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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).

Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).

Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).

A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).

The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, May 26, 1999).

Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).

Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).

Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).

Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).

Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).

Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).

A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).

The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).

Holiday Moscow (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, January 6, 1999).

The Long Arm of the Chinese Law (Jeffrey Tayler, China, December 16, 1998).

Panama by Panga (Benjamin Howe, Panama, December 2, 1998).

Tower of Babel (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, November 18, 1998).

An Unlucky Place (Katherine Guckenberger, Ireland, November 4, 1998).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.

Israeli Forms of Identity

December 1, 1999

Having allowed our Israeli visitor visas to expire for the second time, my husband and I decided we'd better renew them so that we could leave the country and return without a problem. This meant spending a morning at the Jerusalem office of the Interior Ministry, where we arrived at 7 A.M. to claim a place in line. After gaining admittance to the building, being elbowed and counter-elbowing for a ticket number, and filling out the requisite application form, I took a look around me.

We were sitting in the quintessential government office: rows of hard plastic chairs bolted to the floor, dusty sunlight, linoleum underfoot, and fluorescent light bulbs overhead. If ever I had seen a true cross-section of Israeli society, here it was. There were fatigues-clad, M-16-toting soldiers; women in long sleeves and wigs pushing double strollers, and their husbands in black hats and coats despite the August heat; young American junior-year-abroad types, their baseball caps worn backwards; girls in tight pedal-pushers and spaghetti-strap camisoles, the unofficial summer uniform of hip Israeli youth; a Vietnamese family of Orthodox Jews, the husband and sons in crocheted skullcaps, the wife in a straw hat and long skirt; small giggling cliques of the Thai and Filipino workers who often serve as companions to the elderly; and people like my husband and me, who looked half-touristy, half-Israeli in khakis and polo shirts and sandals.

But my survey of the room was not complete, because a woman I hadn't noticed before approached me after I had filled out my form. She simply gleamed. Her platinum hair was set off by a bright pink housedress, and most of her teeth were covered in gold, which flashed when she smiled. She was holding a passport and a pen, and she asked hesitantly, in deeply accented Hebrew, whether I could fill out the form for her son, since neither of them knew how to write Hebrew letters. I agreed to help her. The woman's name was Nadja Petrovna, and as she and I stumbled together through the intricacies of the visa application form, her family's story began to emerge.

The name of the applicant was Piotr, and like his mother, Nadja, he was born in Belarus. He was applying for a temporary worker's visa. He would support himself and his family by doing odd-jobs -- painting, cleaning, and the like. He was very good at cleaning, Nadja assured me. He and his wife and two children would live with the elder Petrovnas. Piotr's wife's name was Svetlana, and she was also born in Belarus. The form required Svetlana's maiden name, but this was a very difficult concept for me to convey to Nadja, as I didn't know the word for it in Hebrew and neither, apparently, did she. After much back and forth, I was finally able to make myself understood.

Compared to that conundrum, the rest of the questions were easy. I copied down information from Piotr's Belarusan passport, and wrote down more names of family members. By this time, Nadja and I were both relaxing, becoming friendly. "It's good that I read Tolstoy," I joked, "so I know how to spell these names." She laughed, and her teeth sparkled. The next set of questions involved dates. When and for what duration were Piotr's previous visits to Israel? Recalling this kind of detail was beyond Nadja, so she called over Piotr himself, who turned out to be a hulking, smiling Belarusan bear. He reconstructed his previous dates of travel as best he could. He and his family had already spent a lot of time here. And for how long did he intend to stay during this visit? He and his mother exchanged uneasy looks. "Write down six months," she said quickly. I obeyed, realizing that these prolonged stays were probably a stepping stone to eventual immigration -- at least the Petrovna family hoped they were. Nadja and her husband had emigrated many years ago. Now Piotr and Svetlana wanted to come too.

There was one other question that wasn't easy for cheerful Nadja to answer. The form asks for the religious affiliation of the applicant. I read the question. Nadja smiled at me weakly, a helpless expression clouding her eyes. "Is he Jewish?" I asked, picking what seemed like the most obvious choice for former Soviet refuseniks. "His father is Jewish," Nadja responded gravely. According to Orthodox Jewish law, which defines religious identity and influences immigration procedures in Israel, Piotr was not Jewish. Because Piotr was the direct descendant of a Jew, he and his wife and children were eligible to emigrate under a 1970 amendment to the Law of Return. But there would be difficulties once here. Unless Svetlana was Jewish, which I had no reason to ask about, their children would not be admitted to certain schools, it might be difficult for them to marry Jews, and the whole family would be ineligible for burial in Jewish cemeteries.

Just the previous week, I had conducted an interview with Knesset Member Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox political party. I asked him whether he saw any solution to the brewing crisis, whereby thousands of emigres from the former Soviet Union were viewed by the Israeli rabbinate as Gentiles. The only remedy he could countenance was allowing them to convert under Orthodox auspices and then adopt an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. This is highly unrealistic, considering that the vast majority of these emigres wish to retain a mostly secular lifestyle. (In fact, there has been much alarm in both traditionalist and mainstream Israeli circles at the majority of these immigrants' manifest secularism and even detachment from Jewish tradition and practice. This past November, some of the tension came to a head in the coastal town of Ashkelon, where Russian delicatessen owners were threatened with fines and store closures if they continued to sell pork.) I prodded Ravitz to acknowledge the building crisis until he admitted his consternation at the government policy that allowed these people to emigrate as Jews in the first place. He added, "It was a crime not to tell the Gentiles the truth" about their future religious status in the State of Israel.

But sitting in the office of the Interior Ministry with Nadja and Piotr, the truth was that a family wanted very much to be reunited, and in a prosperous place. Was I to be the arbiter of Israel's immigration policy, to determine whether Piotr's family would be treated as Jews once in Israel? If the "religious affiliation" recorded by some impromptu scribe was to be given any weight, what kind of screening process was that anyway? Having thus extricated myself from responsibility, I scribbled a "J" and read the next question, avoiding Nadja's eyes.

Miriam Udel Lambert is a former Atlantic Unbound intern currently based in Israel. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, Harvard Magazine, and Hadassah Magazine.

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