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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 September 2005, 02:10 GMT 03:10 UK
Unorthodox weddings dividing Israelis
By Suzie Brand
Producer/director and editor, World Weddings: Unorthodox Vows

Irit and Eli
Only Orthodox wedding ceremonies are recognised in Israel

Eli grew up in an Orthodox family wearing the traditional skullcap of the observant Jew.

His father had great ideas for him. He would not work, but devote his whole life to study of the Torah.

Eli had other plans. When he was 15, he stopped wearing the skullcap.

As punishment, his father did not speak to him for eight years. They were living in the same house.

He met his current girlfriend, Irit, three years ago after a motorbike accident.

Opposite attraction

He was told his arm had to be amputated and approached Irit, an acupuncturist, for help.

I respect Irit as my equal, I will not start our married life with a ritual that demeans her

Three years later, he still has his arm and a new fiancée.

Irit's background could not be more different. She grew up as part of Israel's secular majority, in a kibbutz in the north of the country.

Many kibbutzim are founded on socialist principles, as was this one, where Irit was actually brought up atheist.

Like a hippy flower child, she played amongst the orchards of fruit trees and lived in a communist-styled Children's House, only seeing her parents for a few hours every evening.

Irit and Eli, both 100% Jewish, now plan their wedding.

"I definitely want it to be a Jewish wedding," says Irit.

Eli and Irit are hoping their families will accept a compromise

"I want to stand under the huppa [canopy], I want to be married by a rabbi and I want to hear the seven blessings. I want a Jewish ceremony."

The problem is, the only wedding that is legally recognised for Jews in Israel is the Orthodox ceremony and this is a wedding service neither will accept.

Like many other secular Israelis, they find the ceremony archaic and humiliating

Only 20% of Israel's population are Orthodox Jews, yet the Rabbinate, the chief council of Orthodox rabbis, has ultimate authority over Jewish weddings, funerals and all other areas where religion and daily life come together.

Equal partners

After the horrors of the Holocaust, Israel was founded with a clear and binding connection between religion and state.

It was seen as a way of preserving the faith. The Orthodox wedding ceremony represents the values and lifestyle of Orthodox Jews.

Irit must declare she is a virgin, she must not talk during the ceremony and she cannot sign her own wedding contract.

"I respect Irit as my equal," says Eli. "I will not start our married life with a ritual that demeans her."

But Israel is one of only a handful of countries which still has no civil marriage, so there is no easy alternative.

It is not right that the Orthodox minority should be able to impose their views on us like this

Each year, while 30,000 Israelis marry with an Orthodox ceremony, 12,000 do not.

Some Israelis object to what they see as an alienating and sexist ceremony.

Others are seen as not Jewish enough by the Rabbinate. This would mean that their family has had too much intermarriage with non-Jews.

The only way for these 12,000 Israelis to marry is to leave Israel and do so in another country.

This will either be a more modern Jewish religious ceremony or a civil marriage.

Cyprus is the most popular destination. The Israeli authorities then recognise the newlyweds as married upon their return to Israel.

However, many couples find they still want a ceremony in Israel, their own country, so they can celebrate their Jewish culture and history with family and friends.

Eli and Irit decide to have a Jewish Reform wedding, with a Jewish Reform rabbi, in Israel.

It is modern in tone - both the bride and groom speak during the ceremony and they write their own wedding vows - but it is not legally binding in Israel.

For Eli's Orthodox family the prospect of him going ahead with this modern wedding, which lacks legal recognition, is an outrage.

Eli's religious father is furious and makes his stand. He will absolutely not attend this wedding; he will stand up for tradition and if he can persuade the entire family to boycott the wedding, he will do so.

He even threatens to disown Eli.

Reaching for a compromise

Relatives on both sides feel worried for the couple.

Irit's grandmother still lives on the kibbutz where Irit grew up, and although she is stoutly atheist and doesn't believe in marriage at all, she suggests compromise.

Eli and Irit should have two weddings. They should have the Reform wedding and an Orthodox wedding.

By doing this they can have their egalitarian wedding, but end up legally married too, with the Orthodox ceremony on top.

As for Eli's family, his mother cannot understand why Irit will not give in. 'The Orthodox rabbi will not kill her," she says.

"Try to persuade her," his mother begs.

Everyone wants the couple to give up their principles and have an Orthodox ceremony.

After much soul searching, the couple make a proposal. If they have a second wedding, an Orthodox ceremony, will Eli's family attend their egalitarian Reform wedding?

Now it is just a waiting game. Will Eli's father sabotage the couple's wedding day, or compromise and keep the family intact?

"It is not right," says Irit, "that the Orthodox minority should be able to impose their views on us like this.

"The problem is, we are a young country trying to figure out whether we are a religion or a nation and ultimately, what is a Jew?"

World Weddings: Unorthodox Vows was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two at 2200 BST on Tuesday, 13 September, 2005.

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