Vitaly Paperin moved to Israel from Kiev at age 9 in 1990. He would eventually change his name to the more Israeli-sounding “Tal,” rebel against his ultra-secular family by becoming religious, and marry and divorce.
Three years after that divorce, Paperin fell in love with another woman and was ready to marry again. And so, like any other Jewish couple seeking to wed in Israel, he and his fiancée went to their local office of the Chief Rabbinate and asked to register.
To even consider the request, Paperin was informed by the state rabbinical authority, he would need to provide proof that he was Jewish.
Paperin naturally wondered why he would he need to prove he was Jewish, since he had done exactly that the first time he got married in Israel.
“That’s the protocol if you’re from the former Soviet Union,” he was told by the office clerk.
“Let me get this straight,” responded Paperin. “What you’re saying is that I may not be Jewish — in which case the Rabbinate may have already presided over the marriage of a non-Jew in this country?”
He added: “This is going to be a great story to share with the press.”
Within minutes, Paperin was notified that after further consideration an “exception” would be made in his case: He would not have to prove he was Jewish again.
Paperin, a sales and marketing consultant, was among six Russian-speaking Israelis who took to the stage at a popular Tel Aviv nightclub recently to share some of the absurdities they had experienced in their quest to officially marry in the Jewish state.
Like Paperin, all of these immigrants had arrived in the country as young children, attended school in Israel, served in the army and spoke fluent Hebrew. In short, they considered themselves to be as Israeli as the next person.
Also in the lineup was Moldovan-born Alex Roitman, who spoke about having to drag his elderly grandmother — a survivor of the Nazi death marches — to the Rabbinate office in Ashdod to prove he was Jewish. “When they circumcised me [in Israel] when I was 9 years old, nobody asked for proof that I was Jewish,” he said with outrage. “And when I was called a zhid [derogatory term for a Jew] as a schoolkid in the former Soviet Union, nobody asked for proof that I was Jewish either.”
‘Socked in the stomach’
The story-sharing event — the first in a series planned for venues across the country — is part of a new campaign called The Proof Season (it rhymes with “The Wedding Season” in Hebrew). Its goal is to expose young Israelis to the humiliations their Russian-speaking peers commonly suffer just to earn the basic right of standing under a chuppah and, as one of the organizers put it, to “help strike up a national conversation.”
Spearheading the campaign is the Cultural Brigade (Habrigada Hatarbutit in Hebrew), a relatively new organization of young Israelis who are part of the so-called Generation 1.5: Born in the Soviet Union or Russia, they moved to Israel at a relatively young age and are interested in preserving and sharing their cultural heritage. They are also out to fight what they perceive as discrimination against them by the country’s religious authorities.
“Getting married is supposed to be one of the happiest events in your life, but for many of us it’s like getting socked in the stomach,” says Cultural Brigade Director Pola Barkan. “Just when you thought you had finally integrated fully into Israeli society — after finishing school here, the army, doing your military reserve duty — you get to the Rabbinate’s office and are asked to prove that you’re Jewish,” adds the 29-year-old.
According to Israel’s Law of Return, an individual must have at least one Jewish grandparent, be married to a Jew or have converted in an established Jewish community to be eligible to make aliyah. But to be defined as a Jew halakhically (Jewish religious law), the criteria are much stricter. The individual must have been born to a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox rabbi recognized by the Rabbinate. The Rabbinate will not marry anyone who is not halakhically Jewish.
Until about 20 years ago, couples marrying in Israel were not required to present documented proof of their Jewishness. But following the huge wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Rabbinate changed its policy and began requiring documented proof from individuals whose parents had not married in Israel. This was because a relatively large percentage of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union were not halakhically Jewish.
The most commonly sought form of proof is their parents’ ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) . But under communist rule in the former Soviet Union, it was not always possible to conduct a Jewish wedding, so such proof is not always available. In lieu of a ketubah, the Rabbinate will sometimes suffice with old photographs showing family members with yarmulkes or photographs of graves of deceased ancestors with Hebrew writing on them.
