The New Improved Jewish Divorce: Hers/His
When the phone rang with the news that my get (Jewish divorce) ceremony could take place the following day, I was ready. My civil divorce had come through several days earlier, but it hadn’t made me feel divorced. I was the one, not David,* who had insisted that we have a traditional get as part of the divorce negotiations. We had been married ten years, separated one year. We had a beautiful four-year-old daughter. The ending of the marriage was, for me, painful and completely unexpected.
I know that many women feel hurt by the implicit sexism of the get ceremony, but I didn’t feel that way. I wanted to stand before the entire Jewish community — including the most traditional — and have my new status declared and validated. I believed that a Jewish ceremony, unlike the civil event, might emotionally support me through a difficult transition: from being married to being single, from parenting as a couple to parenting alone.
I also knew that I had to construct a parallel ceremony. Five males (one rabbi, two witnesses, David and the scribe) would be present (along with myself) at the traditional get ritual. I decided to assemble my own cadre of supportive women friends. I worked out a schedule of guard-duty shifts [a shomeret] in which different friends would accompany me through the day. I also decided to write my own get document, to create my own customs for the day, and to construct my own sort of support-network minyan (quorum).
On the one hand I felt unspeakably sad and afraid; on the other, I felt strong and dignified, ready to claim this ancient ritual as my own, to recognize that the Jewish divorce ceremony was a route that was available to me for my own use in healing.
At dusk on the evening before the ceremony, I began a 24-hour fast: I lit a white candle and started to compose my own divorce document (what I call a “document of transition;” using special textured paper that I had bought for the occasion and a real ink pen. I was all alone, and I sat on the living room couch watching the candle flicker in the December dark, thinking, crying, preparing myself for the fact that tomorrow my marriage would be officially over. Going to bed that night, I felt quiet but not alone, in the grip of a large unfolding thing, but also feeling in control of what was about to happen.
The next morning, wrapped in my tallis (prayershawl), I said the viddui, a prayer of confession generally recited before one’s marriage, on Yom Kippur and on one’s death bed. I wanted to acknowledge my part in the death of my marriage — the patterns I had perpetuated that were not healthy, the skills I lacked, the times I had not listened to my intuitive voice.
Paralleling Yom Kippur, I wore no jewelry and no makeup. I dressed in white, the color of the kittel. (The kittel, a burial shroud, is also traditionally worn by Jewish men on their wedding day and on various Jewish holidays.) In a white skirt, white blouse and cloth shoes I felt bleached, cleansed, pure and present. White felt right to me, a symbol both of death and of rebirth.
I stayed alone until mid-morning, needing time to feel sad, to reflect, to be with God. I would have liked to have my family with me during parts of the day, but as my parents live in San Diego and my sister and brother-in-law in Cleveland that wasn’t possible. My daughter had slept over at David’s house and was now at school. I started to feel nervous and frightened, with a painful ache. So many relationships were now dying, and dreams, and parts of myself.
Joanne, my oldest friend in Seattle, picked me up at 10:30. We drove to the shul. Joanne sat by my side for about half an hour, through the first part of the ceremony. Around the large wooden table sat the two male witnesses, plus the officiating rabbi, the scribe and David. Except for the scribe, I knew everyone else in the room. I could feel their sympathy. There was small talk and joking around. I think they were afraid I would cry if there was much silence. Although as a woman I was legally powerless at this ceremony, I felt I had a great deal of authority. I had the power to get to the emotional core of the situation.
The ceremony began with the rabbi explaining the proceedings to us. He asked, formulaically, “Are you ready to go through with this?”
I answered, “Yes.”
David answered, “Yes.”
There was a terribly mournful feeling in the room.
After some more formalities, the officiating rabbi said we could leave for two hours while the scribe hand-wrote the get. Joanne drove me to my friend Bria’s apartment. I had not yet shown anyone my “document of transition!’ and I wanted both to hear it read by someone else and to read it aloud myself. I hoped it would cut through the numbness. Hearing it and then reading it, I felt both grief and the beginnings of resolution.
Bria drove me back to the shul, where a third friend, Joanna (not Joanne), met me. We entered the room for the last part of the ceremony, watching the completion of the writing of the get, the artful, calligraphic document inscribed with infinite precision. The officiating rabbi read it aloud in Aramaic, then he cut the parchment with a small blade, symbolically cutting our union, giving concrete form to the ending of our marriage.
He gave the parchment to David who dropped it into my open hands. I tucked it in between my left arm and my heart, as I was instructed to do. Holding the ripped document near my heart felt like a real enactment of what was happening: this most close and intimate part of my life was over. One small gesture captured a year and a half of what I had been feeling.
I then gave this beautiful, disfigured parchment back to the officiating rabbi, relinquishing it. I walked the traditional three steps backwards and three steps^ forward, signifying my acceptance of the document. I didn’t feel at all shamed by my allegedly “passive!’ distaff role in this proceeding. As I took the steps, I could physically feel myself standing rail and walking straight. It felt like the ceremony was mine.
I waited until the very end to hand David (my now ex-partner) my “document of transition!’ Though I had not gotten to hear my own document read aloud in this room, I had heard it read aloud with Bria, and I felt satisfied. I was glad to be performing the final, closing rite.
The ceremony was over. It had felt foreign, yet greatly comforting. I was participating in an ancient ritual of unbinding, following in the path of many people who had passed before me who also had been hurting and torn.
Joanna drove me back to my apartment. Slowly I bathed, adapting the customs of mourning rituals in which water is the symbol of purification and renewal. I changed from my white clothes into comfortable, colored, happier clothes. I had bought myself a new pair of colored earrings for the occasion — a present to myself.
At around 5 p.m., eight additional women friends joined us, making a minyan. Each woman brought a dish for dinner. We had salads, casseroles, wine, bread, and almond tarts for dessert. The meal was a combination mourners’ meal of consolation and of transition.
Lighting colored candles, we spoke of endings and of new beginnings, each of us spontaneously sharing some ending and beginning from our own lives. We sang the blessing over wine and talked about the meaning of this blessing — vines, rooted-ness, being connected with the earth, growth. It was a metaphor for our processes.
When we said the blessing over bread, we talked about how many coordinated actions are necessary to produce a loaf of bread — the finished product — no less the mystery of the initial grain. The talk was simple, which felt right. “I am not all alone.” I said. “All of you have accompanied me through this difficult, coordinated process. Today marks not only the closure of my marriage, but formally recognizes how my friends have been with me through all of this!’ I thanked everyone, acknowledging that in my neediness through this crisis, I had made demands on my friends.
When we sang the shehechiyanu blessing (to mark my new beginning), we each reflected on what we wanted for ourselves now and in the future, what dreams we had. What new possibilities existed for me now? There had been so many changes. I was so aware of being a woman with women. .
As the evening neared an end, we all went outside. Arm in arm, in small groups in the moonlight, reminiscent of the mourning ritual, we walked around the block. (At the end of sitting shiva, it is traditional to walk around the block, symbolizing the end of the mourning week.) My life’s path would now be different.
When we came back to my apartment building, we formed a circle on the lawn. I talked briefly and quietly about my feelings throughout the day. Then we hugged and parted.
The ritual had begun at dusk and it ended at dusk. I felt very full, very satisfied. The day had, after all, been mine.
Vicki Hollander is a Reform rabbi who has served in Conservative, Reform and Havurah communities. She is currently getting her certification in marriage and family therapy. She writes new rituals