You can learn an incredible amount about different people from language. There are, for example, 27 words for “moustache” in Albanian – including a word for what English-speakers would call “no moustache.” It seems that in Albania, moustaches are pretty important. Similarly, the Inuit are famous for having 30 words for snow – clearly they see things in the snow that most of us don’t.
Unique linguistic forms abound, and provide intriguing insights into cultures. According to this book,” Pascuense in Easter Island has a word for a slight inflammation of the throat caused by screaming too much (“ngaobera”) and and Brazilian Portuguese has a word for the practice of putting a live cricket into a box of newly faked documents until the insect’s excrement makes the paper look convincingly old (“grigalem”). So what’s Hebrew’s he claim to fame?
I would have liked to find a word, perhaps, for that hand gesture of squeezing thumb and middle finger in order to indicate to the viewer, “wait.” But no, we Jews are not quite that lucky. Instead, what distinguishes our culture is that ours is the only language in the world that has the word “agunah.”
An agunah is a woman indefinitely stuck in an unwanted marriage, in which the husband is gone but she is still considered married. It is the word for a woman’s perpetual state of limbo, in which she is chained to a man who has complete freedom to move, marry, produce offspring and live a normal life. The cruelty reflected in a society that enables even one agunah to exist — and accepts this situation as a reality to such an extent that it gives her a name — should bring us all enormous shame.
International Agunah Day is marked on Ta’anit Esther, which this year falls on Thursday February 25. I think it’s fitting but tragic to combine the Esther story with the agunah story. After all, according to the traditional story, Esther was trapped in an unwanted marriage as well, to King Ahasverosh, a man known for murdering disobedient wives and around whom Esther had to completely disguise her identity. In this marriage, Esther sacrificed her own freedom, her own dreams, and her own life, presumably for the sake of the Jewish people — although it takes several chapters of the book and an indeterminate number of years for a threat to surface. I hate to say this but in a way, it’s a good thing Haman came along and gave her enslavement a greater purpose. If not, her sacrifice would have been for naught.
This year, ICAR (The International Coalition of Agunah Rights), an umbrella organization representing 28 groups that work on the agunah issue, has initiated several important events and activities for Agunah Day. First of all, ICAR helped draft a bill for agunot that will be submitted on Thursday by Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz, the greatest champion of women’s issues in the current Knesset (though unfortunately, since her party is in the opposition, her initiatives often do not go very far.) In any case, the bill proposes turning Agunah Day into a nationally recognized “holiday, and calls for greater legislative attention to the plight of agunot.
In addition, ICAR has initiated a Study Day throughout Israel on the issue of recalcitrance, and has widely distributed a source booklet for group study. The booklet is available in English or Hebrew. ICAR also ran an accompanying seminar for training seminar moderators on the subject.
There is also the “Cinema-get” traveling program and study group, to be held over the next week at Seminar Hakibutzim at the Hadar Cultural Center in Haifa, at the Israel Bar Association, and at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Yael Levine, known for creating beautiful prayers specifically for women’s lives, has written a special “mi she’berach” prayer for agunot that can be recited in synagogue on Purim or on Shabbat Zachor.
Finally, ICAR and all its member organizations urge Jewish couples getting married to sign halakhic pre-nuptial agreements, to protect themselves against recalcitrance (un-romantic for sure, but so is buying life insurance). One recently married couple even signed right there under the chuppah, and talked about the issue as they were getting married. The couple has my utmost respect for doing that. They are saying that even on our happiest days, just as we remember the destruction of the Temple and the lives that were destroyed, so, too, we must not forget the agunot, and we must not leave them behind to suffer alone.