A "Shiv'a Call"
(March 26, 1999)
by Naomi Ragen
I paid a condolence call the other day. Ruth (not her real name) formerly one of
the most respected rebbitzins in Meah Shearim, the wife of a prominent Rabbi and scholar
from a distinguished rabbinical family, had lost her beloved father. When I finally found
the address in Meah Shearim, I couldnt believe my eyes: walking down to the basement
of an apartment house on a busy shopping street, I found Ruth in a shabby cellar apartment
without plumbing or hot water, in a dingy bedroom whose rusted window faces a noisy
Ruth, who used to live in a large, elegant home with her twelve children, is a
beautiful, distinguished woman, still every inch the dignified Rebbitzen she once was
before her divorce. Sitting alone on the floor, Ruths only visitor is her friend
Zehava -- a Sephardic haredi mother of ten, who has stuck by Ruth through
everything. Her loyalty has cost Zehava dearly: two years ago, she was attacked by the
Modesty Patrol, who broke her arm and several ribs and put her into the hospital. Her
husband recently left her as well.
The rest of Ruths family, her mother, brothers and sisters, were sitting shiv'a
in the family home, a bus ride away. Ruth is not welcome there. In fact, ever since she
left her husband, she has had no contact at all with her family. Indeed, her mother and
sisters testified against her in court during her divorce proceedings. She also had no
expectations that her own children would come to pay her their respects. Despite her legal
right to do so, she hasnt seen or spoken to her children ever since fleeing her home
two years ago. At her husbands request, the Rabbinical Court even issued an
injunction preventing her from attending her daughters wedding. Her husband now
claims that the children dont want to see her. Ruth has been trying, without
success, to convince the Rabbinical Courts otherwise.
At her fathers funeral, Ruth tells me, she saw her nine-year -old son.
"He tried to wave and smile at me, but they wouldnt let him. Someone spread out
their arms and hid him. I just wanted to smile back at him," she murmurs. She speaks
softly, without rancor, and without much hope. "They wouldnt let me see my
father in the hospital, either, even though he was dying. Father was always the
peacemaker. Dont make them angry with you. Wait, wait, Ill come to you,
my daughter. No one can stop me from coming to you." For the first time her
eyes fill with tears." After he passed away, I waited for him. But he didnt
come. He didnt come,"she weeps.
Ruth has not only been banished from her family, she is assiduously avoided by
her former friends and neighbors, who cross the street when they see her coming, in a way
reminiscent of the "shunning" described in Nathaniel Hawthorns SCARLET
LETTER, except that in Ruths case, it was her husband who committed adultery.
Ruths unforgivable crime is that she went public, seeking and receiving a
divorce from a physically and sexually abusive husband, who was also an adulterer, a
thief, and a sexual pervert. But when Ruth finally found the courage to leave him, it was
for a different reason altogether: Ruth, a deeply religious woman, left her husband
because he forced her to have relations when religious law forbade it. She believes that
the terrible ordeal of being forcibly separated from her children is a punishment from G-d
for not fending her husband off more successfully. She hopes that when she has being duly
punished, G-d will give her back her children. In the meantime, she haunts the courts,
with petition after petition, trying desperately to get her case moved from Rabbinic Court
to the newly created Civil Family Court, where she is convinced she will be treated with
greater fairness concerning child custody and property settlement.
Two older women, relatives of her father, walk in. Their eyes betray how
appalled they are with Ruths living conditions. Ruth, delighted theyve come,
tries to convince them her present condition is undeserved. Finally, when nothing works,
she plays them a secretly-taped conversation with her former husband, in which he admits
everything from adultery to wife-abuse.
"We cant go against the family," they murmur, hurrying out the
door. Ruth thanks them for being the only ones with the courage to come visit her. I too
get up and leave.
Out in the streets of Meah Shearim, I looked around me. Did they simply not know
of the unjust suffering just beneath their feet? Would they reach out to Ruth with
generosity, decency and courage - true piety, once informed? Or might they join
Ruths friends and neighbors, creating and believing lies to exonerate their
culpability? Or simply knife the storyteller?
Im waiting to hear.