It was a sticky, overcast afternoon in April. The sky seemed to be debating, like an undecided groom, between revealing a glamorous sun and unleashing a ruinous rain. I waited in a rental car outside one of those generic American hotels on the outskirts of one of those charming Southern towns for my contact to emerge.
I spotted him as he came through the sliding doors of his hotel. From the car he was all chest-length gray beard, wafting to one side as he strode purposefully toward me, his solid build swallowed up in a black suit and white shirt. Black New Balance sneakers and a black cap completed the look. As he got closer, though, I could see that the beard was sparse on his face, revealing smooth olive skin, high cheekbones, wide-set, almond-shaped eyes almost orange in color and completely opaque.
He got in the car and beamed at me. “So, now you’re going to see what I’m up against here,” he said. “I’ve really entered the lion’s den.” He spoke English flawlessly, with a strange accent not incompatible with nativity in some English-speaking country. His Hebrew and Yiddish were equally flawless.
I drove down one street, then another. He peered alternately through his window and through the windshield. The houses we passed were set close to the street with wrap-around porches, painted in pastels. The streets were tree-lined and almost completely deserted, though it was 5:00 in the afternoon. The clouds continued to roil overhead.
“I want you to understand,” he said. “This thing is not going to get solved here and now. But you will have an understanding of what we’re doing.” He paused. I nodded eagerly, a bobbing-head dog someone accidentally placed in the driver’s seat. He seemed to have a dangerous gift of turning strangers into accomplices.
We got closer to the center of town. The houses we passed now were made of brick, set close together but deep and tall. Some had old wooden stables that had been converted into garages. The trees were luscious in an obscene kind of way, dripping with foliage. “This man who I’ve tracked down,” he said, laying out the details, “he left his wife six years ago, after the kids called the police because he was bashing them up. Now he’s living with a significantly younger girl. He’s 60. Don’t laugh,” he chided. “She told her girlfriend, it’s the best she’s ever had. Do you understand what I am saying?”
“If you’re talking about sex,” I said, “then yes, I understand what you are saying.”
He gave me a sharp look, then continued his narrative. “This 27-year-old girl he lives with now, she’s divorced. Her ex was abusive. Her father was abusive. This man, he is a father figure for her, I am sure of it. She’s supporting him completely; she has a very successful business. She drives him to shul not once, but twice a day.” He paused again. “This is a man,” he said, emphasizing the word man, “he was a bomber pilot in the army. He likes risks. Things in his life have always gone his way. He always gets what he wants. And now”—there was a long pause and a widening of eyes—“he is an atom bomb of rage against his wife in Israel.” He paused again and reached for the air-conditioner dial, to cool things off. I didn’t say anything.
He sat back and addressed the windshield, his brow furrowed. “This is a man who knows what he’s doing. He lived for a year in a homeless park, so no one would find him. He’s stubborn and he’s smart.” He gathered and arranged his face and said, “It’s me against him.” His tone was full of mystery, but also with the thrill of the chase. He gesticulated toward the windshield. “Look. You can’t do anything here,” he said. “It’s cameras on every corner. I haven’t seen a single van.”
I struggled to catch his meaning. Then I caught his meaning.
“A van? Oh, you mean for …”
I looked at him meaningfully and he looked at me meaningfully and there was a long, meaningful pause.
“For a conversation,” he said, shaking his head in disgust at the peaceful landscape.
Jewish law stipulates that a man must grant his wife a divorce in order for the marriage to be dissolved; should he refuse, the woman cannot herself sue for divorce. This discrepancy has resulted in a class of women—called agunot, or “chained”—who are in a state of limbo: Waiting for their get, they are neither married nor divorced.
Because the law in the State of Israel dictates that all marriages and divorces be done under the auspices of the Rabbinic Authority, Israeli courts have a limited set of sanctions that they can impose—if they are informed in time that a man intends to become recalcitrant with regard to granting his wife a divorce. These sanctions can include revoking certain rights—withholding a passport, canceling a driver’s license, suspending professional permits—as well as prison terms of up to 10 years, and, in extreme cases, solitary confinement. The reason for these harsh tactics is that these same courts cannot allow a woman to remarry without a get, because Jewish law forbids polyandry. Even if the woman is completely secular, the mere possession of a ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, and no get means no rabbi will allow her to remarry. In other words, every Israeli woman is a potential agunah—and every Jewish woman, too, should she enter an Orthodox Jewish marriage.
