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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?"
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."
shouldn't have to," Markowitz said firmly. "No one should. Has
your husband told you what he wants?"
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
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.
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?
where did you and Jake meet?"
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?"
long were you married?"
little under a year." She watched him write the information
on the yellow pad.
you have any children?" His pen was poised, waiting.
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
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.
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."
rough," Markowitz agreed. He tapped his pen against his palm.
"This was a sudden change?"
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.
you talk to him about it?"
She nodded. "We argued constantly."
did he say?"
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."
you knew from the start how important this is to me. We had
an agreement. You promised--"
well, it's time to change the agreement, sweetheart. You don't
like it, sue me."
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
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?"
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.
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
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."
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?"
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."
have to put that behind you," he said firmly. "So okay. Things
weren't working out and you separated?"
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."
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."
sorry," Markowitz said gently. "That must have been very painful."
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."
about your in-laws? What's their position on this?"
Vogelanters are fine people, but--"
Rabbi Markowtiz interrupted.
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.
you tried talking to anyone else?"
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.
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.
are you doing this, Jake? What can you gain by refusing to give
me a get besides making me miserable?"
told you. I want you to take me back. That's all I've ever wanted!
Not the house, not the money."
not going to happen! You're living in a fantasy."
But I'm in no rush." He paused. "Are you?"
the matter, Deena? Is there a boyfriend I don't know about?
Some cute law student who carries your books?"
He got up and made his way to the front door.
She followed him. "What about the property settlement?"
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."
you can't." It wasn't a question; it was a fact.
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.
not going to pull any punches. You're in a tough situation,"
he said quietly. "I hope you didn't come here expecting an
of course not," she lied. Had it been a wasted evening after
all? For a while, she'd thought, maybe.... She blinked back
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." Her voice quavered.
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."
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."
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?"
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
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."
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."
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.
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
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."
you're personally going to walk in a picket line in front of
Jake's office?" Deena looked at him.
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."
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."
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."
you don't know Jake. He's very stubborn, Rabbi Markowitz. What
if he stands up to all this pressure?"
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."
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..."
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.
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."
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
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."
don't know." The thought of revealing her intimate life to strangers
made her uncomfortable.
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?"
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.
horrible!" she whispered.
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."
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.