In 2014, my cousin brought a video about Lonna Kin, probably the most famous Agunah or chained woman of this century, to my attention. She mentions your father, Peri wrote.
A woman in a long hair wig with feminine bangs spoke in a measured even tone, reserved, as if resigned, perhaps done with emotion. She had been separated from her recalcitrant husband for years, had obtained her civil divorce, but no Jewish one. Now her husband was remarrying without giving her a Gett. One hundred rabbinic signatures had provided her husband with the legal loophole to take a second wife. “I am basically stuck,” she said, without rage, and finished by naming the enabler, the Chief Justice of a religious court in Monsey, NY, my father Rabbi Tzvi Dov Abraham.
I watched the video with a mix of apprehension and recognition, but when I heard Lonna Kin name my father, my first instinct was to leap toward denial. I wanted to argue in his defense: He was a good man, did this court work pro bono, counseled couples in troubled marriages, listened for hours, gave himself to the work of world repair — gathering shards — with patience and empathy. But I also knew my father as a religious patriarch capable of extreme measures.
My cousin did not have to remind me that as a young man, when he first visited their home, he ripped the Israeli flag and other Zionist posters off the walls of her room. After which, my sisters and I weren’t allowed in, not even to borrow a book. By the time I was in my early 20s, I was well aware of my father’s capacity for overzealous trespass. His firm beliefs trumped the rights of others, especially when it came to family, and especially the female members whose purity, he believed, had to be preserved.
I googled the Kins, read competing versions of their story. He said a signed Gett was filed with the court and available for pickup. She said the binding conditions were unacceptable: custody of her son (which she’d won in civil court) and an extortionate sum of money. He claimed the Gett was unconditional. A 2008 press release on court stationary featuring my father’s signature announced that a signed kosher Gett had been filed with the court and Meir was legally free to remarry. I also came upon a 2001 court document citing Lonna Kin in violation of a religious court summons in her first divorce, when she was known as Lonna Presser.
Life experience informs me that it’s easy to find yourself on the wrong side of the law if you are a woman, especially when the adjudicators are rabbinic and the court religious. Jewish marital laws are medieval, codified by men in the Middle Ages. And of course patriarchy supports the patriarch. I also knew that ORA, the organization behind the PR and protests, was not above using Lonna as poster child for their cause. They had filmed the video, coached her most likely, and distributed it over social and print media. Of course, Lonna was a successful business woman with a solid real estate business, not a child, and she had made the decision to be used. I wanted to talk to her, interview her, found contact info on her business website, and sent an email. Minutes later, an automatic response was in my inbox: a realtor agent’s form, with appropriate buyer and seller questions. I continue to receive her promotional emails all these years later, featuring her photo in the by now familiar long hair wig with bangs.
I’d come across headlines over the years: ORA and other organizations often ran afoul of the law when they resorted to violence against recalcitrant husbands: hiring hands to trap the man, shave off his beard, beat him up. These were old-time shtetl tactics that worked when the world was smaller, community more central, when public shaming shamed and repercussions were real.
An Agunah story I read when I was twelve haunted me into my teens. I came upon it in a collection of Yiddish stories and don’t recall the title or author. The story featured a young beautiful sad woman who worked as a laundress, taking in men’s shirts for washing and ironing. One hot day, as she stood ironing in front of a window for air, a hand reached in through the open window and ripped off the sleeve of a shirt she was folding. The poor woman had to pay for the shirt out of her meager wages. There were repeat episodes, mysterious discrepancies in shirt counts. One day, a whole pile of shirts disappeared. Perplexed, the young woman went to the local rabbi, wondering why God would punish her this way. The rabbi asked questions, then set up a watch where she worked. It wasn’t long before his henchmen returned with the woman’s recalcitrant husband tied in ropes. Threatened with reporting the theft to Polish authorities, which meant jail time, from which a Jewish man was not expected to emerge alive, the husband accepted the rabbi’s ultimatum, signed and delivered a divorce to his long suffering wife. The story ended happily, with the chained woman freed for renewed life, marriage and children. Still the mysterious image of a ripped disappearing sleeve sticks with me.
Conversations with my father regarding ORA’s work went this way:
They help women who need help, I argued. They offer counseling, friendship, legal aid. What’s so terrible about that?
He disagreed. They give these women false hope, break up marriages, family life. Worse, when they coerce the husband to deliver a Gett, it is not kosher because coerced. The women go on to remarry, and give birth to, God forbid, Jewish bastards. They pollute Jewish blood.
I knew better than to question the significance of Jewish purity.
I watched the video again, glanced at the articles. My father was said to have officiated at the wedding because no local rabbi would perform the rites in such a controversial case. I dialed our home number. No one picked up. I called my sister. He’s in California, she said, confirming what I’d read.
I considered how a man with five daughters of his own had arrived at this impasse. The bigamy could not have been the result of a momentary bad idea. The work of gathering 100 signatures would have required years of sustained effort and I wondered about his motivation. I thought about his life, the trajectory of his career. He’d always been what I would call an antinomian, kept his own counsel, gave no quarter to what others said of him, had never cared to curate a reputation. Even in my teens, I considered this character trait admirable. He had purchased two adjacent parcels for about ten thousand dollars apiece and fulfilled his ambition to build a congregation. Twenty years later the value of real estate in the area hit stratospheric heights and the congregation turned out to be worth something.
None of this came easy. More than the usual obstacles and setbacks materialized along the way, not least of which was a doubting wife who minded very much when her husband’s work met with derision, especially in the early days, when he had trouble putting together a quorum of ten for services. He persisted through years of hardship and the investment paid off, became profitable even. Judging my father’s lifework, I was both admirer and critic.
Time passed. Now and then a message from my father on my machine. I didn’t call back. The annual high holidays came and went and I still didn’t call, couldn’t. Then my youngest sister’s triplets came of age. I’d visited at NYU Hospital the morning after they were born and promised to attend their bar mitzvah.
Thirteen years later, I drove south to Monsey, NY, for the celebration.
Pearl Abraham is the author of, most recently, Animal Voices, Mineral Hum: Stories, American Taliban, and The Seventh Beggar. Her work in progress is titled Der Tateh.