For the past several months, the subjects standing before Aviva Klein’s camera have not been the usual assortment of musicians, celebrities and fashion labels who hire her for their album artwork or style shoots, but agunot, women who are chained in marriages they no longer wish to be a part of thanks to a halachic structure where one gender holds the power. Klein, who lives and works primarily in Manhattan, recently funded an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,000 to continue her photography project that began with a grant from The Schusterman Family Foundation. She spoke with Tova Ross about her work and why she felt compelled to set aside time from her career taking pictures of celebrities like Beyonce, T.I. and Questlove and for fashion companies like Lanvin and Nike to taking photos of* agunot*.
Tova Ross: If your professional background is in the music and celebrity industry, then why photograph agunot now?
Aviva Klein: In late 2013, I received a micro-grant from the Schusterman Foundation to “make something happen” in the Jewish community. The organization didn’t specify what it should be, exactly, just that those who receive its funding do something impactful that will effect a meaningful change within the Jewish community. I chose to incorporate my photography skills as a way to tell a story of something I thought needed more attention and awareness. When I did some research and learned that one of the most pressing issues our Jewish community faces today is the plight of the agunot, I was drawn to it right away.
I’m of two minds about Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s announcement that they are going through a “conscious uncoupling.”
Part of me cringes over the fact that Paltrow felt the need to process something as intimate as her separation in the life-perfecting GOOP mill. What she gave us is a sanitized, sunny, and even chic presentation of what is surely a raw, dark and messy experience. Her note, posted above a darling picture of the two of them sitting on the grass in formal wear, has a calm and collected tone, and refers to the hard work they put into the marriage and the peace they have discovered in their decision to separate.
This is followed by an essay about “conscious uncoupling” from East meets West doctors Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami who explain that we now live too long to fulfill the whole “until death do us apart” thing, and by accepting this we can change how we experience divorce and turn it into an opportunity for growth. As Slate’s Jessica Grose points out Paltrow’s “sun-dappled breakup announcement is just the same tired keeping up appearances that wives and mothers have long been expected to do,” and Paltrow even more so because she has to maintain a brand.
A new paper entitled “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” from the Center for Marriage and Families looks at the spiritual life of children of divorce as adults. It found that those whose parents split are less likely to feel religious or act religiously as adults than those whose parents stayed married.
The report is based on thirteen commissioned papers on the topic by scholars of family and religion, and it calls for faith leaders to step up and pay more attention to the experience of divorce among members of their communities.
If you could care less whether or not anyone, children of divorce or not, are religious as adults, this report isn’t for you. The authors make it clear that their motivation was to study this issue within the context of faith. They are clearly invested in maintaining a religiously-minded America, and unless you are too, this report won’t be of interest.
But if you are interested in how divorce affects faith, there are some compelling findings. For one, a national study found that among young adults who were members of a church or synagogue during the time of their parents’ divorce, “two-thirds say that no one — neither from the clergy nor the congregation — reached out to them, while only one-quarter remembers either a clergy member or congregant doing so.”
On a recent Sunday evening in Jerusalem, 25 married couples gathered to have both partners in each pair sign a “mutual respect contract.” The contract was created by three Orthodox rabbis at the behest of Mavoi Satum, a Jerusalem-based organization devoted to combating abuse of the Jewish divorce process.
If the couple decides to divorce, the mutual respect contract is brought to family court, which adjudicates the couple’s secular divorce and shares it with the rabbinical court overseeing the religious divorce, also known as a get. The contract stipulates that if either member of the couple delays the divorce process by more than six months — if the woman refuses to accept a get or the man refuses to grant it — then the recalcitrant spouse must pay the other $1,500 a month or half his or her salary, whichever is greater.
It sounds similar to the pre-nuptial contract (which can also be signed after a couple is already married) created and promoted by the Orthodox group the Rabbinical Council of America. That contract, which can be seen here, requires that if a couple separates, the husband pay his estranged wife $150 a day until a Jewish divorce is granted. If his wife refuses to appear before the Beth Din of America, then his obligation ends.
The contract has been considered controversial by some rabbis, who believe that any financial inducement for a man to give his estranged wife a get is tantamount to coercion, and therefore invalidates the Jewish divorce.
But Rabbi Shlomo Weissman, director of the Beth Din of America, the rabbinical court connected with the RCA, which adjudicates divorces, put it another way: “It provides an incentive for the get to be given earlier rather than later,” he told The Sisterhood. “It creates an obligation on the part of the husband to support his wife so long as they are married under Jewish law but not living together.”
