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How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?

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Author Topic: How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?  (Read 947 times)
Tovah Silverstein
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« on: March 04, 2008, 01:20:26 am »

I recount this family history because of its pure American Jewish normality. In Minneapolis, Belle Mersky married Julius Goldstein in a Conservative ceremony. This, too, was typical: Conservative Judaism was the common choice for American Jews leaning toward tradition. Julius’s brother became a Conservative rabbi. Belle and Julius raised their family on Minneapolis’s North Side, “a totally Jewish neighborhood then,” Suzie recalled. She went to Sunday school at Beth El Synagogue, a Conservative congregation.

Suzie began college at the cusp of the 1960s, attending the University of Minnesota, rooming with a friend from a Zionist summer camp. Her uncle, the Conservative rabbi, paid for her to go to Israel one summer on a student tour. When she returned to Israel after graduation, even the motor-scooter accident was practically part of the standard restless-youth experience. She broke her foot, put off her plan to join a dance company and took a room in a Tel Aviv rooming house. “I was sitting there with my foot up, crutches in the corner, and this handsome guy came in,” she told me. He was British. He and his best friend were living in Holland, “wanted to go somewhere” and drove overland to Israel.

“He ended up being my husband,” Suzie said with a laugh. He wasn’t Jewish, a twist in the story line. They left Israel together to wander through Europe and married in a civil ceremony in England. Those details would later loom immense: Had he been Jewish, had they married in Israel, she would have had a ketuba, or religious marriage contract issued by the rabbinate, for her daughter to show years later. In the excitement after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, they decided to return to the country. “He always wanted to live here,” she said, and “we were adventurous.”

Fast forward: Sharon, on her 38th birthday, took the day off from work to make wedding arrangements. First stop was the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court.

The rabbinic courts are an arm of the Israeli justice system. Formally, the judges — rabbis with special training — are appointed on professional grounds. In practice, positions in the courts and in the state rabbinate are parceled out as patronage by religious political parties. The main function of the rabbinic courts is divorce, also a purely religious process in Israel. A secondary function is providing judicial rulings on whether a person is Jewish. For that, the main clientele is immigrants from the former Soviet Union. A fairly standard procedure exists for them. It includes examining Soviet-era documents, like birth certificates, that list a citizen’s nationality. (In the Soviet system, “Jewish” was a nationality, parallel to “Russian” or “Uzbek,” listed in everyone’s official papers.)

At the court, Sharon told me, the clerk who opened her file told her to bring her mother’s birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “I said: ‘But my mother’s birth certificate doesn’t say “Jewish.” It’s from the United States. They don’t write that. And the marriage license — they had a civil wedding.’ ” After she waited hours to see a judge, he told Sharon to return with “any document that would testify to her mother’s Jewishness.” She asked a court official if a letter from a Conservative rabbi would solve the problem. Her mother has a cousin in Florida who is a rabbi, son of the uncle who originally sent Suzie to Israel. No, the official said, “that won’t help. It has to be someone Orthodox.”

“When Sharon called me, she was crying,” Suzie told me. Her daughter said the court wanted testimony from an Orthodox rabbi who had known Suzie all her life. “Even if there was such a thing, he would be dead by now,” Suzie said. Lacking an official document labeling her a Jew and without a childhood connection to Orthodoxy, Suzie was again a typical American Jew. Nonetheless, she got on the phone. Her cousin in Florida told her to phone a colleague from Israel’s small movement for Conservative Judaism. He, in turn, said Seth Farber would help her. He was right.

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