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Till Death Do Us Part

Chapter One

Back to Til Death Main | Reviews |

The night air was surprisingly cool for July. Deena Vogler hugged her arms as she hurried from her car and searched for the Alcott Street address. There it was. At the front door, she reached for the bell, then hesitated.

Tonight's appointment was probably pointless. Another tease, looking for help from a well-meaning rabbi who would listen to her in a paneled room filled with authoritative volumes of the Bible, the Talmud, their related commentaries. She'd spent several sessions in another paneled room with another well-meaning rabbi, and the wealth of knowledge con­tained in the richly bound tomes that filled the air with their leathery perfume hadn't provided her with any answers.

But Alan Krantz, her summer employer and her best friend's husband, had pushed her. "This rabbi's different," he'd insisted. "He's aggressive, and I hear he has new ideas for women in your predicament. What do you have to lose?"

She rang the bell. Don't expect anything, she told herself, then smiled wryly, because of course she did, or why would she be standing here?

Moments later, Deena was standing inside a small room. It wasn't paneled, she noticed, but the books were there, overfilling the shelves that lined the walls.

"I'm glad you came, Mrs. Vogler," Reuben Markowitz said. There was warmth in his voice and his brown eyes. "Please, have a seat." He gestured to a folding chair in front of a wood-toned Formica desk, then noticed the Cabbage Patch doll that was occupying it. "My best listener," he told Deena as he moved the doll to his already cluttered desk and took his seat. "Never criticizes my sermons. Unfortunately, I have to share her with Tamar. She's our three-year-old." He smiled. "Let me get a pen and paper and we'll get started."

She watched dubiously as he searched under staggered, pagodalike layers of books and papers that seemed precariously close to toppling onto the carpeted floor. She pictured Rabbi Brodin's rosewood desk, always immaculate, cleared of everything except a leather bound calendar, a brass stand that held a gold Mont Blanc fountain pen, and a pad of cream colored, linen weave paper that bore a calligraphied inscription in raised charcoal gray ink: "From the desk of Rabbi Morton Brodin." He never even gave me one of his personalized notes, Deena realized suddenly. But then, with all his efficiency and organization, he had nothing to tell me.

Rabbi Markowitz was much younger than Rabbi Brodin, probably in his early thirties. There was no gray in the trim beard or the curly brown hair capped by a black suede yarmulke. He was dressed more casually, too, dark slacks and a knit polo shirt instead of a three piece suit. Rabbi Brodin, she was sure, would not approve.

"Found it!" Rabbi Markowitz held up a pad of yellow lined paper and a ball point pen. "You mentioned on the phone that you're having difficulties with your husband. For counseling, it's always better--"

"My ex-husband," she interrupted quickly. "Well, that's the problem, really. I got my civil divorce months ago, although we still haven't made a property settlement. But Jake won't give me a religious divorce."

A get. Without it, she could never remarry. Rabbi Brodin had sat, swiveling gently in his beige upholstered armchair, reminding her in his carefully modulated voice that she couldn't initiate the get, that Jake had to sign it and hand it to her voluntarily in the presence of witnesses, that no rabbi could usurp that authority.

And the curious thing was that she'd listened with disbelief and mounting horror, as though this was all new to her, as though she'd never heard stories about women whose husbands refused to give them a get. The stories had troubled her, but in a detached sense, much the same way that she was troubled hearing that some person, unknown to her, had been stricken with a disease. "How awful," she always said. "What a bastard!" And she meant it. But now she was the woman in the story, and it was all shockingly new.

So I'm Jake's property, his chattel, subject to his whim? she'd demanded of Rabbi Brodin, already knowing the answer. Well, I wouldn't put it exactly like that, he'd murmured. He had avoided her eyes, had doodled on the linen weave paper.

But what other way was there to put it?

Rabbi Markowitz's lips tightened. "Is it a question of the property division? Is he using the get as leverage?"

"My attorney, Brenda DiSalvo, thinks so. She says that explains Jake's demands." Eighty percent of the value of their three-bedroom house in Beverlywood, an upscale residential L.A. neighborhood adjoining Beverly Hills. True, as a real estate broker, Jake had had the inside track on the house, but without the down payment from her parents, Jake and Deena would never have been able to buy it. He wanted he dining room set, the stereo system, the TV, the VCR. And the cobalt dishes. "But every time I've compromised--against my attorney's advice--Jake has increased his demands. And frankly, I'm angry about having to give up what's rightfully mine. It's not the things," she added quickly. "Things are replaceable. But I hate giving into blackmail."

