Who isn't a Jew?

Novelist Kaniuk’s success in getting a court to declare him ‘without religion' sparked new interest in separating synagogue and state.

Yoram Kaniuk_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yoram Kaniuk_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is a few hours before Yom Kippur and internationally acclaimed author Yoram Kaniuk intends to do what he does every year at this time. Slowly, leaning on his cane, weighed down by his 81 years and the fight against cancer, he will walk to a nearby synagogue and sit in the dark on a bench to eavesdrop on the haunting sounds of Kol Nidrei inside.
The poignancy of that moment will be heightened by the fact that just three days earlier, on October 4th, accompanied by his lawyer and a Tel Aviv District Court verdict in his favor, Kaniuk had entered the offices of the Ministry of the Interior in Tel Aviv and emerged half an hour later with an official copy of his National Population Registration, which no longer bore the word “Jewish” in the space that designates religion. Instead, there were three dots enclosed by parentheses, designating no religion.
In Israel, where there is no separation between religion and state, all citizens are registered in the National Population registry as Jewish, Muslim, Christian or “without religion.” Once registered as a member of a particular faith, a person needs to show an official act of conversion to another religion in order to change the registration. However, a formal procedure for changing one’s registration into atheism does not exist, which is why Kaniuk had to go to court to get a declarative verdict stating that he is an atheist.
The change in Kaniuk’s registration does not refer to the personal identity cards (teudat zehut), which all Israeli citizens over the age of 16 must carry. Since 2005, the identity card no longer designates one’s religion.
And, in any case, from a Jewish Orthodox point of view, Kaniuk’s act is merely a meaningless bureaucratic trick, since Jewish law doesn’t differentiate between a Jewish religion and ethnicity – the two are inseparable.
But Kaniuk does differentiate, and insists that he sees himself as “a Jew by ethnicity” – that is, a member of the Jewish people, but not a Jew by religion.
Kaniuk’s action at this late stage in his life was motivated by his anger at the Ministry of the Interior, which had registered his grandson, Omri, now a year and two months old, as being “without religion.” Kaniuk’s American-born wife, Miranda, with WASP credentials that go back to the American Revolution, is not Jewish. Therefore, according to Jewish law, which is matrilineal, and according to the rules of the Interior Ministry, Kaniuk’s and Miranda’s daughter, Naomi, is not Jewish and neither is her son, Omri.
Knowing that his non-Jewish grandson may face difficulties growing up in the Jewish state, Kaniuk tells The Jerusalem Report, “I thought one day he’ll grow up and he’ll say to himself, ‘My grandfather wanted to be like me. And besides,” he adds with his characteristic sense of humor, referring to the majority of halakhic non-Jews in his family, “I’m tired of being a minority in my own home.”
Kaniuk, one of Israel’s pre-eminent writers and the recipient of several literary prizes, has published 17 novels and his works have been translated into 25 languages. Irascible and provocative, the Israeli-born novelist, journalist and theater critic came of age at the time Israel achieved statehood in 1948. The War of Independence and the Holocaust are constant themes in his work.
It may be too early to tell, but already the “Kaniuk Precedent,” as some are calling it, may have sparked a small movement of like-minded secular Israelis angry with what they see as religious coercion by the rabbinical establishment. Some have even turned the writer’s name into a verb, “to get Kaniuked,” i.e. to change one’s religion status to “without religion.”
Kaniuk’s move could have far-reaching implications. Will Israeli Jews who change their status to “without religion” be permitted to bypass the rabbinate and marry in a civil ceremony, which is currently not recognized by the state? Could he have opened the door to an eventual separation between state and religion?
The day after Yom Kippur, more than 200 people convene in an ad hoc meeting organized via Facebook on the rooftop of an abandoned building on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, which had become the community center for this summer’s protest movement.
The rooftop is packed. Older members of the crowd are seated in plastic chairs, while the younger people crowd together towards the back. Organizers ask the group to move their chairs forward to make more room for new arrivals several times throughout the evening.
For a movement that had begun just a few days earlier, there are a surprising number of senior citizens climbing up the four flights of stairs to the rooftop.
“I have been waiting for something like this for many years,” says Zaca Lahav, 75, who boarded a bus from Modi’n to Tel Aviv earlier that day to get to the meeting. “I believe it is high time that we separate state and religion for our own good.”
“This is the first crack in the wall,” announces Oded Carmeli, a self- described Tel Aviv poet who organized the meeting.
Mickey Gitzin, director of Be Free Israel, an NGO advocating freedom from religion and co-organizer of the signing event, tells the attentive audience that the meeting was the first step in the separation between state and religion. “It is inconceivable that in a democratic state an extreme religious faction will dictate religion to the rest.”