At first, the Rabbinate only required Russian-speaking Israelis whose parents had not married in Israel to provide proof of their Jewishness. It later applied this rule to all Israelis whose parents had not married in the country. However, Russian speakers account for the overwhelming majority of the affected population.
“This is all quite new because halakhic tradition is a tradition of trust,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that helps immigrants navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy. “If a person says that he or she is Jewish, you’re supposed to take their word for it. What has happened is that the Rabbinate has shifted its focus from trusting people to not trusting people.”
As part of its Proof Season campaign, the Cultural Brigade also created a Hebrew-language song-and-dance video inspired by the Broadway hit “Chicago,” which incorporates true-life stories. It’s called “On the Steps of the Rabbinate.”
As this musical video and clips of the story-sharing event at the Tel Aviv nightclub make the rounds on social media, more and more Russian-speaking Israelis are going public with their own sob stories in the comments section, says Barkan.
Ukrainian-born Giora Zinger, a popular Israeli stand-up comedian, noted in a recent Facebook post that he was “partly spared” the humiliation of having to prove his Jewishness because his cousin had wed two years earlier and had already gone through the ordeal. “So all I had to do was prove that our mothers were really sisters,” he wrote.
Because her parents held an Orthodox wedding in Israel after they immigrated, another commenter, Polly Gonikman, wrote that she was sure she wouldn’t face any problem. But when she presented their ketubah, the clerk at the local Rabbinate office handed it back to her and said, “How can I be sure you’re not adopted?”
Considering the interrogation his grandmother went through in the Rabbinate office, Eli Hankin wrote on Facebook that “you would have thought she was suspected of Kennedy’s assassination.” David Gottesmann, meanwhile, noted that he would have had an easier time proving he was a descendant of the Jews of Spain and Portugal, who were kicked out more than 500 years ago. “It would have also been more worthwhile, because at least I could have picked up another passport that way,” he added.
To date, about 100 such stories have been shared on social media, according to Barkan, who notes that the Rabbinate requires between 4,000 and 5,000 Israelis each year to provide documentation that they are Jewish.
A former director of the Hillel House at Be’er Sheva’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Barkan says she was shocked when she was asked to provide proof that she was Jewish when she and her fiancé, Mark, opened their file at the Rabbinate a few years ago. After all, she came from a family that had run an underground synagogue in their hometown in Ukraine. “But since my sister had been married a few years earlier, the process I went through was relatively easy,” she says.
It was her fiancé who faced the bigger challenge, mainly because he was an only child. But thanks to an old photo he miraculously discovered stored away in the family attic, which showed his uncle wearing a yarmulke as a young boy, her husband-to-be was able to prove his Jewishness.
The organization launched another campaign earlier this year encouraging young Russian-speaking Israeli men to share their stories about undergoing late circumcisions. This also included live stand-up events. Next on the agenda, says Barkan, is a campaign to get Generation 1.5-ers to go public with the absurdities they’ve encountered while undergoing state-sanctioned conversions.
Cultural Brigade co-founder Beri Rozenberg says his own experience at the Rabbinate before getting married turned him into a social activist. “For me, it was relatively easy to prove I was Jewish,” he says. “I was born in Latvia, my parents held a secret Jewish wedding there, and they even had a ketubah to prove it — which is extremely rare.”
Rozenberg and his Israeli-born wife were not keen to get married by the Rabbinate, but eventually bowed to parental pressure. “My mom said, ‘After all we did to come to Israel, you’re not going to have a proper wedding here?’” he recounts.
So although Rozenberg admits his experience was relatively painless, he also says it was extremely unpleasant. “My interrogator sat there cracking open sunflower seeds in my face — yes, he was actually sitting there eating sunflower seeds — while asking me all these weird questions. I kept wondering, Why do I need to be going through this? Why should anyone be going through this?”
The Rabbinate chose not to respond to this story.