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Letters From Tel Aviv

Marriage, Israeli Style

For Israelis of a certain age, marriage beckons. But in this cradle of so many religions, a tangle of ancient rules and modern laws makes things surprisingly complicated.

Gordon Cook, Man in Tuxedo, 1984. Courtesy of George Krevsky Gallery.

In my six months in Israel, I’ve been invited to family dinners, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, and Independence Day picnics. I’ve gotten neatly printed cards for baby showers, farewell receptions, and singles-only mixers. Israelis are quick to include a new friend, and my days were packed enough that it took me a while to notice: no weddings. I’ve never been invited to, or even heard about, a wedding, at least among the secular Jews who make up 40 percent or so of Israel’s population. When I innocently asked a friend about it, I expected a bland “Oh, we’re soooo over marriage here” answer, or at least an awkward conversation about my behavior at the last event I was invited to. The truth, though, ended up being a lot more complicated, reaching back to the Ottoman Empire and forward to my grandkids, making a Birthright tour and a stop in Cyprus along the way.

While Israel is counted among the Western liberal democracies of the world—with free and fair elections, institutionalized free speech, and even a spot at the Eurovision table—Israel has no civil marriage, only religious marriage. That’s a pretty hard concept for an American like me to digest.

A Jew can marry a Jew in an orthodox Jewish wedding. A Muslim can marry a Muslim in a traditional Muslim wedding, and a Christian can marry another Christian in a Christian wedding, most easily if they’re from the same sect. There is legally no such thing as intermarriage. For a Jew to marry a Muslim, or a Muslim to marry a Christian or any other mixed couple to want to start a melting pot life together, one of them must first convert to satisfy the demands of whichever religious leader will be performing the ceremony. And even if two people are of the same religion, there’s no civil alternative if they don’t want a religious ceremony—no justice of the peace or courthouse clerk or Elvis at the Go-Go Chapel.

Even if two people are of the same religion, there’s no civil alternative if they don’t want a religious ceremony—no justice of the peace or courthouse clerk or Elvis at the Go-Go Chapel.

For Jews, the rabbinical councils that vet couples apply strict Old Testament rules to the marriages. Kohens, descendents of the priestly caste, cannot marry converts to Judaism, no matter how in love they may be. Mamzers, the children of adulterous relationships, can only marry converts or other mamzers, never a Kohen.

The current situation for marriage in Israel is based on rules inherited from the Ottoman Empire, which delegated marriage laws to each religious community. The British Mandate after World War I modified and formalized the go-your-own-way system, and passed it along to the new state of Israel. Each religion—Judaism, Islam, and nine branches of non-Protestant Christianity—gets its own body to decide who can marry whom. While the other branches are accepting of some degree of intermarriage, the Rabbinical Council—in charges of the loves lives of millions of Jewish Israelis—takes a hard line against intermarriage. They will not allow any Jew to marry any non-Jew. And with no civil alternative, after all is said and done, people wanting or needing to marry in Israel outside of this handful of government-recognized religions have nowhere to turn. While some play off the lack of civil Israeli marriage laws as a quirk of history, others take it as a deliberate attempt to prevent intermarriage.

The real truth is that Jews are very worried about intermarriage, because intermarriage makes half-Jewish babies, and half-Jewish babies, at least half the time, aren’t Jewish at all. Since Jewishness is inherited matrilineally, when a Jewish man decides to marry a non-Jewish woman, his descendents are lost to the tribe forever, barring conversion on somebody’s part. That’s bad. When a Jewish woman decides to marry a non-Jewish man, her kids are still Jewish but, let’s be realistic, at least in America, will their hearts really be in it?

This isn’t just a hypothetical problem; it’s happening at a rapid pace, at least in the U.S., where almost 50 percent of all American marriages involving a Jew, according to the most recent survey, have been to a non-Jewish partner. I know this not only from statistics but from my own family. I’m the product of, depending on your perspective, either the great success or the great failure of American Jewry. My father is Jewish, my mother was raised Lutheran. In the U.S., I’m half-Jewish. In Israel, I’m a Christian, never mind that I was raised Unitarian-Universalist and that neither my mother nor I hold a deep abiding faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of Humanity.

Which isn’t to say I’m the odd duck out in Israel. There is a plethora of Jews here. Ashkenazi Jews, which I knew from my time in New York. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, which I didn’t. Ethiopian and Northeast Indian Jews, whose very existence I couldn’t previously imagine. There is also a solid mass of Soviet immigrants in the same boat as me—a Jewish parent or grandparent on the “wrong” side. It’s enough to get you to the fair, but you’re still not tall enough to ride.

