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Love and Marriage in Israel

Lawrence Bush
April 1, 2004

by Susan M. Susser
So much of Israeli news is sad; so much about the ugliness of conflict. I say: Let us turn our thoughts away from hate; let us talk of love.
What is it like to fall in love in Israel? If you take a quick look at the faces of young lovers, you’ll recognize the same universal emotion that “makes the world go ’round.” But what is it like to get married in Israel? Well, that’s another story — a story in which the world goes ’round in a different way.
Are you Jewish (secular, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform?) or Arab (Moslem, Christian, Druze?) and perhaps thinking of marrying someone from a religion other than your own? Are you a new immigrant with non-existent or questionable Jewish roots? Are you a gay man or a lesbian? Be aware that no civil marriage ceremony is available for anyone in Israel. For those who object to an Orthodox religious ceremony or do not “qualify” in religious terms for such a ceremony, the Isle of Cyprus awaits. For a reasonable sum, you can fly to Cyprus for a civil marriage ceremony, which will be recognized in Israel. A weekend deal includes the flight, hotel and ceremony. Upon arrival, be advised: You may have to wait in line a while, with ten or more Israeli couples ahead of you.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s linger in the realm of love for a bit; let’s not rush into marriage. Let’s look at the young people walking along an average city street in Israel on a beautiful spring day. Male visitors often tell me Israeli women are beautiful. They are. Many are dark, with Middle-Eastern features; others are fair, European or Slavic looking. Many young women wear tight-fitting, hip-hugging jeans and above-the-navel shirts or sweaters. Some have tattoos, some have piercings. Some smoke. These women radiate sexuality and, if they are middle-class, usually have had their first sexual experience in high school. If they are from “proper” homes, their mothers will make sure they take birth-control pills.
On this same street, you will see women with long skirts and long sleeves. From a distance, it is possible to mistake an Orthodox Jewish woman wearing a headscarf for an Arab woman in traditional dress.
Israeli men come in a variety of dress codes as well. Settlers sport white shirts, dark trousers, dangling tsitsit and a pistol. You will see haredi men all in black, national-religious (religious Zionist) youth with knitted kippot, uniformed soldiers with weapons slung over their shoulders and post-army men with a variety of hairstyles ranging from ponytails to completely shaven heads.
When it comes to marriage, there are a number of questions confronting this varied population. How does a young Moslem girl in Israel know which of several suitors is the one to love? How does a young national-religious man decide that this is the woman with whom he should share the rest of his life? What happens when a secular Jewish couple living together for several years decide to marry according to Jewish law?
When Jalaal, my husband’s former student — an Israeli Arab with whom we’ve maintained a close friendship for over thirty years — invited us to his home for Saturday lunch, I posed the first question to his daughters. Marwa, the eldest, made it seem quite simple: “When Jamil came to ask my father’s permission to meet me, I peeked out, and when I saw him, I knew right away that I wanted him above all the others.” And so, “love at first sight” (or “first peek,” to be more exact) is alive and well in a certain Arab village in Israel.
Jalaal’s second daughter has a more complex story. Because Hanifa is exceptionally bright and outgoing, Jalaal encouraged her to study at the nearby Jewish high school where the instructional level was much higher than at the local village school. An outstanding student, she was accepted upon graduation at Ben Gurion University, where she began pre-medical studies. With such an attractive and talented daughter of marriageable age, Jalaal was inundated with marriage proposals for his daughter. But Hanifa had no interest in marriage at this time and Jalaal fully supported her decision to concentrate on her studies before thinking of marriage. Then came a surprise: Mahmoud, a young man thirteen years older than Hanifa, approached Jalaal. Mahmoud had recently returned from Germany where he had completed his studies in dentistry. He had just opened a clinic and was beginning a successful practice. Yes, he knew that Hanifa wanted to complete her studies before thinking of starting a family. Yes, he knew that she wore jeans and modern dresses. Yes, he knew she loved to swim and was on the swimming team in high school. And yes, this was just the sort of modern woman he was seeking.
Jalaal was sure Hanifa would refuse to meet Mahmoud, but to his surprise, she too had “peeked out” and liked what she saw and heard. After meeting only a few times, Hanifa and Mahmoud signed an engagement contract, which allows them to “date” without a chaperone. If all goes well, they will marry. For now, they are getting to know one another.
One evening last week, my neighbor Chava, who belongs to the national-religious community, knocked excitedly on my door. With a mixture of joy and relief she announced that finally, finally, thank the Lord, her 34-year-old son Matan had become engaged. For years she had worried: Why was this good-looking, educated, self-supporting son of hers not able to find the right woman? What was the problem? After some investigation, she thought she knew.
It seems that not only Matan, but the entire national-religious community, is struggling with this question. Marriage is perceived to be of the highest value; how is it, then, that many single men and women remain unmarried for so long? Chava shared numerous newspaper clippings on this subject with me. Editorials in the national-religious newspaper, Hatzofeh, and in Kolekh (a forum for religious women), discuss the causes and possible solutions to what they call “The Problem of Unmarried Singles Within The National-Religious Community.”
While haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth may follow the tradition of matchmaking according to practicality and parental preference, national-religious youth seem unwilling to give up on romance. But what happens when the “spark” is there but values conflict? He wants a wife who will only wear long skirts. She thinks mid-calf is modest enough. He wants a wife who will stay home and care for the children full-time. She is educated and career-oriented. He wants to live in a settlement within the occupied territories. She comes from a family that is peace-oriented.
In a question-and-answer column addressed to Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (Hatzofeh, June 3rd, 2003) a young man of 31 writes: “I have already met dozens of women with the aim of finding a marriage partner, but I have yet to find the perfect woman to suit me . . . Until I feel 100 percent certain, I am unwilling to marry. Am I acting correctly? What should I do?”
The rabbi’s answer: The young should return to the Torah, which commands us to marry and have children. Since he has already met so many different women, the rabbi advises, decide which of these women suits him best and invest his efforts in a marriage with her. After building a strong relationship within this marriage, perfect love will follow.
Readers of the column are invited to address their questions to the rabbi in a more private manner via the Internet. It has crossed my mind that Matan may have consulted this rabbi himself, for his mother told me that throughout the engagement period, Matan was plagued with doubts. I attended his wedding. The bride was radiant, but Matan had a different look: a mixture of acceptance and sobriety.
My own son and his bride — a secular couple who had been living together for two years — agreed to marry according to Jewish tradition. The bride’s compulsory visit to the mikve (ritual bath) was uneventful, but the rebbetsin’s lecture on the importance of checking various colors of discharge upon a sanitary napkin proved off-putting in the extreme. A haredi rabbi conducted the ceremony and kindly wished the young couple well. Afterwards, immersed in their joy, the bride and groom danced all evening to the pounding rhythm of South American hip-hop.
The saying goes: all’s fair in love. In Israel, however, marriage may be another story.

Susan M. Susser, our new columnist, has lived in Israel since 1969. She teaches English at Beit Berel College and at the Arab Teacher Training Institute on the same campus.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.