"You shouldn't have to," Markowitz said firmly. "No one should. Has your husband told you what he wants?"

"Jake has this insane idea that we should get married again. He claims he still loves me, but it isn't that, it's--" She stopped, searched for the words. How could she explain it to someone else when it wasn't always clear to her? "Jake doesn't like to lose, Rabbi Markowitz. He's a real estate broker, very aggressive, very successful. He never lets a deal slip through his hands if he can help it. I think he sees the divorce like that. I'm a challenge again."

"Again?" He looked puzzled.

She brushed her hair away from her forehead, as if to clear her thoughts. "I thought he loved me, at least at first. Now I'm not so sure." She sounded wistful. "I think, you know, that he saw me as intriguing, different from the other women he knew. Jake is ten years older than I am, did I mention that? He's much more experienced."

And extremely handsome, she added silently, with thick black hair, penetrating gray eyes, and a slow, sensuous smile that had invited intimacy the first time they met. Deena had never lacked dates--she knew men found her more than pretty; they always told her so, complimented her figure, her long, thick, coppery hair, her green eyes. But they hadn't prepared her for Jake. The mutual physical attraction had been immediate, intense. And he'd been funny and exciting and sophisticated and spontaneous, lavish with gifts and flowers. And incredibly charming when he wanted to be--which had been always during their courtship and engagement. She'd been caught up in the illusion of romance, had mistaken flash for substance.

"But we had a lot in common--similar backgrounds, interests. We're both only children of Holocaust survivors; we both come from Orthodox homes." Was she explaining to Rabbi Markowitz, she wondered, or defending her­self?

"So where did you and Jake meet?"

"At his realty firm. Two years ago, before I started law school, my dad got me a summer job there. My dad's friendly with the senior partner, Ben Kasden." It was an arrangement that Max Novick had bitterly regretted from the moment Deena told him she was going out with Jake. "Just one time," she had told her father. "What's the harm?"

"How long were you married?"

"A little under a year." She watched him write the in­formation on the yellow pad.

"Do you have any children?" His pen was poised, waiting.

"No, I--no." She avoided his eyes, felt herself blushing even though she knew he couldn't read her mind. She'd felt guilty using birth control; as a devout Orthodox Jew, she knew it was prohibited. And she'd wanted to get pregnant, to have Jake's child. But Jake had insisted, and she'd given in. Even then, he'd been irrationally worried about her becoming pregnant, frequently demanding assurances before they made love that she was using her diaphragm.

At the time, she'd been hurt, disappointed, puzzled by his reluctance. Now, she was thankful. A child would have made everything so much more difficult.

"Mrs. Vogler, why did you want the divorce?"

Irreconcilable differences, Brenda DiSalvo had told the judge. Usually, that was a vague, catch-all phrase; in this case, it was absolutely true. "I'm very committed to being Orthodox. It isn't just something I grew up with. It's what I am. Jake didn't want to be religious any more."

"That's rough," Markowitz agreed. He tapped his pen against his palm. "This was a sudden change?"

"Not exactly. Jake gave up religion in his teens. When he met me, he became observant again, but after we were married, he became lax--about daily prayers, about keeping kosher, about Shabbas. Everything. He mixed meat and dairy dishes, brought home food he knew wasn't kosher. He stopped going to shul on Shabbas and did things he knew would upset me. He turned on lights, watched T.V., drove his car." All of which are forbidden on the Sabbath.

"Did you talk to him about it?"

She nodded. "We argued constantly."

"What did he say?"

"I'm tired of all these goddamned rules, sick of this antiquated crap! This is the twentieth century, or maybe you haven't noticed. And I'm fed up with having you look over my shoulder, spying on me. Saint Deena."

"Jake, you knew from the start how important this is to me. We had an agreement. You promised--"

"Yeah, well, it's time to change the agreement, sweetheart. You don't like it, sue me."

"Basically, that he wanted to live in the modern world," Deena told Rabbi Markowitz. "He said that I could live the way I wanted, but that I had no right to force my lifestyle on him." She hesitated. "Sometimes I had the feeling he did it all to annoy me, to get even."

"What do you mean?" He frowned.

