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Getting the Get

At first it was just another reason to fight— and I was tired of fighting. A Get, a Jewish divorce. Until my mother mentioned it, I had never even heard of such a thing. The year was 1980, years before anyone was writing about a Get. The world had not heard of the plight of Israeli women whose husbands refused to grant a Get. My friends were no help. Not one of my friends was divorced. Talking to my insistent mother, I felt like Bill Cosby’s Noah talking to G-d; “Sure, whatever you say. What’s an ark? What’s a cubit? What’s a Get?”

I called my Reform rabbi for information. Yes, he said, a Get was important, no question. It was granted through an ancient ceremony conducted by a court of rabbis. The purpose: to allow a woman to remarry in a traditional ceremony. I couldn’t imagine ever remarrying; he suggested I keep the option open and advised consulting my lawyer about logistics. So I called my lawyer, a Jewish elder statesman. A Get? “Of course,” he said. “We’ll just write it into the civil decree.” He made it sound simple.

But in our proceedings, nothing was simple. We had fallen in love in high school, gone steady in college and married within weeks of graduation. Now, twenty years later, we were divorcing. Not easily. As passionately as we loved, now we hated. He had initiated the divorce but wanted it without giving me anything—no money, no assets, no custody. We stayed connected as we fought about every detail. He told his lawyer he refused to grant a Get, then said I would have to pay for it, then told me on the phone he would grant it only if I agreed to the current negotiations.

I felt stymied. I could not find a way to negotiate anything I wanted let alone this new concept, a Jewish divorce. The few folks I confided in had answers, all unworkable. At a party, my neighbor’s mother whispered conspiratorially, “No matter what he says, you can force a Get. My rabbi said you could declare him impotent.” We giggled at the thought; maybe a woman wasn’t impotent in the face of male tradition after all. But it was a joke, not a realistic plan. I knew I’d never have the chutzpah to publicly declare the father of my three sons impotent. My colleague offered to visit him personally and “shame him.” He wasn’t shame-able; if he felt shame he wouldn’t be behaving so shamefully. In the end his lawyer, not Jewish, convinced him to be a gentleman. “You say ‘mensch’ I think,” he said.

In late winter, after four years of arguing, we reached an agreement and the court granted the civil divorce.

The decree noted the fact that my husband would grant me a Jewish divorce. I didn’t have time to acknowledge I was divorced let alone entitled to a Jewish divorce. My ex-husband remarried within days. My mother became hospitalized for brain surgery. My ex-husband’s wife became pregnant. Through spring and summer my children rode the roller-coasters. I was so busy nursing their nausea and upset stomachs I never felt my own.

Six months later as I sat in the synagogue at Rosh Hashanah, surrounded by all the tradition which my ex-husband and I had shared, I suddenly remembered the Get. I was angry with myself I was yearning for my husband despite the fact that we were divorced. I didn’t want to fell this connection to him in shul or anywhere. The civil divorce contained no ritual. Indeed, I had not even appeared in court. “Save yourself the trouble,” my attorney had said. “We’ll have your husband testify.” So after twenty years of marriage, the phone rang at my desk and my lawyer said, “It’s over.”

I needed more. I was married in a Jewish ceremony rich with ritual: the chuppah, the wine, the exchange of rings, the broken glass. Perhaps an ancient ritual would reach deep into my soul, disentangle the knots and set me free. I needed a time together in the same room with my groom to hear a rabbi say, “It’s all over, kaput.” I needed an un-marriage ceremony. I felt drawn to this ancient ritual because I knew I needed something to give me peace.

Not anticipating a problem, I matter-of-factly mentioned to my ex-husband the need to arrange a Get. He was enraged. I was shocked. He had agreed six months ago. Apparently threatened by my sense of empowerment or perhaps wanting to connect again by fighting, he refused. “It’s not to argue,” I answered, working to keep my voice steady. “It’s already in writing that you’ll grant me one.” Inside I shook. It was always difficult for me to ask for anything for myself Here I was feeling like a slave, begging again for my freedom. Worse, I realized that all the years of fighting to get something in writing meant nothing to him; he felt above the law.

