Long before Jerry Springer, divorcing couples fought it out before Warsaw’s rabbinical court
One of the convenient aspects of studying Jewish history is its 3,000-year-old paper trail—the texts and records of the rabbinical and intellectual elite allow us to examine contours of Jewish law and history. But we tend to know less about the lives of average Jews, who didn’t receive much attention in the writings of the intellectuals. That began to change in the late 19th century, when the Yiddish press hit the streets, for the first time recounting the lives of the unwashed masses of Jews in the public record. Tablet Magazine offers some of these stories.
Now that the saccharine idiocy of Valentine’s Day is safely behind us, we can focus on the beneficial fallout of love: the breakups. It is, no doubt, a tragedy when a marriage or a long-term relationship dissolves into an angry knot of hatred and acrimony, when fury and venom are spit from lips that only recently touched in tender embrace. Except, of course, when you get to watch it happen.
Such was the luck of Yiddish journalists of the 19th and early 20th century who were assigned to report from the Warsaw beyz-din, the city’s storied rabbinical court, which functioned as a kind of Las Vegas-style divorce court, where couples could show up without an appointment and request an instant divorce. More often than not, proceedings would devolve into pitched battles between appellants. And because people knew that journalists would be present, the court began, starting in the mid-1920s, to take on the flavor of a Yiddish Jerry Springer show in which chairs and fists would fly on a sheitel-trigger.
Illustration of a “get machine” from Haynt, October, 1926
The reporters of the Yiddish press understood that divorce court was almost always a guaranteed winner when it came to providing fodder for a sensational article. As a result, reports from the Warsaw beyz-din became popular fare in the press until journalists were banned by Warsaw’s Rabbinate committee from attending proceedings in early February, 1927. But in a remarkable turn of events, the rabbis who sat on the court refused to comply with the order; in an interview in the Yiddish daily Moment, one of them noted that “under the current progressive societal conditions, it is simply not possible to shut the door of such an institution like the rabbinate on the Jewish public.”
Many of the cases that came before the three-rabbi panel dealt with one of the wedded, typically the man, having taken a second spouse. Other couples had more pedestrian reasons—sexual affairs, poverty, irreconcilable differences—to dissolve their unions. Some men insisted upon a divorce because they didn’t like their wives’ cooking. Some appellants were there before they got to the chuppah seeking an engagement divorce: because marriages were contracted and involved dowries, Jewish law provides for engagement breakups, which were adjudicated before the court—with damages—just like divorces.
Violence frequently broke out during these cases, a fact that challenges stereotype that Jews, particularly in pre-war Eastern Europe, had an aversion to physical aggression. The stark reality was that with its large, uneducated, urban Jewish underclass, Warsaw saw a great deal of small scale violence in daily life. Brief outbursts were not at all rare. If anything, pushing and slapping were a common component of social interaction and even more so among the amkho, the Jewish rabble.
Even those who were educated and more financially secure, including culturally and politically engaged members of the community, were known to explode into physicality in a way we might find alien today. For example, cultural activist Noyekh Prilutski and Zionist politician Yitskhok Grinboym once got into such a furious argument in the Warsaw Jewish Literary Union, they began hurling ashtrays and paperweights at one another. The poet Meylekh Ravitsh, who reported on this event in My Lexicon, his memoir of Yiddish literary figures, wrote that what made it obvious that these two men were highly educated was the fact that they did not aim for the head.
The Yiddish press published these stories not only because they were entertaining, but also in order to introduce an element of moral suasion. These stories of amkho gone wild were finely honed examples of how not to behave. The press, of course, had it both ways: they were able to editorialize on these behaviors while exploiting them as fodder for their reporting. As for their readers, it was just good, clean, schadenfreude. Without further ado, there, here are a few examples of Yiddish divorce court reportage:
“Krochmalna ‘Amkho’ Throws Punches in Rabbinate,” Moment, November 1928
“In the Shadows of Jewish Family Life: A Woman of Valor,” Moment, January 1929
“A Hot and Bloody Day in the Rabbinate,” Moment, February 1934