March 24, 2023

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).

Anti-anti-Semitism, too, is alive and well in Germany

by Shulamit Reinharz

Shula preferred author photo

Shulamit Reinharz

Amid the tragic, anti-Semitic events in Paris and all over Europe and Israel, I also see examples of something else, for which I have coined the term, “anti-anti-Semitism.” A recent example was the declaration by the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, that  “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” Without Jews, France will lose Jewish creativity, intellectual productivity, arts and advances in all fields of endeavor. Even more recent was the historic step Canada took on January 28, 2015 in signing the Ottawa Protocol to Combat Anti-Semitism.

We know the attack in France at Charlie Hebdo was driven by anti-Semitism because the only woman at Charlie Hebdo singled out for death, while the other women were spared, was the Jewish columnist, Elsa Cayat. We salute her courage and mourn her death.

Yet, if we focus on anti-anti-Semitism, not just on hate and terrorism, we may discover people we can work with to improve the situation of Jews in Europe.

This topic should be of universal interest because in the last 70 years or so, we have learned some unexpected lessons. First, although “never again” may be a good rallying phrase, it does not describe what has occurred since 1945. Genocide has happened over and over again. A better slogan is “never forget.”

Second, people thought that after the bloodbath of the Holocaust and the complete defeat of Germany and its allies, anti-Semitism would be over. But, they were wrong. Research done at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute by Dr. Joanna Michlic shows that for countries behind the Iron Curtain, the Holocaust didn’t really end until 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Anti-anti-semitism started shortly after 1945. Government leaders in Western Europe, particularly in Germany, the country that originated the Nuremburg Laws and the Final Solution, embarked on policies of anti-anti-Semitism right after Germany’s surrender. Many Western European countries embraced Israel and Jewish individuals through financial policies of Wiedergutmachung, which means restitution or compensation. On the basis of these laws many persons who were persecuted by the Nazi-Regime continue to receive monthly compensation payments.

Second, artists were commissioned to create permanent memorials that would remind people continuously of the anti-Semitic violence that had been committed. These memorials are visible all over Germany.

Third, Holocaust denial is illegal in a number of European countries including Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Romania, all among the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Recently, I traveled to Austria and Germany where I experienced many examples of anti-anti-Semitism. The main reason for my trip was to support Dr. Karen Frostig, a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, who organized the The Vienna Project, a social action memorial to victims of National Socialism. The project’s public nature, unfolding on the streets of Vienna over the course of a year, is an obvious example of anti-anti-Semitism.

Because I was going to travel to Vienna, I decided to also visit Gunzenhausen, Germany, the Bavarian village where my father grew up. I am currently writing a book about his experiences. There, I pleasantly encountered profound anti-anti-Semitism. I began my preparation for the trip by calling the German consulate in Boston. I asked if he could kindly connect me with the Jewish leaders of Gunzenhausen.

“Frau Reinharz,” I was told. “There are no Jews in Gunzenhausen.”

His response did not deter me. I thought I would simply walk around the town when I arrived, meet people and try to learn something about my family’s past. The next day, a junior high school teacher, Emmi Hetzner, contacted me by email, informing me that the mayor of Gunzenhausen would host my visit and that she, Emmi, would escort me through the community. I welcomed her warm hospitality.

It turns out that for 15 years, Gunzenhausen has been engaged in a school project that crosses all the disciplines. The students are reconstructing Jewish life before the Holocaust and studying how the town behaved during the Third Reich. Select junior high students have studied such topics as: What was the demography of Gunzenhausen in 1933? Where were the homes of every Jew? The town archivist teaches the children how to look at city plans. The students made maps, they gathered documents, and they learned more about my family than I knew myself.

How wonderful to learn that they had a web site, which they had produced themselves. There I found pictures of my family, including my beloved grandfather. I also found photos of the house where my father grew up and the letter my grandfather wrote to explain that he sold the house “without pressure” as he wisely decided to leave.

A teacher connected to the student research team had even spoken to my father in New Jersey 12 years ago. The website commented on their discussion: “Unfortunately Max Rothschild has not been able to become reconciled with the fate of the Jewish community in Gunzenhausen and especially that of his family. Mr. Rohrbach wrote to us: ‘I found Max Michael Rothschild in New Jersey and spoke to him today (18. December 2002). He was very friendly, and mentioned frequently that he does not desire any contact to Gunzenhausen.’ ”

In this little town in Bavaria, students are fighting anti-Semitism by acknowledging their families’ past. They speak of the “first pogrom,” the compelled departure to the train station of the Jewish men of the town, and the population’s violence toward their doctor, my grandfather.

In addition to being overwhelmed by the student interest, I had another response: I wanted to get involved in the anti-anti-semitism I discovered in Gunzenhausen. Fortunately, I found two ways. Next to the junior highschool, there is a monument to all the war victims of Gunzenhausen during World War I. There I found the names of the Jewish men about whom the students had taught me. This monument is adorned with a big cross. I suggested to the mayor that although the cross could be kept in place, next to the names of the Jewish soldiers, they add Jewish stars.

I also toured the old Jewish cemetery where my grandfather’s first wife is buried. Emmi and I could not find the gravestone we were looking for because the headstones had been looted during the Holocaust. I have proposed to my brother and sister that, with Emmi’s help, we re-erect a gravestone for the grandmother I never knew.

From studying the Holocaust, I know that the violence against the Jews was both national and local. Hitler gave orders from above, but townspeople acted against Jews on their own initiative. In the first paragraph of this blog, I mentioned the powerful, lofty anti-anti-Semitic statements from heads of state. I contend that just as significant is the 15-year old junior high research project taking place in the classrooms and streets of the town of Gunzenhausen.


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.

Do Jews Need God?

By Michelle Cove


614: The HBI eZine

That’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since the Pew Research Study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” came out in 2013 showing that two-thirds of Jews polled said it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.  I remember being shocked at the statistic when I first read it, although I’m not sure why exactly. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in God, and are perfectly comfortable with their Jewish identity. I also know some atheists, to be fair, who struggle to feel connected to our religion given all the patriarchal language in prayer books and Torah stories. In a religion inundated with stories and prayers centered around God, there seems to be so much room and space to be Jewish and not believe. What makes some Jewish atheists feel at peace while others feel at odds?

For the latest issue of 614: the HBI eZine, I asked a rabbi, a few women authors, and an artist for their viewpoints on what it is to be a Jewish atheist and what the repercussions are. All of them struck me as confident and unapologetic about their beliefs.  After all, Jews are not only allowed to have our doubts, we are encouraged to grapple and question, which is pretty unique. Says Rabbi Lev Baesh, who is featured in the issue: “You should never be asked to agree blindly or to demean your own views for others (or theirs for yours, for that matter).”

There are plenty of Jewish leaders and thinkers who worry that Judaism can’t sustain without a central belief in God. In a September-October, 2011 article in Moment, entitled, “Can There Be Judaism Without Belief in God?” Senator Joe Lieberman stated: “There can be Jews who are good people without belief in God, but ultimately Judaism cannot continue to exist without belief in God because the Jewish historical narrative depends on it.” Rabbi David Volpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, California, in the same article says: “Yes, there can be Judaism without God, but only briefly, as it cannot reproduce itself. Judaism without God is running on the momentum of past generations.”

What do you think? How important is a belief in God to our religion? Can Judaism sustain without a belief in God? We hope you’ll read the issue with an open mind, grapple, and weigh in with your own thoughts.

Michelle Cove is the editor of 614: the HBI eZine

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