Island of love where Jews go to say 'I do' Weddings: Cyprus has become the place to go for Jewish couples who want to avoid Israel's restrictive religious code.

June 01, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LARNACA, Cyprus -- A portrait of the late Cypriot Archbishop Makarios hangs on the wall. The marriage officer is wearing a brass medallion of the city seal -- a picture of a Greek philosopher and a palm tree. Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" plays on a boombox.

So what's a nice Jewish couple doing getting married in a place like this?

Aviv Censor and Efrat Sher are getting married on this island less than an hour's flight from their country for the same reason as a lot of other Israelis: The rabbis have no say here.

"We're Israelis. We're Jewish. But we're not religious people," said Censor, a 26-year-old student from Haifa. "There's no such thing as civil marriage [in Israel]. Israel is a democracy -- in many ways, a modern democracy. But on this issue, it's so medieval."

The religious establishment's monopoly on marriage in Israel -- and its restrictive code of law -- dates from the state's founding in 1948. A study by Tel Aviv University this year found a 46 percent decline in the marriages performed by state religious authorities since Israel's founding. In recent years, more and more secular Jews head to Cyprus for their nuptials.

Last year, the "marriage officers" at Larnaca City Hall performed 542 weddings, the majority for Israelis, according to a city clerk. Israeli Embassy officials in Cyprus estimate the number of Israeli weddings on the island to be between 1,500 and 2,000 a year. That compares with about 28,000 performed last year by Orthodox religious authorities in Israel.

Censor and Sher, both students, have been living together for two years. They knew they didn't want to marry in a religious ceremony. But in Israel, there's no other way for Jews to marry legally. Orthodox rabbis control matters pertaining to birth, marriage and death for Jews. A marriage performed by a Conservative or Reform rabbi in Israel is not recognized.

To be married by the rabbinate, Jewish couples must first prove their religious ancestry: that they were born of a Jewish mother or are a legal convert to Judaism. For Censor and Sher, ancestry was not an issue. They could have married under the traditional wedding canopy in a ceremony officiated by an Orthodox rabbi.

But because they're not observant Jews, they chose the Cyprus option after determining that a civil marriage would not jeopardize the legal status of any future children. They arranged the wedding through a Tel Aviv travel agency that specializes in the Cyprus wedding business.

"For $1,000, you can come to Cyprus, be present at your own wedding and have a three-day weekend on a nice beach," said Censor, who arrived for his wedding in a gray short-sleeve shirt, dark chino pants and sneakers.

Julia Perelman-Cherny had no other choice but to marry in Cyprus. An emigre from Russia, she became an Israeli citizen under the law that permits anyone who is at least one-quarter Jewish to settle in Israel. But while she met the immigration requirements, she didn't meet the Orthodox rabbis' requirements for getting married in Israel because she couldn't prove her mother's Jewish ancestry.

"When I came here, I brought the documents of my father. I didn't have documents of my mother. She was born in 1945," said Perelman-Cherny, a 27-year-old travel agent.

Her husband, Vladislov Cherny, also could not meet the rabbis' requirements. His grandfather and father are Jewish, but his mother was not.

Although the couple had been living together in Israel for five years, the Perelman family frowned on the arrangement. The couple flew to Cyprus last fall and married. "So now, my grandmother and my parents, they are happy," she said.

David Kenan of King Travel in Tel Aviv arranged his first Cyprus wedding in 1982 for a friend of his daughter's.

"After this, it was one a month, four a month, 10 a month. We grow every month, something like 25 percent," Kenan said. "We control 60 percent of the weddings going to Cyprus. And we don't advertise. Never, never."

This old port city, where the main airport on the Greek side of the island is located, started offering civil weddings in 1986. The number of civil marriage ceremonies has steadily increased, from the first year to 542 last year. The majority are Israelis, say city officials, who note that most Greek Cypriots marry in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Kenan said 60 percent of his clients are Israeli Jews who don't wish to marry through the Orthodox rabbinate. The remainder are Russians with ancestry questions, Jews marrying non-Jews, or Cohens -- Jews from the priestly tribe of Cohen, who are prohibited from marrying a divorcee under biblical law.

The travel agency prepares the documents needed to marry in Cyprus -- notably a form from the Israeli Interior Ministry declaring that an individual is single. A Cypriot travel agent meets the couple at the Larnaca airport, ferries them to their hotel and town hall, and provides translation if necessary.

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