Beautiful dishes created to support 'agunot' or 'chained women'

'Duck meat is never fully wrapped in dough, so it represents freedom'

The dishes made in the spirit of freedom for agunot, including Café Michael’s decadent French toast  (photo credit: Courtesy)
The dishes made in the spirit of freedom for agunot, including Café Michael’s decadent French toast
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Chef Alon Beit Yosef, the owner of the homey Café Michael in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, puts the beautifully plated decadent dessert in front of me with a flourish. There are chunks of French toast, chocolate, and strawberries in a white butter and champagne sauce.
“We all work so hard, that for me, freedom is just a free evening at home,” Beit Yosef said. “The champagne in the sauce and a little whiskey in the chocolate are meant to make you feel spoiled. Chocolate and strawberries and a little alcohol. That’s what freedom is for me.”
Beit Yosef is one of 12 chefs who created a special dish representing freedom in partnership with Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha Legal Aid Center for Agunot. The dishes ranged from Rachel ben Elul’s Arroz à la Cubana, a Spanish rice dish her mother would make on school vacations, to Chef Avi Levy’s Duckling Chebakia, made of Moroccan pastry topped with duckling strips cooked in an orange sauce. Levy said that since duck meat is never fully wrapped in dough, it represents freedom. Another dish was a “chakra-opening” hamburger at Memphis. Chef Ori Melamed designed the beef burger with a fried egg topped with chili pepper jelly, saying that the chili pepper “opens your chakras and sets you free.”
These whimsical dishes were offered as part of a week-long “Taste of Freedom” event in late January to raise awareness of the plight of agunot or “chained women.” These are women whose husbands refuse to give them a divorce, which they need in order to remarry.
In Israel there is no civil marriage, and according to Jewish religious law a husband must give his wife a bill of divorce or get. In many cases, husbands blackmail their wives into giving them money in exchange for the granting of a get.
In some cases, a husband refuses, asking for “shalom bayit” or peace in the home, telling the rabbis that he wants to try to resolve the differences with his wife. In some cases this can go on for years as the woman is unable to remarry without a get.
The Rabbinate estimates there are about 400 women who are agunot because the husband has either disappeared or is incapacitated, and mesuravot get – meaning the husband refuses to provide a get.
Pnina Omer, director of Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center, which is behind the “Taste of Freedom” initiative, believes there are probably many more agunot and nobody has an exact number.
“If a woman is an aguna for 14 years, but after a year and a half she stopped coming to court because she has five young children, the rabbinic court will close her file,” Omer says. “We believe the real number is between 800 and 1,200 agunot.”
Often husbands will blackmail their wives, asking for money, the apartment they are living in and even custody of the children in exchange for a get. The men often tell the rabbis they are asking for “shalom bayit” and rabbis usually grant their request to delay the get.
On the rare occasions where a woman refuses to accept the get, a man can get the signatures of 100 rabbis and he is free to remarry according to Jewish law.
Some in Israel have argued for civil marriage to combat this problem. Others, including Orthodox Jewish young couples, are staying away from the Rabbinate and getting married in private ceremonies not recognized by the rabbinic authorities.
Omer says there is a simple solution to the problem of agunot – a prenuptial agreement that does not contradict Jewish law. This agreement stipulates that if either partner refuses to grant a divorce after one year of asking for “shalom bayit,” he or she must pay a substantial financial penalty of up to half of his or  her salary.
“It’s very effective,” she says. “When the husband knows he’s going to pay a lot of money, 99% of the time he gives the get.”
In the US, she said, the Orthodox Union has adopted this prenup and there are almost no cases of agunot. In Israel, the rabbinic authorities have been more hesitant, saying that the prenup might imply that the get was not given freely, which therefore invalidates the get.
Omer says that Jewish women must insist on a halachic prenup.
“Our message to the Jewish world is “don’t get married without a halachic prenup,” she says.