Unofficially Officially – – – – – Jewish

When my daughter’s birth certificate still hadn’t arrived a month later, I knew I had to bite the bullet and call the Ministry. After 57 minutes on hold, I was told she would not receive her birth certificate until her dad and I came in person to the Ministry to declare her nationality and religion. This is very unusual. Issuing a birth certificate in Israel is one of the few simple, user-friendly bureaucratic tasks. You type in the chosen name, click a few boxes, and you’re finished, the printed certificate due to arrive days later. This is how it was for all my friends. 

The nice man on the phone repeated himself. Both parents must declare her nationality and religion to receive a birth certificate from the State of Israel. 

Then I realized why. I remembered back to when I made aliyah ten years before. The woman who printed my ID card asked me what religion to put down, and I automatically said, Jewish. 

“No, you can’t be Jewish. You can be anything else… Christian, Buddhist, whatever you want! But not Jewish.”

“Okay,” I replied, “but I’m not Christian or Buddhist or anything else…”

“I can just leave it blank if you want.” 

So I left it blank. According to the State of Israel, I am without religion, and not part of the Tribe. This is because although I am Jewish enough to make aliyah, I am not Jewish enough to be considered Jewish. 

The “Law of Return” allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent (the same qualifier that could get one killed in Nazi Germany) to gain Israeli citizenship, but the Rabbinate (Israel’s rabbinic authority, which is run by two alternating Orthodox rabbis) decides who is Jewish. 

The Rabbinate is a controversial organization. Like they say, two Jews, three opinions.  In addition to Rabbinate issued kosher certifications, there is an anti-Rabbinate alternative Kosher certificate. In addition to Rabbinate approved rabbis for wedding ceremonies, there is an organization dedicated to assisting those who wish to marry without them. 

When people complained that their non-halachically Jewish loved ones were buried outside the cemetery boundaries, people came to plant flowers to disguise the low dividing wall. 

But, there are no alternative birth certificates or ID cards, so on this issue the Rabbinate rules completely. It doesn’t matter that I schlepped to Sunday School every week as a kid, or that I delivered an impassioned bat mitzvah speech, or even that I legitimately enjoy the taste of gefilte fish. 

I even completed an earnest, heartfelt conversion process as a teen. Still, my mom is not Jewish so I never will be either, at least not in the eyes of the State, or through the old, cataract clouded eyes of the Rabbinate. 

We showed up as instructed around 7 a.m. outside the ministry. There was already a long line of fellow “others” waiting to leap through the necessary bureaucratic hoops: African asylum seekers, wispy blond Europeans, and fellow Israelis who may not be quite Jewish enough. Tamir and I noticed an odd pairing: a young, attractive Asian woman with a baby accompanied by an older, somewhat disheveled Israeli man. 

“Do you think they’re a couple? I mean both parents have to arrive.” 

We didn’t have to wonder for long. In the waiting room, the woman immediately came to sit next to us. Her baby was around the same age as Romi. 

“Sabbush, can you go fill up the water bottle please?” She said in accented English. Grandpa shuffled away. Okay, puzzle solved. 

She turned to me and she pulled her baby onto her lap. “This is Zoe. Her dad was killed in October 7th. He was in the security team in the Moshav. I was seven months pregnant and at work that day. After that I had a high risk pregnancy due to the stress and ended up having a C-section. Now Zoey and I live with his parents in Yavne. He was an only child so she is their only connection to him.” 

It all gushed out. But before we could offer our condolences or let our kids babble at each other our number was called, DMV style, and we grabbed our stroller to start making our way through the narrow corridor between cubicles to our assigned civil servant. 

“I’ll just type kav kavim” the clerk said, referring to a series of dashes (—-). 

We shrugged our approval. The printer grunted and groaned and she handed over the long awaited birth certificate. Next to Nationality and Religion, it said NOT RECORDED. 

When people ask, I always say it doesn’t bother me. It’s just paperwork. I feel Jewish, and I always have. I connect to Jewish teachings, holidays, and daily life, so much so that I moved to Israel. I can lead a Jewish life without erasing my mother’s heritage or completing an arbitrary (in my mind) conversion process. But of course it does sting, just a little. Who likes being reminded they are different, not enough, and don’t exactly fit in? 

Romi will endure the same minor bureaucratic inconveniences and reminders of her official ‘other ’ness. Though she’s genetically 75% Jewish, born in Israel to Shabbat candle lighting parents, and will speak perfect Hebrew, her religion will remain “not recorded”. And so will that of Zoey, the little girl that will grow up without her dad, a Jew, who fought and died to defend his community. 

Back at home, finally armed with her birth certificate, I set off to complete another part of Romi’s bureaucratic identity: her American passport. I thought back to the Ministry of Interior clerk when I joked about my status as “nothing.” 

Chas v’shalom!” (God forbid) she said, shaking her head. “It’s all just pieces of paper.”

Tamir and I agree and often joke about our daughter’s devotion to the kav-kavim religion. I hope one day, she will laugh about it too.