This Passover I will be celebrating differently than I have become accustomed to in past years.
This year, I won’t feel degraded, unsupported, abused by the system. This year I am a free woman. This must be how they felt when they left Egypt: not blind vis-a-vis the long journey ahead, aware that the coming days would not be easy, and yet masters of themselves and their own destinies.
Thirty years ago I married a man with whom I had not one peaceful day, with whom I experienced not a single moment of joy. Only after our three children were born did I decide that married life is not a decree of fate, that we should get divorced and each of us should start a second chapter.
But from the moment I made that decision, it was like I was driving in neutral. My husband had full control of my destiny. He refused to get divorced for various reasons of his own: to continue to make me miserable; to make sure that I would not have another relationship; his concern that our divorce would possibly harm our children’s future.
Even as he refused to set me free, he allowed himself to have intimate relations with other women, and even married one of them! About a year after he left the house, using a private rabbi. His family gave him a lot of support. He and this wife had two additional children.
Over time I understood that she was completely unaware of my existence.
I received free representation in the religious court from a legal aid center called Yad L’Isha. My toenet rabbanit (rabbinical court advocate) stood in front of the beit din (rabbinical court) and demanded, “Make him give a divorce! He is already married to another woman!” But he unequivocally denied her existence. And in this way, he continued his life, but ended mine.
About three years ago, he appeared in the beit din for a hearing about giving the get (Jewish writ of divorce) but this time he looked different: despondent, non-communicative, not making eye contact. The beit din sent him for a psychiatric evaluation that determined that his symptoms were severe, and that it could not be ascertained whether his behavior was phony or authentic. It was clear to me that it was entirely fake. A beit din will not let a person who can’t even distinguish between night and day give his wife a get; I understood that he was trying every trick in the book so as not to have to set me free. After that, he stopped showing up to hearings.
My toenet rabbanit did not give up.
She convinced the court to find him and arrest him. I looked at him as he was brought into the courtroom by two policemen: glum, hunched over, eyes closed and unresponsive to the judges’ questions. I knew he was acting.
I knew that his goal had always been to embitter my life, to embitter the lives of our children and even the poor children from his second wife. So much destruction sown in his wake – almost inconceivable! My toenet argued my case with compassion and eloquence, and the verdict of the beit din came down: send him back to jail and reconvene in four days. I realized that the miracle of my freedom, of which I had already despaired eight years ago, might actually happen.
The man spoke. At the next hearing, four days later, he spoke. He even laughed and joked with the members of his family. He delivered a speech explaining how, in jail, he had come to the realization that I had caused him only trouble in life and that he was going to give me a get. I wanted to scream at him, throw something at him; it was unbelievable how flippantly he held the key to my survival, the reins of my life. Eight years I had waited for freedom, and he was throwing it at me with a nonchalant wave of hand.
Don’t misunderstand me. I rejoice in my newfound freedom. But I am pained by the way in which the system supported a charlatan for such a long time. I am hurt by the fact that my own religion enabled him to imprison me and his family for so many years. I am distraught that, other than the dedicated toanot at Yad L’isha, so many people I encountered really didn’t care. Do they not understand that I did not chain myself? Do they not realize that it could happen to anyone – secular or religious, rich or poor? To their own sisters, daughters, friends? Yes, this Passover I am going to celebrate differently. I am letting go of my anger, and I intend to mark this Festival of Freedom as a truly free person. But I will never forget the taste of the bitter herbs. I urge each and every one of you to learn from my story, to educate yourselves about the plight of agunot, to get involved in both prevention and alleviation of this terrible blight on our society.
See yourselves as if you, too, were freed from slavery. And one day, we will celebrate freedom together.
The author has been an aguna for the past eight years.