Sleuthing for Love

Daniel Estrin spotlights a unique challenge for couples looking to get married in Israel – the proof of a matrilineal Jewish ancestry to satisfy the Orthodox tradition:

[T]hey call Har-Shalom, who runs a nonprofit detective agency that specializes in sniffing out long-lost Jewish ancestry. His agency, called Shorashim (Hebrew for “roots”), is funded in part by the Israeli government. Each year he takes on roughly 1200 cases that test his fluency in Yiddish and Russian dialects, his familiarity with czarist and Soviet history, and his patience for combing through old Soviet archives. He then presents his findings to a rabbinic court, which almost always accepts his expert opinion about a citizen’s Jewish identity.

Estrin followed a genealogist working with Har-Shalom and witnessed the depth of the detective work:

An archivist willing to breach protocol located Olga’s grandmother’s original birth registration, which identified her as Jewish. Olga then paid Paley another $400 to secure a copy of her great-grandfather’s KGB file, which classified her great-grandmother as Jewish. Although these documents bolstered his case, Har-Shalom’s investigation dragged on for two more years.

Finally, last month, Olga was summoned to an Israeli rabbinical court. A judge sat at a raised bench. He reviewed the report Har-Shalom submitted of the evidence he gathered. Then the judge held up an old family photograph. “Who is in this picture?” he asked the defendant. Olga identified her mother, her grandmother, and her grandfather’s friend. The hearing lasted 15 minutes, and at the end, the judge handed down his verdict: Olga is Jewish. By extension, her daughter is, too.