By Shulamit Reinharz

The country of Yemen is regularly in the news as radical Islamists overwhelm the existing government. Although this has been the fate of various countries lately, Yemen provides an instructive case for those of us interested in Jewish survival.

Scholars debate the exact origins of Jews in Yemen, but all agree that Jews have been a part of the Yemeni landscape since ancient times. Fast forward to the 20th century and what becomes important is that after World War I, when the British assumed control of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen actually became two countries – the Northern Kingdom of Yemen and the British Protectorate of Aden.

The Northern Kingdom constituted a Caliphate, meaning that it was entirely under the rule of an Imam and was governed by Sharia law. The British section was a Protectorate governed by British law, which, among other things, enabled Jews to have travel documents, educate their daughters, and pursue modernization, while the Moslem population also adhered to Sharia law.

Given the current success of organizations such as ISIS in imposing their version of Islamic Law on the areas they have conquered, we can look at the conditions of Yemeni Jews in the Northern Kingdom to learn what life is like for Jews in a Caliphate. Various articles such as Persecution Defines Life for Yemen’s Few Jews have appeared lately in the New York Times describing the fate of Yemen’s miniscule Jewish community.

A second vivid and accessible source about Jewish life in Yemen is available in Nomi Eve’s recently published historical novel, Henna House,  selected by several HBI Conversation groups in Florida for discussion with the author.

To make the last century’s history (since 1918) of Yemenite Jews come alive, Nomi Eve creates the character of Adela Damari, whose life in the Northern Kingdom we follow from her pre-teen girlhood until she became a mature woman after immigrating to Israel on the Wings of Eagles. Also known as Operation Magic Carpet, this famous Zionist rescue mission secretly airlifted 49,000 Yemenite Jews to the State of Israel between June 1949 and September 1950 in 380 flights from Aden.

Living in the north, Adela never received formal education, but she learned to read surreptitiously when exposed to people engaged in henna practices. As a youngster, Adela was perpetually terrified because of a rule called “The Orphans’ Decree,” an unevenly enforced law under the Caliphate that obligated the state to take under its protection and educate in Islamic ways any dhimmi (i.e. non-Muslim) child whose parents had died when he or she was a minor. Nomi Eve calls the man who abducts the orphans – the Confiscator.

First introduced or revived in the 17th century, the Orphans’ Decree was ignored during Ottoman rule (1872–1918), but was observed during the rule of Imam Yahya (1918–1948).

Although forced conversion is not widely recognized under Islamic laws, historian and Arabist Shelomo Dov Goitein believed that the forced conversion of orphans could have been justified by the revelation attributed to Muhammad that states: “Every person is born to the natural religion [Islam], and only his parents make a Jew or a Christian out of him.”

Adela’s father, a shoemaker, had severe respiratory illness, perhaps brought on by the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, the year Adela was born. The Confiscator made periodic visits to the shop to see how her father was faring, preparing to snatch her away. Fortunately, there was a loophole in the Orphans’ Decree – married girls (and boys) were immune from the Confiscator. Thus to protect their children, Jewish parents married them off at a very young age.

Nomi Eve’s book reveals much more about Jewish life as dhimmi (i.e. second-class minority citizens under Moslem law) under the Caliphate of the Kingdom of Northern Yemen, all of which serves to clarify the precarious position of the few Jews who live in Yemen today. Although some of the 100 or so Jews who remain in Yemen choose to stay regardless of opportunities to leave, Jewish activists from around the world should make it clear that Jews must not be subject to the laws of a Caliphate and must be allowed to leave if they wish. The Wings of Eagles must make one more rescue operation before it is too late.

Shulamit Reinharz, founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center.

The 21st Century Agunah Problem: A Reaction Against Women’s Equality Gains?

by Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

The day before Purim is marked by many Jews around the world as Agunah Day; a day to remember and speak out on behalf of women trapped in dead marriages unless and until their husband decides to let them go. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of women gathered at Mayyim Hayyim about the agunah problem in the 21st century.  I spoke about how there have always been agunot, women whose marriages are effectively over, but who are unable to divorce under Jewish law and go on with their lives.  The shape of this problem has, however, changed over time. I believe that the contemporary version of the agunah problem reflects an attempt, by some men, to undermine the equality already won under American family law.