After many phone negotiations, he agreed to participate in the ceremony but only if I arranged it. My Reform rabbi had surprised me by recommending an Orthodox Get. “That way no one will ever question it,” he’d said. So I called the Jewish Rabbinical Council to arrange for the court of three rabbis to perform the ceremony. The male secretary was business-like. Yes, they could convene on Sunday if necessary. The husband is a doctor? Certainly they would arrange their schedules for his benefit. I would need to bring the ketubah and the children’s brit certificates to establish the fact that we were married. The court would ask no personal questions, he volunteered. For the first time I noticed I had been sitting with my back stiff, my jaw clenched even as I talked. I relaxed a bit.

“Of course you don’t know your Hebrew name,” he said.

The summer before kindergarten, my parents had sent me to a Jewish day camp. The first day of camp, the counselor had asked each of us our Hebrew names. I didn’t know my Hebrew name. I knew my name as Barbara. The other children stared. “So stupid not to Icnow your own name.” Forty years later, I could feel the old anger mix with the new. I felt my body stiffen again. I was not going to be humiliated in what I’d heard was a sexist ceremony. “Of course I know my name,” I said, giving him my name. This was not going to be easy.

It was far from easy. My former husband cancelled that first date and then the next. He was still playing the game of asserting his authority, rendering me impotent. He had remarried and had a child in less time than it was taking him to grant me a Get. The process became a metaphor for our marriage: my pushing myself to define my wants, then screwing up the courage to ask; his agreeing to it, then procrastinating, not fulfilling his word; my waiting, being nice, hoping if I waited long enough, he would eventually come through. Spring. Pesach. Out of bondage. I called my ex-husband, requested another series of dates, again called the Rabbinical Council to arrange the ceremony. And I prayed—for strength, for perspective, and for my ex-husband to actually keep the date. He seemed more casual, less angry, this time. A year had passed for both of us.

Before the appointment, the Rabbinic Council rabbi thoughtfully called to confirm the date, time, and place. I thanked him. “I have been unable to confirm this with your husband,” he said. “He was not in his office. You will be sure he comes.”

I wanted to scream into the phone, “Are you crazy, Rabbi? I can’t control whether he’ll cancel for the fourth time!” Instead I took a deep breath and said quietly, “Rabbi, we are divorced. I can’t be sure of anything he’ll do.” I was proud of myself for speaking at all but still embarrassed at the edge in my voice.

“Ah, yes,” the rabbi said. “Perhaps I should call him at home. His number is….”

I gave him the correct number and hung up the phone.

I felt nauseous. Another reminder of my impotence. Given the opportunity, would my ex-husband break his word again? If he did come, could I stay calm and handle this ceremony? I rehearsed myself behaving in a mature way, watching the show as if I were a spectator. I vowed not to let myself feel until I was alone after the ceremony.

The day of the Get was spectacular, the sort of Sunday mid-westerners yearn for all winter. Sunny, soft breeze, tulips opening, peony buds ready to burst. The universe was cooperating with my new beginning. I checked my map to be very clear of my destination, allowed plenty of time and arrived twenty minutes early. I was surprised to see that the Jewish Rabbinical Council met in a modern office building. Unconsciously, I must have been expecting a tent! I parked my car and went for a walk. No coffee shop in the area. Offices. A Chinese restaurant, closed. A ballpark: Sunday morning basketball, a Chicago ritual. I watched the game, then walked back, blocking memories from my mind, concentrating on the present.

An Orthodox rabbi walked into the building. Beard flowing grey-white, dark wide-brimmed hat, long black coat, oblivious of the spring temperature. He was living in his internal reality while I was struggling to stay out of my internal thoughts and feelings, He’d parked his car in front of mine: his, a rusty Buick; mine, a year old Honda. Last year my car had looked worse than his. After the divorce, I’d traded my beat-up Ford for a brand new car. I’d seen the car as an extension of myself, tired, worn down. On Mother’s Day, I’d taken my kids with me to buy a new car and give us all a new start. I needed external markers—a car, a Get. The car had not released me. Was I nuts to think that this external marker would provide the internal peace I so needed?

The Rabbi and I rode the elevator together Obviously we were here for the same purpose.

