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‘Perfect Strangers’ Drawn to Each Other’s Worlds

Posted October 14, 2018 2:21 p.m. EDT
Updated October 14, 2018 2:25 p.m. EDT

Assaf Kedem and Erika Woods cut their wedding cake during the reception at the Barn at Shady Lane, outside Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 22, 2018. Once "perfect strangers," the two were drawn to each other's worlds. (Robert Rausch/The New York Times)

When Assaf Kedem and Erika Woods exchanged messages on the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel in May 2017, which ended with Woods’ giving him her number after some cajoling, they were “worlds apart,” as she put it.

Entering each other’s orbit would indeed be difficult for Kedem, an Israeli-American living in Brooklyn, and Woods, an African-American from Birmingham, Alabama, living in Manhattan, who was 10 years his junior.

There was also a height difference of several inches. “I’m 5 feet 2 inches tall,” he said. “Erika is 5 feet 5 inches with a penchant for wearing 4-inch heels.”

They also had “no mutual acquaintances,” he said. “We were perfect strangers.”

Despite their cultural and physical disparities, they forged ahead, rising above interracial dating hurdles and delving deeper into each other’s lives.

“Apart from her beautiful smile,” Kedem said, “there was a warmth that radiated from her online photo.”

Woods was equally taken with his profile. “He was clearly good-looking and seemed very intelligent. He also had a very interesting background.”

When Kedem, who said he is a “student of life,” finally got the chance to ask Woods for a first date, she gave him a pop quiz — on Israeli politics.

“As a black woman who had never dated an Israeli man, I just wanted to see where his head was and how critically he thought about things,” said Woods, 35, a vice president at Coty, the multinational beauty company, for which she oversees marketing of the Cover Girl brand.

Kedem, 45, a communications strategist, author and adjunct instructor of communications at Columbia, had no problem answering questions about Israel, having lived there for 17 years.

He was 9 when his family moved from West Hempstead, New York, to Tel Aviv, where he graduated from the Israeli Institute of Technology. He also spent three years in the Israeli Air Force and was honorably discharged with the rank of staff sergeant.

At 26, Kedem left Tel Aviv for Manhattan for a job offer, leaving behind his parents, Ann and Gideon Kedem, as well as his sister, Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem.

He eventually received a master’s degree in strategic communications from Columbia, and at 35, moved to Brooklyn, where he bought an apartment. This year, he became an author with the release of “The Investment Writing Handbook” (Wiley & Sons).

“By asking me about Israeli politics, Erika was sizing me up. She wanted to see how I expressed myself,” Kedem said. “I guess she was impressed with my answer, because the next day we went on our first date.”

Their initial get-together took place at a Manhattan restaurant, where Kedem began “my own little litmus test.”

“As soon as she sat down, she hunched over,” he said. “Her body language was one of someone who really wanted to listen and get to know me, which is something that I found lacking in the dating world, so she passed my test with flying colors.”

They sat and talked for three hours, retracing the steps each had taken along the paths that would connect their worlds.

Woods graduated from Wellesley College and received an MBA from Stanford. Her father, Dr. Eddie Woods Jr., is a dentist in private practice in Birmingham, where her mother, JeCynthia Woods, works as the office manager. Her sister, Edrian Woods, 25, lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I could tell by Erika’s choice of words and nuances that she was a very intelligent woman,” Kedem said. “She was also very sensitive and thoughtful, and had a gentle way about her. She was kind of like the lady version of a mensch.”

Kedem told Woods that his mother was a clinical psychologist at AMCHA, a support center in Tel Aviv for Holocaust survivors. His father retired as the director of the department of medical photography at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and was also the former president of the Professional Photographers Association of Israel.

Kedem, who referred to himself as “an R&B aficionado,” owned a large, all-digital classic soul music collection from the 1960s and ‘70s. “Some people say I was born the wrong color,” he said, laughing. “The music I loved was the same music that Erika and her family were brought up on in the South, so that was one of our first huge connections.”

In June 2017, less than a month into their relationship, Woods joined Kedem on a trip to Puerto Rico that both agreed went exceedingly well. “We just seemed to hit on all the right compatible notes,” Kedem said.

Two weeks later, Woods invited Kedem to join her on a family trip to Birmingham for the Fourth of July. “I called my parents and said ‘I just met someone and want to bring him home with me for the holiday,” Woods said. “When I said he was Jewish, my mom said, ‘That’s fine, but is he going to be OK at the family barbecue?'”

Woods had bought her airline tickets months before she met Kedem, so he was left to book the only other available flight, which would get him to the Birmingham airport four hours before she would.

“I told Erika I would wait for her at the airport, but she said, ‘Absolutely not, there will be no such thing,'” Kedem said.

