Drawing Attention to the Plight of Jewish 'Bastards,' Israel's Own Untouchables

Jews born out of incest or adultery are labeled 'mamzers' by religious law, meaning they can only marry another mamzer or a convert. A new exhibit in Jerusalem seeks to shine a light on this ‘terrible injustice’

"Mamzerim – The Misbegotten" curator Nurit Jacobs-Yinon, left, and project adviser Emily D. Bilski.
Emil Salman

In Jewish society, they are as close as it gets to the untouchables in Hinduism. Except in very rare cases, they cannot marry other Jews. Nor can their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren and all the foreseeable generations thereafter.

But not for any fault of their own.

A mamzer – often translated as “bastard” – is the product of two specific categories of relations deemed illicit in Judaism: incest and adultery. And as the Torah states in Deuteronomy 23:3, anyone thus cursed shall remain an outcast in the Jewish community from here until what is effectively eternity: “A bastard shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation shall none of his enter into the assembly of the Lord.”

According to halakha (Jewish religious law), a mamzer who wishes to marry and raise a family may wed only another mamzer or a convert, since Jews from birth who have entered this world the permitted way – in other words, the vast majority – are off-limits to them.

Mamzers living outside of Israel, at least those not born into the Orthodox world, are slightly better off. They at least have the option of getting married in a civil ceremony or having non-Orthodox rabbis marry them. (The Reform movement, for example, rejects the notion that a Jew can be denied the right to marry another Jew because of the sins of his or her parents.)

Those in Israel, though – where non-Orthodox marriage is not a legal option – have much less leeway. Israel’s Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate will, under no circumstances, authorize such weddings. And the Rabbinate controls all matters of marriage and divorce in the country and maintains, for this purpose, a secret blacklist of known and suspected mamzers.

For fear of stigmatizing their children and future generations, mamzers tend to live under the radar, keeping their status a closely guarded secret. Some marry outside the country in civil ceremonies, even though this doesn’t prevent their children from inheriting the “untouchable” status. Others choose to spare future generations by not marrying at all. Most Israelis, though, are unaware of the terrible price these individuals are forced to pay for no fault of their own.

Now, though, several Israeli artists have banded together to draw public attention to the mamzers’ plight, with a new exhibit opening Sunday at the Jerusalem Biennale.

“They have no voice, so we are here to give them a voice,” says documentary filmmaker Nurit Jacobs-Yinon, curator of “Mamzerim – The Misbegotten,” which will feature works from four artists, including two of her own video installations.

All told, the current Biennale – the third to take place in the capital – will showcase the work of nearly 200 local and international contemporary artists, in 27 exhibits and projects around the city through November 16.

Other contributors on the mamzer project are Andi Arnovitz (originally from Kansas City), Ken Goldman (originally from Memphis) and Mira Maylor (from Tel Aviv). Arnovitz contributed an installation comprised of 6,386 black paper scrolls, which are meant to represent the number of individuals on the Rabbinate’s blacklist of “unmarriageable” Israelis – one that includes mamzers.

Goldman created a chuppah (or wedding canopy) with a DNA-inspired pattern that, he notes, reflects the mamzer’s “genetic mark of Cain.” And Maylor contributed a series of glass heads, mounted on mirrors, which are supposed to evoke the fragile and invisible state of mamzers in Jewish society.

The clash between ancient Jewish law and modern values is a common theme in Jacobs-Yinon’s work. Her documentary “Covenant: Women, God and all Between” (2005) focused on the sentiments of mothers forced to be distant spectators at the ritual circumcision ceremonies of their sons. “A Tale of a Woman and a Robe” (2015) explored the humiliation suffered by female converts when forced to immerse themselves in a ritual purification bath (or mikveh) in front of an all-male rabbinical court.

While working on her latest documentary project, Jacobs-Yinon became acquainted with Rivkah Lubitch, a longtime advocate for women who have been treated unfairly by the Israeli rabbinical court system.

“She started telling me about all the mamzers she represented in court,” recounts the filmmaker. “I had not been aware of the issue before, but I said to myself there and then that this has got to be my next project.”

The new exhibit is not simply art for the sake of art, notes project adviser Emily D. Bilski. “We are talking about a huge human rights issue, but it’s impossible for these people to be their own advocates because they don’t want to go public,” she says. “So what we’re trying to do through this exhibit is speak on their behalf and make people aware of this terrible injustice.”

Red flags

The exhibit opens just two weeks after the Rabbinate’s blacklist of unmarriageable Israelis was made public for the first time. (The list featured the numbers and breakdown by category according to year, but not specific names.) It was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act inquiry submitted by ITIM, an organization that advocates on behalf of individuals struggling with Israel’s religious bureaucracy.

The blacklist includes several categories of Jews prohibited from marrying in Israel, including “mamzers” and “doubtful mamzers” (the latter a halakhic term referring to individuals suspected of being mamzers, such as abandoned babies, for whom no hard evidence exists).

The list shows that since 1954, when the rabbinical courts first began keeping a tally of unmarriageable individuals, 85 Israelis have been deemed “mamzers” and 146 “doubtful mamzers.” However, over the past five years, only two individuals have been added to each category.

But these numbers don’t reflect the scope of the problem, insists Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM. “I can tell you from personal experience that we are familiar with at least 20 new cases in the past five years,” he says. “It could be that these new cases haven’t even made their way to the list and are still being investigated. But in any event, these are individuals who cannot marry in Israel because of concerns they may be mamzers – and it can often take years until the issue is sorted out.”

Often, individuals only learn they are suspect when they apply to get married. The most common red flag is a mother who did not receive a proper Jewish divorce (also known as a get) but only a civil divorce before remarrying. In these cases, any children fathered by the second husband would be considered the products of an adulterous relationship under Jewish law.

“There is an easy way to eliminate the problem of mamzers, and that is to simplify the process of obtaining a get,” says Jacobs-Yinon. “Because it is such a long-winded process, many women lose patience and begin new relationships before they have actually obtained their get. Often, they become pregnant before they are officially divorced – and this could be years after they’ve already been separated from their first husband.”

Such was the case with “Tamar,” the pseudonym for a woman featured in Jacobs-Yinon’s main installation. Viewers are only able to see the back of Tamar’s head on the screen. Her voice has been manipulated as well, to make doubly sure she cannot be identified.

Tamar recounts how it took her four years to obtain a get from her first husband, the father of two of her children. By the time it came through, she was already pregnant by her new partner. Under Israeli law, if a child is born to a woman within 300 days of obtaining her get, the ex-husband is automatically registered as the child’s father. The purpose of this law is to spare such children the terrible fate of a mamzer by clearing any suspicions about their status immediately at birth.

As Farber notes, the policy of rabbis over the centuries has been to give such children the benefit of the doubt, so it is not surprising Israeli law would adopt this approach as well.

Yet by solving one problem the law creates others, as the story of Tamar goes on to reveal. When she eventually separates from the biological father of her youngest child, she cannot demand alimony from him in court since he is not registered as the father. Because he is not registered as the father, neither does he have any custody rights over the child.

“What this all goes to show is that when we talk about the mamzer, it is not only one person who is suffering, but many circles of individuals connected to that person,” says Yinon-Jacobs. “And this is just one example.”