Exit Husband

When men break free, what of their abandoned families?

One man’s freedom is another woman’s jail. Enforced Marginality: Jewish Narratives on Abandoned Wives by Bluma Goldstein (University of California Press, $39.95) is about that woman: abandoned by her husband but still bound to him by Jewish law, she is imprisoned by a web of shame and poverty.

Goldstein’s mother was abandoned by her father when she was a year old. Although Goldstein was instructed to say her father was dead, she knew that it was not true, but she claims never to have been interested in finding out about him. For over 70 years, she avoided the hole in her life that was dug when he left, and became an esteemed academic. In this work, she faces her experience with all the tools of her adult success — uncovering and dissecting portraits of abandoned Jewish wives in unexpectedly diverse media.

The book begins with an excellent summary of Jewish marriage and divorce law. A man and woman can only marry by their own free wills, and cannot be divorced without free will either. So, if a man disappears, refuses, or is mentally incapable of divorcing his wife, there is nothing the community can do to free the “chained” wife, the aguna. She cannot remarry, and if she has children by a subsequent partner, they become mamzerim, also unmarriageable in the community. She is a “living widow.”

Throughout this book, Goldstein provides a historical survey of real and fictional agunot, beginning with an extract from Glikl of Hameln’s autobiography. Glikl wrote in the seventeenth century; her aguna story takes place in a German town where Jews lived extremely precariously. She describes how, over a period of a few years, two Jewish husbands fail to return home after work. Their wives are left without recourse or support. Another Jewish woman in the town claims to have a theory explaining the men’s disappearance, and takes on Jewish leadership as well as non-Jewish rulers, demanding an investigation. The men are found to have been murdered by the same criminal, and the murderer is put to death. The story is extraordinary in that a woman is empowered by her sense of the injustice done to the “living widows” to fight against the powers that be in the Jewish community, as well as the anger and skepticism of the fickle Gentile authorities.

Although it is the earliest account in the book, Glikl’s is the only one where a woman acts as protagonist, from a position of strength. Every other portrayal of women in this book is as a victim. Solomon Maimon and Menahem Mendl, real and fictional characters, respectively, seek to break free from the oppression of community and religion. Breaking free from oppressive cultures is something we moderns might applaud; but these two men do so by abandoning wives and many children. The voices of the wives are articulated both in the fiction and nonfiction accounts. They are pleading, cajoling, even desperate. They blame themselves for their spouses’ rejection; they offer anything they can to get their men back. The men do not return; although unhappy alone, they prefer to break the chains of their family obligations rather than relieve their wives.

In America, the Jewish community was burdened with thousands of women whose husbands sought better lives by leaving them. The National Desertion Bureau was founded in 1911 to try to force the men to support their families. One means was to publish in the Daily Forward photos and descriptions of the men. Goldstein focuses on some of these men, with original investigative research on their pre- and post-abandoning history. Her greatest contribution, however, is pointing out how little is said of the abandoned families. She does find a few letters to the editors of the Forward from wives and children, addressing their disappeared men, describing their sad, appalling lives, shamed by the loss of figurehead, of social decency. One can only wonder, upon reading this book, what business these men had getting married in the first place.

C. Devora (Viva) Hammer is a partner in the New York Office of the law firm Crowell & Moring, and a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University.