She arranged for her father to pick him up, a potentially awkward situation that Kedem took in stride. “If it were anyone else, I probably would have felt uncomfortable,” he said. “But in getting to know Erika, I assumed that she came from a very lovely, like-minded family, so I wasn’t nervous at all.”

Just before heading to the airport, Kedem gave Woods a kiss, then stunned her by blurting out his first “I love you,” before shuffling out the door.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” she said. “I just kind of stood there, frozen.”

When Kedem arrived in Birmingham, he was well received by Eddie Woods, who was playfully holding up a sign with Kedem’s name on it.

“We bonded immediately,” said Woods, who proceeded to take Kedem home to meet the rest of his family.

“The ride was fabulous,” Kedem said. “We had a deep talk about the importance of education, politics and economics.”

The first thing Kedem noticed when he entered their home was a small blackboard in the kitchen with the words “Welcome Assaf,” scrawled in chalk.

“No one pointed it out, I just happened to see it,” he said. “It was a reflection of the warmth and kindness I found in Erika.”

They began chatting about food, music and all things Israel while Erika Woods, still midflight, began sending waves of nervous texts to Kedem. She kept asking, “How are things going?” And he kept responding with thumbs-up emojis.

That weekend, Woods took Kedem to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and renowned 16th Street Baptist Church.

“When we got home, we had a serious, late-night discussion about our future,” she said.

It began with that kiss-and-run “I love you” in Brooklyn. “How did you mean that?” Woods asked. “Was it a mistake or were you being serious?”

When Kedem told her “it was a real-deal ‘I love you,'” she immediately responded in kind.

“By the time that weekend was over,” Kedem said. “I knew I wanted to marry her.”

Roberta Bouer, a childhood friend of Kedem, said she knew from the start that he found a keeper in Woods. “I met his other girlfriends, and he would call me and say, ‘What do you think,'” Bouer said. “I would say, lovely girl, but I don’t think she’s the one. When I met Erika, you could feel the love between them. It was palpable.”

On Sept. 14, 2017, which happened to be Eddie Woods’ birthday, Kedem called to ask for his oldest daughter’s hand in marriage.

“It was heavy news for him to absorb,” Kedem said. “He just sort of took a deep breath, and it got a bit emotional.”

Later that month, Erika Woods met Kedem’s parents for the first time when they visited for a Rosh Hashana celebration. They brought gifts to her Manhattan apartment, and Kedem’s mother wrote what Woods described as “a beautiful card welcoming me to the family and thanking me for making her son so happy.”

Soon after, Kedem took Woods and his parents to Lake George, New York, where, on Oct. 1, 2017, he proposed. A week later, the Kedem family met the Woods family for the first time, in Atlanta, where Ann Kedem was attending a family therapy conference.

“We broke bread together,” Ann Kedem said, and speaking of Woods, she added, “I realized this wonderful woman comes from a wonderful family.

“She had everything he wanted in a partner: kindness, intelligence, sensitivity and her aesthetic sense,” she said. “I knew my son had chosen well.”

Eddie Woods knew much the same about his daughter. “After the Atlanta trip, my dad had a real sense of relief,” Erika Woods said. “He was like, ‘Now that I’ve met his parents, I feel really good about this.'”

But not everyone in her circle expressed such confidence.

“I have one friend who kept cautioning me, telling me, ‘you’re moving along too fast, you don’t really know this guy,’ and that being in an interracial relationship can sometimes be very hard,” Woods said. “I just told her, look, the worst that could happen to me is that I get my heart broken, and if that’s the case I’ll get over it.”

On Sept. 21, Kedem and Woods were legally married by Rabbi Barry Altmark in a brief civil ceremony in Birmingham, and later that night they hosted a party for family and friends at the Vulcan Park and Museum.

The next day, the couple took part in a symbolic wedding celebration that fused Jewish and African-American traditions. The ceremony was led by the groom’s sister at the Barn at Shady Lane, an events space on the outskirts of Birmingham, and was followed by a reception there.

“It was a wedding inspired by Moses and Martin Luther King, by Miriam the Prophetess and Rosa Parks,” Cohen-Kedem said.

The bride, dazzling before some 200 guests in a floor-length strapless ballgown in ice-blue jacquard, and the groom, dapper in a custom-made, fitted blue tuxedo with black lapels, drank from a silver Kiddush cup that Kedem’s parents used at their wedding 48 years ago.

Standing beneath a huppah suspended from the rafters and bedecked in blue delphiniums, pink quicksand roses, and white snapdragons, peonies and garden roses, the couple exchanged rings and glowing words about each other.

“I get to marry not one, not two, but three of the most beautiful words in the English language: Erika Bethea Woods,” the groom said in part.

“Assaf, our love is sacred and makes me feel lifted and closer to God,” the bride said.

Once perfect strangers, their two worlds had become one.