In her Sisterhood post “On Agunah Issue, Pressure Rabbis, Not Rep,” Dvora Meyers takes on a grassroots campaign to pressure Michigan Rep. Dave Camp to condemn what we consider to be abusive behavior by his staffer, Aharon Friedman. In the past, Camp has called Friedman’s refusal to grant his wife a Jewish divorce decree, or a get, “gossip.” It is time for Camp to recognize this error and do what is right.
The facts of this case are not under dispute. Friedman married Tamar Epstein in April 2006. The marriage failed, and Friedman and Epstein were civilly divorced in 2010, after being separated for two years. For Epstein, an Orthodox Jew, civil divorce is insufficient. Jewish law mandates a religious divorce decree, or get, which must be consented to by both parties. But Friedman has refused thus far to give Epstein a get, and that shows a basic disregard for human decency. He’s been banned from his synagogue, and a prominent rabbinical court has issued a public declaration condemning his intransigence.
In effect, Epstein is an agunah, or a “chained woman.” She cannot remarry in a religious ceremony. And because Epstein is an Orthodox Jew, that effectively means that Friedman (also Orthodox) is deliberately preventing her from remarrying.
Purim is a holiday that is about women’s power, in its different forms.
Thinking about the roles of Queen Vashti and her successor Queen Esther in the Purim story highlights some of the dilemmas that women have faced throughout history. I therefore think it’s particularly apt that Ta’anit Esther is International Agunah Day, the day the marks the harrowing struggle of “chained women,” or women denied divorce.
Vashti and Esther were both married to a man, the same man, for whom women were objects to be adorned and used. This was arguably the prevailing culture at the time, but there are also gradations in the exploitation of women. (To wit, someone visiting the planet for the first time who puts on MTV would believe that our culture is no better today than it was then.) Moreover, King Ahasverus was particularly adamant in his use of women’s bodies to claim his own power. He summoned Vashti specifically “to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on,” he chose his next queen based on a beauty contest, and declared that peace in his entire kingdom was a function of women’s submission, that “all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small… that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.”
Interestingly, Vashti and Esther dealt with the king differently. Vashti was defiant.
Over the last couple of months there has been a lot of attention paid to the unfortunate case of Tamar Epstein, an Orthodox woman who has been trying to get a Jewish divorce decree, or a get for more than four years from her husband Aharon Friedman. Though he’s already her ex-husband in all matters civil and fiscal, he is still her spouse in the eyes of her faith, and this leaves Epstein unable to remarry in the Jewish tradition, and move on with her life.
“He is thus inflicting great emotional abuse upon her,” wrote Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the spiritual leader of Ohev Shalom — The National Synagogue, in Washington D.C., on the Huffington Post. He and other Jewish leaders have been calling on Friedman’s boss, Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, to reprimand or fire him since other efforts at communal coercion, including blacklisting, picketing and shunning, have failed. (See this recent Sisterhood post on the subject.)
However, if withholding a get constitutes abuse, if the husband is indeed brandishing a psychological weapon and threatening his wife with it, then the question that should be asked: How did the gun get into his hand?
The answer is clear: It was put there by Jewish law, the rabbis who formulated it, and the rabbis who refuse to amend it.
Never before has so much public pressure been brought to bear on an American man for refusing to grant his wife a Jewish divorce, or get. There have been public demonstrations against Aharon Friedman, and articles in prominent publications, public calls by one of the nation’s leading Orthodox rabbis, and lots of back-channel efforts as well. One of the country’s prominent Orthodox religious courts has decreed Friedman in contempt of court. Yet none of it has worked. Now those who want to persuade Friedman to free his ex-wife from the bonds of a dead marriage are turning to his employer, who is one of the most powerful members of Congress.
“A social-media campaign is being waged to pressure Rep. Dave Camp to encourage a top staffer to grant his wife a Jewish divorce, and the lawmaker restricted public posts on his Facebook page after a flood of comments about the issue,” according to this article on the inside-the-beltway website Politico.
Friedman and Tamar Epstein were divorced in civil court in 2010, after separating in 2008, shortly before their second wedding anniversary and when their daughter was an infant. Friedman works as tax counsel to Camp, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
If only this could be billed as a spooky Halloween story or something from a medieval archive or from American colonial history. But no, it’s a real news story in modern-day Israel: A state court punished a woman for practicing witchcraft. The alleged hocus-pocus cost her a cool $25,000 in alimony when the value of her wedding contract, or ketubah, was reduced by half in her divorce trial. A Haifa rabbinical court recently handed down the ruling.