Sometimes the refusing husband, uninterested in setting his wife free, runs away from the Israeli courts—ﬂeeing to the United States or Europe or elsewhere. Disappearing to a location where Jews are few and far between can be just as effective, for in order to grant a get, fully seven individuals must be present, in addition to the husband: three dayanim (judges, who are one step up more credentialed than rabbis), two witnesses, a sofer (scribe) who must write the get on the spot, and the agunah or her messenger. You can see how such a forum might be difficult to assemble.
It is difficult to ascertain how many agunot are currently chained to get-refusing husbands in the Jewish world. According to research done by Barbara Zakheim for the Mellman Group, the number of agunot in the United States is on the rise, and the number of resolved cases on the wane. In 2011, Zakheim found that 462 agunot responded to a survey distributed by mail to Jewish organizations across the United States and Canada, with only 231 of the cases reportedly resolved by the year’s end. In Israel, thousands of women are without gets, according to Aliza Gellis, project manager of Yad L’Isha, a Legal Aid Center for agunot.
With offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Be’er Sheva, Yad L’Isha provides a number of services, from women lawyers in the rabbinical courts—called toanot rabbaniyot—to counseling and coaching and empowerment workshops. Due to the introduction of women into the rabbinical courts around 1996, many more cases of agunot have been solved, though by no means all. According to Gellis, the group solves about 100 cases every year. In order to get the sanctions against the recalcitrant husband, the court has to give a p’sak or ruling called a chiyuv get—a forced divorce. “This used to happen a lot less,” Gellis told me by phone. When I asked why, Gellis said, “The beit din is pro men. The way they act—it’s old world. Like, 300 years ago. They don’t understand that today women aren’t used to being ridiculed, or pushed aside.”
I asked Gellis why men withhold gets from their wives. Her voice did the equivalent of a shrug. “Different reasons. Jealousy. Revenge. We’re always for the women—we’re not called Yad L’Gever (man)—but I’m sure there’s always a second side to every story.”
Yad L’Isha employs a number of strategies for helping agunot. They work within the rabbinical courts, but also by introducing legislation to the Knesset. For example, Gellis explained, recently Yad L’Isha lobbied that after two sessions in court, a recalcitrant husband can be put in jail if the court finds the husband likely to flee or refuse. Another thing Yad L’Isha is pushing for would stymie a common problem: Men sometimes use the power they have to refuse a get to squeeze out a better deal regarding custody of the children or property during divorce proceedings. Yad L’Isha’s director, Bat-Sheva Sherman-Shani, is lobbying Knesset to separate custody and property negotiations from the question of the get.
On the American front, a nonproﬁt called the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, “assists divorcing couples in resolving contested Jewish divorces in a timely fashion and in accordance with the highest standards of Jewish law,” according to its website. “Jewish marriage isn’t like civil marriage,” Jeremy Stern, ORA’s executive director, told me. “A civil marriage is imposed by a third party, so it can also be dissolved by one, whereas a halakhic marriage is private; it can’t be imposed or dissolved by a third party.”
As far as handling a recalcitrant husband, Stern said their options are limited. “We try very hard to handle things amicably,” Stern said. “We hear both sides, we follow the paper trail, we really try everything to persuade the recalcitrant party nicely. The majority of our cases are like this—a sort of informal mediation. If that fails, we go down the messier route: We apply communal pressure, familial pressure, we ask his rabbi to talk to him, to kick him out of his shul. Sometimes we will have a peaceful protest outside his work. We want him to feel that the community he lives in will not tolerate this behavior.”
Enter Sholem Gaiman, Get Detective. Sholem Gaiman is not his real name. Because of the undercover nature of his work, he insisted that I not reveal his real name or other identifying details and markers, such as the location where we met. Gaiman was paranoid that his latest target—the man he was tracking at an agunah’s bidding to corner into giving a get—might read this article, ﬁgure out that he had been discovered, and run again. His paranoia was infectious.
