Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center held a short story competition last month for past and present agunot. The aim of the competition is to allow readers to get a glimpse into the harsh reality with which these women must grapple – every hour of every day.
Below is the winning story, written by an agunah who wishes to remain anonymous, as published in the Israeli weekly newspaper, Makor Rishon.
Like Paper in a Burning Fire
“She’s familiar with the spiteful words, the smashing of objects, the taste of constant humiliation, but now, as she faces the locked door, she senses danger”
It’s early evening. The kids are in bed, most of them asleep. She can’t even remember what had set him off, but he never really needed a reason; if she didn’t look at him the way he’d wanted her to look at him, that was reason enough. His cheeks were flushed. His toxic words filled the air in the room. She could feel them pushing the oxygen out. “Who do you think you are?”, he says. “If you keep this up, it’ll be the end of you”.
He pauses, and she seizes the moment to collect what she needs to shower, and slip into the bathroom. She tries to listen. Is he still swearing in that room where the mute walls have heard words that human ears would burn from hearing?
In her perpetually covered hair and nightgown she returns to the room and presses the door handle, but the room is locked. She gently knocks, so as not to awaken the sleeping children, not to disturb those who may not have fallen asleep yet. She was always asking him not to make a racket. Not to yell. Not to swear. Don’t let the children hear. This plea of hers had turned her into putty in his hands. A way of silencing her, of doing with her what he wills.
She knocks harder, but the door remains locked. She stands in front of it, helpless, until she finally collects her body and takes it away toward the children’s dark bedroom. She gropes as she searches for a pillow and blanket.
“Mom, what’s the matter?”, asks one of them, opening his eyes to her. “Shhh”, she answers. “Go back to sleep, nothing’s wrong”. She curls up on the sofa in the living room and waits. She slowly realizes that it’s different this time. This time is not like the others.
The anchor on the evening news reported of a woman who was murdered by her husband just a few streets away. “Keep it up, and you’ll be next”, he had told her. It’s nothing new. She knows what it’s like. She’s familiar with the spiteful words, the smashing of objects, the taste of constant humiliation. But now, on the sofa, as she faces the locked door, she feels something more. She senses danger.
She rushes to get changed soundlessly. Opens the front door as quietly as she can. Quick strides, racing heart, please let the phone work. Her sister picks up. She hears herself say the words, “That’s it, I can’t take any more”.
When her sister and brother-in-law arrive, they figure out how to get the kids out together. When her sister asks, she says she knows her children, and they would do whatever she requires of them. But it would all have to be done in silence, so he wouldn’t surprise them. She has eight children. Each of them a treasure chest. Each of them a love larger than life, a cheek to kiss, and lips that tell her beautiful things. The two women wake the children up one by one with a whisper. They dress, caress, hush, and take them out to the cars one at a time. They are drowsy, only their eyes are asking what is going on. The two-year-old baby was left to her care, the last of them. He had to be changed from top to bottom. She was greeted by the smell of urine in his bed. Her heart accelerated; there’s no time, her hands tremble. She leaves the wet clothes and sheets on the bed. Am I really leaving like this? she wonders as she quickly wraps the baby in a blanket and heads out to the car.
At midnight she heads out to the police station, after having caressed the heads of her children lying on mattresses in her sister’s living room. Her brother accompanies her. Her family is a shoulder to lean on, she thinks. What do the women who do not have such a shoulder do? What she would have done without it, she cannot say. The deputy commander of the station who took her case asked for her home telephone number. She was unable to recall it. Shaking, stuttering, she tries over and over again. She cannot remember the telephone number at the house he is in. What will he say about the escape? What will he do to her? Will he try to take the kids back? Was all of this in vain?
The officer calls him. He comes to the police station. Trembling, his hands in his pants pockets, the tremor moving his pockets from side to side. “I happened to fall asleep, I didn’t mean to”, he makes a feeble excuse, claiming he woke up and was looking for her when he discovered that the children were also gone. The police officer looks at him from his seat, unimpressed, and tells him he must now stay away from her.
She wakes up early in the morning, bleary-eyed, in a home that’s not her own. The sirens from the police station run around in her head, chasing the awful silence in which she had left her home. Her children wake up to the unknown. She smells shampoo in their hair, their cheeks are flushed, and their small bodies warm when she holds them. And there was evening, and there was morning – one day since the escape.
How could she have known that it was only the locomotive in a long train, the last car of which she cannot see?
