One morning in August 2015, I was sitting in my sunny Tel Aviv kitchen when a phone call almost made me choke on my coffee. “Hi it’s Racheli from the Rabbinate,” said the voice on the other end. “I am ringing to see if you have been checking yourself, like we told you to. Do you remember? Have you remembered to check yourself?”
With her vague language and apathetic tone, Racheli was inquiring as to whether I had been taking a small, white cloth from a packet given to me by the Tel Aviv Rabbinate, and verifying whether my period had stopped so I could go to a Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh, before my upcoming wedding.
Israel has no provision for civil marriage and the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate of Israel has a monopoly on Jewish nuptials. Jews who wish to have their marriages recognised by the state must be wed by Rabbinate-approved rabbis or marry abroad.
For some, state-sanctioned marriage in the country isn’t even an option. The Rabbinate has such strict rules that, according to figures from 2016, some 660,000 Jews (including non-Orthodox converts, many immigrants from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, and gay couples) can’t legally marry there. Interfaith couples are forced to marry overseas.
That morning’s call — which I found so invasive that I could barely muster a feeble “yes?” — was part of the bureaucracy of getting married as a Jew in the Jewish state. Jewish law proscribes sexual contact with a woman who is menstruating and the Rabbinate keeps to these stringent regulations. Women tying the knot through the institution must uphold family purity rules — hilchot niddah — whether or not they are observant themselves.
Various firms offer wedding packages in places like Cyprus, the paperwork taken care of for a tidy fee. One private organisation offers an unofficial civil partnership. But my Israeli partner and I had little time or money. We needed to wed so we could move to England, where I grew up. In our particular circumstances, a lawyer advised, to our chagrin, that the unofficial civil partnership certificate we obtained, wouldn’t quite cut the mustard for the notoriously difficult UK spouse visa.
I felt like the world’s biggest hypocrite. This decision would mean giving in to an institution I disagreed with on myriad issues. My part in the ceremony would be mostly limited to sticking a finger out and having a ring placed on it, with the onus on my “purity” (or ritual impurity) in the lead-up. I had never exactly dreamed of getting married. Now I would be marrying in an Orthodox ceremony and I wasn’t even doing it out of spiritual curiosity or some hankering for tradition. It was bureaucratic procedure. It was the equivalent of filling out a form.
I wasn’t the first woman in my family to go through this. In 1979, my mother, expecting her first child, also registered to marry at the Tel Aviv Rabbinate. “In the ’70s, having kids without getting married wasn’t accepted,” she says. “We didn’t feel like we really had options.” She sat with a rabbanit to agree the date of her visit to the mikveh, not disclosing she was pregnant because it seemed easier. She listened to the devout woman explain marriage and family purity.
“She explained sex to me as if I was six,” she recalls. “But it was what I expected… I just nodded my head,” she says, adding that the rabbanit knew they were just going through the motions. Statistics from 2016 show there has been a spike in unmarried couples in Israel in recent years, and that most secular couples would choose not to marry through the Rabbinate if they could. Earlier this year, Neemanei Torah VaAvodah, a Modern Orthodox group, launched a campaign to end the Rabbinate’s hold on marriage and institute a civil option. They argue that the institution alienates people with its hardline stance on Jewish law. Back then, my mother says, it was just what one did in the face of no separation between church and state. Very few people went abroad.
Now it was my turn to go through the motions. The Rabbinate building in Israel’s liberal bubble is an odd mix of clerks in headscarves and wigs, bearded rabbis, and mostly secular couples. The marriage bureau buzzes with good feeling and mazal tovs, and the bureaucracy is punctuated with religious ritual. After registering, we were handed a leaflet, decorated with flowers and butterflies, listing what we must bring to the wedding itself.
Number one was modest dress (the emphasis, presumably, being on me), a kippah for him and a head covering for her, a bottle of sweet red wine for the blessing (kosher), a glass for breaking, a quorum of at least 10 men in kippahs (our group would include a transsexual friend, one small act of subversion), proof the bride has been to the mikveh, and a ring for the bride.
The next step was to set the date I would immerse in the ritual bath, purifying myself for consummating our marriage. The date of the wedding, which we had set for as soon as humanly possible, was perilously close to my period, the rabbanit calculated based on my cycle. “I could ask my gynaecologist for a pill to make sure I didn’t bleed,” she said, writing the name on a piece of paper and handing it to me discreetly.
This was followed by a group bridal class, another part of this state-marriage procedure. Young, secular-looking couples shuffled into the room. One of the girls had wrapped a scarf around her bare legs in a nod to modesty. After 20 minutes or so, in which the rabbanit’s explanations of the ins-and-outs of marriage were met with dumbfounded looks, the men left us for a women-only session.
Circling her finger in the air in exaggerated fashion, the rabbanit demonstrated how a woman should check herself for menstrual bleeding before going to the mikveh, something a married woman should do every month, according to Jewish law. For the first year of marriage, we would get free entry to Tel Aviv mikvehs, to set us on our way. We had also all been given the pack of white cloths — available at any pharmacy, she noted.
There were other tips, too: Turning the fridge light off before the Sabbath so we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves about it when opening the door; thinking of our future husbands as diabetics, and we, their wives, as sweet, whipped cream. She left us to draw our own conclusions.
On the day of the wedding, we woke to a sky gone yellow with a dust storm of fittingly biblical proportions, the air thick and hot. We had to meet our rabbi early to go over the ketubah, the marriage contract outlining the groom’s obligations to the bride. The Tel Aviv Rabbinate’s version is one of the most conservative in Israel, he told us. It includes a provision that if I do not produce a child within 10 years, my husband has grounds for divorce.
We had picked the cheapest option: Marrying under a wedding canopy in the entrance hall of the Rabbinate building. My parents, in town from England, other relatives, and friends, were there waiting for us. Seeing everyone together, I was overwhelmed by emotion, momentarily pushing aside the now all-too-familiar sickly feelings associated with my hypocrisy. At the very least, after all the intrusion and compromise, I was with some of the people I loved most in the world. Aside from confirming the urgent need for Israel to enable citizens to marry whomever they choose, as they choose, if the experience had given me anything, it was this.