Unity trumps politics at an Israeli wedding

I traveled to Israel last month to attend a wedding, not cover politics.

It was difficult to avoid the political buzz around the Jewish state as the collapse of the Netanyahu government unfolded before me on Israeli television as I unpacked. But the wedding of my best friend Elliot, who made aliyah from the United States a year and a half ago, probably taught me as much about the issues facing Israel as anything you read or hear in the media.

The big question in Israel today is not whether Jews and Arabs can coexist, although that conflict still looms over the country. It is whether we Jews can live with each other. Ethnic and geographic backgrounds, politics and religion pigeonhole us into a thousand different categories: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, left-wingers and right-wingers, haredim, modern Orthodox, traditional and secular.

Given the animosities that constantly simmer along these lines, it is a wonder how we can stand to live with each other within the borders of such a small country.

The wedding of Elliot and his charming bride, Lisa, was a case in point. They are two people with very different backgrounds, personalities and politics.

One difference is obvious once they open their mouths. Elliot grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and lived his entire life in the five boroughs of New York City. Lisa (pronounced Lee-za) is from London. During the course of the week, both Americans and Brits took turns imitating the "foreign" accents of the other side.

Of course, to most Israelis, the difference in nationalities would be considered no difference at all: Both Elliot and Lisa are considered "Anglo-Saxons," in Israeli parlance, since both come from English-speaking countries.

But in keeping with the overriding theme of political strife that dominated the country last month, politics also played an interesting role in the wedding. Elliot, who holds a Ph.D. in political science, is a dedicated supporter of the political right in Israel. Lisa, a journalist who made aliyah more than a decade ago, leans strongly to the left.

Conventional wisdom tells us such a union in Israel is impossible, but don't tell that to Lisa and Elliot. They have discovered political differences can pale next to longings of the heart.

Even within Elliot's small family (of nearly 300 guests at the wedding, the overwhelming majority belonged to the British contingent), a strong division exists.

He has one set of cousins who live in Shilo — a "settlement" in Samaria on the wrong side of the so-called "green line," Israel's 1948 border. Another set of his cousins lives on a moshav collective farm near Ra'anana — inside the green line — where they raise chickens.

The Shilo cousins are extremely religious. Indeed, even the kippah-wearing, kosher-keeping and Sabbath-observing Elliot felt he didn't quite fit into the Shilo scene.

In contrast, the Ra'anana cousins are extremely secular. Elliot jokes that when he stays there, his cousins don't let him help feed the livestock, since they fear he'll try to influence the poultry and turn them into right-wing religious chickens instead of left-wing secular chickens!

The funny thing about Elliot is that although I always thought of him as Orthodox when he lived in the states, in Israel, he doesn't feel comfortable in Orthodox shuls.

Instead, he davens at the Masorti, or Conservative, synagogue in Jerusalem. Lisa belongs to a small Orthodox shul that doesn't even have its own rabbi.

Who would marry them? After passing through the maze of the Chief Rabbinate, the couple agreed on Rabbi Abraham Feder, head of the Jerusalem Masorti congregation. But Feder cannot perform marriages in Israel because he is not Orthodox.

This is not so much a case of religious discrimination as it is an expression of political muscle. In a country where rabbis are paid by the state, the question `who is a rabbi?' is inherently political.

The Orthodox rabbinate can depend on the political support of a sizable chunk of Israel's electorate. Thus, the non-Orthodox remain unrecognized.

To get around this problem, Feder works with an Orthodox colleague. Together, the two perform the ceremony, with the Orthodox rabbi signing all the necessary forms.

With a diverse guest list of Orthodox, Masorti and secular Jews, Elliot and Lisa faced a problem. There was no way to hold a wedding ceremony and reception that would please everyone.

The solution was simple: Hold a wedding that would offend everyone. The strictly Orthodox were unhappy with mixed seating of men and women at the reception tables. The secular were unhappy with separate dancing for men and women.

At the reception, the combination of different types of Jews at the tables produced interesting conversations. Bibi's fate could be heard being discussed in a variety of accents. Few thought he could survive and most were optimistic about the emergence of something new in Israeli politics — a center.

I'm very skeptical about the supposed champion of centrism, Amnon Lipkin Shahak, the latest general on a white horse to enter Israeli politics. But the idea of the people of Israel and Jews everywhere setting aside their niche identities and looking at the big picture is an intoxicating one.

All one had to do to believe in this idea was look around the wedding reception. Religious and secular, right-wing and left-wing, Israelis and immigrants, Americans and Brits were far more interested in celebrating the union of two people than in arguing about which details of the reception insulted their beliefs.

I'm sure that with God's help Lisa and Elliot will spend some of the next 120 years arguing about politics. After all, both are Jewish intellectuals who came to the Jewish state out of a sense of Zionist commitment, and both care deeply about the issues that divide Israel.

As I watched them under the chuppah, I knew those differences, like the varied ways they pronounce English words, were not that important.

The center can hold. With Elliot and Lisa, as with the rest of the Jewish people, that which unites us is far more important than that which divides us. If only their love could inspire the rest of us to think the same way.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer at National Review.