In Israel, one of the most prominent spokespersons for agunot is Rachel Levmore, a Rabbinical Court advocate who works for the nonproﬁt Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of Young Israel, as well as the Jewish Agency. Levmore is one of the main authors of the prenuptial agreement used both in the United States and Israel, the Heskem L’kavod Hadadi or agreement for mutual respect, a “binding arbitration agreement,” made public in 2000, and binding in a secular court of law. The prenup is designed to protect women from becoming agunot by stipulating that a recalcitrant husband must pay a monthly fee for his refusal.
Levmore worked with Gaiman for 10 years in the Rabbinical Courts of Israel and says that she knows him well. “He is uniquely qualiﬁed because he is a ﬁrst-rate Torah scholar who is on a level with the highest dayanim,” she told me by phone from Israel. “He also is a qualiﬁed mesader gittin—organizer of the procedure of divorce. If he catches a guy out in the middle of nowhere, he can take care of setting things up. In addition to this, he has other talents that make him particularly qualiﬁed to do this job: He is an intuitive psychologist. He can read people really well. He talks to them where they are at. He is also fearless. Recalcitrant husbands have pulled guns on him. He is not afraid of physical violence, but he doesn’t use it himself,” she added. “He has risked his life in order to save agunot.”
Levmore, who is one of the few women licensed as a Rabbinical Court advocate, recalled the ﬁrst time she met Gaiman. “It was the year 2000, within a couple of days of my starting there, when he knocked on my door. ‘We need your help. Can you come to a meeting?’ he asked. It was irrelevant to him that I was a woman, which was unusual in that setting. He judged me by my knowledge and skills. We worked together from then on, to seek creative solutions for individual cases.”
She then told me a story about how she and Gaiman once wrested a get from an Israeli man who was convinced that he was the Messiah, and who was in jail for refusing to give his wife a divorce. “He steps into their reality,” she said of Gaiman. In this case, Gaiman ﬁgured out that the man was refusing the divorce on the grounds that it was a blot on his record as Messiah. So, Gaiman conveyed to the man that he, Gaiman, “would investigate the Jewishness of his wife, and wouldn’t that be a terrible blot on the Messiah’s record—to have non-Jewish children!” Levmore recalled. “After years in prison without speaking to a soul, he agreed to give the get.”
Recently, Aliza Gellis also started to work with Gaiman. “He’s someone who is not scared to do what he believes. He has a very strong sense of justice,” she said. “He knows he is working for a good cause. And some people like a matter of risk in their work. Adrenaline. Action. He likes that, too.”
Levmore called Gaiman a matir agunot—one who frees wives who have been refused a get. She said she had heard of less than a handful of individuals who do this kind of work for a living. Like any private investigator, Gaiman’s job is to track down missing persons. But unlike other P.I.s, his work only begins once he ﬁnds them. Gaiman’s specialty, as Levmore put it, is in “helping the husband realize that he must give his wife a get.”
By his own telling, Gaiman has chased men to Italy, New York, Brazil, Canada; sought gets in jails, in houses, in vans in southern towns; and chased men who had become women. The men he chases are hardly Nice Jewish Boys. His stories are peppered with arms dealers, members of the maﬁa, men engaged in sexual sordidness so ornery that shivers of disgust and delight percolated under my skin throughout their retelling.
Gaiman’s current case, the one I’d come south to follow with him, was just such a recalcitrant husband. The day after our first meeting, in a café on the pedestrian walkway in the nicer part of town, he told me how he got into the get detective racket. (We were far from where his target lived, so I could take notes without inciting his fear of being seen.) He had been a get detective since 1993, following a stint in the IDF’s Intelligence Unit (this I inferred from the way he tapped his right temple when I asked what he did in the army). He was working in the “headquarters” of the Beit Din Rabbani in Israel when he had a fateful encounter.
“There was one rabbi who learned with me the halakhah,” Gaiman said. “He died of a stroke later. He said, ‘I don’t have to show you the book. I want to show you the life.’ He had a motto—if someone says something, you ask why. What does he want you to learn from it?” Gaiman raised his eyebrows suggestively. “He would say, ‘Read the white letters. Tikra et haotiyot belavan.’ He wanted me to change the ticking of the clock upstairs.”
