Magazine

Chance encounters

A story of friendship, love, divorce and the rabbinical court in Jerusalem.

An Egged bus [file photo]
Photo by: REUTERS
The Egged bus he’d boarded in Givat Shaul moved slowly up Agrippas Street in downtown Jerusalem. The woman sitting beside him, let’s call her Yehudit Doe, was struggling to engage Yehuda Tatelbaum in friendly conversation in Hebrew.

“You can speak English,” he said with his Midwestern diction. Tatelbaum was born in Detroit, and had lived there until he was five. When high school in Israel didn’t work out for him, Tatelbaum’s parents sent the second-oldest of their seven children back to Detroit to live with relatives. There he’d finished high school and graduated from college with a degree in Middle Eastern studies.

Tatelbaum got off the bus 20 minutes later on King George Avenue, but not before he learned that Doe was a new immigrant, a health professional and that she’d moved to Israel with a teenaged daughter. Her Frenchborn Israeli husband had abandoned them long ago and disappeared. She’d succeeded in having the marriage annulled, she said.

Tatelbaum was fascinated. He’d begun studying law since returning to Israel with his wife and three children, and was unfamiliar with the details of a “one-sided divorce.” The linchpin of the rabbinical decision in the US was that there hadn’t been two Shabbat-observant witnesses or attendees at Doe’s tiny backyard wedding.

Over the years she’d become observant.

She wanted to remarry. Perhaps Tatelbaum knew someone for her? Doe was in then in her early 50s. Tatelbaum, 34, had a widowed friend two decades his senior. Tatelbaum took Doe’s card.

As promised, he made the introduction.

Doe and M, the friend, dated for five weeks.

Then M consulted his rabbi about her status.

The “annulment” had been issued by a non- Orthodox rabbinical court and ratified by a well-known American Orthodox rabbinical authority. M’s rabbi shook his head. Doe was a married woman, he ruled, and dating, let alone marriage, were prohibited until the Israeli rabbinate declared her eligible.

Tatelbaum was upset. Not yet a lawyer, he set out to help her.

“I was amateurish but persistent,” says Tatelbaum.

Doe was “astonished” that this young man was going to help her.

Tatelbaum went to the court day after day.

Back in Detroit, he’d worked in the funeral business. Overhearing many family conflicts he’d become interested in family law.

Now he was learning the procedures of the rabbinical court as a volunteer student lawyer for Doe. Private investigators were assigned by the court, but they couldn’t find the errant ex-husband. Tatelbaum insisted Doe file a request for him to be stopped from leaving Israel should he ever return here.

“He reminded me to write everything down,” she said. “He’s a stickler for documentation.”

Through a long process, witnesses who had signed her ketuba (marriage contract) were again declared unacceptable. The marriage could be invalidated, the local rabbis ruled. Now all Doe needed was the signature of the chief rabbi to put the official stamp of approval the annulment.

M, the potential suitor, asked Tatelbaum every week in synagogue what was happening.

Two years went by. Tatelbaum doggedly pursued the case of this woman with whom he had no connection other than a bus conversation.

She has never paid him a shekel.

A chance encounter. But Tatelbaum says he doesn’t take “chance” encounters lightly.

Nor does his like-minded wife, Marcy Tatelbaum, who has never questioned his commitment to help this stranger.

After all, when he’d arrived in America at age 17, the teacher had asked the pretty teen who sat in front of him in chemistry class to help him with his homework. That was Marcy. A woman they met at a party years later directed them to the help they needed to overcome infertility.

SO TATELBAUM continued nudging the court, and nudging Doe.

“I was getting numb from the process,” admits Doe. “In August, he badgered me to go the court to extend, once again, the request for him [the runaway husband] to be stopped at the airport. I hadn’t seen my former husband since September 2001, so what was the use? But there was no arguing with Yehuda.”

To her astonishment, when she went to file her newest request, Doe discovered that her file was closed. The invalidation of the marriage had been signed. The clerk shrugged.

“‘At hofshia,’ you’re free, she told me in Hebrew. I was stunned.”

In the meantime, Tatelbaum had finished law school and passed the bar examinations.

He’s decided to go into family law, not just wills and estates.

The case was over, or so they thought.

This Hanukka, the Israel Police located her long-missing, fugitive ex-husband. Because of all that filing they’d done, his name popped up at passport control after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport. His passport was immediately confiscated. He’d get it back after he signed a writ of divorce.

Furious, he stormed into the Rabbinical Court office in Jerusalem. Nearly everyone was off for Hanukka, but the clerk on duty happened to have met Doe. He phoned her and told her the ex-husband was there. Doe never wanted to see this man who had walked out on her and a toddler daughter so many years ago, but Tatelbaum insisted.

“In theory, she no longer needs a get, a bill of divorce,” said Tatelbaum. “I’m still irked by my friend breaking up with her because he wouldn’t accept the initial ruling. I wanted to make sure there couldn’t be any question.”

A get would be even better than an invalidation, says the newly minted lawyer, “Not to mention 12 years of unpaid child support.”

At their first encounter, the husband pretended he’d never met Doe. But the old family albums and all the documentation proved overwhelming.

This week, Doe is expecting to receive her get. She’s also expecting a call from M.

Once upon a time, just about everyone in Israel talked with everyone else on the bus.

Then we started to talk on cellphones.

Today, we’re all looking down, reading text messages and e-mail.

Maybe we ought to put away the phones and see who is riding alongside us.

“Especially in Jerusalem,” says new immigrant Yehudit Doe. “The most amazing things happen in this city.”

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.


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