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A ‘Get’ Controversy in New York—in 1881

The court case of John and Amelia Goldberg, as seen in the New York Times

Batya Ungar-Sargon
October 29, 2013
(New York Times)
(New York Times)

It’s exciting times for those interested in agunah advocacy. Earlier this year at a Tikvah/JOFA Conference, modern Orthodox rabbis Asher Lopatin and David Bigman proposed convening a modern Orthodox Court of Law to assist agunot in freeing themselves from recalcitrant husbands. Susan Weiss, agunah warrior in Israel, has been winning cases in civil court where she argues that get withholding is worthy of emotional damages. And for the old school, there’s a gang of rabbi thugs in New York who get gets via torture.

But the problem of agunot is not a modern one. Indeed, torture is advocated in the Talmud as your best bet for achieving results with those unwilling to let their women go. Specifically, the authors of the Talmud advocated lashing the husband until he shouts “I want a divorce!” This way they couldn’t be accused of forcing him—he said he wanted it, after all—and the get was begotten.

Between last month and the Talmud, however, there have been other developments. An interesting case came before a New York magistrate on October 28, 1881: A woman “clad in rags and presenting an appearance of destitution” was seen wandering the streets with her child. They were arrested on charges of vagrancy, whereupon “the woman told a very remarkable story,” the New York Times reported the next day. The woman claimed she was Mrs. Amelia Goldberg and had a rich husband living in Harlem, “but who had abandoned her. Her story was so strange that her allegation were brought to the attention of the magistrate, and he granted a warrant of arrest and placed it in the band of Sergt. Long and Officer Eewhad; who yesterday brought to court a man dressed in expensive attire and wearing costly jewelry.”

The prisoner was one John A. Goldberg, a real-estate and employment agent and proprietor of “Home Comfort Employment” at 117th st. Mrs. Goldberg was brought before the magistrate and the man and claimed her was her husband, that she had married him in England 27 years earlier and had five children by him. “After he left England, she said, he did not contribute to her support, and in conclusion asserted that he was now living with another woman in Harlem.”

Mr. Goldberg admitted that they had been married, “and expressed pity for her present condition.” But he said he had left her for business soon after the wedding, and upon returning, had found that she had been unfaithful, and “he therefore procured a divorce from a Jewish Rabbi, the legality of which… had been recognized in England. He said farther that after his arrival in America, he provided for her needs, although she was no longer his wife, and on one occasion, bought her a house and a lot.”

Here the article ceases to attribute Mr. Goldberg’s side of things, sliding them into the authoritative narrator’s voice. “Previously the woman had given signs of insanity, particularly in one violent instance hen she ran spokes through her son’s cheek. This and other acts convinced him that she was mentally irresponsible, and he twice bade her conveyed to an Insane Asylum at White Plains for treatment. Seventeen years ago she put him to the annoyance of an arrest for abandonment, and he was arraigned, and in the present instance… he asserted, the magistrate dismissed the complaint upon investigating the charge made by her.” He then denied that the child, whom she called Clara Goldberg, was his, and then Amelia admitted that the child was not his. He closed by declaring that “he did not deem himself under obligation to support the woman, as she had been untrue to him, and inasmuch as he had granted a divorce which he had reason to believe was perfectly valid.” Mrs. Goldberg denied that the hospital she had been sent to was an insane asylum.

“Justice Hammer,” the Times reports, “after consulting a number of law books and remarking hat the case was very much mixed up indeed and contained material for a drama, released Goldberg on his parole, and set down the further hearing and investigation. Goldberg claimed that this investigation will establish his entire innocence of the charge of abandonment.”

Was Amelia Goldberg an insane woman, child abuser, and get-denier—or a woman abandoned by a wealthy husband? History will keep its secrets.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.