The Talmud, (our redacted oral teachings) describes the sad plight of the classical agunah whose husband could not consent to divorce.  This might be because the man had disappeared while travelling to another town to trade or been lost on a ship at sea.  No one could be sure whether the husband had drowned, fallen victim to bandits on the road or whether he had simply taken up with a new companion somewhere else.  Perhaps he had been injured and lost his memory of where home was and of who waited there for him.  In those situations, rabbis wanted certain evidence of death before allowing a woman to remarry, lest her wayward husband should someday return.  Alternatively, the husband might have been physically present but unable to form the requisite intent to consent to divorce because of mental illness or a malady rendering him unconscious.  In these situations, rabbis developed strategies to try to minimize the suffering of these women, through establishing grounds to presume death or to validate the consent of a mentally ill man during moments of lucidity, but still many women remained agunot.

The historian, Haim Sperber, identifies a second dramatic change in the agunah problem which came in the late 19th century.  In this era, the agunah problem became one of men abandoning their families.  Sperber, currently a scholar in residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, studies how agunot used popular Yiddish media to try to find their missing husbands, putting advertisements in the classified sections or writing to advice columns.  These men had disappeared into another province, another European country or on a boat to America.  With the emancipation of Jews in Europe, Jewish men could for the first time travel freely outside of Jewish ghettos and find even greater freedom in the promised land of America.  They could leave behind their Jewish identities, and for many, this meant leaving their Jewish wives as well.

An open letter to a missing husband in the Bintel Brief, the advice column of the Jewish Daily Forward in 1908, captures one such woman’s pain:

Have you ever asked us why you left us?  Max, where is your conscience; you used to have sympathy for the forsaken women and used to say that their terrible plight was due to the men who left them in dire need.  And how did you act? I was a young, educated decent girl when you took me.  You lived with me for six years, during which time I bore you four children.  And then you left me.

From the late 20th century to the present day, we have seen a new kind of agunah problem emerge.  We still have instances where the husband has absconded or is unable to consent, but now the most common context for the creation of an agunah is a contested civil divorce.  This husband is physically present and mentally sound, but seeks to use his power to withhold a religious divorce to inflict pain on the wife or as a bargaining chip in negotiations over property, alimony and custody in the civil divorce.  He demands that the wife give up her rights to family property or make cash payments in order to be granted a divorce. Why has this transformation taken place?  One explanation may be the dramatic changes that have taken place in civil family law over this period.

In the wake of the second wave feminist movement, states across the U.S. rewrote their family laws to recognize the value of women’s contributions to the family enterprise and award spouses equal rights to assets accumulated over the course of marriage.  Some men perceive their rights to withhold divorce under Jewish law as an appropriate tool to use to claw back some of the hard-won gains of the women’s movement.  Our community should be united in rejecting these actions.

Feminist legal scholars are divided on how to fix Jewish family law. Some argue that the problem can be prevented if those marrying in Orthodox ceremonies sign an halachic(within the framework of Jewish law) prenuptial agreement in which the husband undertakes to give a divorce when asked. Others argue that the time has come to create a new understanding of Jewish marriage that recognizes our contemporary understandings of the fundamental equality of men and women, and allows women to initiate divorce, too. Just as Mayyim Hayyim has worked within halacha to re-imagine a mikveh experience that speaks to women’s needs, it is possible that both of these options provide an opportunity for a creative revision of marriage and divorce rituals.


Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law. This is printed in collaboration with Mayyim Hayyim.

From Scalding to Prodding: Is This Any Way to Get Divorced?

Wood background Wild West styleBy Amy Sessler Powell

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.

