dairy restaurant.
The goal: To uncover the secret of Zaltzman and Simantov’s happy marriage the second time around, older and wiser.
The means: Ya’aron 2010 wine and a meal at the gourmet Derech Hagefen restaurant in scenic Beit Zayit.
How did you two meet?
Simantov: We met at SHALVA-The Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel. When I started working there everyone was very young and I was already 53. When I saw [Zaltzman] manning the security station, my immediate reaction was, “He’s adorable, like a teddy bear. When I noticed on his desk an excellent novel, an open Talmud and saw that he wore a gun, I lost my breath.
Perfect! And to be even more brutally honest, I figured that he was married because he looked so content and well-fed.
Zaltzman: Do I look happy and fat now?
Simantov: Each day as we exchanged greetings, I became even more certain that he was married because I’d been dating for a long time and was convinced no woman would give up such a guy. I even told a few of my friends that God had shown me the exact model of the man that suits me and that I’d be looking for a similar version. One day I came to the office and there was no one there. I asked around and learned that everyone had gone to the unveiling of his recently deceased wife, Ruchie. I nearly fell out of my chair, seriously conflicted. On one hand – should I lie? I thought, “Great! He’s available!” But this information made me see him in a new light and I felt awash with sadness. In a million years, I never thought that that was part of the equation.
I waited for him to make the first move, and when he invited me out to coffee my heart was pounding and I thought that my thoughts were leaking out of my ears.
I’m lucky that he is so spacey and didn’t even notice. Seriously, he didn’t have a clue that I was crazy about him.
Zaltzman: We’re still considered newlyweds and I can’t say anything I’m going to regret later.
What makes you laugh?
Zaltzman: Every day we laugh about life. We both went through so much and if we take everything too seriously we wouldn’t be able to do anything. This is also the secret of our relationship; we always – always – look for the up-side, the bright part.
Even when we look back at the crises we had early before we met – lots of heartache, disappointment, fear – we transformed all the sadness to joy and feel appreciation for what we “learned” from the experience and how we use it to redefine our attitudes and lives. We get up every morning at 5:30, drink coffee and take that time to reflect and reconnect to one another – the most important parts of our lives.
Simantov: It allows us to start the day “in gratitude” and know that whatever happens throughout the day, it started as a winner! Ronney taught me to be optimistic and this is the greatest gift he has given me. Of course I would prefer cash, but this isn’t bad! Zaltzman: When we got back from the race, I was discharged from the hospital.
Back home in Israel, I was using a walking stick and my entire body was banged up. Straight from the airport we collapsed into bed – it was 11 on a Friday morning – and the only thing I could say before we both passed out was, “This was the stu- 28 MAY 2, 2014 WINE THERAPY pidest idea I ever had!” We both burst out laughing.
When was the last time you cried?
Simantov: When all of the couples from the race stood around us and told us how much they love us. The experience of being loved by strangers was very emotional.
Zaltzman: It was a very emotional moment. I still get teary thinking about it.
What is the most significant event that shaped your adult lives?
Zaltzman: When my son was born. I remember it to this day. I was a young and wild kid, only 22. When he was born my life changed completely.
Simantov: Making aliya in 1995. I was 39, with six children. I left behind a very good and comfortable life mainly because it felt right, even though it was scary. But I was adamant about staying here even though I had no job skills and barely spoke Hebrew. That decision allowed the rest of my narrative to unfold.
In what situation did you prevail against all odds?
Simantov: I made a conscious decision to grab life by the horns every day, every hour, every minute, and discovered a fierce determination to survive with dignity or die trying. Suddenly single, I would not give up. I cleaned houses, went to the shuk at closing for the cheapest fruits and vegetables and wore the same clothing for almost two years! I was later able to view the difficulties from this trying period as a gift, awaking a sensitivity to others where I’d once been oblivious.
Who do you miss most?
Zaltzman: My grandchildren.
Simantov: Of course my grandchildren.
Zaltzman: When we got married we decided that instead of having children...
Simantov: Oh, groan! Zaltzman: ...we would work very hard on having more grandchildren!
A secret that nobody knows about you...
Simantov: Here’s a secret that even Ronney doesn’t know. It’s confession time: After we got married Ronney was very busy so I took it upon myself to organize the wardrobe in the new house. Among other things, he is a really bad dresser. When I went to go pack up his clothes from his old home I was shocked by the clothes I saw; there were 90 pairs of socks and tons of clothes that went out of fashion years ago. Understanding that he was a Level A hoarder, I donated 11 bags to charity. One day he asked me where I’d hung his shirt from our wedding. I told him that I hadn’t seen it recently.
Zaltzman: What!? Do you have any idea how much it cost me? Simantov: I’ll buy you a new one.
Zaltzman: We’ll talk about it later.
Simantov: Uh, maybe not...
What’s your favorite Israeli wine?
Zaltzman: Yarden, it’s a great wine.
Simantov: I agree with Ronney, this is an outstanding wine.
If you could give one piece of advice based on your experiences...
Zaltzman: During the race I realized that the Israelis don’t know immigrants and most immigrants don’t know Israelis.
It’s too bad. The other “merotzniks” [race participants] told me that they always thought that Anglos are snobs. I, on the other hand, always thought that the Israelis weren’t interested in knowing us, only in taking our donations. But when we started to really talk and laugh together, our relationships deepened and the differences seemed much smaller.
Simantov: Israelis must learn to be nicer. In Israel, I see too many irritable people who don’t behave kindly to one other; I’m determined not to adopt those habits. We need to invest a lot of energy in learning to become familiar with one another and not just communicate in “sound bites.” This may discourage new olim but my message to them is, “If you expect the Israelis to hug you or pat you on the back for making aliya, don’t come. Be prepared to work hard and endure extraordinary struggles – this is the only way you will learn to know and love Israel.”
What’s your funniest joke?
Zaltzman: A man dreams he’s dead, and in the dream he goes to Hell. Much to his surprise he finds the good life: beer, girls, good food. Two weeks later he really dies, and goes to Heaven, where he’s told, “You have equal merits and faults so you can choose – Heaven or Hell.” Remembering his dream, he chooses Hell – but is horrified to discover that it is an awful place with burning lava and hard labor.
He turns to the devil in charge and asks him, “What happened?” To which the Devil responds, “Last time you were a tourist. Now you’re an oleh!”