Getting Married in Israel: Why It So Often Means Hiring a Detective

In Nizhny Novgorod, I accompanied Paley to a branch of the Justice Ministry, where he told me to wait in the hall so I wouldn't draw attention. After five minutes, Paley emerged with a clue suggesting that Olga's great-grandmother had been Jewish. Inside, Paley had caught an upside-down glimpse of the pages of a death registry he'd asked the staffer to find. Later, at another office, Paley asked a clerk to see the great-grandmother's marriage certificate. "I cannot show it to you," the clerk said. "Don't show me. Show yourself," he replied enigmatically. She disappeared into a storage room and emerged with a large registry, then flicked to the right pages. "Here it is," she said, looking up at us and snapping the book shut. "Is it the nationality in question?," Paley asked. She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows in affirmation.

For years, Israeli detectives relied on informal gentlemen's agreements with archivists in the ex-Soviet states to obtain the papers they needed. Lately, things have gotten much more difficult. In 2006, Russia passed tough new laws to keep citizens' biographical data confidential. In 2009, the Kremlin deported an Israeli diplomat who, it is thought, bribed an archival clerk while researching an immigrant's Jewish claims. In 2011, Russia announced that it would keep its records under even closer watch. And in a few years, Russia and Ukraine will finish digitizing their archives, putting the originals that Israeli detectives seek to examine even further out of reach. A delegation of rabbis asked the Russian Justice Ministry for more lenient archival access, but the request was denied. "All archive staff are very afraid in Russia now," Paley told me. "Their choice is to be loyal."

Paley found more luck in Ukraine than he did in Nizhny Novgorod. An archivist willing to breach protocol located Olga's grandmother's original birth registration, which identified her as Jewish. Olga then paid Paley another $400 to secure a copy of her great-grandfather's KGB file, which classified her great-grandmother as Jewish. Although these documents bolstered his case, Har-Shalom's investigation dragged on for two more years.

Finally, last month, Olga was summoned to an Israeli rabbinical court. A judge sat at a raised bench. He reviewed the report Har-Shalom submitted of the evidence he gathered. Then the judge held up an old family photograph. "Who is in this picture?" he asked the defendant. Olga identified her mother, her grandmother, and her grandfather's friend. The hearing lasted 15 minutes, and at the end, the judge handed down his verdict: Olga is Jewish. By extension, her daughter is, too.

Olga is relieved to start planning her daughter's wedding. Still, all those years under the magnifying glass took a toll. "This has gotten way out of proportion," Olga's husband told me in the midst of the investigation last year. "We are not guilty of anything," Olga added.

No wonder many Israelis simply don't bother finding proof of their roots: couples fly to neighboring Cyprus in the morning, exchange rings in a Vegas-style civil marriage -- which Israel recognizes since it was performed abroad -- and catch an evening flight home.

This story was supported in part by the Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion.

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Daniel Estrin is an American journalist based in Jerusalem. He has reported for The Associated Press, NPR and other U.S. public radio programs.

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