In 1993—“I was as green as I could get,” he said with an indulgent smile—a case came in, and he was told to try to help solve it. A man had run off with his child, ﬁrst to Mexico, then to Guatemala, then to Puerto Rico. “Then he made a mistake,” he said. “They always make a mistake. He went to a priest to try to sell the child.”
“To sell the—” I blurted out.
“Sh!” he admonished me gently, with a smile and a two-eyed wink, gesturing to the world around us. “To sell the child for—drugs. The priest had the seichel (wisdom) to contact the Jewish community in Mexico, and they contacted us. At the end he gave the get through the Mexican rabbis in exchange for not being extradited.”
Gaiman recalled another case in which the husband had converted to Jews for Jesus. He was living in some extremely cold place, and when Gaiman knocked on his door, the get-refusing husband wouldn’t let him inside. But this recalcitrant husband was remarried (in most of Gaiman’s cases, he said, the man has remarried, or is living with another woman), and Gaiman appealed to his wife. “She was also Jews for Jesus, a pious lady. I said to her, ‘You want to live and another woman is put in jeopardy?’ ” The man eventually agreed to give a divorce.
Another wayward husband apparently got into the arms-trafficking business with “the Russians.” He had based himself in Italy. When Gaiman found him, “he told me where to go,” Gaiman said, making an obscene gesture with his arms, to ﬁll in the blanks. “I told him, I’m going to take his passport. So, I went to court and got a warrant for him not to get a passport. When he went to renew at the Israeli Embassy in Rome, they said: No passport for you! He was ranting and raving. So, he gave a get.” In another case, an Israeli went to America and got into all sorts of shady businesses: “He started to work with the Italians. When we got there, he was in shock. He was vicious, but his friends convinced him he doesn’t want the Israelis after him.” I asked Gaiman how he found him. “The Jewish people have a sickness,” he explained. “Talk-talk-talk.”
One get cost Gaiman a year’s supply of cigarettes and six boxes of matzo. When I asked if the Israeli government picked up the tab, he broke into a wry grin and made a rare joke. “I’m not allowed to do a mitzvah?” he asked.
Sholem Gaiman claims to have personally solved thousands of cases. He considers himself both a rabbi and a detective—as he put it to me, “20 percent detective, 80 percent rabbi.” A regular P.I. doesn’t know the rules of gittin; and a regular rabbi doesn’t understand detective work, or marriage. In every beit din, he explained, the Talmud stipulates that there’s supposed to be a choker vedoresh—an inquirer/questioner—who can be sent out to find out the facts or verify them. “That’s you?” I asked. He nodded.
When I asked if he had smicha, which would ordain him as a rabbi, he said, “Not one! Not two! Nineteen rabbis gave me smicha.”
On the first day we met up, he wanted to walk around a small reservoir. The water gave him something to look at for the wistful bits of the narrative.
“The main work,” he said, “it’s not finding the guy.”
I asked how he found the guy this time.
“This guy I found through a private eye. He made a mistake. They always make a mistake,” he said, shaking his head. “He was living in the homeless park. Then he starts to work for the girl’s uncle. One day, he disappears with the girl. The uncle calls the police, who find them in a motel. The police say, ‘Oh, you’re having fun? Goodbye!’ ” He laughed. Sex is funny to Gaiman. Sex in a seedy motel is as funny to me as a clogged artery, but to Gaiman, it is apparently hilarious.
How did the P.I. find him? I asked. “The P.I. got the info from the police.”
How? I began to feel like a dentist, pulling these answers from him, but he wasn’t going to give me anything I didn’t work for.
He rubbed two fingers together. “Anyone can find a guy. But what I do is soul searching. You have to figure out how to bring about the realization that to end the marriage is the best thing for his own best interest.”
“You mean, you speak to him?” I asked.
“Absolutely not. When I approach him, I already know everything about him. I can walk down the street with my brother who’s a doctor, and I point and say, that man has a liver disease. My brother is shocked. ‘How do you know?’ he asks me.” Gaiman shrugged. His eyebrows shrugged too. “How do I know? I know.”
He launched a long wistful look that landed on the still waters of the reservoir.
