Our November/December cover story “An Uneasy Union” explained why, in Israel’s thriving democracy, marriage and divorce remain under the authority of the religious courts. Central to the story was the case of Shlomit and Alon Lavi, an Israeli couple of more than 10 years who had been prevented from re-marrying due to arcane religious laws and the rulings of the rabbinical courts.
One week after the article was published, Moment was pleased to hear that the courts had finally changed their minds: the Lavis would be able to be wed at last. In the wake of this happy decision, writer and former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report Eetta Prince-Gibson catches up with the couple. Here, the Lavis look back on their 13-year-struggle to marry and forward to their future as a married couple.
When invited to share their reaction to the rabbinic court decision that has finally changed their lives, Shlomit and Alon Lavi chose to meet in a coffee shop. “It’ll be like a date,” says Alon. “After all, we’re like a young engaged couple now, about to be married.”
On November 10th, Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court, acting as a court of appeals, gave Shlomit, a widow, permission to marry Alon, her partner of more than 10 years and the father of their four children. The hearing lasted about an hour and a half, and the panel of judges, including Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, quickly decided to allow the couple to marry, says Shlomit.
Until then, the Jerusalem regional rabbinical court had prohibited her from marrying, first due to an arcane Jewish law that required the consent of her former brother-in-law, which Shlomit was finally able to fulfill in July 2014. But even after fulfilling that commandment, the rabbinate ruled that they could not marry, due to an obscure ruling from the Middle Ages that prevents an Ashkenazi man from marrying a woman with whom he has cohabited.
Israel does recognize common law marriage and the children of those marriages. Yet Shlomit fought for her right to marry according to Jewish law, rather than common law. “I am a Jewish woman, and I want to be married as a Jew. It is my right and my obligation,” she repeatedly explained. After 13 years, the courts agreed.
And so, after reading bed-time stories and putting the children to bed, they arranged with Shlomit’s mother, who lives two floors below them, to babysit and set up the baby monitors. Shlomit put on a bit of make-up, with a silver-studded blouse over her jeans, and they drove off to the nearby mall.
And they were fully enjoying themselves, giggling and teasing each other.
Chivalrously, Alon opens the door and with a broad sweep of his arm. “I have to court her, you see,” he says as he closes the door with an exaggerated flourish. “She might turn me down.”
But when they recall the years that the rabbinical court made them wait and suffer, they become serious again, and their tones turn bitter.
“When, after all I’d been through, they told me I couldn’t marry Alon, I just gave up,” Shlomit recalls. “Each time I had to go to the rabbinate, it took so much energy from me. If not for Tehila [Cohen, their attorney and rabbinical court advocate], I would not have gone through with the appeal.
“And now, we are set and we can finally marry,” she says. “But what about the other people? All Jews in Israel are still bound by the rabbinic laws. I know that the rabbinate can be lenient – the Supreme Rabbinical court was for us – but they can also be awful.”
“They kept us in limbo for 13 years,” says Shlomit. “Thirteen years is a lifetime.”
“Four lifetimes,” adds Alon. “The four lives of the four wonderful children we would never have given birth to if we had listened to the rabbis.”
Alon continues, “Our friends and family don’t really understand why we fought this fight. After all, in Israeli law, it doesn’t really matter if you’re married according to Jewish law or not. But it matters to us. To me, being married under a huppah (wedding canopy) is a sign of the continuation of the Jewish people. I may not wear a kippah, but I am a proud Jew. I will not lie for my Judaism, and I will not sell out for permission to be a Jew.
“My family are Holocaust survivors,” he adds. “The numbers on their arms should have been all the proof the rabbis needed. After what my grandmother and my parents went through—after all the times that the world has tried to kill us—”
“—and is still trying to kill us,” Shlomit adds in, referring to the terrorist attack the day before that killed four ultra-Orthodox men during the morning prayers, along with a policeman.
“Yes, you’re right,” Alon says. “The rabbis should be bringing us closer to Judaism, not making us hate them.”
Yet as the food arrives, the conversation moves on, and Shlomit and Alon are laughing again. These days, they are busy with the usual preparations that couples do before their weddings. And, like most couples, they argue gently—he wants to be married in a large hall, she wants a synagogue. He wants one kind of band, she prefers a different one.
But they both agree they want to be married in the spring. “It’s a nice season of the year,” Shlomit explains, “and it will give me time to lose weight so I can fit into a great dress.”
“Maybe it will give me some time to grow some hair,” says Alon, rubbing his hand over his very bald pate.
“Or maybe we’ll just run off to Cyprus,” Shlomit giggles, referring to the fact that many Israeli couples who are denied the right to marry according to the rabbinate marry in Cyprus, thus forcing the Israeli civil authorities to register their marriage.
“Na, I guess we’ll marry here, so our children can come,” Alon answers back.
“Actually, we might be a young couple, but instead of asking permission from your parents to marry you, I think we should ask the kids.”
“Hey, after all of this, you never really ever asked me to marry you,” Shlomit says, faking a stern look. “So you’d better ask me the right way—you know…”
“Seriously?” says Alon. “My knees are too old for this.”
And he bends down on one knee, groaning to the amusement of the few customers in the coffee shop at this late hour.
“My dearest Shlomit. Will you marry me?” he asks, dramatically, holding out a spoon in place of a ring.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Shlomit giggles in response.