She felt her cheeks getting hot. It was difficult discussing this with a stranger. "He...uh...was very unhappy with our...sex life. He resented the restrictions." According to the laws of taharat hamishpacha, family purity, a husband and wife have to separate each month from the onset of her period. After her period, she counts seven clean days, then immerses her­self in a mikvah, a ritual bath.

Deena still remembered in detail the first time she'd gone to the mikvah, the night before the wedding. Pearl had accompanied her, and Deena had been nervous yet excited.

The attendant had led Deena to a private room outfitted with a full-size tub and separate tiled shower, a commode, and a sink and vanity area attached to a mirrored wall. Neatly folded thick, white towels and disposable slippers sat on the counter next to a large tray holding shampoo, nail polish remover, baby oil, and acrylic containers filled with cotton balls and q-tips. One drawer revealed scissors, emery boards, and pumice stone; another, combs, brushes, and a blow dryer.

The mikvah itself was in a separate tiled area. Deena walked down the steps to the center of the heated pool. She immersed herself completely for a few seconds and bobbed up. The attendant nodded her approval. Deena recited the blessing in Hebrew, and it seemed to her that her voice echoed in mystic resonance. She immersed herself again, recited another, longer blessing; she stumbled a little on the words, but the attendant smiled her encouragement. Then Deena submerged herself a final time. When she climbed out of the pool, the attendant stood, her face modestly averted, extending a robe to Deena.

Deena had felt special. Pure, somehow. Convinced that this would start their marriage off right.

Rabbi Markowitz said, "But he knew about these rules before you were married?"

"Of course! And I told him it was something I'd never compromise on." Was that why she'd given in on the birth control? Probably. "The first few months, Jake was fine. Then he became more and more difficult." He'd been alternately demanding, cajoling, insulting, petulant, a spoiled child who couldn't have his way. Twice, she'd had to physically fight him off and spend the night sleeping on the den couch.

"Being Orthodox involves continuous commitment and faith," Rabbi Markowitz remarked. "And enormous self-control. Even then, it isn't always easy. We follow rules that govern our daily actions, tell us how to dress, what to eat, when to have sex. Some people can't handle that."

"But Jake didn't even try, Rabbi Markowitz! And I should have known it wouldn't work. That's what really bothers me. Everybody warned me--my parents, my friends." She paused. "I was worried too. I told Jake it wouldn't work if he was doing it just for me, but he said he was committed, and I believed him." She studied her hands. "I know what you're thinking, that I believed him because I wanted to. I see that now."

"Listen, I don't know anyone who hasn't done that at least once. Including me. You think your husband fooled you? Maybe you're right. But he probably fooled himself too, or he wouldn't have married you. You made the terms clear, right?"

She nodded.

"And you know, there's something awfully compelling and romantic about saving someone's soul. I should know." He grinned.

She flashed a half smile. "Maybe." The thought had crossed her mind. "But I still feel pretty stupid."

"You have to put that behind you," he said firmly. "So okay. Things weren't working out and you separated?"

"No." She shook her head. "No, I went to Rabbi Brodin for help. He's the one who instructed Jake when he was becom­ing Orthodox again. He married us."

"And?"

"He told me to be patient. He said Jake was proba­bly going through a phase; everything would work out. I wanted to believe him. I wanted more than anything for the marriage to work. And then...and then--" She felt a familiar tightening in her chest. "I found out Jake was having an af­fair."

"I'm sorry," Markowitz said gently. "That must have been very painful."

"I was devastated," she said softly. Even now, the hurt and humiliation were still there, and the sense of inadequacy, too. Because of course she'd asked herself countless times what had driven him to Annie.

She shifted in her seat. "But it was the best thing that happened, learning the truth. It made me see that marrying Jake was a terrible mistake. And I thought, you know, that the divorce wouldn't be a problem, because he obviously wasn't happy either, right? But he won't give me the get."

"What about your in-laws? What's their position on this?"

"The Vogelanters are fine people, but--"

"Vogelanter?" Rabbi Markowtiz interrupted.

"Jake shortened his last name." He had lopped off the last syllables with the same nonchalance that he'd abandoned his tradition. "To answer your question, they haven't helped. I think Joe, Jake's father, feels bad about all this. And Ida, well, she dotes on Jake." My Jackie, Ida always called him.

"Have you tried talking to anyone else?"