“It was a long marriage?” he asked.

“Yes, twenty years.”

“How long divorced?”

“One year.”

“Children?”

“Yes, three sons.”

“You have a profession?”

“Yes, I’m a psychologist.”

“Then I will ask you,” he said gently, “why such a thing must be.”

I had asked that question often over the past five years. Now I shook my head. “Some questions have no answers. What I know is that I’ll never know.” We left the elevator and walked down the hall together in silence. Somehow I felt a bit safer.

The office suite was modern with dark wood paneling in the library-court room. The rabbi I had spoken with on the phone greeted the rabbi and me, then took me to his office to check that I had brought the ketubah and the brit certificate. “Only one certificate?” he asked. I breathed deeply and settled myself before answering. I would not allow him to make me feel bad or wrong or stupid. “I understood you needed only one to establish our names,” I said. He agreed.

“We might as well begin,” he said. “The others will be here soon.” I certainly hoped so. For our wedding, I had arrived early to dress in shul. My groom’s sister came into the dressing room to say, “He’s chickened out.” A joke. Not funny. Would he be here today? The rabbi verified from the ketubah the date and place of the marriage. The other rabbis arrived, one in a business suit, another in a long coat. The scribe would be late. Obviously, my ex-husband was already late. Would he come?

He arrived. The rabbis greeted “the doctor.” Funny, he’s “the doctor” and I am “the wife,” not also “the doctor.” I’m not a real doctor anyway. Let it pass. Concentrate on being here. The ceremony began.

Surrounded by holy-looking men, I expected prayers. What we got, instead, was earth-bound, very earth-bound. The rabbis needed to establish our existence. They began with my ex-husband. They knew he was a doctor but now that mattered not at all. He could have been an umbrella mender or a world-famous Gemorah scholar. They wanted proof only that he had been born into his particular family, had been named at a brit, had been called by his name in English, on our ketubah, on our son’s brit certificate, on his driver’s license, even on his Visa card. In Hebrew, when a bar mitzvah, when called to the Torah, when spoken to by his father, his grandfather. “Who called you this name? When? Any other names?” Over and over, in many ways, the same questions. Exasperating. I felt myself snicker They’re getting to him. But the feeling passed almost as soon as I realized it. Then I felt protective of him, a familiar feeling. “No one uses his legal first name, not even when they’re angry at him,” I joked. The men smiled. People we were, sitting together. Maybe we could show a little compassion for each other. Maybe.

Time passed. His name was established. They asked him to rise and recite a prayer which established his name, son of his father whose name had also been carefully established, grandson of his father’s father whose name had also been carefully established. His mother was irrelevant to his birth and life. She would be hurt to know.

My turn. Respectfully, matter-of-factly, the rabbi asked the same questions of me. My Hebrew name: Bracha. A Blessing. Written on the ketubah, our marriage decree. Written on our son’s brit certificate. But how did I know that was my name? How did I know? I knew. At camp, at the age of 4, the counselors called me Bracha. I didn’t like my name then; I wanted to be Barbara. My zaydeh called me Bracha. “Pa,” my aunt would shout in his ear, “Barbie’s here, Shloima’s Bracha.” It sounded good when she said it. He’d shake his head, acknowledging what he didn’t see. I was named for his wife, the first girl-child born after her death, a blessing. In English, Barbara. In Latin, barbarus.,, barbarian. Jung would have loved it—both sides of a personality in one name. And nicknames? I nodded. I’ve had many nicknames: Bunny, Boris, Barbie, Bobby. Who called you these? How often? Bobby—my uncle wanted a boy. Barbie—even now to my nieces and nephew I’m Aunt Barbie. Duly recorded. I am a person of many names, seen in many ways by many people.

And my father’s name? Samuel, Sammy, Shloimi…A man of many names, many endearments. Never the elder statesman, forever the younger brother, the little boy. Forever loved.

