Wading through widowhood: You don't have to be Jewish

How is it that the same man who was welcomed into the country and its armed forces cannot marry my daughter?

The bureaucracy is enough to send you scuttling for Cyprus and its civil ceremony as fast as you can say ‘mazal tov.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
The bureaucracy is enough to send you scuttling for Cyprus and its civil ceremony as fast as you can say ‘mazal tov.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When I was a little girl growing up in South Africa, I’m not even sure that there were tape decks in motor cars. We used to sing together to pass the 18-hour plus family trips through the Karoo or the Eastern Cape: All the songs from Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and Oklahoma!. We played a lot of “I Spy.”
But our all-time favorite was reciting the sketches from the ’60s classic You Don’t Have to be Jewish. We knew them all by heart – the Plotnick Diamond and the phone call to “mama is here”; the oy-so-’toisty’ man who continued to moan even after glugging his water; the doctor in the house. The title implied that you don’t have to be Jewish to crack up at a chicken soup punch line... but it probably helps.
But that was South Africa; being Jewish was fun, and funny. In the Holy Land it’s a bit more complicated.
Here’s an only-in-Israel plonta (“mess”) that my family is crashing up against, and it’s a right royal pain: You really do have to be Jewish after all.
This is the background: In the ’90s, as the Soviet Union crumbled and smashed, the government of Israel spotted an opportunity for a population surge. And not just extra bodies mooching on beaches or little behinds on school benches – this was a group of immigrants who would elevate Israel in all manner of fields: sports, ballet, music, chess, hi-tech, science, art... and more. So the Jewish state courted the masses of Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians leaving their motherland, and invited them home to their ancestral seat, as long as one grandparent on either side was Jewish. A million immigrants poured in over a couple of years; I remember the excitement of those record-breaking aliya days.
The newcomers entered the workforce, the Knesset and the army, and they had babies and the babies grew up. But, here’s the rub: More than 300,000 of them had Jewish dads and mothers of other persuasions. Suddenly thousands of them – hundreds of thousands – were falling in love with Israeli classmates and fellow soldiers or students – and being told that they cannot marry the soul mate whom they met in an army canteen.
One of them is my middle daughter’s boyfriend.
Ilia was born in Kazakhstan and when he was six months old his mother died. His Jewish dad, and Jewish grandparents and uncle and cousins came to Israel; Ilia was brought up on a kibbutz by the sea.
When he was 12 his father married a Jewish woman from the former USSR; Ilia’s brother and sister are Jewish too. Hebrew is his mother tongue. He served in the crack Paratroop Brigade in the army and fought in the Second Lebanon War; he was wounded in action in the West Bank. This time round, together with his unit, he volunteered to go into Gaza – and actually felt bad that he wasn’t called up. But, should he decide to marry my child, he is not Jewish enough to break the ceremonial glass under a huppa.
This is not the first time intermarriage has challenged our family. Decades ago, my brother brought his Canadian fiancée to Israel to become converted, and they began a course of studies. All was going well until he bumped into an old school friend who happened to be married to the grandson of an august Sephardi chief rabbi of a middle-sized town in the South.
“Why are you wasting your time?” she asked my brother. “Three thousand dollars in a brown paper envelope and Sheila will be Jewish in a jiffy.”
Sure enough – cash passed hands and was counted, and my sister-in-law, newly dunked in the mikve ritual bath, was instantaneously “Sar’eleh” and as Jewish as Jewish can be. We were young and naïve in those far-off days; we didn’t want trouble.
We kept quiet and tried not to have hard feelings against God.
My daughter’s wonderful, moral, hardworking boyfriend wants to do things properly. He’s been studying for a year, and keeping kosher. He goes to shul whenever he can, has kept a bunch of Shabbatot and is reading up on all manner of interesting laws and customs. He makes a mean kiddush, washes his hands before meals and doesn’t talk until the blessing on the bread sets him free. But is the rabbinate welcoming another Jew with open arms? Is it, heck. The bureaucracy is beyond belief, and enough to send you scuttling for Cyprus and its civil ceremony as fast as you can say “mazal tov.” Even many totally Jewish couples are opting for civil marriages abroad, in a rejection of a rigid religious institution that seems to have hijacked the Halacha, and made it hostile. Predictions have it that in the generation following this one, half-amillion Israeli kids will not be halachically Jewish – intermarriage will be more common in the Jewish state than abroad. Is this crazy, or are we insane? It’s so sad for me. Our kids used to sing in our car too, when they were young, and Martin belted out old standards in his fabulous voice, with all the right accents.
“Only look on the bright side of life, da-da, da da da da da-da” was one of his favorites, and I try, I really do, to follow that advice. But it’s not the easiest imagining weddings of our kids without him at our side; the thought of it kind of dissolves me into tears. But then, I think, there is the promise of babies to come, a new generation to carry his name, his genes and his gorgeousness. But maybe not – even if Ilia does decide to pop the question, it might be years or even centuries before he and my baby can start planning babies of their own, at least those born “kedat Moshe v’Yisrael.”
Maybe the answer is that really, really... you don’t have to be Jewish after all.
What do you think?
Dr. Pamela Peled lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC. Her latest book, Three Ladies, Three Lattes discusses issues like the one in this column. peledpam@gmail.com