Proving You’re A Jew

Gershom Gorenberg writes for the NYT:

One day last fall, a young Israeli woman named Sharon went with her fiancé to the Tel Aviv Rabbinate to register to marry. They are not religious, but there is no civil marriage in Israel. The rabbinate, a government bureaucracy, has a monopoly on tying the knot between Jews. The last thing Sharon expected to be told that morning was that she would have to prove — before a rabbinic court, no less — that she was Jewish. It made as much sense as someone doubting she was Sharon, telling her that the name written in her blue government-issue ID card was irrelevant, asking her to prove that she was she.

Sharon is a small woman in her late 30s with shoulder-length brown hair. For privacy’s sake, she prefers to be identified by only her first name. She grew up on a kibbutz when kids were still raised in communal children’s houses. She has two brothers who served in Israeli combat units. She loved the green and quiet of the kibbutz but was bored, and after her own military service she moved to the big city, which is the standard kibbutz story. Now she is a Tel Aviv professional with a master’s degree, a job with a major H.M.O. and a partner — when this story starts, a fiancé — who is “in computers.”

This stereotypical biography did not help her any more at the rabbinate than the line on her birth certificate listing her nationality as Jewish. Proving you are Jewish to Israel’s state rabbinate can be difficult, it turns out, especially if you came to Israel from the United States — or, as in Sharon’s case, if your mother did.

In recent years, the state’s Chief Rabbinate and its branches in each Israeli city have adopted an institutional attitude of skepticism toward the Jewish identity of those who enter its doors. And the type of proof that the rabbinate prefers is peculiarly unsuited to Jewish life in the United States. The Israeli government seeks the political and financial support of American Jewry. It welcomes American Jewish immigrants. Yet the rabbinate, one arm of the state, increasingly treats American Jews as doubtful cases: not Jewish until proved so.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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