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‘Winning a medal doesn’t make him Jewish’: Israel’s gymnastics champion tumbles into marriage controversy

Israel's Artem Dolgopyat returned home from Tokyo after he won the country's first ever Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics on Aug. 1. (Video: SNTV)
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JERUSALEM — When gymnast Artem Dolgopyat stepped off the podium as only the second Israeli to win an Olympic gold medal, he triggered one of Israel’s many cultural tripwires: It quickly emerged that the country’s newest sports hero is banned from marrying his fiancee here because he is not considered Jewish enough by the rabbis who control Israel’s marriage law.

Immediately after Dolgopyat took top honors in the men’s floor exercise, his mother took the chance to complain that Israeli religious law is keeping her engaged 24-year-old son from tying the knot because only his father’s side of the family is Jewish.

Marriage law is tightly controlled by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. And for generations, couples who are of mixed religions — or who are atheists, gay or inadequately Jewish — have been forced to marry outside the country.

Dolgopyat’s training schedule has made that impossible, said his mother, Angela Bilan.

“I want grandchildren,” Bilan said Sunday in an interview with Israeli radio.

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Dolgopyat told reporters he wanted to focus on his victory, not the controversy, leading some commentators to speculate that rushing to the altar is more his mother’s cause than his own.

His fiancee, Maria Seikovitch, said Monday the couple got engaged last year, and she displayed her engagement ring to TV cameras.

Since her son’s Olympic triumph, Bilan’s maternal gold meddling has sparked a furor. Several top government officials pledged to seize the chance to break the rabbis’ longtime grip on marriage law and allow civil unions to be recognized for the first time. (Muslim and Christian Israelis also must be married within their religious institutions.)

“It’s intolerable that someone can fight on our behalf in the Olympics, represent us and win a gold medal and not be able to get married in Israel,” Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid told the Jerusalem Post.

But ultra-Orthodox political leaders warned against weakening the religious nature of the state.

“Winning a medal doesn’t make him Jewish,” Aryeh Deri of the religious Shas Party told the newspaper. “Our laws are consistent: For 73 years, marriage in this country has been run by Jewish law.”

The office of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who called Dolgopyat in Tokyo to congratulate him, declined to comment on the marriage dust-up.

Polls consistently show a significant majority of Jewish Israelis want the state to recognize all marriages equally, but the rabbinate restricts the rite almost exclusively to brides and grooms who can show an uninterrupted line of Jewish mothers.

Those who cannot comply look for wedding workarounds. Most travel abroad to get hitched — nearby Cyprus is a popular venue — and then register as married back home. With travel restricted during the pandemic, dozens of couples were married in Zoom ceremonies conducted by county officials in Utah.

Dolgopyat’s family immigrated to Israel 12 years ago from Ukraine, according to the many biographies that have appeared since he edged a Spaniard to become Israel’s first gold medal gymnast. (The country’s only previous gold medal was won in windsurfing.) His father’s family is Jewish; his mother’s is not.

When the athlete landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday, the crowd waved flags, sprayed champagne and blew shofars, the traditional Jewish ram’s horn. Having Dolgopyat treated as a Jewish hero, one without a Jewish mother, could make him an emblem for a more expansive view of Judaism.

“Who is a Jew and who can marry are two existential questions that Israel has failed to grapple with in its 72-year history,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the group Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel.

Israel has denied certain married couples the right to live together. Some hide. Others break up.

Advocates have already whittled away at the rabbis’ lock on some issues, with recent Israeli Supreme Court rulings opening up avenues of conversion to Judaism and a new budget that breaks open kosher certification to greater competition. Regev said he thinks Dolgopyat could now personalize and popularize the issue of marriage.

“The battle for who controls marriage is age-old,” he said. “But when you have an individual who is heralded by not just the public but the cabinet and the prime minister, that has the capacity to move forward that which already enjoys the support of the silent majority.”