“At night I cooked, during the day I cleaned houses”: former aguna becomes a chef
After years of being refused a get, Sarah Polack found herself without a high school diploma or a profession, and with three small children ⦁ She now uses the tools of her trade to help raise awareness of this issue
Moshe Weisstuch | Israel HaYom | January 23, 2020
“At night I cooked for a catering service and during the day I cleaned houses. I worked flat out. I don’t know how I survived.”
When Sarah Polack’s husband refused to divorce her and she was on the brink of despair, she dreamt of a culinary career to help her raise her three children. It took almost four years until the long-awaited moment at the Rabbinical Court when she received her divorce. Since then she hasn’t looked back. Now, as sous-chef at a well-known Jerusalem restaurant, she is helping create “Freedom dishes” – a special initiative for the benefit of women who are refused a divorce.
Pollack (32) was born in Jerusalem to a haredi family, and was married at eighteen. Five years later, her life was shaken up. “One morning I woke up and my husband was gone. He just left the house.” She admits that, “the marriage was not working from the start, but back then I was a young haredi woman and I wasn’t strong enough to make such a decision myself.”
Sarah, only 23 at the time, did not understand at the time what her partner’s action meant. In light of the fact that she already had three small children, aged 5, 4, and 2, she was terrified of the new situation she found herself in.
“I begged him to come back, but he had already begun divorce proceedings at the Rabbinical Court and said he would return home only if I met all sorts of conditions. After a week, a good friend gave me a good ‘shaking’ and told me that if these were his conditions, he had nowhere to return to. And then all hell broke loose.”
For three and a half years her husband refused to grant her a divorce, presenting her with an array of conditions. Even after the court ruled in her favor regarding child support and visitation, the Rabbinical Court continued trying to reach a compromise to which she did not agree, as it would have drastically reduced her child support. “I was offered 1,000 NIS a month and that he would do the grocery shopping. How can you manage on such a sum in a home with three children?”
Back then she was in a bad state. She had no idea how she would support her family. “All sorts of lies were being told about me in an attempt to take the children away from me. Nobody helped me and I felt helpless and desperate. The knowledge that you are chained is just awful.”
Three years later, when she was at her wits end, a relative introduced her to Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline. “I sat before the advocate and I just fell apart.” The advocate brought about a change of direction. “She was very aggressive with the court. I felt she really came ready to fight and slowly all of the other side’s demands melted away.”
And then one day she received a surprising telephone call. “My husband called me and said he was willing to give me a divorce. It was a week before the courts closed for Pesach. Vardit, who represented me, was skeptical but felt we had nothing to lose so we set up a meeting with him. A court appearance was arranged a few days later. I went and received my divorce.”
Elated by the surprising change, Sarah began to understand her new reality of life. “I was euphoric and had this amazing sense of freedom. Finally nobody controlled me.” However, a short time later she woke up to reality. “I found myself divorced with three small children, without a high school diploma or a profession. I understood that I might be free but the sun doesn’t shine any differently and the chirping birds are the same birds. I was in a really bad way. Alone and without the support of my family, except for that one friend who helped me with the kids throughout the whole period, helped me pay for a lawyer, and with whom I have a very close and warm relationship to this day.”
Yad La’isha sent her to the Yedidut Toronto foundation, where they asked her what her dream was. “I said: ‘to be a pastry chef’, so they financed a scholarship for me. After I finished my training I worked in a pastry shop for a while, and then I moved to Denya Café, where I run the kitchen and serve as sous-chef.”
The Taste of Freedom festival is being held in Jerusalem this week, in collaboration with Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha and a lineup of chefs and restaurants who responded to the call to create special dishes that symbolize freedom. Sarah’s work place – Denya Café – is hard at work on a Thai Curry dish. The restaurant’s chef, Idan Cohen, joined in the culinary collaboration with the association to fight the phenomenon of divorce refusal because he was familiar with Pollack’s story. Sarah herself is a full partner in preparing the dish based on her bitter experience.
“Sarah underwent a transformation,” says Yad La’isha’s director, Pnina Omer. “She won her freedom and also an opportunity to acquire a profession and a promising career. At Yad La’isha we strive to bring women to freedom, but also help them grow wings for their future.”
Today Sarah no longer describes herself as haredi, but says she maintains a religious lifestyle that includes keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath. Her children continue to be educated in haredi institutes, as part of the agreement she reached with her former partner. However, she says, after her experience of getting burned by a marriage through the Rabbinical Court, she still believes in Jewish marriage but not in the Rabbinate. In any event, her advice is to marry only after signing a prenuptial agreement. She wants to send a clear message to women who are in the situation she was in only a few years ago. “Everything is possible, but you have to know who to ask for help. I didn’t know there was a center that helps women who are refused a divorce. Had I known, I may have saved myself a few difficult years.”