A marriage wall pains new Israelis

Special to The Times

Two years ago, Diana Mirtsin and Alexander Skudalov met on the Internet, and soon their romance turned serious.

She was a 29-year-old pharmacy worker from Ukraine. He was a 32-year-old train technician from Uzbekistan. Both had come to Israel as part of the emigration wave from the former Soviet Union. Four months after they started dating, she became pregnant.

But in the face of Israel’s formidable Orthodox religious establishment, their hopes of marrying in the country that gave them citizenship are nearly futile.


Mirtsin is considered Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate, but Skudalov is not. Like about 300,000 other Israelis -- mostly Soviet immigrants -- they bump into a closed door on issues of personal status, including marriage and divorce.

Their predicament reflects one of the Jewish state’s most intractable divisions: between the powerful Orthodox minority and the more liberal Jewish streams and secular community.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party has promised a law to help those unable to wed because of Jewish religious rules. Israel Our Home, a party in Olmert’s coalition that largely represents Soviet immigrants, has proposed a solution resembling a civil marriage, which does not exist in the country.

But the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, also part of the coalition, stands in the way of altering the status quo. Such laws “would hurt the Jewish image of the only Jewish country in the world,” party spokesman Roei Lachmanovich said.

Jews account for more than three-quarters of Israel’s population, with Muslims, Christians and Druze making up most of the rest. Each religious authority has exclusive control over marriages within its community.

Those without religious classification, or those who wish to marry outside their religion, cannot wed within the country. Israel recognizes marriages conducted abroad for such couples, however, and Cyprus, less than an hour away by plane, is a popular destination for civil wedding ceremonies.


When Mirtsin became pregnant, the couple sought to marry abroad. Already the single mom of a 7-year-old daughter, she didn’t want unfavorable attention for having another child out of wedlock.

But the couple’s travel plans were put on hold after Mirtsin’s high blood pressure complicated her pregnancy.

Now, a year after their daughter’s birth, she remains frustrated by the couple’s inability to wed in their country.

“Like many women, I want to be registered as married,” she said bitterly, seated in their apartment in Lod, a city 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv that is home to many Russian-speaking immigrants.

She pointed out that Skudalov, whose father was Jewish but mother wasn’t, had completed compulsory army service and remained a member of the reserves.

“If there is a war tomorrow, he’ll be Jewish enough to fight for Israel,” she said. “But he’s not Jewish enough to marry here.”


Israel’s Law of Return allows spouses, children and grandchildren of Jews to immigrate and claim citizenship.

Under that law, about 1 million people have arrived from the former Soviet Union since 1989.

But the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate holds a legal monopoly on marriages and most other matters of personal status among Israeli Jews. It insists on a strict interpretation of traditional Jewish law, defining as a Jew only a person whose mother was Jewish or who has been through an Orthodox conversion.

Among Soviet immigrants, about one-third are caught between Israel’s standards and those of the rabbinate -- Jewish for purposes of citizenship but not marriage.

The Orthodox regard their monopoly as necessary to preserve the Jewish people. Marriages between those considered Jewish according to religious law and those who aren’t could lead to divisions among Jews, they say.

But many non-Orthodox Jews, who make up about three-quarters of the Jewish population here, complain of religious coercion.


Citizen groups have criticized Israel as being the only democratic country in the Western world to so heavily restrict its people when it comes to freedom of choice in marriage.

Even for those who say they have Orthodox Jewish credentials, proving it can be daunting.

Valeria Glitsina, 25, a radio producer who emigrated from Ukraine, and Oleg Yankov, a 30-year-old from Russia who works at the Defense Ministry, met three years ago and have a 1-year-old son. They say they have Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers. To prove that, they handed the rabbinate their parents’ and grandparents’ birth certificates, old family photos showing Jewish holiday celebrations and other documents.

But that wasn’t enough. Glitsina was asked to authenticate her documents by sending them to the archives of her childhood city, Odessa, at a cost of $750. The pair dropped their marriage plans because they couldn’t bear the financial burden.

“It was a real blow,” said Glitsina. “My whole life I suffered in the Ukraine because I was Jewish. But here, I’m not allowed to do things other Jews could do.”

Other couples have not let the rabbinate get in the way of celebrating their union.

Alexander Nakaryakov, who came to Israel from Ukraine, and Evgenia Kozlova, who emigrated from Russia, met six years ago at a pub where he worked as a security guard and she as a waitress. Kozlova says family documents proving that her mother is Jewish were lost after World War II. When she and Nakaryakov decided last year to marry, she began an Orthodox conversion but dropped out after a few months when it became grueling.

The pair opted against a civil ceremony abroad because they didn’t have enough money.

Finally, they decided to forgo official marital status. Instead, they threw a big party with a ceremony conducted by a so-called secular rabbi, part of a nonreligious movement that strives to bring secular Jews closer to Jewish culture.


“At first, we were ashamed we weren’t going to have an Orthodox wedding,” Nakaryakov, a biology student, acknowledged. “But at the end, we were happy to have a ceremony that better suited the kind of people we are.”