Some of the charges and counter-charges sound like standard divorce material. The wife claimed that her husband was having an affair. The husband said that he started seeing another woman only after his wife said that she was taking him to divorce court. In an argument that apparently holds water with some rabbis, the husband complained that his wife was derelict in her matrimonial duties because she refused to cook for him. But the rabbis forgave her for her culinary abandonment because of his affair. (Indeed, it is wise to excuse women from getting near an adulterous husband with pots, pans and an open flame. Far too dangerous.)
They weren’t as forgiving when it came to the alleged witchcraft. Although the woman denied being a witch, a failed polygraph test (which is not admissible in civil Israeli courts) led the to the conclusion that indeed she was practicing the dark arts.
According to this story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the rabbinate there has threatened to jail a 59-year-old woman if she continues to refuse to accept a religious divorce, known as a get, from her husband.
The news report says:
The woman, who lives in the center of the country, is refusing to accept the divorce from her husband because of an ongoing property dispute between the two. “I won’t take the get under any circumstances, even if they take me to jail,” the woman told Haaretz Monday. “I’m made of steel, you can’t break me.”
Usually the shoe is on the other foot, and we read about men refusing to grant their wives a divorce or extorting a payoff in order to do so. The power to grant a divorce, according to an Orthodox reading of Jewish law, rests only in the hands of the man. But the woman must accept the divorce, as much as she must accept the marriage contract handed to her under the wedding canopy.
When Helen Sieger died on the day before Passover this year, at just 57 years old, in a hospital used for inmates of Riker’s Island, it was a sad end to a life with many sad chapters.
Helen — or Chayie — Sieger’s story was well-known in Haredi circles in Brooklyn. But when her saga became the subject of a New York magazine feature story in 2003, she became a household name.
After nearly a quarter-century of being a dutiful wife to Chaim Sieger, mother to a son and a daughter, and part of Brooklyn’s Bobov Hasidic community, when her husband remarried without granting her a Jewish divorce, she sued him and the rabbis who, she alleged he bribed, in civil court. The rabbis had provided Chaim Sieger with a heter meah rabbonim, permission from 100 rabbis allowing her to re-marry without granting his wife a Jewish divorce, or get.
In 1995 Chayie Sieger did something Bobov women had almost never done: She left her husband, who according to the New York magazine story, was a serial philanderer and gambler, to move to her father’s home a few doors down.
That there are Orthodox Jewish men who hold a get, or Jewish divorce decree, over their estranged wives’ heads out of spite and to extort money from the women’s families — making the women agunot — is a sad reality. The creators of a new documentary film, “Women Unchained,” hope to shed new light on this seemingly intractable issue, and create communal pressure for change.
“Women Unchained” follows six Orthodox Jewish women in their quest to receive a get, or Jewish divorce, from their husbands. The film, directed by Beverly Siegel and co-produced by Leta Lenik, will have its world premiere in Jerusalem on March 7 at the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center and on March 8, International Women’s Day, at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque, as part of the Women and Religion Mavoi Satum Film Festival. “Women Unchained” will have its first U.S. showings at the Pittsburgh Jewish Film Festival on March 27 and at the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival on March 31. The filmmakers and experts on the issue will take part in panel discussions following the screenings.
A man withholding a Jewish divorce — known as a get — is liable for money damages to his estranged wife, according to a recent decision handed down by a Tel Aviv appeals court.
The January 31 decision dismissing the husband’s effort to overturn a 700,000-shekel [about $188,000] lower court judgment against him for withholding the get offers hope to other wives chained to dead marriages, according to some agunah activists. Others who advocate for agunot say that the case will have no impact outside of Israel. An agunah is a woman who may not remarry because her estranged husband will not give her a divorce.
The couple at the center of the recent Israeli court decision lived together for just three months after their wedding, and the husband has refused to give his wife a get for all of the intervening 16 years since then.
The new appellate court decision means that, unless Israel’s Supreme Court overturns it, it will serve as a precedent in all family law there, according to the Center for Women’s Justice, the Israeli non-profit that has provided legal counsel to the wife since 2004. The Center was successful in framing the legal issue as a matter of damages for a violation of the wife’s human rights.