“You only get one shot in this business,” he continued. “I have to study him, learn him, know him, be him. First—the money sources. Is he working or not. Is he living off of someone else’s money, in someone else’s quarters. If he’s working, it means, he has legitimized his being. If he’s living off of someone else, or doing black-market stuff, off the books—it tells me there’s money issues that are very important to him. I have to know what his clothing feels like on his skin. I have to know what he eats. Food tells me about his obsessions. Does he crave meat? Then he’s conniving. Carbs? He needs rushes, it gives him drive. His adrenaline will go up and down with that drive.” His hands rose, clutching air. “I have to get into his kishkas. I have to get in there and know what it is to be him, feel his life and his feelings from”—he made his hands into bowls and held them against his stomach—“in here.”
I asked him what he had learned about this target, in particular, from observing him.
“His uncertainty,” he said. “He has nothing left. And his hatred. It’s his reason to live. If I get this get from him, he will lose that one reason. He could have a heart attack. Or a breakdown.” Gaiman thought for a minute. “A nervous breakdown, I mean,” he said. “All these men, they withhold for the same reason: Revenge.”
Until 2003, Gaiman’s salary was paid by the Israeli government: $75,000 a year, not including expenses, to track down men who were refusing to divorce their wives and who had fled the country. But in 2003, Gaiman said, Tommy Lapid, father of current MK Yair Lapid and then-minister of justice, a man committed to ending what the New York Times referred to as “state subsidized Judaism,” axed his job. “He didn’t think this is the role of government anymore,” Gaiman said.
It then fell to the agunot themselves to pick up the bill. “An agunah is the most prone individual out there,” Gaiman said. “All the vultures are trying to take from her.” He puts in hundreds of hours on each case, he claims, but comes away making less than $20 an hour.
Gaiman doesn’t think the problems facing agunot stem from halakhah—the Jewish legal system. About the dayanim—the judges in the rabbinical courts—he said some care about the plight of these women, and some don’t. For instance, he said, Rav Ovadiya Yosef, former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of the Shas Party, won’t do a thing to forward the public-policy debate, but on a case-by-case basis, “he will tear up every small possibility to find a way to help.”
We were now in the car driving down the highway in search of a thrift store he wanted to check out. In order to get the get, Gaiman needed to assemble the seven necessary individuals. Because we were deep in the South, Gaiman’s plan was to ﬂy these people down from New York, where the closest beit din was located. He was hoping the shock of encountering such a group would induce the husband to give the get. The idea of flying seven people south seemed so ridiculous to me as to be implausible, but what did I know? He’s the detective.
“The halakhah has all the answers,” he insisted. “It says specifically in the Talmud, if a man should refuse a get, you beat him until he says, I want! The question is why the Israeli government doesn’t treat this like a crime?” I objected, wading in like the sucker that I am. “But halakhah is the reason you need these extra-judicial measures to make it work,” I said. “Isn’t the need for vigilantism the sign of a broken legal system?”
“But this is part of the legal system,” Gaiman said. “What is the halakhah missing?”
“Equality,” I grumbled.
“It has better than equality,” he said. “It’s halakhah that says, ‘Honor your wife more than yourself.’ Judaism today is not the Judaism that Hashem wanted. If things were done according to halakhah, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”
“We also wouldn’t be sitting here if women could divorce men,” I said, driving into the thrift-store parking lot.
“That part Hashem wanted,” he said, holding up his hands. “It’s like your phone number. How many phone numbers do you have?”
We walked through the store. It was enormous, one of those huge warehouses where a person could get murdered in some corner and no one would know unless they were checking out the “Games and Other” section. We started in Household Items. Gaiman pretended to be picking things up, putting them down, but he seemed to be casing the joint, and he was real smooth at it.
We wandered into the parking lot, and he inspected the far reaches, the dark corners. There were a few trucks of various sizes. An untoward individual was sorting other people’s unwanted items into piles—shoes were the biggest, next clothes, and finally, the bigger items, like fans and pots and a Fisher Price child’s car; remnants of happier times when the only things people refused each other were second helpings.
“I’m imagining to give her the get in time for Shabbos,” he said. Then, abruptly: “This place isn’t going to work. Now to Plan B. Did you bring a hat like I asked you?”
