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Inside Israel’s Absurdly Kafkaesque Department of Mysteries

It turns out that when you enroll a kid on a tourist visa in the first grade in Jerusalem, the Ministry of Education doesn’t like it very much.

We had come for a sabbatical year; my husband, Nir, is Israeli, so this was home for him, both for family and a lot of his work collaborators. There were enough details to manage before leaving, so we were glad when Nir’s mom suggested that it would probably be easier to just sort out our visa status after we arrived.

A few weeks after our arrival, Nir and I brought our marriage license, the children’s birth certificates, our passports and every other document we could think of to the Ministry of the Interior. We explained that we wanted to register two children as citizens and extend the visa of the non-Israeli spouse of a citizen — that is, me. They sent us to Yochi. We were in her office for about ten minutes before she screamed at us and sent us away, because the originals of our various documents did not have apostilles — special international stamps meant to authenticate documents for international use.

We couldn’t register the children as the progeny of a citizen until we had proof that we were married. Because only married (and presumably heterosexual?) people make babies, it seems. And the only way a government employee will talk to you about your status is if you have the right kind of stamp on a piece of paper.

The process of procuring these magical stamps involved calls to four or five arms of the Massachussets state government, enlisting the help of a city hall in Cyprus, and spending more money than was really appropriate on a mysterious and slightly sketchy online service.

We went back to Yochi several more times. Each time, she yelled at us and told us that we had done some step of the process wrong, usually steps that we hadn’t been informed about in previous visits. She seemed to enjoy telling us no.

Despite her best efforts, though, on the fourth visit back we got someone to accept documents acknowledging that my husband is actually married to me, and thus that the children who name him as their father on their birth certificates are actually his. By this time, I had given birth to our third kid; she spent the first couple of months of her life technically stateless, trapped along with us in Yochi’s limbo. At long last, though, we were able to secure her and her brothers citizenship and appease the Ministry of Education, which had been sending increasingly threatening messages to us, via the kids’ school.

My own status, however, was a whole other story. Our fifth trip back involved a meeting with Aviva in the visa department; she asked me, after looking over the stack of papers we had dutifully brought, for a letter from a rabbi verifying that I am Jewish. I explained that I am a rabbi. (I even have the business cards to prove it.)

She didn’t care. She still needed a letter.

I asked why it mattered if I was Jewish at all, given that I was married legally to a citizen and that this was for a tourist visa, not citizenship or even a work permit. How did this work for interfaith couples? Or couples in which both parties were non-Jews?

In lieu of answers, I was given a date for my next appointment.

I came to the next meeting ready: I had no less than fifteen different letters from fifteen different rabbis attesting to my Jewishness. I had figured that I may as well go big, so I put a call for help on Facebook; a lot of friends and colleagues jumped at the chance to engage in a little bureaucratic trolling. Many of them had their own maddening experiences with Israeli red tape, and wanted to help stick it to the Ministry of the Interior in whatever small way they could.

But. Aviva asked why I only had printouts of the letters, and not originals. Despite what I had been told last time, she needed originals. She couldn’t process my application without originals.

She also asked where my birth certificate was.

I was filled, once again, with the Kafkaesque dread that had been following me for months. “Birth certificate? Nobody said anything about needing a birth certificate!”

Aviva, on the other side of the desk and plexiglass window, replied cooly, “Well, we can’t move forward without that to confirm your Jewishness. How long will it take you to obtain that?”

I was now so angry that I believe I may have begun to sputter. “Why does it even matter if I’m Jewish or not? This is for a tourist visa! What does the non-Jewish spouse of a citizen have to do???”

Aviva rolled her eyes at me. “Well, it’s a whole other process. She would have to pay 175 shekels.”

And then the lightbulb went on.

“Wait… you mean… I could just pay you for this and not have to come back?”

“Yes,” Aviva replied, as though I were a particularly slow child. “But it wouldn’t be free.”

Nobody had told us this before. We had asked all the questions, been given what were presented to us as complete answers. Yet another double standard in the treatment of Jews and non-Jews here was on offer at Aviva’s desk — but it was clear that structural inequalities were not going to be successfully addressed on the other side of her plexiglass window. At least, now, somehow, somehow, 45 United States dollars later, I had a a visa extension in my passport and was finally walking out of the Ministry of the Interior.

But not for the last time. For, it seems, the children need to be with us in person in order to apply for their passports.

Danya Ruttenberg is author of “Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting.” She was named by Newsweek as one of ten “rabbis to watch” and by the Forward as one of the top 50 women rabbis in America.

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