Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Verifiably Single

Lynne and Adam are getting married! This is very exciting news for us: we’ve known Lynne for as long as we’ve been in Israel now, and Adam comes highly recommended.

In order to get married in Israel, Lynne needs two men to testify that she is indeed single. Lynne asked me.

It’s an unseasonably warm day in January when I head to the Chief Rabbi’s Marriage Division Office in downtown Jerusalem. As I walk the streets, I realize that I haven’t been here in over a year. Not since the bombs started.

I expect to see deserted streets, boarded up shops. There are some but there are also new cafes and construction of the light rail system along Jaffa Road. Business is not exactly booming but it’s not the ghost town I imagined.

Still, I am feeling uneasy. It is only the day after the double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and I don’t want to linger longer than necessary. I wait for a bus to pass. No need in taking chances.

The Marriage Division is in an old run-down apartment building on Havatzelet Street, not far from Gizmongolia, an all you can eat “meat bar.” We used to take our office there for the monthly all-staff lunch, back when we’d go downtown for lunches.

There are two people ahead of me. Both men of course. Traditional Jewish law has not moved far enough into the 21st Century to allow women as witnesses. The waiting room contains welcoming literature for new brides and grooms, but no secular reading material. No People Magazine, no Modern Bride. No Oprah.

I flip through a brochure in English and learn that soldiers, students, new immigrants and people on welfare are entitled to a 40% discount on their marriage registration fees

The door opens. It’s my turn. I am welcomed in by Rabbi Shmuel Zalman, a jovial fellow with a big white beard.

“How long have you known Lynne?” he begins, innocently enough.

“Eight years,” I say.

He flips through her file. “I see she was married before.”


“Yes, but that’s before I knew her.”

“How long ago was that?” he presses.

“I’m not sure.”

“Yes but how long?” he asks again.

“I’m really not sure.”

He changes subjects. “Do you know her parents? What does her father do?”

“I couldn’t say. But I know her brother. He’s a teacher at the Pardes Institute.”

“What’s that? Under whose auspices does it operate?”

“It’s independent.” I don’t want to say anything about the fact that men and women learn at Pardes together. I’m afraid that the way things have started to go, that might invalidate the wedding entirely.

“Adam teaches there too.”

“Uh huh,” he mumbles. “How long ago was she married, did you say?”

“No, I didn’t.”

Then he drops it. And I come to the realization that this is like the security check at the airport. Rabbi Zalman is not really interested in the answers. He wants to determine if I’m a trustworthy source; if I’m straight and honest. At the airport they look for terrorists. He’s looking for liars.

He turns his attention to me. “What is your line of business?” he asks. I tell him I manage an Internet site. I try to keep my answers simple so there won’t be too many additional questions. Same strategy as at the airport.

“Oy!” he proclaims, suddenly becoming overtly animated. “What’s going on with the hi-tech sector? So many layoffs. What, they don’t need people anymore?”

I try to explain it’s a global downturn, the economy you know, but Rabbi Zalman has apparently found a subject he’s passionate about. He launches into a story. A drash he once heard from some great Rabbi about the origin of the Hebrew word for computer. I pick up the basics. “It comes from moach and shev,” he explains.

“Sitting Brain?” It sounds to me like a Navajo name. “Hello, I am Sitting Brain and this is my younger brother, Standing Tush.”

He’s really enjoying himself now. The drilling over, it’s speech-making time.

He is throwing out those insights very fast, too fast for me, and in Hebrew. I nod and smile, understanding almost nothing. For all I know he’s pontificating that all computers should be banned, that the Internet delivers only pornography, that computer users are no better than pornographers.

“Yes, right, correct,” I nod and smile.

I’m not upset; I’m sure it’s a lonely job, sitting all day asking people the same questions again and again in a drab basement office when he would probably rather be learning Torah in some Bet Midrash. Or working out at the gym. OK, learning Torah. Every little bit of interaction can brighten an otherwise dulling routine.

“All right,” he concludes and gives me a pen to sign my name and Identity Number. I have made it through the interview. I get up to leave.

“You have children?” he asks as I reach the door.

“Yes, three,” I respond.

“May you blessed by them and know only joy.”

“Thank you,” I say. “I certainly hope so.”

As I walk back out into the sunshine, I breathe a sigh of relief. That wasn’t so bad. A little grilling, a new experience, a Navajo naming, and a blessing from the marriage clerk. And now Lynne and Adam can get married.

All in all, not a bad day, not a bad day at all.

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