Get Detective: Meet the Elusive, Intrepid P.I. Who Frees Chained Jewish Women
He’s the expert who specializes in finding ‘disappeared’ husbands—men who leave their wives without Jewish divorces, or hope
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.”
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