I can’t say I’m thrilled about Chelsea Clinton marrying Marc Mezvinsky this weekend. I mean, if she’s already marrying someone Jewish, couldn’t she have fallen in love with someone in my family? I don’t really mean that, of course, and not only because I’m delighted that all of our sons are already spoken for.
But I am envious that this interfaith couple doesn’t have to contend with a problem that one of our children has to: living in Israel.
YAIR HAS been going out with Veronica for nearly four years. A few weeks
ago, he decided it was time to get engaged, got down on his knee and
asked for Veronica’s hand in marriage, ready to place a sparkling
diamond on her finger. Her response was more stunning than the ring, and
the ring was really stunning.
Veronica told Yair there was something she’d been keeping from him.
Since the day they’d met, she told him, she’d been terrified of this
moment when she would have to share with him what she was about to.
She prayed he wouldn’t leave her. “I’m kind of not Jewish,” she said, her voice trembling. Yair was stupefied.
Turns out his beloved, born in Russia, had a Jewish father and a
non-Jewish mother. Having moved here at 12, Veronica later told us,
she’d spent the first half of her life hiding the fact that she was
Jewish; the next half she spent hiding that she wasn’t. She went to
school here, served in the army and lived the Jewish calendar as did all
of her nonobservant friends.
She feels herself as Jewish as any of them, completely identifies with
Israel as a Jewish state and is proud of her contribution to the Zionist
dream. She’s thankful for everything that she and her family have
gotten from this country. There’s only one thing she’s still asking for:
She wants in.
For years Veronica has yearned to convert, but the demands made upon her
by the Chief Rabbinate are far in excess of what she can deliver. She
won’t tell them she’s prepared to observe all the commandments.
She won’t promise to send her children to a religious school. They won’t settle for anything less.
Yair can’t imagine anything but a Jewish wedding. He can’t conceive (pardon the pun) of having children who won’t be Jewish.
“What do I do?” he asked me. Suddenly I’d become a statistic. Actually,
the statistic became a person, with a beautiful face and a delightful
That amorphous body of 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union was no longer just a headline.
It had knocked up against my family and wanted to marry into it.
Cut back to Chelsea and Marc. “What are you going on about?” I imagine
them asking me impatiently as they go about the final preparations for
their own wedding. “Just tell them to decide what kind of ceremony they
want, and do it. Later the kids can choose to be anything they want.
The bride’s mom concurs, for real. “Over the years, so many of the
barriers that prevented people from getting married, crossing lines of
faith or color or ethnicity have just disappeared,” she says, in words
quoted on the pages of The Jerusalem Post last week.
“Because what’s important is: ‘Are you making a responsible decision?
Have you thought it through? Do you understand the consequences?’ And I
think in the world that we’re in today, we need more of that.”
Have they? Do we? Is Chelsea on her way to becoming Jewish? The gossip columns are full of speculation.
“Many non-Jewish spouses are going through sociological conversions
rather than rabbinical conversions,” Prof. Steven Cohen, eminent
sociologist of American Jewry and personal friend, tells me in another
article on the subject that appeared in this paper. “They’re becoming in
effect members of the Jewish community without official rabbinical
instruction or authorization. Sociological conversions may be the
biggest denomination of converts today.”
Now there’s a novel idea. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, MK David Rotem! Sociological conversions.
Outrageous. Heretical. The end of the Jewish people.
Or just the opposite, as that is precisely what’s happening.
Right here. Right now.
FOR TWO decades we’ve prevented many thousands of Jewishly-inclined
souls from taking their place under the state-sanctioned huppa, and as
that is the only wedding canopy legally recognized in this country, we
have effectively done our best to exclude them from joining the family.
But Veronica won’t just disappear.
At least I hope not. Does Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman? He claims
to speak in her interests and those of his disenfranchised constituency.
What does he think will really happen if the Rotem bill on conversion
were actually passed into law? Thankfully the Knesset went into summer
recess without bringing the proposed legislation to a vote, which means
he has at least three months to come up with an answer. But I don’t have
that luxury with Yair, whose question I left hanging above.
“It’s really not a problem,” I assured him, “if the two of you are prepared to join the revolution.”
After decades of battling on the front lines dividing religion and state
in this country, I could hardly contain my excitement over having two
“You and Veronica are going to have to stand up for what you believe in and mount the barricades.
Things are only going to change when enough of you say enough is enough.”
A few days later my wife and I accompany the kids to the offices of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement.
After establishing that the intentions of the bride-tobe are sincere,
the rabbis we meet with outline the study, behavior and ritual that
stand between her and the pedigree she seeks. The demands are
reasonable, the standards commendable and the atmosphere convivial.
