In a Boston Daily Globe story dated April 17, 1904, via the sensational headline, “Crippled Wife Scalds Brutal Husband,” we learn that Mrs. Jacob Deutsch boiled a large pot of water, added fat, scalded her sleeping husband from head to toe and disappeared.
Slightly more than 100 years later, Rabbi Mendel Epstein stands trial in Trenton, N.J. accused of torturing recalcitrant Jewish husbands, sometimes with an electric cattle prod to the private parts, until they give their wives religious divorces, known as “gets.” Rabbi Epstein was allegedly available for hire, for $60,000, by women who believed they had nowhere else to turn.
What do these two stories have in common? They both highlight the desperation of Jewish women stuck in failed marriages who believe their best way out is through torture. Why would they believe this? Because the only way for a religious Jewish woman to get a divorce is to be granted a get by her husband. If he does not want to give it, is unable to give it or unable to be found, she is stuck.
As we approach the Jewish holiday Purim, we pause on the Fast of Esther, also known as Yom ha’Agunah, March 4, a day Jewish women have designated to protest the ongoing plight of agunot, women stuck in bad marriages because they cannot get the get.
There are differences between women like Mrs. Deutsch and those who allegedly hired Rabbi Epstein and his gang of thugs. At the turn of the century, many women became agunot due to immigration patterns. The Globe article describes Mrs. Deutsch as a “cripple with a rubber foot, and she was not beautiful to look upon, but her dowry was a fortune.” She marries in Moscow, but we learn that the husband, Jacob, absconds to America with her $2,000 dowry, leaving her penniless and without the option to remarry unless he grants her a religious divorce. She goes to America to find him.
Dr. Haim Sperber, a historian of agunot and a scholar-in-residence for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) Spring Seminar: New Approaches to the Agunah Problem, unearthed her story. Dr. Sperber’s research relies newspaper archives in many languages to trace the historical patterns of agunot between 1865 and 1914. He knows that today’s agunah presents differently than those of the past.
Today, an agunah usually knows exactly where to find her husband, but get refusal has become a new sort of domestic violence. The husband wields his power over the divorce to extort money or favorable property and custody conditions. Sometimes, he uses it simply to torture, because he can.
What else do we know about Mrs. Deutsch? She finds her husband in America, “but he had spent all her money.” The Deutsches attempt reconciliation but it does not go well. Her co-workers at the factory where she sews for a living report that her husband taunts her about her deformities, their poverty and “made her life unbearable,” turn-of-the-century code for a woman who is abused. We learn how she exacts her revenge and that Jacob was not expected to live. We don’t know if Mrs. Deutsch was ever found or charged.
Sadly, Mrs. Deutsch and the solution to her problem husband, a pot of boiling water mixed with fat, is not much different in scope than the cattle prod allegedly used 100 years later by Rabbi Epstein. As we turn our attention to the plight of the agunah on March 4, we need to make sure it is not a one-day affair. We do not want to spend another 100 years without better solutions.
Amy Sessler Powell is the HBI communications director. Visit here for more information about the HBI Spring Seminar: New Approaches to the Agunah Problem.
Dr. Haim Sperber is the GCRL/Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel Scholar-in-Residence and a senior lecturer at the Western Galilee College in Israel where he chairs the Interdisciplinary Studies department.