In an interview with The Report, Gitzin, referring to the “tent protests” that swept the country this summer, says, “This is the first symbolic tent being put up in the protest movement for the separation between religion and state. Israel is the only country in the world where one branch of Judaism has a monopoly that controls everything, a monopoly that was born in political sin and we still suffer the consequences.”
Kaniuk, the keynote speaker, seems both pleased by the adulation and a bit baffled by the fuss.
“I didn’t mean to start something, or to make a big deal of it, or that all of you will be here today,” he confesses to the crowd, which also includes veteran leftist activist Uri Avneri and MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz).
“Religion was once the glue that kept us together,” Kaniuk continues, speaking softly into the microphone, exhausted by the long climb to the roof. “Today we have extreme Judaism that is terrible and fascist. The worst enemies of the Jewish religion are the rabbinate and the religious establishment.”
After the speeches, more than 100 people line up to sign an affidavit asking the Ministry of the Interior to “Kaniuk” them. Omer Shatz, a young Tel Aviv lawyer witnessing the affidavits, tells The Report that in all likelihood the applications will be rejected by the Ministry of the Interior, whose bureaucracy requires an official document in order to change a person’s religious status. The signed affidavits are most likely only symbolic and, like Kaniuk, each applicant will have to file a petition in the District Court.
Kaniuk went to court in order to satisfy bureaucratic requirements, Attorney Katz Mastbaum explains to The Report in an interview a few hours before Yom Kippur at Café Tamar on Tel Aviv’s ultra-hip Sheinkin Street, while waiting for Kaniuk to arrive.
The legendary café, which has resisted the pressure to go upscale and has retained its chipped Formica tables and an eclectic collection of uncomfortable chairs, is Kaniuk’s Friday morning hangout.
“Kaniuk is not converting to another religion, he simply doesn’t want his religion to be designated as Jewish, nor as any other religion,” she says, pointing out the Catch-22 situation, in which an institution that can attest to one’s lack of religion does not exist. “Basing his decision on the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, Judge Gideon Ginat provided Yoram [Kaniuk] with a judgment verifying the change in his religious status to atheist.”
Suddenly a collective “oh” and applause sweeps through the café. Kaniuk has just walked in and is slowly making his way through the crowded tables greeting the regulars.
“It took exactly two minutes for them to write ‘no religion’ on my registration,” Kaniuk says, as he sits down and places his straw hat on the table. He covers his face with his hands in fatigue and asks for a minute to catch his breath. He has walked the few blocks from his home to Café Tamar and says he is feeling weak today.
The interview with The Report takes place a few hours before sundown on Yom Kippur. The powerful emotional implications of the day bring Kaniuk to introspection and reflection. What better day in the year to ask a Jew about the dissonant tug between his non-Jewish grandson and memories of his Orthodox grandfather?
“I believe my grandfather would have been proud of me,” Kaniuk says, speaking up to make himself heard over the noise and shifting in his chair. “I remember my grandfather. He was a real Jew. He spoke Yiddish. He was Orthodox, but religious people were more liberal in those days. I still remember the melodies he hummed when he came back from synagogue.”
Kaniuk says the most profound experience of his life, even more than fighting and being wounded in the War of Independence, which has informed so much of his writing, was a stint as a sailor on a refugee ship ferrying Holocaust survivors to the newly formed State of Israel.
“They came from hell. If there was a God, where was He?” he says with some bitterness. “Over time I have become very upset about rabbinical Judaism and how it is overshadowing everything. I am against the Jewish religious establishment. Israel is a democratic state, but it can’t be both democratic and religious. It’s a contradiction in terms.”
Does he hope that his personal act will start a movement? He hesitates for a moment. “If you had asked me a week ago I would have said, "no. I don’t know how the religious parties are going to take it.”
Kaniuk is straightforward about his feelings of ambivalence, a Jew who has renounced his Judaism but is planning in a few hours to listen to Kol Nidrei.
“I did this with a heavy heart but with an open mind. I love the melodies of Shabbat.
I love the language of the Siddur (the Jewish prayerbook.) This is hard for me because I love Judaism. I love the idea that you can discuss and debate and that there can– be a Beit Shamai and a Beit Hillel.”
The proprietress of Café Tamar, Sara Stern, walks around the café and belts out that she is closing soon due to Yom Kippur.
“During the war I was wounded, almost dead, and I have gone through two cancers and, throughout it all, I never thought about God,” Kaniuk says. “I wrote a book, ‘The Last Jew,’ in which there is a long conversation between a Jew and God. Now I am the first Jew in Israel who is officially without religion.”