We spent the rest of the afternoon sustaining his cover story. The town had one big manufacturer, and he was pretending to be a potential customer; he told the men at the local Orthodox synagogue that he had an appointment, which he didn’t have. I was still a little on edge from an earlier exchange about the Satmars. Gaiman had asked if I knew how members of the sect preferred to get their gets, and when I said I didn’t he said, “Three guys take him down to the mikveh. They say to him, this water, it’s all yours to drink, if you don’t want to give the get.”
I laughed, until I realized that this was not an academic anecdote. He had wanted me to check out the mikveh, hence the need for the hat: I should call and ask to use the mikveh, pretending to be a married woman in need of post-menstruation purification services.
It finally occurred to me to ask: “Have you ever used violence before?”
“No,” he had said. “But a mikveh is a good place for a conversation.”
We went back to my motel, and in my room we feasted on crackers and sardines and mustard (aside from this strictly kosher fare, Gaiman subsisted on fruits and vegetables when on a case). I asked him why he had devoted his life to rescuing women.
“Do you know, I don’t know?” he said. “As a mensch, when you hear about it, you have to help. Sometimes I think it has to do with a past life. But truthfully, I ask myself this question all the time.”
“Maybe you’re just a true crusader for the women’s cause,” I said.
He shook his head. “Here is where you and I see things differently. Women are not the same as men. Equality is garbage. You can be equal and different. Women should learn things, of course, but they don’t teach women certain aspects of the Talmud, the shakla v’tariya, the back and forth. Because women are different; they don’t think logically.”
“They tell women, trust your emotions,” I scoffed, “and then call them emotional. They don’t teach them to think logically, and then they say, you don’t think logically. Do you know how betrayed I felt when I realized I didn’t know how to think?”
He had a good laugh at this, but after that he took out his laptop and showed me an image of the get he claimed he smuggled out of a Spanish church, used during the Inquisition, that stipulated that should a party fail to come home, without their partner’s consent, for three consecutive months, the marriage would be instantly dissolved.
He noted with frustration that no contemporary rabbi would even look at his smuggled get. “They don’t want to hear. Let me see your hat.”
I told him I wasn’t going to check out the mikveh, partly to see how he reacted to disappointment. He told me that we’d go to shul so I could see the man for myself. But I’d still have to wear the hat. The story was, I was his daughter helping with the manufacturing gig. With my small black beret on, the woman at my motel’s front desk didn’t recognize me. I felt like Mata Hari’s frum cousin from Lakewood.
We got in the car and I drove us toward the synagogue. The rain had started, curtaining the view in a dark gray that was not unpleasant. “I love this weather,” Gaiman said. “I love watching the way it makes the water in the ocean speak,” he said. “Take a left,” he instructed.
He directed me through a series of nice streets down a series of less nice streets. The big houses were interspersed with shacks, abandoned houses with broken windows, and houses with broken windows that were not abandoned. But there were still a few homes that looked nice, well maintained, painted and cheerful. It’s the kind of neighborhood that I would no doubt end up in if I moved to a charming Southern town. A neighborhood for dark thoughts, broken souls, and fast food.
Gaiman looked around furtively. “Slow down. Now, drive, and don’t stop … but look there.” He pointed across the street to a picturesque home with a wraparound porch. “There. They are living there,” he said.
The house seemed charming. I imagined an alternative version of this story, in which two people are simply trying to get by.
“Do you ever feel sorry for the men?” I asked.
“Feel sorry for him? There were women who were tough cookies, but does that mean I sympathized with him? No. She’s hard. OK. Get on with your life.” He paused. “It’s not always men. Sometimes, the woman is the one who delays.”
He directed me back to the synagogue, and I was suddenly terrified that I would see the man—whom Gaiman had described thoroughly—and feel pity, instead of the pieties of disgust, loathing, and hatred of a man who would curtail a woman’s freedom, despite having found himself a new partner.
Gaiman and I entered the shul and parted ways. I moved to the women’s section in the back and spotted the “target” instantly. He was wearing a blue shirt, jeans, a baseball cap. He had small eyes and held his body like a prized possession. It was like there was a wall around him, separating him from the decent and innocent members of a small Orthodox community in a charming Southern town. He wasn’t speaking to the others, and they weren’t speaking to him.
Gaiman’s target began to murmur aggressively before services started. I wondered what he could possibly be saying. He prayed hard, shuckling back and forth, as if he were in the midst of making a deal that wasn’t going his way.