"Rabbi Brodin." Again. "At first he said I should wait until we had the property settlement. I did that, and it was a terrible mistake. Now he says I should be patient, that he's sure Jake will see reason." She smiled grimly. "But I know Jake, Rabbi." She saw again Jake's grin, remembered their last encounter.

"According to Jewish law, you're still my wife, you know. Nothing the judge said changed that. You can't even date another man, let alone marry someone." A note of triumph had crept into his voice.

"Why are you doing this, Jake? What can you gain by refusing to give me a get besides making me miserable?"

"I told you. I want you to take me back. That's all I've ever wanted! Not the house, not the money."

"That's not going to happen! You're living in a fantasy."

"Maybe. But I'm in no rush." He paused. "Are you?"

"What?"

"What's the matter, Deena? Is there a boyfriend I don't know about? Some cute law student who carries your books?"

"Don't be ridiculous!"

He got up and made his way to the front door.

She followed him. "What about the property settlement?"

"Make me an offer, Lady Dee." He smiled jauntily and left.

Deena leaned forward. "Rabbi Markowitz, I can't tell you how helpless I feel, how...trapped. From the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep, all I can think about is the get. Sometimes--" She stopped. "Sometimes, I'm so angry that I just want to walk away from it all. I tell myself that I'll marry without it, that God will forgive me."

"But you can't." It wasn't a question; it was a fact.

"No. I wish I could, but I can't." She would be denying her very essence. She took a breath. "So can you help me?"

He capped the pen and placed it on the yellow pad. To Deena, it seemed like an eternity before he spoke.

"I'm not going to pull any punches. You're in a tough situation," he said quietly. "I hope you didn't come here ex­pecting an immediate solution."

"No, of course not," she lied. Had it been a wasted evening after all? For a while, she'd thought, maybe.... She blinked back tears.

"But it isn't hopeless." He got up, walked around the desk and half-sat on the edge. "It probably won't be simple, judging from what you've told me about your husband. And I can't tell you how long it'll take. But I'm going to do everything I can to help you."

"Thank you." Her voice quavered.

"Don't thank me yet." He smiled. "Right now you're what the Talmud calls an agunah--literally, someone who is 'tied' or 'bound.' There are certain procedures, a specific schedule of events, that we have to follow to undo those ties."

"But I will have my get?"

He met her eyes. "I can't guarantee that. I've helped a number of women in your situation, but I don't have a perfect success record. Far from it. I've helped a few men, too."

"Men?" Deena frowned.

"The husband has to initiate the get, but the wife has to accept it. I know of women who have refused to accept the get, but that's not as common. But back to your case. One, I'm going to present it to the local bet din, the Jewish court of arbitration. The bet din will issue a summons ordering your husband to appear."

She shook her head. "Jake won't do it. Why should he?"

"I don't expect him to. Even religious men often ignore the summons. But we have to follow the process. The bet din will issue two more summons. If Jake ignores the third one, the bet din will issue a contempt citation, a seruv, stating that he's refused to appear. The document will be publicized." "But how will that help me?"

"It paves the way for community action. The rabbis can talk about the husband from the pulpit, restrict ritual honors, bar him from services. Jewish tradesmen can refuse to deal with him. The community can ostracize him. The works."

"Jake doesn't go to shul, Rabbi Markowitz. He isn't--"

He smiled. "I know. Buying kosher food isn't exactly a priority for him, is it? It's too bad he's not involved in the Jewish community. But there are other ways of persuasion. We can harass your husband with phone calls and pickets at his place of work, at his home. Everywhere."

"Why didn't Rabbi Brodin tell me any of this?" She felt a rush of anger against Brodin and the time he'd let her waste.

"He probably hopes the problem will resolve itself. It isn't easy dealing with an angry, sometimes vindictive husband, family members, friends--some of whom may be influential. It can get ugly. To be fair, though, most rabbis feel fru­trated by the situation and sorry for the wife. And because they honestly don't see another solution, they encourage her to give the husband whatever he wants in exchange for the get." Rabbi Markowitz shook his head. "To me, that's encouraging black­mail. And I think it's only going to perpetuate the problem. That's why we're trying to do something about it."

We? "You make it sound as though there's an organization that handles this."

"There is, in New York. They really get the community involved, and they've been successful in many cases. We're trying to follow their example here in Los Angeles. Ideally, of course, national Jewish organizations would come out with edicts banning these husbands from any involvement in Jewish affairs. That would take the pressure off the individual rabbi. So far, though, that hasn't happened."