My name was established. Bracha Elka, also known as Barbara, as Barbie, as Bobby, daughter of Shmuel, known as Samuel, as Sammy, as Shloimi, son of Shia, my father’s daughter, my grandfather’s granddaughter. That is who I am. I am not even my mother’s daughter still pulling to separate from her umbilical cord and breathe on my own. The struggles from birth fall away. Those are the earthly struggles unrecorded in this document. Here the simplicity is illuminated. I am not my worries, my joys, my career or accomplishments, not even my children. G-d said “1 am who I am.” And now, I recognize I am who I am, my roots, my essence.

The message was implicit: married or divorced, I am who I am. Now the scribe spoke: he was writing on the husband’s behalf Therefore, the husband would need to symbolically purchase the special paper and the ink and pen, then symbolically give them as a gift to the scribe. He did so. The scribe began to write. The others left the room. Someone returned to offer us Cokes. We were alone in silence with the scribe. Quiet, holy space, uninterrupted, no phones, no children, no chaos inside of mc instigated by fear and rage. We began speaking of our children, one going to college soon, another to be bar mitzvah. Good boys. Bright. Caring. So much joy these boys bring. We’ve done a lot right. We may become divorced from each other but we would always be parents of our sons. Memories slid back: the ketubah, the wedding, the births, each brit in a different city, the moves and the changes. We were two children marrying and two adults growing apart. Here we sat, no lawyers, no fights, acknowledging that twenty years ago we shared the dream of a lifetime together. A half hour, perhaps an hour passed. As the scribe wrote our divorce decree, we acknowledged the existence of our marriage.

The men returned. We rose to watch the scribe complete his work. The letters were aesthetically beautiful, a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew. The witnesses checked each letter, questioned some. Check and recheck. Each line needed to have a Hebrew letter that dropped below the line and one that rose above the line so the document could never be cut without cutting each line. Our names allowed many such letters. The men of the Rabbinic Court were pleased. Each signed his name in Hebrew with the pen. The decree was complete.

The scribe folded the decree and handed it to my husband. He instructed him to hold it in a certain way. I was to cup my hands so that he would drop the decree into my hands. The sexual symbolism was moving. I felt tears. He, I noticed, had tears in his eyes. Then with the decree under my arm, I walked back and forth through the room, taking possession of the decree acknowledging that I was once married and now no longer married to this man. I walked through space a divorced woman. I felt strong, self-possessed, independent.

The scribe held out his hand for the decree. With his penknife he scored the parchment so that no one could ever read it and claim it to be defective so that we were not really divorced. Also, the Rabbi explained, on the unlikely chance that two other people could have our exact names and fathers’ and grandfathers’ names, they could not claim the decree as theirs. We were truly finally disconnected.

Then, “Mazel tov. Zi gezunt. Go and be well. Good wishes for a good future.” It was as if the groom had broken the glass at a wedding. That’s how much release and joy flooded us all. Then we moved out of the room, on with life.

I had promised myself a lovely lunch at a small cafe with gourmet food, lots of light and live chamber music on Sunday afternoons. It blew my budget but I sensed it would be worth it. I needed a place to settle in, process the ceremony, write some notes so I would always remember. A friend had taken me to dinner to celebrate the civil divorce. This, I knew, would be a deeper celebration. I needed to linger with myself, taking in the reality of a new beginning.

Then I did what I generally did on Sundays in spring. I drove to the baseball field to watch my sons play. Their father, stepmother and baby sister were already there. I love watching babies but I’d never before looked at this child. Finally, I was able to look at the infant in the buggy. And for the first time I could look my sons’ father in the eyes and smile, a spontaneous smile.

The Get ceremony did not protect me from the subsequent emotional storms triggered by our passionate arguments in co-parenting. Those bitter fights reverberated so that I could not stand on the bimah for bar mitzvahs or under the chuppah for weddings feeling calm in the presence of my sons’ father. For that I am sad. But I know that this was my limitation, not the limitation of the Get.

The Get ceremony accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish: it dissolved our marriage. Something inside me shifted. In establishing my identity in my name, the ceremony supported my reclaiming my Self I never again saw myself as somebody’s extension—never just a wife, just a daughter, just a mother, impotent. I am Barbara, Bracha. I am blessed.

Many years after getting the get, Barbara M. Stock is happily remarried. She is a psychologist in private practice in Evanston, Illinois, and a freelance writer.