A New Year's Prayer
(September 10, 1999)
by Naomi Ragen
The start of a New Year. The house sparkles. The smell of freshly-baked
challah and sweet kugels waft through the kitchen. The shelves hold honey, the fruit bowls
scarlet pomegranates and yellow-green star fruits. All my family is gathered around me,
children and grandchildren. I feel rich with blessing, and unutterably grateful to G-d for
His endless bounty.
And yet, along with the brightness and joy, there will be some dark shadows, cast by
people facing quite a different kind of New Year.
There is the Rebbitzen "Ruth" whose adulterous husband is living in a
penthouse with her twelve children, while she lives in a dungeon of an apartment in the
basement of a decrepit building in Meah Shearim. It will be three whole years she
hasnt seen her children. Since I wrote of her, a second daughter got married. She,
like her sister, never invited her mother. She never even called to say she regretted the
situation. "Ruth" has developed breathing problems and is taking cortisone. Her
doctor says its her living conditions. Her teeth are in bad shape too, and her
glasses recently broke, but all those things will have to wait. All her money has gone to
pay her lawyer. Shes deeply in debt, and doesnt know how shes going to
be able to afford to continue her fight to get the rabbinical courts to give her back her
children. For the second time, I saw her cry. The first was during a shiva call for her
father, where she sat alone, unwelcome to join her family. And now she wept again,
realizing for the first time, she says, that no court can bring her children back to her.
They have been so brainwashed with lies, only a miracle could convince them to seek her
In the midst of all my personal happiness, I cant forget Ruth.
Then there is M. A., mother of five, whose mentally-ill husband from a prominent
Rabbinical family, abused her for years with the silent acquiescence of rabbis, to whom
she went for help, and of neighbors, who heard her screams. When M.A. finally went to the
police and the newspapers, her husband fled, leaving her an agunah. He also left
her with a 25,000 NIS bill for pornographic phone calls. Her religious-Zionist community
has shunned her, unwilling to believe she is telling the truth (a pattern that keeps
repeating itself shamefully in religious circles concerning abused women). But after all
shes been through, M.A. has grown used to living without her neighbors help.
This New Year, however, she risks losing the only way she has of feeding her children: The
principals of both State religious schools where M.A. has taught English for the last six
years are doing everything in their power to have her fired.
They are her neighbors, both religious men, pillars of the community. I wonder if
theyll think of her, at their festive New Years tables?
And what about "Devorah", my little lost girl? After her family abused and
starved her to convince her and her sister to go to an ultra-Orthodox girls' school, the
two girls finally ran away from home. They wound up in a shelter full of prostitutes and
drug addicts. Finally overcoming their fears, they contacted a social worker, who found
them immediate housing in a shelter run by kind , religious people. She is not used to
eating so much, Devorah tells me. And they are good about giving her clothes. But
shed like to go to a regular school, not the small class in the shelter. And
shed like to take guitar lessons, and invite her friends over
a real home.