I just became a wusband, 36 years of marriage to a Jewess left behind. L. and I called it quits after endless struggles. This was a marriage made in hell, and canceled in a place equally miserable — a beit din, a Jewish religious court.
Though she teaches at a Modern Orthodox day school, L. is by no means observant, much less frum. Hope springs eternal, though: She said she might like to be married again, and the fellow might well be a Jew. Thus she asked me for a get, the traditional rabbinically certified unwinding of a religious Jewish marriage such as ours, where the ketubah, the contract, specifies that I pay her 200 pieces of silver if I “dispose” of her.
Both the ketubah and the get are thousands of years old, memorialized in the Babylonian Talmud as well as in literature from earlier times. Written in Aramaic, the forms of these documents are one-sided (need I specify whose side?) and virtually invariable. Being that things between L. and me seemed amicable, and that as far as I knew no divorce lawyers were licking their chops over our mutual funds, I instantly agreed to her request, provided she pick out the venue and agreed to split the cost.
Turns out there is only one beit din in Manhattan, convened at the Rabbinical Council of America’s musty little office at 305 Seventh Avenue, in the heart of the late-lamented fur district. With two martinis and a steak quesadilla at Mustang Harry’s fueling me for the proceedings in court, the ghosts of schleppers with handcarts laden with pelts and communist-leaning strikers marching down Seventh Avenue in the early 1930s whirled in my brain.
A gruesome theater of the absurd played out as we entered the room, the holy of holies. The dramatis personae were five in all: two witnesses and a scribe, all Hasidic rabbis, who trooped in one hour late and sat behind a long table. L. and I sat at two adjoining tables, as in any civil court. Heavy volumes of the Talmud and other religious books bedecked the ominous-looking shelves behind the men. Each of the men was clad in a long black kapote (frock coat) and a white shirt, and sported long, curled earlocks and an elegantly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard that made Mister Natural look clean-shaven. I nodded as they entered conversing in Yiddish, and offered a curt “a gitn tug” to them in their own Galitzianer Yiddish accent. I speak the language fluently, but I was ignored. Apparently, to these men I was a shtik treyf, more impure than the impurest goy, because I am a Jew who is nonobservant, an apikoyres, thus a blasphemer and beneath contempt. Though fluent in their tongue, I am not heymish. I took no offense: I wasn’t at the beit din to shmooze in mame-loshn.
L. and I sat down, and the show began.
The granting of a get is a scripted process. What could be more fitting for the end of a marriage that had been staged from the startˇˇ? My life has been one trope after another. The 15th-century Flemish master Quentin Metsys’s “The Moneylender and His Wife” had hung above L. and my marital bed for years, its trompe l’oeil and studiolo prefigurement of a couple like us positively scary.
I had recently rented a performance costume from the Theater Development Fund’s collection at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. My wife knew I had to return it, and decided to piggyback my doing so with the donation of old costumes from our now-grown-up kids’ closets from our cleaned-out apartment. I stopped by and picked up a giant bag from our former doorman. I had cleaned out my own closet weeks before when I’d moved to my new apartment on Morningside Heights, and I had left one item on the top shelf. The slender cardboard box held my wife’s white wedding dress, purchased wholesale at what was known in 1978 as the Bridal Building at 1385 Broadway. Floor after factory floor of operarias had stitched away under various owners’ supervision in the rear of each floor, the fronts of which were devoted to fitting rooms and small offices. Squeals of horror had greeted us as my fiancée and I entered the floor where the purchase was made: “Get out of here, silly man!” called legions of Hispanic seamstresses. “Don’t you know the groom is never supposed to see his bride in her dress till the wedding day? OUT!!!” I smiled and left my future wife there alone, me waiting on the sidewalk amid the Garment Center racket. That day the dress was gorgeous, and so was she, but now the doorman handed me the sad box along with the costume bag. Together as one, they went to TDF, a rightful place for yet another costume we’d no longer need or want.
The get is a one-act play. In our opening scene, two slender plastic ring-bound folders lay on the two tables. The scribe called our attention to page one, and informed us that we’d each be questioned by the panel in English, per the spiral-bound idiot cards. The main thrust of the Q-and-A was whether anyone had forced or bribed or connived either party in question to be in the room, and the balance was an examination of the Jewishness of each party. We both passed with flying colors, and the scribe motioned me to approach the bench.