Veronica actually leaves excited about the opportunity to learn things
that our Education Ministry has inexplicably decided to leave out of our
children’s course of studies. Like finding your way through the prayer
book. Yair will in all likelihood join her. And they will both accompany
us to synagogue to ensure that they experience the splendor of our
tradition and not merely learn about it.
Yet, at the end of this process, when Veronica emerges from the mikve
transformed, this country will still not permit her to marry.
“You’re serious?” Marc asks me incredulously at his and Chelsea’s
reception that I’m fantasizing about attending. “Yep,” I confirm, as I
grab something off the tray of kosher finger-foods circulating alongside
the jumbo shrimp. “Israel recognizes only one sort of Jew,” I explain.
“The Orthodox. Veronica’s conversion won’t make her eligible for the
“I don’t understand,” says Chelsea, who has just joined us, still
radiant from the ceremony that as likely as not included recitation of
the sheva brachot and the breaking of a wine glass. “I thought when my
mom treks around the world demanding recognition of Israel as a Jewish
state, she means a state for all the Jews.”
CHELSEA’S NOT the only one confused. Just a few days ago I received a
frightening e-mail from my sister in Berkeley, a mainstay of her
Conservative synagogue whose devotion to Israel is beyond dispute. “As I
was reading about the Rotem bill,” she wrote, “I found myself thinking
if it passes, and non-Orthodox Jewry is further disenfranchised, my
feelings for Israel might very well change dramatically. In some ways it
would be a relief – forget about Israel, stop agonizing over the lack
of peace between Israel and the Arabs and whether or not Israel is
behaving correctly. Leave all that to the self-righteous, intolerant
ultra-Orthodox to deal with, while I go ahead building a vibrant
meaningful Judaism here. I was pretty horrified to find myself having
I’m pretty horrified, too, but it’s a message I’ve been hearing a lot
these past few months and I know the fault is ours, not hers. For those
who still don’t get it, the conversion bill tabled by MK Rotem will
succeed in alienating vast numbers of Diaspora Jews from the Jewish
state, whose Judaism will for the first time be etched into Israeli law
as illegitimate. It will not even begin to solve Veronica’s problem. The
more moderate Orthodox rabbis who would be authorized by the
legislation to oversee conversions will continue to set requirements
that the vast majority of those who have already gone through Steve’s
“sociological conversion” will be unable to meet.
Veronica’s mother knows this too, and when we return from our meeting
with the rabbis, my wife gets a very emotional call from her. “I’ve been
holding my breath for more than three years,” she says through tears of
joy and relief. “You’re a traditional family. I was afraid that when
you found out, you would tell Yair to leave her. Instead you’ve opened
your arms to us.”
This is the first conversation between the future in-laws.
Now the statistic also has a voice. And feelings.
Had Veronica not come into our lives we might never have heard them.
I share this story at a symposium I am participating in with government ministers and Jewish Agency leadership.
“But if we are not stringent with our requirements,” interjects one of
the Orthodox representatives with a reputation for moderation, “my
grandchildren won’t be able to marry yours.”
I respond that somehow we have been marrying one another throughout the
ages, notwithstanding the lack of a chief rabbi in the Diaspora. He
counters that he is wary of opening up the doors, concerned that our
youth will rush out. “Perhaps they’ll rush in,” I suggest.
Marc, I surmise, would tend to agree, able to boast that Chelsea
attended High Holy Day services with him at the Jewish Theological
Seminary without anyone pushing her to do so. “Free-market Judaism,” I
can hear this investment banker telling me. “It’s the only way to go.
Make it attractive enough, and you’ll pull people in by the droves.” He
hands me a glass of champagne.
It is not my first drink of the evening and I am feeling a little befuddled. I don’t respond immediately.
Chelsea and Marc epitomize the American dream. Yes, I envy what it has
permitted them, but I also recognize that in some profound sense, it
Veronica and Yair are supposed to epitomize the Zionist dream, but it is in danger of becoming a nightmare.
“You don’t agree?” asks Chelsea, looking as puzzled as I am. I don’t
have a quick answer, but before she can press me further, her women
friends raise her high on a chair above the crowd, moving her toward
Marc who is reaching out toward her with a handkerchief in hand.
The symbolism isn’t lost on me and I swallow hard.
“Just who is reaching out to all of our Veronicas?” I find myself
wondering. Out loud, to the happy couple, I say “Mazal tov,” forcing a
smile and lifting my glass as the crowd breaks into an energetic round
of the hora. Then they disappear back into their dream and I into mine.
“See you at Veronica and Yair’s wedding,” I shout after them.
The writer is vice chairman of the
World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive.
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