Israel’s Photoshop Law Exposes the Body Image Fantasy

By Bethany Wolfe Barnett

From Brave Girls Want

From Brave Girls Want

Two years after Israel passed a Photoshop law designed to ensure models maintain healthy weights and to promote editorial transparency in fashion advertising, the law is gaining notice again.

At the start of the year, as people focused on New Year’s resolutions for health and weight loss, Israel’s law received attention on social media, prompting discussion about Photoshop’s effect on our minds and bodies. This attention came on the heels of actresses, such as Keira Knightley, posing topless to show the real size of her breasts and others objecting to their Photoshopped images. The fashion magazine, Marie Claire, reports in a blog that they will be printing a photo of model Cindy Crawford without the benefit of a Photoshop retouch next month. The photo itself, revealing beauty, but not perfection, is circulating the Internet this week.

As consumers, we encounter digital manipulation everywhere. Bodies and faces are stretched, contorted, and smoothed over into an ideal. Already thin models are often slimmed down to points of unnaturalness.

Israel’s law makes us wonder: have we gone too far with images of women’s beauty? Do consumers no longer know what bodies look like, without the doctoring of Photoshop? Of course, we know that our thighs touch but that’s not what we see in the magazines. In print we are told that breasts are large and bodies are stick-thin. What we forget, however, is that these images are constructed to sell both clothing and a fantasy lifestyle. Israel’s law may help to puncture that balloon. The law may point out what is falsified about the images, and help us, consumers, realize what is enhanced.

The Israeli Photoshop law is part of a wider movement of body acceptance. Online clothing retailer ModCloth signed the Heroes Pledge for Advertisers, promising “not to change the shape, size, proportion, color and/or remove/enhance the physical features, of the people in our ads in post-production.” The no-Photoshop policy is also present in the women’s lifestyle magazine Verily. The Verily motto is “less of who you should be, more of who you are.” Their Photoshop policy recognizes that perceived imperfections – be they crow’s feet, birthmarks, stretch marks or softer bodies – are part of what makes a woman beautiful. This Photoshop movement celebrates a model’s natural beauty rather than changing her body structure into something it is not.

Photoshop itself isn’t evil. It is a tool to enhance photographs, to help the photographer achieve the best possible image. We would not demand that photographers stop using proper lighting, shooting the best pose, or using professional makeup artists. And even if we stop enhancing body parts altogether, we may still debate the merits of covering a scar, red eye or a bruise. Where is the line? Will we welcome the changes or have trouble letting go of the fantasy?

Overall, we applaud Israel for taking a stand in this international discussion. Other countries have indicated that they will follow suit. In 2014, the Truth in Advertising Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress. Campaigners have called for similar laws in Australia, Britain and France as well.

This conversation is one that we need to have. While we recognize that many fashion magazines and advertisements make heavy use of photo editing, we still compare ourselves to the manipulated images. We know, but cannot always find distance from the fantasy the images provide. Talking about what is fit, healthy and realistic are discussions that we all need to have, regardless of age or gender. When we look in the mirror and see our bodies, however they appear, we must recognize that they are real, fleshy and whole – not airbrushed and edited to oblivion. Whether individual publications and corporations lead the charge, or it becomes the purview of governments, there is a call for change in the air, one to prevent eating disorders, protect the citizens of the world and reacquaint ourselves with the reality of our bodies.

Bethany Wolfe Barnett is the HBI communications coordinator.

Cry for Me, Argentina

By Dalia Wassner

Dalia Wassner

Dalia Wassner

On January 19th, as the United States honored Martin Luther King and his message, Argentines awoke to a situation in stark contrast: the tragic news that Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment.

While Americans honored the courage of a man who fought for the equality, honor, and inclusion of members of this society who were shamefully mistreated, Argentines found more injustice. Nisman, a prosecutor, was on the day of his death, to testify before the Argentine Congress about his government’s alleged collaboration in obstructing the prosecution of those responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society, (AMIA) which also housed the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires. Nisman, who had investigated the case for 10 years, was scheduled to testify that the current regime, led by President Cristina Kirchner, had conspired with Iran to obstruct further investigation into the AMIA bombing that killed 85 people and injured 300.