Ceremonial rabbinic behavior at other life events is in general respectful, regardless of the degree of Orthodoxy of those in attendance. Jewish weddings are celebrated in public, as are funerals and male circumcisions: Technically speaking, all are welcome. Not so with the beit din, a court of law. The granting of a get is a private matter, as well it should be. But unlike closed civil court proceedings in America, here the standards of judicial decorum and respect towards the parties are appalling.
Twenty minutes elapsed as we sat there and went through the motions. Then it came time to write out the letter. Per tradition, the husband is to bring writing implements and ink to the courtroom, but a handy-dandy “loan” of same is arranged at the bench. I was instructed to ask to “borrow” the materials from the scribe, who handed them to me and took them back immediately when I was done. While his colleague tapped away on an Aramaic keyboard-enabled MacBook Air, the scribe carefully opened the ink bottle, poured a generous little pool into an inkwell, spread out a piece of paper, produced a quill pen and began scratching away.
We received no further instructions. My soon to be ex-wife and I sat at our tables, staring straight ahead.
I’d already made it clear that I understood Yiddish perfectly well. I was paid no mind. For 15 minutes the scribe scribed, and for 15 minutes he and his two buddies yakked away, gossiping in Yiddish about this and that. A solemn and sad occasion morphed into an insult to decency. My wife and I were treyf, and these men owed us nothing, not a shred of respect or care. We might as well have been invisible. I felt like dirt.
With the get letter completed, we were summoned up front, and without explanation the scribe then took the beautiful hand-illuminated ketubah that my wife had brought along in a cardboard scroll, unrolled it, and without a word proceeded to slice off the signatures from it with an X-Acto knife. He then took the get letter and folded it in three, making a pocket at one edge and tucking the other end into it like a crepe.
“Face each other and show us your hands, palms upward so that we can see that you are not wearing rings,” we were instructed. “Face your husband and cup your palms together,” my wife was ordered in a stern tone, as if she were a child being punished. “Take the letter and place it in her hands,” I was told. In an act perhaps slightly less horrible than shoveling dirt onto my father’s coffin at his funeral 25 years ago had been, I did as I was told, watching as my wife accepted the proffered rejection, tears streaming down her face. Some things will burn in your memory. That funeral still does. This one always will.
“Now place the letter in your pocket to signify your acceptance of it and walk toward the door,” the fellow directed my wife. In the first touch of gentility, he let her know it was then okay to walk back to the front; he had more to say.
With the symbolic act accomplished, the rest was information. We were officially divorced in the eyes of God. Starting again at me, the man, droning, continued. “You are free to marry right away, even this afternoon, if you wish,” I was told. ‘Right,’ I thought to myself, “just what I needed to know.” I guess it happens.
For the woman, though, things are different. “You must wait 92 days to remarry, and may never marry a member of the kohanim, the ancient class of priests.” It’s mostly about purity, but perhaps also about pregnancy. L. was 65 years old; she couldn’t be pregnant. Better safe than sorry, though: The next lucky fellow needs his spawn to be his own. Ninety-two days should do the trick. Three cycles.
But more than that, I suppose is the fear of uncleanliness. Religious Jews are mad scared of menstrual blood. An Orthodox man is prohibited from touching any part of his wife’s body during her period. How lovely are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling places, O Israel. A divorcée’s next husband is entitled to triple protection when he has sex with her for the first time. And the priest class gets only vestal virgins. Divorcées, as Orthodox as they come, are still not good enough for a priest. Previously married treyf. Rejects. Used merchandise. What a nice tradition. Where does one turn?
Turn and turn we did, as the three fellows stepped out from behind their table and headed for the door. With a curt “good luck,” they slipped out the office entry door. Not a bit of rakhmones, mercy for the distressed. We were left there, L. and I, with only each other to hold onto. “Pay your bill and don’t let the screen door hit you in the ass” was the message. Six hundred clams later, we were one and done.
There will be no next time, even if I beat Tommy Manville’s record for marriages. Deep down inside me I wish there would be one, though. These fellows are a disgrace to humanity and to their religion. The world should know. In the world to come, I’m arriving with a webcam and a wire.
Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City for the past 46 years. His essays and book reviews have appeared online and in print in CUNY’s Gotham History Blotter, The New Partisan Review, Columbia County History &, Heritage, Ducts Literary Magazine, Ir and on his blog, The New York Wanderer, at www.newyorkwanderer.com. He is the chair emeritus of the board of The National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene, and currently chairs the board of the New Yiddish Repertory Theater.