Imagine investing in a business; the partnership sours, but the freedom to begin anew depends on your ex-partner honoring his obligation to sign your walking papers.
This scenario best describes what confronts a Jewish woman when a marriage is over: a man must give his estranged wife a *get a religious divorce decree, without which she is not free to remarry under the canopy of a Jewish wedding.
Why flip a business analogy on this? Because in a marriage, both spouses bring equity and invest mutual resources of love, time and sacrifice to build a lasting relationship.
The dark side of this get issue began to surface in the 1970s, as these decrees, in some instances, became a bargaining chip to win concessions on child custody and financial support. But aside from 40 years of hand-wringing and conferences about get and the plight of the agunah (chained woman), what’s changed?
Divorce is almost always presented as a prickly topic, one that imbues it survivors with bitterness and regrets. And so when I first heard about The Huffington Post’s new section devoted to divorce, I expected ranting. But most of the contributors on the site appear to be reasonable and sincere grown-ups — a mixture of financial experts, religious figures and everyday people who have experienced divorce; their content provides readers with sound advice on how to move through a period time that is almost always difficult. They make divorce sound, well, okay.
As a child of divorce I have felt, even with my new husband, the shame associated with divorce. My parents’ divorce is not just sad, but a little embarrassing — as if it could have avoided if they had exhibited a bit more rationality and restraint. There’s a sense that they, and we as a family, failed.
Punk movement’s Jewish roots are hardly a secret and have long been explored. But a punk band that creates music videos to promote the importance of freeing agunot — women tied to unwanted marriages because their estranged husbands refuse to give them a get, or a religious divorce — is something new.
An under-the-radar band called The Groggers recently released their music video “Give Her a Get,” which has become a YouTube sensation in some circles. The video speaks directly to a stereotypical misogynistic husband, and the song’s lyrics include: “You’ve been on a losing streak/Since the sheva brachot week/When did the magic die/When did things get so bleak …You got a get, get, get, get — give her a get, ’cause she don’t love you no more.”
Watch it here:
I’m on the fence about this video: The song’s message is clearly valuable, but then is it not somehow cheapened by the parody factor? One thing I know for sure: The tune is absolutely infectious, and I have to do something to “get” it out of head, before I come home tonight. I’m not sure if my wife would appreciate me singing it around the house.
Hat tip to Matthue Roth.
How badly do women want to be married? This is a question that has been asked from the Talmud to The New York Times, and the answers can be counterintuitive.
Tav l’metav tan du m’lmetav armelu. “It’s better to lie with another body than to lie as a widow.” (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 7a) This Talmudic dictate, attributed to the sage and former pirate Resh Lakish, implies that women would prefer to be married to anyone at all than to be single — and it is one of the most controversial policy principles in Jewish literature. The idea that women prefer to be married – even to someone who smells bad, who is perpetually unemployed, or who is obnoxious and abusive – has been used to justify many of the rabbinic laws that make it hard for a woman to get divorced.
As a woman, I sometimes feel like I’m in a catch-22. I want to bring attention to issues concerning women, but I also want men to pay attention. When women are doing all the talking, we run the risk of marginalizing ourselves, of turning our ideas into “women’s stuff.” By inviting men to speak about women’s issues, we may gain credibility and breadth, but we contribute to the problem by having men speak on our behalf, muting our voices once again.
I found myself in this frustrating predicament the other day. I was speaking on a panel at a conference organized by Rabbi Marc Angel’s Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah. The conference, titled, “Is Modern Orthodoxy an Endangered Species?” examined mostly theoretical issues facing Modern Orthodoxy today, but included also a discussion of conversion as well as a panel —the one I participated in — on the issue of agunot and mesoravot get, women denied divorce. The panel consisted of Susan Weiss, founder of the Center for Women’s Justice, and me, representing Mavoi Satum, the organization that provides a package of legal and social services to agunot.
While I fully applaud the inclusion of this critical issue in the conference, I confess that I had mixed feelings about the fact that we were effectively two women on stage.
“Rachel” an ultra-Orthodox mother of 12 living in Jerusalem, got divorced this week.
It’s cause for celebration for two reasons. First, this grants her much-needed freedom from her severely violent and erratic now-ex-husband, a man who viciously controlled, manipulated and abused her and her children during the marriage and separation. But the real jubilation is because the divorce process – receiving her get – took nine years. Nine years! That’s a marathon that deserves acknowledgment.