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Divorce Court

Long before Jerry Springer, divorcing couples fought it out before Warsaw’s rabbinical court

Eddy Portnoy
February 18, 2010
“A makeh,” from Der blofer, Oct. 1929(All images courtesy of Eddy Portnoy.)
“A makeh,” from Der blofer, Oct. 1929(All images courtesy of Eddy Portnoy.)

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.

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

On Wednesday the rabbinate heard a case from Krochmalna Street: the bride and groom showed up with about 15 people from the real amkho who came as witnesses.

Upon seeing such an “army” entering the court, Rabbis Ritshevol, Poyzner and Sheyngras began to tremble and started to look for a door.

The bride and groom met about eight months ago and set and signed conditions for their future marriage and even set specific dates for the event, but the groom doesn’t want to go under the chuppah because “the bride isn’t an honest one… ”

So they came to the rabbi to get a judgement.

The rabbi asks, “What do you mean by “not honest?’”

“I’m certain that she already has a child,” he answers.

Upon hearing the word “child,” the prospective bride whacked the groom with a fiery slap. The groom didn’t want to “owe” her and paid up with a sizzling “reply. ” The rabbinate filled with screams as turmoil ensued. The witnesses also began fighting and when the rabbis saw what was coming, they slowly crept out.

Once again, the courts’ shamus [the rabbi’s assistant] had to run out to get a policeman. By the time the policeman arrived, things had already calmed down. Both sides turned to the shamus and asked him to convince the other rabbis to consider the case, that earlier they had been agitated and they won’t “brawl” any more.

But it didn’t help.

“You can’t fight in the rabbinate. You’ll have to come another time,” they were told.

The group went away with the intention of returning.

“Krochmalna” doesn’t know any tricks: either get married or don’t. “Just don’t hassle a Jewish girl! ”

“In the Shadows of Jewish Family Life: A Woman of Valor,” Moment, January 1929

The door of the rabbinate is thrust open and in falls one Tshipe-Kayle Yagora of Black Street, shlepping her husband Borekh Einbinder behind her. About two dozen Jews, men and women, pour in after them. Some of them are “helpers” planning to testify and the rest are simply curious.

The shamus asks, “What do you want?”

Tshipe-Kayle is in the mood for a song and starts off on a high note: “I gotta get to the rabbinate. What I want is none a ya business. For once and for all I want my Borekh should have a carcass, right now. I’ll light a candle in shul! ”

One of the Rabbis steps in: “In short, what’s this all about?”

Tshipe-Kayle starts her tune. Oy, does she pour out a hail of accusations on her husband’s head, among them that at the time they were married, she, a divorcee, gave him 300 dollars as dowry and in only a short time he wasted all of it. And on top of that he’s got a lover and doesn’t come home for nights at a time.

Borekh, a scrawny Jew with a scratchy little beard and red eyes, stands there and doesn’t utter a word. When the rabbi asks him if he is guilty of what Tshipe-Kayle accuses him, he simply shrugs his shoulders without making a peep.

“You idiot! ” yells one of her supporters, shoving him, “now that you’re not with Tshipe-Kayle, you have to tell the rabbi everything….nu, talk!”

Borekh finally gets the courage to say something and begins to describe the troubles that he suffers from his “woman of valor.”

“It’s true,” he says, that Tshipe-Kayle gave him 300 dollars, but what could he do if business was bad and his own money was also lost? “That she is a malicious woman I learned right after the wedding, but because she was mine ‘according to the laws of Moses and Israel,’ I didn’t want to ridicule anyone and suffered in silence. And did I suffer. Just when business started to take off, my toast landed butter side down. She began to make all kinds of scandals, driving me out of the house and not cooking for me even a spoonful of food. I was forced to go to my 68-year old aunt’s house to get something to eat. And my nag calls that a ‘lover.’”

“Rotten little Borekh!” Tshipe-Kayle can’t take it any longer, “You should live as long as you speak the truth! Why don’t you tell the rabbi where you spend your nights?”

“Yes, rabbi,” answers Borekh meekly, “that’s also true. I purposely try to avoid having to listen to her curses by spending half the night in the study house reading psalms or studying a bit of Mishna. I can’t take any more of her. Rabbi, please grant us a divorce. Maybe it’s still possible for me to have a few comfortable years.”

“What?!” booms Tshipe-Kayle, like a canon, “You wanna divorce? I’ll dress you in a shroud first and send you express mail into the next world!”

The rabbi decides that the couple should try to live together in peace for two weeks. Tshipe-Kayle is warned not to pester Borekh—because if she does they will force her to accept a divorce.

“Ha, ha, ha,” she laughs to herself, “I’d like to see the Cossacks that will force me to get a divorce.”

Tshipe-Kayle is dragged out of the rabbinate by force and, for a long time, her screams and curses reverberate in the stairs.

“A Hot and Bloody Day in the Rabbinate,” Moment, February 1934

Yesterday in the rabbinate was a hot one—and bloody, too. Good sense was butchered and the blood flowed like water. And rest assured that the rabbis ran out in the middle of these cases. All of the disputes broke out in connection with divorce proceedings, which, unfortunately, have occurred all too often as of late.

The first fight occurred between the owner of the Garden Restaurant, 45-year-old Masha Becker, and her second husband, 25-year-old Yitskhok Lerner, an employee in her restaurant.

Five years ago, Becker’s first husband died and she took Lerner the waiter as her husband. But in the restaurant, she still treated him like a servant. Lerner did not want to put up with that and called his wife to the rabbinate and asked to have her sign the business over to him.

Words were exchanged and Lerner slapped his wife. This didn’t seem to bother her at all and she blackened his face with the contents of an inkwell.

No agreement was reached.

A second couple beat each other up over a heated issue. A certain Leybl Nayman was a frequent guest at his fiancee’s house, where he would come to eat and occasionally sleep over, until his fiancee ended up with “a bun in the oven.”

But in front of the rabbi, he said he didn’t know anything about it.

“What?” the girl screamed. “Now you don’t know anything? Here, now you’ll know something!” And she punched him in the mouth so hard that she knocked two of his teeth out and he was completely soaked with blood.

A third case did not even make it into the courtroom—it played out in the hallway.

A young man with four women—two wives and two brides—showed up in the hall. They pounded one another so badly before the trial, that the police had to be called, who were only able to pull the combatants apart after great effort.

What a hot day it was yesterday in the rabbinate.

Eddy Portnoy, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is the Academic Advisor and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is also the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.

Eddy Portnoy is academic adviser and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press 2017).