I have been an Israeli for a year, now, having made aliyah late in September 2017. I left my family behind in Cleveland, as well as family and friends elsewhere in the States, to make a new home with the man I hoped to marry shortly after I arrived in Jerusalem. In our hearts and minds, we are married, but officially, no such luck, thanks to the Rabbinate.
We met while working for the same Israeli-based company. We have the same last name, you see, which started the ball rolling. At the time, my “husband,” as I now call him, began asking me about my family history. Although our Eastern European families originated near one another, we were unable to find a common connection.
Our relationship continued to grow, and after hours upon hours of Skyping and hundreds of emails, we finally met in person in the States. Yet, I knew before I even met him, that we were meant to be together. It was bashert. And, even though he is Orthodox, and I was raised as a Reform Jew, I agreed that I would follow the laws of Kashrut and strictly observe Shabbos.
I made aliyah through the support of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helped me wade through the requirements necessary for me (and my cat, who needed more paperwork than I did) to make the journey to Israel. I was excited, not only to marry the love of my life, but to become more immersed in my Judaism. I’ve always felt a deep connection to Israel. I was not an observant Jew, but I AM a Jew, which leads me to the crux of this tale.
Soon after I arrived in Jerusalem, my fiancé and I went to the Rabbinate to seek permission to open a file so that we could marry. I was asked for my proof of Judaism. The letter, attesting to my Judaism, was written by one of the rabbis of Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio — a temple formerly led by one of America’s leading rabbi’s — Rav Abba Hillel Silver (1893-1963), who is best known for mobilizing American and world support for the founding of the State of Israel.
The letter I held had been signed by a female rabbi, and the letterhead contained the names of other male rabbis affiliated with the congregation. We were denied a file, because, according to the Rabbinate, the document I held attesting to the fact of my Jewishness offered no proof of it after all. It was from a Reform Temple.
Really? My mother was Jewish, as is my father, but he doesn’t count, even though he’s still my hero. My maternal grandmother was Jewish, as was my great-grandmother, and so on and so forth. Do you know how it feels to be told you’re not a Jew, after you’ve made aliyah and you’re standing on Israeli soil? It’s hurtful and humiliating.
The odd thing was that the Rabbinate also questioned my husband’s Judaism, as they could find no file on him. Had it not been for his eldest son, who had recently opened a file for his own marriage, my fiancé would not have been accepted either. Another odd thing – he attended yeshiva in Jerusalem and is an ordained rabbi. Where are the electronic records of such things and why is the Rabbinate ignorant about these facts?
During the past year, we brainstormed on ways in which I could prove my Judaism. My mother passed away 12 years ago from brain cancer. And, even if my beloved mother were alive and testified as to her Jewish ancestry before the Rabbinate, I doubt they’d believe her. Dad says they never wrote a Ketubah. It wasn’t done in the Reform movement at that time – generally speaking. We spoke to an Orthodox rabbi that my fiancé had met while visiting me in Cleveland, but he was reluctant to vouch for me, having only met me on one occasion, not that he didn’t believe that I’m a Jew, he said. We made a few calls, but everyone seemed afraid of getting involved. After all, you don’t want to cross the Rabbinate. You might end up blacklisted.
It was my sister who came to our rescue. She had done much research on Ancestry.com, and had not only established a family tree, but stumbled on a record of a ship manifest that my maternal grandmother and her family appeared on, as they made the journey from Rotterdam to New York. The manifest clearly states “Berdichev” as my maternal family’s “city of origin,” and “Hebrew” under the heading “people or race” (my sister traced other family members to towns, such as Lublin, Wlodawa, Chelm and Bychawa). I also have in my file, a photo of the gravestone of my maternal great-grandmother, with a Hebrew inscription, as well as that of my mother’s twin sister, who had died as a child.
My fiancé and I returned to the Rabbinate, having this information in hand a few days before Yom Kippur. The Rabbinate wouldn’t even look at the documents. We have to go to a different Rabbinical Court and first prove my Judaism, before we return to the Chief Rabbinate for the third time.
I’m really tempted to pack it in, travel to Cyprus and get married there. But something in me wants to keep fighting. After all, look at my family’s history. Berdichev is perhaps best known for Rebbe Levi Yitzchak (1740–1809), also referred to as the Berdichever. R. Levi Yitzchak was known as the “defense attorney” for the Jewish people, because he believed in interceding on their behalf before God. His compassion for every Jew made him one of the most beloved leaders of Eastern European Jewry. He authored the Hassidic classic, Kedushas Levi, which is a commentary on many Jewish religious books and laws, and is arranged according to the weekly Torah portion.
While Berdichev has a rich Jewish history, its Jews were also the target of pogroms prior to World War II. In the fall of 1941, tens of thousands of Jews from Berdichev were massacred. It was the Einsatzgruppen’s trial run at mass shooting Jews into pits dug into the earth. The historic Jewish community of Berdichev was wiped out – nearly half the town. It was the center of Eastern European Judaism in the day.
Dear rabbis of the Rabbinate: How can you ask me to prove that I’m a Jew? If I had lived during that time, my blood would have been just as red as yours. After all, I am a Jew, too.
Time has passed. I have lived in Israel for a year now. And, while having had an amazing year, we are no closer to getting officially married than we were one year ago. Having just observed Yom Kippur, I recall the meaning of some of the 24 key expressions behind the Viduy prayer.
Take for example: He’evinu – by our words and deeds, we have influenced people to change from idealists to cynics. Latznu – we have ridiculed honest and dedicated people. A’hvinu – our speech and attitudes have become brazen and rude. Be’imutz halev – through hardness of heart, we have refused to admit we might be wrong. We have the attitude, “I am always right!” God gave us free will so that we could make intelligent choices, not so that we should refuse to see the truth. And, Bechozek yad – Through arrogance, we have developed an exaggerated sense of power.
I know I am not the only Jew who feels slighted by the Rabbinate’s decisions. I’ve been told not to take it personally, but it is personal. All Orthodox Jews are not the same; nor are Conservative or Reform Jews. We should be treated as individuals, and not as a lump sum group. Can and should the Rabbinate really afford to alienate their own people? Given all the anti-Semitism in the world – I’d think not.
So, my “husband” and I will go on. It’s ironic that I’m more observant now than I ever was, and yet, I need proof of Judaism. We sought advice from an attorney who literally told us to do what everyone else does — go off to Cyprus and get married. Maybe we will.
In our hearts and in our souls, we already are happily married. Although we would still like to make it official.