"And you're personally going to walk in a picket line in front of Jake's office?" Deena looked at him.

"If that's what it takes. I know a lot of people who'll join me. Men and women. This isn't just your problem, you know. This issue is an embarrassment to Judaism, a perversion of the law. The get was intended to protect the wife, to make sure that if her husband divorced her, he would honor the provisions of the ketubah, the marriage document."

"Right now I don't feel very protected." She hesitated. "To be honest, I'm having a difficult time dealing with this on a philosophical level. I mean, I've always loved Judaism because it's so concerned with human rights, with justice, with kindness. How can the same Torah that commands special protection and compassion for widows and orphans, that even forbids us to take birds out of their next while their mother is present, that--" She stopped and shook her head. "This just doesn't make sense to me."

"It's not the law that's at fault," he said gently. "It's unscrupulous men like your husband who circumvent the intention of the law and use the get for revenge or blackmail. Sometimes both. We have to put a stop to this. But we have to do it within the framework of the law."

"But you don't know Jake. He's very stubborn, Rabbi Markowitz. What if he stands up to all this pressure?"

"There are other ways," he said quietly. "Under certain circumstances a bet din could administer physical punishment--lashes--to someone like Jake. Today, in Israel, he'd be imprisoned until he gave you the get."

"But--"

"But this isn't Israel. You're right. And a bet din doesn't have authority here, and the Torah com­mands us to follow the laws of the country where we live." He paused. "Nevertheless..."

"Oh." The word was half whisper, half exclamation. She pictured Jake forced to his knees, his arms yanked behind him, his once handsome face battered, his lips caked and bleeding. The idea sickened and excited her. "But isn't it dangerous?" she managed.

"I doubt that it will come to that. But yes, it's dan­gerous. Harassment is dangerous, too. I've had threatening calls from husbands, from other rabbis. I've had lots of calls from the police." He shrugged.

"Have you ever...?"

"Been in jail? No, but I've come close, and I figure it'll probably happen one day. My wife isn't thrilled about it, but she understands that this is something I have to do." His eyes were dark and pensive.

"But let's not get ahead of ourselves," he said briskly. "If your husband is sensible, he'll realize that it's to his advantage to give you your get. We can make life pretty miserable for him without resorting to extremes. Let me get started with the bet din. Unfortunately, they're not always quick to take action. And I'm going to put you in touch with a support group of agunot. You'll find it helpful talking to women who understand exactly what you're going through."

"I don't know." The thought of revealing her intimate life to strangers made her uncomfortable.

"I insist; you'll thank me. The leader is Faye Rudman. Here's her phone number." He returned to his seat, scribbled a number on the bottom of the note-covered pad, tore the fragment unevenly, and handed it to Deena.

She glanced at the paper and put it into her purse. "How long has Mrs. Rudman been waiting for her get?"

He hesitated. "Her case is unusual. Her husband is in a mental institution. If he's not legally competent, he can't legally give her a get. She's been an agunah for eleven years." His voice was heavy with sadness.

Eleven years! "So what can you do for her?"

"Very little, I'm afraid. She'll have to wait until he's sane enough to be judged competent, even for a short while. A day, an hour. Or until he dies." He shook his head.

"That's horrible!" she whispered.

"It is. But Faye is amazing. You'll see when you meet her. And please, do yourself a favor. Don't compare yourself to her. Jake is not insane, and you won't have to wait until he's dead to remarry."

"Who knows, right?" The thought chilled her. But for the first time in many months, she felt a glimmer of hope.

It was ten-thirty by the time Deena pulled into her driveway on Guthrie. The pale gray stucco house, wrapped in shadows except for the triangle of light at the front entrance, seemed lonely and uninviting, and much too large for a solitary occupant. Our dream home, she thought.

She turned off the ignition and sat in the sudden stillness, preoccupied with what Rabbi Markowitz had told her. When she left her car a few minutes later, she didn't notice the red Porsche down the street or the figure who sat in it, watching her as she made her way up the brick path to the front door.

 

Till Death Do Us Part, an Avon Books title, is out of print. You can look for it at abebooks or half.com. Or check the Deadly Directory at the Cluelass website for a list of bookstores that carry out-of-print and used books.

 

 

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