She would do whatever it takes. She’d take care of the children, send them off to kindergarten and school. She’d go to the house, escorted by the police, to take everything she needs for them. Five schoolbags, plastic bags filled with clothes, and anything she could lay her hands on along the way. She would be stopped by an elderly neighbor on the stairs who’d ask what was going on, and why was a police car there, and she would stutter some fragmented syllables in response and keep walking. The police car would follow her. She would sit in the car and let a sigh escape her lips. A twofold sigh – of relief and dismay. She did not plan for her future with her husband to turn out this way, she did not plan for the life of her children to turn out this way either.
That evening, at the attorney’s office, he would prepare a restraining order and tell her that the next day, the two of them would appear before the judge on duty in his chambers. “Don’t you leave me stranded, even if it is Yom Kippur Eve”, he told her, and when he saw that she was still hesitant, he added, “My grandmother used to say that even the fish in the sea would tremble with fear of Judgment Day”.
She’s trembling with fear of her judgment day. The honorable rabbinical court judges sit higher than the parties to the case and the attorneys before them; a high partition in the form of a counter separates them from those standing before them. A file filled with documents and testimonies that she had put together from the court sessions is placed before them. Since this session began, she’s been feeling the dayanim (religious judges) staring at her with wonder, questioning, a look that seems to be casting doubt. As she testifies, she feels her soul shatter, and fragments of tears emerge. “Let her cry”, says her husband, “Does she think her tears make it all true?”
Over the next six years, he would only attend these sessions exactly once. The rabbinical court judges suggested shlom bayit – that they reconcile; he would seem eager, she would turn the offer down. He would not show up again.
She would attend these sessions time and again, only to be told that they cannot be held in her husband’s absence, and a new date would be set for three or six months later. She would fire her attorney because she would not be able to pay him. She would provide for her children on her own, for she would receive no child support. Every once in a while, she would hear the Beth Din (religious court) clerk or one of the dayanim say “We’ll catch him and bring him here sometime”.
She wants to ask when “sometime” is. Nothing happens.
Each time the rabbinical court makes a note of the fact that her husband had failed to show up, and postpones the hearing. She attends again, it’s postponed again, she attends again, it’s postponed again, she attends again, it’s postponed. It’s as if her world is separate from the Beth Din bubble, and none of the bubble inhabitants are willing to glance at her world, see her pain. Save her.
She stands before the dayanim, conjuring up the image of that green envelope with the words “State of Israel” printed on it in black ink, and bearing the seal of her local rabbinical court in orange ink. Another extension. She thought about the endless chain, one link after another at the Beth Din. How much longer will she be standing here in this shameful situation, adding yet another link to the chain?
She struggles somewhat within herself, and then it comes pouring out of her. Fire and fury. She confronts the dayanim and hurls words at them that scatter with a blast across the room. Words that argue that nothing is happening in the rabbinical court; that they are not doing anything for her. Words that explain that they have imprisoned her, instead of incarcerating him.
Was she the one who spoke like that? Did those words come out of her? The room is shocked into silence. The head of the Beth Din panel lifts up the thick file and smacks it down hard on the counter in front of him. He then looks at her and says that he doesn’t need this case on his docket, and it may be transferred wherever she wishes. A sigh of relief escapes her lips, and a ray of hope enters her heart. She will move to a rabbinical court in another city. Perhaps other ears will listen to her; perhaps the hearts of other dayanim will be able to see the injustice of her husband chaining her, making her his agunah, having said on more than one occasion that he would never let her marry another.
Perhaps the new rabbinical court judges would realize that her younger years were being consumed like paper in a burning fire.
* * *
COMING TO LIGHT
This is the first year in which Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha Legal Aid Center for Agunot held a short story competition for past and present agunot. The aim of the competition is to allow readers to get a glimpse into the harsh reality with which these women must grapple – every hour of every day.
Yad La’isha has been active for the past 25 years, and is the largest organization in Israel and worldwide to represent and support agunot. Throughout its years of activity, it has helped more than 1,000 women unchain themselves from their marriages.
Through its team of rabbinical court advocates, attorneys, and social workers in four branches (in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and Afula), the organization provides broad support that includes legal service and representation, social service, personal mentoring and coaching, empowerment groups and financial support.
Yad La’isha also offers subsidized pre-divorce mediation services in an effort to prevent family disputes from escalating.
The organization promotes halakhic solutions for the prevention and unchaining of agunot and mesoravot get, setting up various projects that increase public awareness of this issue.
The Yad La’isha hotline is 1-800-200-380