I am a Proud Jew, Even if the Israeli Rabbinate Doesn’t Recognize My Judaism
Jessica Fishman | On י׳ בכסלו ה׳תשע״ח (November 28, 2017)
Since I grew up with a fairly average Jewish life in Minnesota, I never realized that I might be different.
Like any proud Jewish family, our home was centered on Judaism and Zionism. It was a kosher home. We went to synagogue every Shabbat. I was active in our JCC and spent summers at Jewish camps.
My parents were lay leaders in our Jewish community – my dad was president of our synagogue and my mom president of our local Hadassah chapter. Both of my parents, especially my mother, helped me solidify my own Jewish identity.
I have my mother to thank for this. She was the matriarch of our Jewish family. She dedicated herself to building a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. It is largely because of the values with which she raised me that I decided to move to Israel and make Aliyah. And that is what makes my story so ironic.
At the same time, it is because of my mother that I’m not considered “fully” Jewish in Israel. The reason for this is that the Israeli Rabbinate does not accept my mother’s conversion to Judaism with a Reform rabbi.
Israel has two definitions for who is a Jew. The first is for the Law of Return, which allows anyone with one Jewish grandparent or anyone has undergone a conversion in any stream of Judaism to move to Israel and become a citizen.
The second definition of who is a Jew is by the ultra-Orthodox, government-sanctioned Rabbinate, which controls the most important events in the Jewish lifecycle such as marriage, divorce, conversion, and death.
The Rabbinate defines a Jew as someone who was born to a Jewish mother or someone who underwent a conversion to Judaism by a Rabbinate-approved rabbi, who is typically ultra-Orthodox. More than 500,000 Israelis fall in between these two definitions. They need to follow all the normal obligations like serving in the IDF and paying taxes but are denied basic human rights, including the ability to get married in Israel. (There are no civil marriages in Israel.)
I only became aware of this double standard when I was on a volunteer program in Israel in my young twenties. I was in the process of filing my paperwork to make Aliyah to Israel, which I had always been taught was the land of the Jewish people, not just some Jewish people. When I learned about my new potential status as a second-class citizen, I was devastated, but I was also determined to make Israel my homeland while simultaneously protecting my rights. So, as I described in my book, “Chutzpah & High Heels,” I took a drastic step:
I went to [a rabbi’s] synagogue with a copy of my parents’ ketubah. I carefully pulled out the document, a bottle of Wite-Out, and a pen. I delicately placed them on the desk. As I looked up at the Ten Commandments hanging in the sanctuary, I opened the Wite-Out bottle and slowly and carefully whited out the name “Abraham,” which was written as the name of my mom’s father. Abraham, as the father of the Jewish people, is accepted by every convert as their new father after conversion. His name on my parents’ ketubah would have been an obvious sign to the Rabbinate that my mother had converted.
I gently blew on the Wite-Out to speed up the erasing of my past. With my face next to the paper, the fumes seeped into my nose. Once it dried, Rabbi Nouriel adjusted his kippah, took the pen out of his pocket and carefully wrote my grandfather’s real name: Jonathan—Yonatan in Hebrew—making sure that each Hebrew letter matched the original handwriting. It seemed to be fate that my grandfather’s name can pass for some Jewish peasant versus a traditional Christian name. As the ink dried, my secret and my family’s past began to fade.
With a swipe of the pen, he had changed my future. He had given me his blessing. It made what I was doing kosher and not just an act of deﬁance. I felt like a young Gloria Steinem. A modern-day Ester. A Jewish Rosa Parks. Looking at this new document, I couldn’t see any evidence of my original history. I hoped that it would also pass the Rabbinate’s scrutiny.
“If they don’t accept our Judaism, I’m not going to accept theirs,” I said, while staring at the new ketubah.
Thoughtfully stroking his beard and nodding, Rabbi Nouriel agreed, knowing that the Rabbinate doesn’t even accept him as a real rabbi or his teachings as real Judaism.
Even though I was in my young twenties and marriage was not in my near future, I was so scared about losing my basic human rights and my identity that I felt like I needed to hide like a fugitive from my new government.
I hoped that I would never need to use this forged ketubah and that I would be accepted for who I was. In the end, it never made it out of the drawer in which it was stored. But I was still faced with the difficult decision of being true to myself or caving to religious coercion. This might eventually happen when my Jewish identity would be called into question by someone I loved because of the religious authorities.
That journey of deciding how to move forward with my life was very difficult. It was one that shook me to the very core of my identity, but when I came out the other end, I was stronger for it. Realizing that no one could ever take away my Jewish identity made me more secure in my Jewish identity than ever before.
Ultimately the healing process gave me the motivation to use my very private and painful story to try to fight for social justice and make a positive change. Today, I am using my book to try to put a face on the impact of religious coercion and provide lectures to Jewish American organizations to raise awareness.
Just as my decision to make Aliyah can be traced back to my mom’s commitment to Judaism, so too can this decision because she raised me to be a strong Jewish woman who stands up for her beliefs, works towards tikun olam, and seeks to make the world a fairer, more equitable place.
To read more about Jessica Fishman’s story, pick up a copy of her book, “Chutzpah & High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land.”
Jessica Fishman, who currently lives in Israel, is the author of “Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land.” She speaks and writes about her experience with the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel in order to inspire social change.