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Getting the Get Issue
Getting the Get Issue
March 2, 2012
— By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood for The Chicago Jewish News —
New documentary looks at plight of ‘chained’ wives
During a conversation with a friend, Beverly Siegel learned that the woman’s daughter was experiencing problems getting a get, or Jewish divorce, from her husband.
The problems, Siegel discovered, were so horrendous they shook the family’s sense of belief in the Jewish community.
“They came out of it feeling they wanted to expose the problem and do something so other people wouldn’t have to go through it. They came to me and said, you’ve got to hear this story,” Siegel relates nearly a decade after she first heard about the family’s troubles.
The fact that Siegel is a prominent filmmaker (among her other work is “Romance of a People: One Hundred Years of Jewish History, 1833-1933”) and an observant Jew, figured into the family’s decision to relate their problems to her, but she was originally so shocked she didn’t know what to do with what she had heard.
“I could hardly follow the story,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “It was very hard to wrap my understanding around it. It took months for me to start to really understand how bad the get situation can get.”
When Siegel finally did begin to understand, she did what was natural for her and considered making a film about the situation.
Now after years of research, filming and fund-raising, the finished product, “Women Unchained,” is a documentary that is raising eyebrows and consciousness throughout many parts of the Jewish world.
Chicagoans will have their first chance to view the film, which Siegel co-produced with Leta Lenik, at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 11 at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. A post-screening panel discussion will include Siegel, the American Jewish Committee’s Emily Soloff, halachic authority Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz and international women’s rights lawyer Sharon Shenhav.
The film follows the experiences of five modern-day agunot, or “chained women,” as women whose husbands refuse to give them a get are often called.
Siegel explains that the issue arises from a passage in Deuteronomy, which is highlighted in the film. The passage has been interpreted through the years as meaning that the man must give his wife a get or divorce of his own free will – otherwise the divorce is not “kosher.”
“If it’s not kosher, then according to Jewish law, a woman is not free to remarry. If she flouts that restriction and marries anyway and has children those children are considered momzerim (illegitimate) according to Jewish law,” she explains. That designation carries a number of restrictions, including being prohibited from marrying as a Jew in Israel. “It passes along through generations,” Siegel says.
She adds that while this might seem like a problem that only affects the Orthodox community (the Conservative and Reform movements don’t adhere to the same rules regarding Jewish divorces), that is not always the case.
“There is a lot of religious mobility, and if the person or their children want to become more traditional and marry in an Orthodox or traditional family, they’re not going to be able to,” she says.
As Siegel, a Chicagoan who now lives part of the year in Pittsburgh, her husband’s home town, began doing research for her film, she made some interesting discoveries.
The problem is so severe that in Israel an organization that exists to help women in such situations has more than 5,000 clients a year.
Early on, Siegel had to consider why a husband would refuse to give his wife a get. There could be many reasons, she says. “It could be as a tool to gain concessions, or for vengeance or greed or psychological torture. A man might want custody of the children or to pay no child support, so he wants to torture his wife. There is a power disparity. It could be about the power to extort from the wife’s family.”
One husband of a woman in the film, for instance, demanded a payment of a half-million dollars from his wife’s father.
Siegel found a woman who took 10 years to receive a get from her husband, who is now in jail in Israel. That woman told her about another friend who was going through a similar trial. Those were the original women profiled in the film.
“I thought, we’ve really got something here,” she says. She began raising money to make the film.
Eventually she found more women, but it wasn’t an easy process. She discovered that at least two other filmmakers had begun exploring the subject but had never gone on to make a film about it.
“The number one problem was that some of the women were in the throes of trying to get a get and they didn’t want to go on camera and possibly jeopardize their future by angering their husbands even more,” she says. One woman’s story is told by way of a cartoon in the finished film.
“It’s a subject that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It makes a lot of rabbis uncomfortable,” she says.
Eventually, shooting in Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Miami, Los Angeles and Israel, Siegel told the story of five women, bringing in snippets from other women’s experiences as well. She also interviewed women’s rights advocates, rabbis and legal experts.
A major coup for Siegel was enlisting actress Mayim Bialik to narrate the film. Bialik, of “Blossom” and “Big Bang Theory” fame, has recently become known for her journey towards more traditional Jewish observance.
In the film, Siegel also outlines a strategy that may begin to solve the problem for many women. It’s a pre-nuptial agreement, called the Agreement for Mutual Respect, being promoted by a number of Modern and centrist Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the chief judge of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and the Beth Din of America. Schwartz appears in the film and on the post-screening panel at Spertus.
“I’m ecstatic that he is coming to Spertus to speak. This is huge” because of his highly respected position in the national Orthodox community, Siegel says of Schwartz.
Another Chicago rabbi, Asher Lopatin, appears in the film explaining how the agreement works to a young couple from his congregation who are about to be married.
Siegel explains that the pre-nuptial agreement does not require a husband to give his wife a get in case of a divorce – “That would be unkosher,” she says – but requires him to continue to support his wife at the rate of $150 a day as long as they are still married but not living together. That agreement is enforceable in a civil court, she says.
The pre-nup is not perfect and is not accepted by all parts of the Orthodox community, Siegel admits. “But at this point it is the single best and most available preventive solution out there,” she says.
Meanwhile Siegel urges everyone in the Jewish community, not just Orthodox people, to see the movie, which has been shown to acclaim at several film festivals.
“The idea is to educate people. Even if they’re not Orthodox, they need to understand the issue. People should at least know the potential consequences,” she says.
She also wants them to know something else: “The movie is not just a dry tract about the legalities of agunot,” she says. “It’s really an entertaining film with a great musical score (by C. Lanzbom, lead singer of the band Soul Farm), Mayim Bialik, humor. It’s a good watch, a gripping, even funny movie.”