Between five to 10 Israeli couples fly to Cyprus every day because the Jewish state does not allow mixed marriages. Some ideological Jewish couples make the trip because they object to lack of separation between state and religion in Israel. A German reporter visiting Israel accompanied two of these couples on happiest day of their lives
Happiness waits on the third floor, above a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. “Yes, this is right”, the driver assures the suspicious faces in the rear-view mirror, “Athenon Avenue 38.” Amir grabs Elena’s hand. The sun's glare causes him to squint. Above the image of Colonel Sanders is a sign reading, "Town Hall".
”Romantic, isn’t it?” Amir says and grins. His mother runs ahead with the camera. “This is the happiest day of your lives,” she yells. “I have to film you going in.” Amir sighs, laughs, fusses with the zipper of his suitcase. He tries so hard to hide his nerves, but little drops of sweat drip from his temples.
It has been almost two years since he and Elena became “Amir & Elena”. They met on the Internet. Two, three, four dates, a first kiss at the Wailing Wall. A visit to his parents, then hers. All of them approve. Then, one night in the garden of his Tel Aviv home, Amir kneeled in front of her, his bluish eyes gleaming in the light of the lanterns his mother had hung over the scratched plastic chairs. He opened the velvet jewellery case. Elena nodded, threw her arms around him, called her friends and invited them to the wedding – which both of them knew would have to wait.
It only took them three months to be sure that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, but 18 months and innumerable letters, phone calls and petitions later, they still have not received the State of Israel's authorization to wed because Elena is not Jewish. According to Jewish law, only a person whose mother is Jewish is considered a Jew. In Elena’s case, only her father is Jewish, and therefore she is considered a gentile. And in Israel this means that the two of them are not allowed to marry.
The separation between state and religion, as most western countries know it, does not exist Israel. It is the only democracy in which there are only religious but no civil marriages. Only an orthodox rabbi, an imam or a priest can perform marriages that are recognized by the state. And the authorities would not even consider allowing mixed marriages, either between Jews and Muslims or Christians, or between Jews and goyim like Elena.
'It's not human'
There is, however, a loophole: according to international law, Israel is required to recognize weddings that are performed abroad. For this reason, every month 150 to 200 couples fly to Cyprus, the Israeli Las Vegas. It takes less than half a day to make the trip and get married. Couples fly over in the morning, say "I do", and off goes a messenger to the Cypriot capital of Nicosia to get the documents certified. By the time the couples head to their complementary massage, a bellboy brings the official documents, mumbling something that is supposed to sound like “Mazal tov”. However, the scenario has little in common with the instant weddings in the Nevada desert. These weddings are not a quick or eccentric option, for some they are the only option.
In the elevator a sign reads: Weddings, 3rd floor. Underneath, someone has posted a handwritten note, “Home of happiness.” Elena’s mother is already crying. All four of them squeeze into the elevator, suitcases between their knees. Elena arranges her hair in the mirror. She’s wearing large gold earrings, a white leather jacket and black jeans.
Along the walls of the waiting room is a line of office chairs, plastic flowers, faded portraits of past mayors. Love might be in the air, but certainly not in the décor.
“I can understand that Israel doesn’t want civil marriages,” says Elena while filling out the questionnaire. “If the state doesn’t maintain its Jewishness, it loses its purpose, right? But to dictate people whom they can marry and whom they can’t, that’s just not human.”
When Elena was six, her family left Ukraine and followed the call of the Israeli government that was massively soliciting for Jewish immigrants from the East to counter the fast growing number of Palestinians, among other things. Like so many citizens from the former Soviet Union, Elena profited from Israel’s generous immigration policy: “Every Jew has the right to immigrate to the Land of Israel,” states Article One of the 1950 Return Law. However, the interpretation of who exactly can be called Jewish was very flexible at that time.
Basically everyone who was or may have been persecuted during the Third Reich was able to immigrate – even if he or she was not a Jew according to ultra-orthodox laws, but, for example, only had a Jewish grandfather. So Elena was Jewish enough to settle in the Holy Land. Jewish enough to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, Jewish enough to serve in the army. But not Jewish enough for marriage.
Between five and 10 couples take the 40-minute flight from Tel Aviv to Larnaca each morning to get married there. For Cyprus it is a lucrative business – every wedding translates into 282 Euro. For many communities this amount is equal to a quarter of their annual budget. No one is willing to admit it, but if Israel ever decides to allow civil marriages within its borders, the financial ramifications on the island will be disastrous.
But so far, it does not appear as though things are going to change in the Holy Land, even if liberalisation would be widely supported. According to a survey by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, 49%, of the population would vote for a legal alternative. To many people, like Oded and Noa, this alternative is so important that they fly to Cyprus even though they have no legal necessity to do so.
'Come on, smile a little'
Both of them have flawless Jewish family trees, so, in theory, they could get married in Israel. However, they are liberal. "My faith is very important to me. I cannot get married while carrying out customs which I do not agree with”, Oded says. "For example, in an orthodox wedding there is a contract in which the groom agrees to pay a certain sum to the bride's family for their daughter. But I don’t want to buy Noa."
“Instead we have made a contract (Kettubah) of our own that stipulates that we are going to honour each other", Noa adds. She shows the rings they are about to swap. "Both of us have two. Only after we hold a liberal wedding ceremony back home will we really consider ourselves to be husband and wife.”
Meanwhile, things are progressing for Amir and Elena. The assistant to the registrar takes them into an old-fashioned conference room. In front of a U-shaped line of office desks stands Takis Vovides, the wedding officer, a proud man with a bald patch, long white eyelashes, and a golden medal hanging around his neck. If this was a mob movie, he would be the godfather. Despotic, cordial, wise and determined to share as much of this wisdom as possible.
"Are you aware of the responsibility you're getting yourself into?" He whispers in the groom's direction. Amir smiles and opens his mouth to say something, but Takis has no time to wait for a response. Tick-tock, time is money. He still has two more weddings scheduled today.
Despite the rush, it is obvious how much Takis enjoys the wedding business. The couples are coming to him. They want to cry, they want to laugh, they want butterflies in their stomachs and Puccini-chills down their backs, and he knows how to give them exactly that. He begins reading a poem: “Whatever we understand, we understand through love. Only love can unite two lives.” As Luther Vandross’ voice from the CD-Player fills the room, he continues: “Our bodies get old but our hearts stay wrinkle-free.” He grasps Elena’s arm. “Grow old together; the best lies ahead of you.”
Amir vows to love and honor Elena. Before saying "till death do us part,“ he pauses for a second to look Elena in the eyes. "Till death do us part, “ Takis repeats impassionedly. While they kiss, the CD changes to „Nights in White Satin“. Takis gives both of them a wet kiss and writes a few lines on a card.
"It was so wonderful“, Amir’s mother says while they are waiting for a taxi in front of the KFC. "Now you are also happy that we came along, right?“ Amir’s cheek is still a little damp. He looks pensively at the building. On the balcony on the third floor, the last bride of the day is smoking a cigarette. “Come on, smile a little,” his mother says. “This is the happiest day of your life.” And Amir laughs.
Sarah Stricker is a German journalist who is visiting Israel as part of a fellowship program