From this came two children—add them together, and you get a full Jew; take them apart and you get the face of American Jewish assimilation.

Intermarriage and assimilation are powerful forces to see at work. We start with my paternal grandparents, who were Jewish like I’m short, American, and love Patsy Cline. Everyone in their family was Jewish; it was an incontrovertible fact of their existence. They had two sons. My uncle married a Jewish woman and made Jewish babies. Babies who married non-Jews and gave me half-Jewish cousins. My father held out one generation less. My dad’s first wife was Jewish, not only Jewish but a prominent Holocaust scholar. Maybe it was too much for him, maybe he’s a difficult man to remain married to, maybe he wanted to trade in for a younger model, but eventually they divorced and he married my mother, the aforementioned Lutheran, of Scandinavian descent. And from this came two children—add them together, and you get a full Jew; take them apart and you get the face of American Jewish assimilation.

To some (not me!), it gets worse. My boyfriend is Indian-American. Maybe one day we will have little one-quarter Jewish, one-quarter Scandinavian, one-half Indian babies. At that point, Judaism will become a fun fact, one step up from that annoying kid in elementary school who wouldn’t shut up about how he’s 1/16th Native American but never could remember what tribe he’s from.

There was a tipping point here, though I’ll never know exactly where or when it was. Had my dad not been a scientist with a lifetime subscription to Skeptical Inquirer, had my mom had any less love for Christmas carols, had we lived in New York or New Jersey, not South Carolina, my brother and I might have permanently tipped toward “Jew.”

Which isn’t to say my brother and I haven’t felt pressure from that direction, mostly coming from the burgeoning U.S. industry devoted to convincing Jews to settle down with other Jews. JDate, anyone?

My brother went on a Birthright trip. I think he was more enticed by the idea of an all-expenses paid trip abroad than finding his Jewish roots, but that’s probably the hook of the thing. He had a good time, which is not hard; they make sure you do, putting attractive young soldiers—both men and women—on your tour bus and scheduling in plenty of unsupervised beach and clubbing time. One of Birthright’s explicit goals is to stop the assimilation and intermarriage of American Jews. Nominally, they do this by getting young Jews in touch with their roots, and it actually has been shown to make participants more likely to seek out a Jewish partner late in life. Of course, what Birthright really does is run two-week programs where you put a bunch of college-age Jews on a bus together and see how many hookups you can produce. Birthright couples are such a phenomenon that the Birthright website specifically clarifies that, contrary to urban legend, the group does not provide a free honeymoon in Israel for any couple that meets on the trip.

The irony is that, if Birthright’s plan were to work, and my brother were to fall madly, deeply in love with the 22-year-old soldier assigned to guard his group, no dice. He could never marry her, at least not in Israel. Because he is the product of intermarriage, the Israeli system locks him out of returning to fold, at least barring a year-long Orthodox conversion process, the same one someone with no Jewish roots would undergo.

But just because Israel doesn’t facilitate intermarriage doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Half-Jewish people and Arab-Israelis and Moldovan caregivers and Finnish expats will eventually fall in love with someone on the wrong side of the religious line. And then the couple will hop a one-hour flight to Cyprus and get married there. Cyprus is happy to unite any combination of religions and nationalities in a marriage that is cheap, civil, and legally binding is Israel. Friends of mine (American Protestant, Mexican Catholic—wrong sects for an Israeli wedding) report their flight was full to the brim with couples, some planning to make the return trip that same day.

So, the mystery of the missing weddings is finally solved. Israelis are getting married, just one country over in effort to dodge restrictive marriage laws—laws designed to address a problem that I’m part of but one I can’t feel too bad about. Freedom to marry is a basic civil right—one my parents exercised and one I plan to get around to exercising one of these days. While a fundamentalist religious right with a reactionary political bent may fight against marriage freedom in Israel, I believe that in the end common sense and true love will win out. The Arab Spring brought calls for greater freedoms all across the region; Israel may enjoy making itself to exception to every Middle Eastern trope, but the complaining masses will eventually come knocking on the doors here, asking for and receiving the right to marry whomever they want. It’s a result that really has no downside, other than the fact the Cyprus Tourist Board will have to come up with a target demographic besides lovesick 20-something Israelis. Maybe snorkelers?

Annalise Koltun may be functionally illiterate in Hebrew, but she shines in French, merci. She currently lives in Tel Aviv, but was born in Chicago, and roots for Cubs, Hawks, Bears, and Bulls. More by Annalise Koltun

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