Olympian Dolgopyat arrives home to hero’s welcome in Israel

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Olympian Artem Dolgopyat arrived home to Israel on Tuesday to a hero’s welcome after winning Israel’s first-ever gold medal in artistic gymnastics.

On the ground at Ben Gurion International Airport, he soaked up cheers from the crowd, raising his medal and putting his other arm around his longtime partner, Maria Masha Sakovichas. The image captured the duality of Dolgopyat’s life in Israel, between his history-making achievement for the country and its religious norms that prevent him from marrying Sakovichas because he is not Jewish under Orthodox law.

Dolgopyat made no mention of the marital issue, which his mother had lamented earlier this week.

“This is really the warmest welcome I ever got in my life,” he said. “I want to cry from all the excitement, even more than the medal. I’m just kidding, but really it’s also a very fun moment.”

The Ukrainian-born Israeli gymnast was hailed as a national hero for winning Israel’s second-ever gold medal — and its first in artistic gymnastics. But the celebrations were briefly tempered after his mother said in the interview that the country’s authorities will not allow him to wed because he is not considered Jewish according to Orthodox law.

“The state doesn’t allow him to marry,” Dolgopyat’s mother, Angela, told 103FM in an interview Sunday.

Her comments chafed some in Israel, which has perpetually grappled with the balance of religion and state since it was founded as a refuge for Jews 73 years ago.

Under its “Law of Return,” anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship. But while Dolgopyat’s father is Jewish, his mother is not. Under “halacha,” or Jewish religious law, one must have a Jewish mother to be considered Jewish.

This discrepancy has resulted in tens of thousands of Israelis, many of them from the former Soviet Union, who live in the country, serve in its army, and in Dolgopyat’s case represent it in the Olympics, but are blocked from Jewish rituals such as weddings and funerals.

Israel does not have a system of civil marriage and Israeli law mandates that Jewish marriages must be conducted by a rabbi authorized by the Chief Rabbinate. Christian and Muslim couples must also get married within their faith.

Those who do not meet the Orthodox standards set by the rabbinate — including same-sex couples, interfaith couples, and Israelis not considered Jewish by halacha — cannot get married in Israel. Instead, they must travel abroad to marry.

Attempts to legalize civil marriage have repeatedly foundered due to opposition by politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties.

Dolgopyat’s mother told the radio station that her son and his girlfriend have lived together for three years, “but they can’t marry. They need to go abroad, but they don’t let him go abroad because he always needs to do sports.”

The Olympic champion, for his part, tried to downplay the controversy. “These are things I have in my heart, it’s not right to talk about this now,” he told reporters in Tokyo.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, said Monday that he “will fight in every way possible so that there will be civil marriage” in order for Dolgopyat and others to marry in Israel.

He said it was intolerable that someone can win a gold medal for the country and not be able to wed.

“It’s insufferable in my eyes that someone can stand on the podium, hear Hatikva, and get a gold medal in the name of Israel, and then not be able to wed here,” he said, referring to the country’s national anthem. “It’s a situation that cannot continue, and we will fight for change.”

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