His testimony, expected only hours after his death, was to focus not only on the alleged Iranian-backed Hezbollah culpability for the bombing itself, but on the ongoing post-script of impunity 20 years after the largest terrorist attack on the American continent before 9/11. The AMIA bombing is the greatest act of anti-Semitism in the Americas whereby the perpetrators remain today unidentified and unpunished by the victimized nation’s government.

In stark contrast to Argentina’s refusal to face up to this crime, the recent events in Paris have seen government officials respond by denouncing attacks on Jews at a kosher market alongside those on journalists at Charlie Hebdo, thereby strongly denouncing anti-Semitism and national acts of terrorist in equal measure. Alberto Nisman’s murder, an act that the Jews of Argentina understood as furthering the impunity of the AMIA bombing, was not met with national condemnation. Instead, Cristina Kirchner’s government responded only insofar as evading blame for the murder itself.

Unlike French government leaders, President Kirchner first denied that Nisman was murdered and then, via social media alone, admitted that the death was indeed a murder. Yet, she bemoaned his murder not insofar as a setback to justice, but rather as a staged act aimed to further defame her presidency.

In a striking case of life imitating art, this murder was eerily foreshadowed by Marcos Aguinis , the former Argentine Minister of Culture who, one decade ago, wrote a novel accusing the Argentine government of being an accomplice in both the AMIA bombing and its ongoing impunity under then-President Carlos Menem. In his 2003 novel, Assault to Paradise, he clearly denounces Argentina’s collaboration in the second anti-Semitic attack on Argentine soil in two years, the first being on the Israeli Embassy in 1992 (and that too remains unprosecuted.)

In his prescient novel, Aguinis paints Argentines, not Jews, and the Argentinian democracy as the victims of the attack. In his narration of the crime, the victims include also the custodians of the AMIA (non-Jewish), children in a nearby nursery school, and residents of a home for the elderly down the block. It was a building for Jews in Argentina, which meant that an Argentine building within the city blocks it was located, was targeted and victimized.

Of note, rather than producing this book after the attack on the AMIA in 1994, Aguinis, a public intellectual, publishes it in the aftermath of America’s Sept. 11 attacks, almost a decade after the events in Argentina. Perhaps understanding that his message was more poignant in relief, Aguinis uses the American response to terror on its own shores in juxtaposition to Argentina’s shameful lack of response. Jews’ lack of integration in the national consciousness is thus posited as an affront on the country as a whole. In so doing, Aguinis clearly advances that until Argentina denounces and persecutes terrorism addressed to any of its citizens as an attack on its very nation and that nation’s sovereignty and way of life, Argentina is effectively aligning itself with forces of terror rather than with those of democracy.

In his novel, Aguinis chooses for his protagonist, a woman named Cristina as his prophet of justice. It is through her journalism and her mission to mobilize public opinion that Aguinis literarily aims to transform Argentina into a country that demands to be a true democracy. Aguinis states explicitly throughout his literary works that he understands Argentina’s equal treatment of its Jews and of its women as key to Argentina’s modern democratic identity. One way to literarily pursue this was to create a protagonist that united the plight of Christian Argentines to that of the Jews through the professional activities of a woman in the public sphere.

Today, as Argentina sorts out the events leading to the murder of Nisman, the national and international press wait for another Cristina, not that of Aguinis’ Assault to Paradise, but rather President Cristina Kirchner, to unite her voice with all those who denounce terror, violence, and unlawfulness, with those who state with pain and passion: “I am Martin Luther King,” “Yo soy Nisman,” “I am Charlie,” “Je suis Juif,” the myriad cries of conscience no country that claims or aims to be a democracy would ignore.

Dalia Wassner is a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her recent book is Harbinger of Modernity: Marcos Aguinis and the Democratization of Argentina (Boston: Brill, 2014).