TEL AVIV, Israel — Artem Dolgopyat, who won Israel’s first-ever gold medal in artistic gymnastics, returned home to Israel on Tuesday to a hero’s welcome.
He took in the applause from the audience as he raised his medal and wrapped his other arm around his lifelong partner, Maria Masha Sakovichas, on the ground at Ben Gurion International Airport. The photograph captures the contrast in Dolgopyat’s life in Israel, between his historic achievement for the country and the country’s religious standards, which bar him from marrying Sakovichas since he is not Jewish according to Orthodox law.
Dolgopyat made no mention of his mother’s marital problems, which she had expressed earlier in the week.
“This is the nicest welcome I’ve ever received,” he remarked. “Even more than the medal, the enthusiasm makes me want to cry. I’m joking, but it’s also a pretty enjoyable moment.”
For earning Israel’s second-ever gold medal — and it’s first in artistic gymnastics — the Ukrainian-born Israeli gymnast was lauded as a national hero. However, the joy was short-lived as his mother stated in an interview that the country’s officials will not allow him to marry since he is not deemed Jewish under Orthodox law.
In an interview with 103FM on Sunday, Dolgopyat’s mother, Angela, said, “The state doesn’t allow him to marry.”
Anyone having at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship under the country’s “Law of Return.” Dolgopyat’s father is a Jew, but his mother is not. To be considered Jewish, one must have a Jewish mother, according to “halacha,” or Jewish religious law.
Because of this disparity, tens of thousands of Israelis, many of whom are from the former Soviet Union, live in the nation, serving in the army, and, in the instance of Dolgopyat, compete in the Olympics, but are barred from participating in Jewish rites such as weddings and funerals.
Israel does not have a civil marriage system, and Jewish marriages must be performed by a rabbi who has been authorized by the Chief Rabbinate. Both Christian and Muslim couples must marry inside their own faiths.
Those who do not fulfill the rabbinate’s Orthodox requirements, such as same-sex couples, interfaith couples, and Israelis who are not deemed Jewish by halacha, are unable to marry in Israel. Instead, they will have to marry in another country.
Attempts to legalize civil marriage have consistently failed to owe to resistance from ultra-Orthodox groups with political clout.
Dolgopyat’s mother told the radio station that her son and his girlfriend had been living together for three years, but that they are unable to marry. They need to travel overseas, but they won’t let him since he is always involved in sports.”
For his part, the Olympic champion attempted to dismiss the situation. He told reporters in Tokyo, “These are things I have in my heart, it’s not proper to talk about this today.”
It was untenable, he added, for someone to win a gold medal for the country and then be unable to marry.
“It’s intolerable to me that someone may stand on the platform, hear Hatikva, and win a gold medal in Israel’s honor, and then be unable to marry here,” he added, referring to the country’s national song. “This is an untenable position, and we will push for change.”