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

... and what this says about the ironies and ambiguities of the post-Soviet Jewish experience

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An employee works with documents at the Russian State Archives. (Reuters)

One drizzly fall night two years ago, the Israeli detective Shimon Har-Shalom stepped off a plane in Moscow clutching a briefcase full of clues. After hurrying through a crowd of fur coats, he ducked into the last car of the downtown express train and removed his cap, revealing a black yarmulke and short, wispy silvery side locks of hair. He slid a file folder from his briefcase and shuffled its contents: a century-old marriage contract, certificates stamped with the hammer-and-sickle of the Soviet Union, and hazy family photographs.

The case Har-Shalom was working that night had bedeviled him for some time. Back in Jerusalem, he'd been hired by a Russian émigrée who was planning for her daughter's eventual wedding and needed Har-Shalom for a crucial ingredient -- proof that her child was Jewish.

Marriage in Israel is controlled by state religious authorities; there are virtually no civil weddings in the country. Jews who want a marriage license must first prove they are Jewish in accordance with Orthodox tradition, which means they need to have been born to an uninterrupted line of Jewish mothers. Such a pedigree can be difficult to prove, especially for the children of Israel's largest immigrant community, the former denizens of the Soviet Union, many of whom spent years obscuring their Jewish roots to avoid discrimination. Enticed by lax immigration policies, these émigrés flooded Israel two decades ago and gave birth to children who now are beginning to seek marriage.

And so they call Har-Shalom, who runs a nonprofit detective agency that specializes in sniffing out long-lost Jewish ancestry. His agency, called Shorashim (Hebrew for "roots"), is funded in part by the Israeli government. Each year he takes on roughly 1200 cases that test his fluency in Yiddish and Russian dialects, his familiarity with czarist and Soviet history, and his patience for combing through old Soviet archives. He then presents his findings to a rabbinic court, which almost always accepts his expert opinion about a citizen's Jewish identity.

Across thousands of years of Jewish history, seldom did a person need to prove to be a member of the tribe. The Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative 16th-century summary of Jewish religious code, states that for purposes of marriage, anyone claiming to be Jewish can be trusted. Things got complicated when the Iron Curtain fell and hundreds of thousands of Soviets bolted to Israel, where they were welcomed under a long-standing law granting citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent (non-Jewish spouses and children were also welcomed). The rationale: if having one Jewish grandparent was enough to brand you Jewish under Nazi race laws, it was enough to grant you refuge in the Jewish state.

But many rabbis questioned the newcomers' lineage. According to the Orthodox definition, several hundred thousand of them were not Jewish. If they intermarried with Israeli Jews, the rabbis feared, the very existence of the Jewish people could be in danger.

To set matters straight, Israel's rabbinate created a new procedure, vaguely called "clarification of Judaism." Every immigrant applying for a marriage license would have to prove Jewish lineage going back at least two generations, and sometimes many more. The government rabbis never established clear rules for conducting these checks. They decided, though, that beyond documentation classifying a person as Jewish, he or she should know Jewish language and traditions, and possess a typical Jewish name.

These guidelines proved problematic for many Soviet immigrants who had little knowledge of Jewish customs -- in the Soviet Union, synagogues had been turned into puppet theaters and gymnasiums -- or had Russified their Jewish-sounding names to avoid discrimination. The classification of Jewish nationality inscribed on their Soviet-era documents, once a hindrance in obtaining jobs and university admission, became the only remaining hope to prove their pedigree. But here, too, was a snag: Soviet emigrants had often been prohibited from taking many of their vital documents out of the country, forced to surrender their original birth certificates in exchange for official government copies. In Israel today, those official government copies are worth little. In the late 1980s and early 90s, plenty of non-Jews bribed Soviet clerks to issue them new documents listing them as Jewish so they could emigrate to Israel. As a result, Israeli officials no longer trust copies of Soviet documents, only originals -- many of which are locked away in archives closed to the public. For prying Israeli detectives, those repositories are a treasure trove.

Two hours after Har-Shalom got off the plane that fall night in Moscow, he sat down in an empty café to meet Vladimir Paley, a Russian genealogist who had agreed to help track the lineage of Har-Shalom's client, a woman whom I'll refer to as Olga. For $600, Paley agreed to visit Olga's city of birth, Nizhny Novgorod in western Russia, to collect archival material for the past three generations of her maternal line. In the morning, he boarded a plane.

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.