The Beth Din spoiled my wedding

We looked forward to an old-fashioned chuppah. As both of us are Jewish, it would be easy, we thought. Wrong…

By Matt Getz, August 13, 2009

I have led a thoroughly Jewish life. I went to a Jewish day school, sang my barmitzvah portion with gusto, was a member of my synagogue choir and Bible team. My forebears were all born and grew up observant Jews in the shtetlach of Latvia and Lithuania. Jewish weddings, funerals, even brisses, have been a part of my life for as long as I remember.

So when the time came for me to get married, there was no question: we were going to have a Jewish wedding — chuppah, odd Aramaic incantations, breaking glass, even Israeli relatives dancing the hora.

But there was a problem. The London Beth Din did not want to give me and my blushing bride a certificate of yiddishkeit. Was it perhaps because the bride wasn’t Jewish? Heaven forbid — she is half-Israeli and half from the same South African Jewish stock as I.

No, the real issue was that my parents, in the heady days of the 1970s, had a Reform wedding. For a while, my family wanted to avoid the strictures of the Orthodox. (We soon enough repented of our ways — the only Jewish-day schools in South Africa are Orthodox.)

But the Reform wedding haunted us. My fiancée’s parents had been married in Israel, where it is easier to be Satanist than Reform. She blithely waved her parents’ ketubah in the general direction of the Beth Din and was duly issued with the necessary piece of paper confirming that she was a Jew.

I, on the other hand, experienced the true heritage of the Sanhedrin and Rabbi Akiva. To the modern Beth Din, I was goyish until proved Jewish, and the onus was on me to tender sufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that I was as Jewish as a bagel.

So what did it take to satisfy them? My birth certificate, my mother’s birth certificate, my father’s birth certificate, and my mother’s parents’ marriage certificate, which had somehow survived since the 1930s — were not enough. We had to get a letter from the rabbi of the Durban United Hebrew Congregation saying that my grandparents were married by its Rabbi Rubin in 1933. Good thing they don’t throw anything away in Durban.
That appeared to satisfy them and a certificate for marriage was issued. End of story? No. A closer inspection revealed that the sages of Adler House had refused to recognise the existence of my father — a man so deeply part of the tribe that, in the 1970s, he sported a magnificent “Jewfro”.

In the space where his name should have been, the words “no evidence he is Jewish” were scrawled in Hebrew by Dayan Simons.

Although the certificate enabled us to get married by an Orthodox rabbi, it excluded my father from joining the rest of the family beneath the chuppah. Worse, his name would not be included in the ketubah: instead, the words “son of Abraham” (the Jewish equivalent of “known unto God”) would appear beside my name. I was beside myself, not least because not a single person at the Beth Din had said anything about this to us. Woe betide the Jewish couple that doesn’t read Hebrew! (It was at about this stage that my fiancée and I discussed whether we could get a priest on short notice.)

Back we went to South Africa, and, miracle of miracles, a rabbi at the Beth Din in Johannesburg recognised the signature of the rabbi on my father’s parents’ marriage certificate, from 1931. It’s lucky the Johannesburg Jews live to a ripe old age.

After four months, numerous letters, emails and angry phone calls, the proper certificate was issued and we went ahead with a full-scale religious wedding. But so disenchanted had we become, my wife and I still wonder whether we did the right thing, based as it ultimately was on the desire to spare our children a similar mishegas.

Still, this was just a symptom. Forget our small saga, with its happy ending. Remember instead the insult to Lev Pisahov, who fought and died in IDF uniform but was buried at the periphery of the cemetery because, although his father was Jewish, his mother was not. This is the mentality that, in the UK, is prepared to pursue a 12-year-old boy to the House of Lords so that the United Synagogue can continue to exercise the right to discriminate.

Official Judaism worries about intermarriage and assimilation; but how many Jews and non-Jews are they responsible for permanently alienating?

For those we passively allow to decide our Jewish fate, Judaism seems to be less about humanity and faith than about bigotry and bureaucracy.

Matt Getz is a lawyer living in London

Last updated: 2:04pm, August 14 2009


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