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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

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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.

Gaiman’s specialty is in “helping the husband realize that he must give his wife a get.”

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.

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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