The Inseparable Israeli Sisters Fighting to Be Recognized as a Common Law Couple

A day in court with two nonagenarian sisters, refugees from the Holocaust and constant companions, who seek the unprecedented status so that the one who lives longer can inherit the other's old-age allowance.

Gina and Edith Fishbein.
Reproduction by Ilan Assayag

Across dusty paths that lead to the courts across the land, troop litigants who bear on their backs the legal dispute that brought them there, like tiny ants carrying a grain of garbage far larger than they are, a huge grain that brutally crushes them, and uttering one cry: Remove this obnoxious grain from our shoulders!

Last week, amid this landscape of exhausted ants, I noticed two of their kind, diminutive, trembling under the effort, stopping every few meters to rest, like two sisters leaning on one another for support. For sisters they were: Gina and Edith Fishbein. One was born in 1922, the other in 1927. They arrived at the Labor Court on Schocken Street in Tel Aviv – just across the street, as it happens, from Gina’s Falafel – accompanied by two white-winged angels, Dr. Aviad Igra and Keren Tzafrir, both attorneys from the Legal Clinic for Holocaust Survivors and Older Persons, at the law school of Bar-Ilan University.

Behind them I thought I noticed a film crew led by a camera and boom on a small cart, making a documentary for the 2018 Docaviv Film Festival about the two sisters, but maybe I only imagined it. The sisters arrived panting at the building on Schocken Street and went up to the fifth floor, to the courtroom of Judge Idit Itzcovich, from the 1980 graduating class of the law school of the University of Buenos Aires, who worked in the legal bureau at Buenos Aires city hall until 1989, when she immigrated to Israel.

Ninety-year-old Edith and 95-year-old Gina set themselves down with difficulty on the uncomfortable wooden benches.

“And your request?” the judge asked. “Old-age allowance, disability allowance, mobility allowance?”

“No,” attorney Igra said. “They want a next-of-kin allowance.”

“Next of kin?” the judge asked. “Why? Who died?”

“Each of us,” young Edith replied, to which Gina added proudly, “And we already have a joint burial plot.”

Gina and Edith Fishbein.
Ilan Assayag

The claimants, it turned out, are asking the National Insurance Institute to recognize each of them as being eligible to receive a next-of-kin allowance upon the other’s death. Effectively, they want the NII to grant them common-law status recognition.

A disturbing thought ran through the judge’s head. “Are you telling me that ” she said to attorney Igra who, guessing her thought, dismissed it with an “Absolutely not,” and placed before the judge a court ruling stating that sexual relations are not a condition for common-law recognition.

Relieved, the judge went on to sum up the lives of the two sisters in a few sentences, as she began reading her judgment. The claimants have lived in the same unit of a protected housing project since 2007. The claimants never married, are single and have no children. The claimants have a joint back account, and their old-age allowances have always been deposited in that account. The claimants manage their income and their expenses from the same bank account. The claimants purchased adjoining burial plots. The claimants’ only journeys abroad took place between 1995 and 1998, and always together, according to the Interior Ministry’s border inspection records.

Unfortunately, the judgement surveys the sisters’ lives only since 2007. That’s the nature of court judgments: They leave out what’s most important. What happened before that, and particularly in the Holocaust? Where are the Fishbein sisters from? Poland? Possibly from Lodz, like my mother, who, if she were alive and hadn’t died in an assisted living facility, would now be about Edith’s age. She too had a sister who was about five years younger. My mother was 18 and her sister 12 when the Lodz Ghetto was created, and hunger and disease began to spread. My mother’s sister did not survive; she died of typhoid fever. Maybe Edith managed to save Gina? That’s the tale I devised for myself.

The truth is that Edith and Gina were born in Leipzig, Germany, and left with their parents in 1936. Here they lived together in their parents’ home. Gina worked in the offices of El Al, Edith was a cosmetician. Since the deaths of their parents (their father in the 1960s, their mother three decades later), they have continued to live together to this day. So Edith isn’t my mother, so what? That doesn’t detract from my curiosity to know what will befall them on the fifth floor of the Labor Court.

Edith and Gina are refusing to wait until one of them dies, with the survivor being left to cope with the NII authorities, who are known for their toughness and rampant bureaucracy. Just as they have been together until now, they are together in their last struggle, too, and Bar-Ilan’s wonderful legal clinic for the rights of the elderly and of Holocaust survivors has placed itself at their disposal and is requesting NII to grant them common-law recognition.

The full legal term in Hebrew is actually “his wife – including she who is known among the public as his wife and who lives with him.” Does anyone among the public mistakenly think that Edith is Gina’s wife, or vice versa? Of course not. But the words are only words, and the term “common-law” has already been hurled time after time against the rocks of reality and applies to same-sex couples, and it’s no longer a requirement to prove the existence of sexual relations between the two.

Don’t the Fishbein sisters, who have clung to each other for so many years, deserve the law’s recognition and a next-of-kin allowance of 1,400 shekels ($373) a month, given that, when one of them dies, the household will lose her old-age allowance?

The Labor Court, though acknowledging the innovation and feasibility of the claim, did not accept it, as if to say, “It’s out of my league.” It wished the sisters good health and a long life, and did not demand that they pay court costs.

I have no doubt that the Fishbein sisters have already loaded that giant grain back onto their fragile shoulders and embarked on the road to the National Labor Court in Jerusalem, from which, if necessary, they will push on to the High Court of Justice, too. It’s these people who are augmenting jurisprudence and pushing that old, lazy mule to cope with a brave new world and with families of a new breed.