Four Rabbis and the Get: My Jewish Divorce

Pamphlets at the divorce proceedings. (Photo: Lauren Young/TueNight)

“He shall write for her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand.”

(Deuteronomy 24:1)

Anyone who has been through a divorce will tell you that it’s a pretty horrific process, no matter how amicable, how mature or how quick. Separating yourself from another person — lover, best friend and confidant — is painful.

By all counts, I had one of the “best” civil divorces possible. There were no fireworks. My ex and I used a mediator, and the overall cost was reasonable. The whole process took less than a year.

But that was just our first divorce.

Before I get to the second divorce, let me tell you about the wedding. It took place at the summer camp I attended for many seasons as a child and young adult. I walked down the aisle in a canvas gown and Jack Purcell sneakers to the tune of  the Sex and The City theme song. Our campy nuptials even included a sing-along rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend.” To this day, people tell me it was one of the most memorable weddings they ever attended.

In the Jewish tradition, when a couple marries, they sign a marriage contract, which is called a ketubah. Some people liken it to the world’s oldest pre-nup — the practice apparently dates back to the fifth century B.C.E. in Egypt. In those ancient times, when weddings were business transactions, the ketubah essentially spelled out the terms of agreement.

The ketubah also protects a wife’s right to financial support in the event of a divorce, which under traditional Jewish law can only be granted by the husband. Today, the ketubah, which is written in Aramaic, is ceremonial. Some couples buy ornate ketubahs and hang them in their bedrooms, but we used a simple version provided by our rabbi. The ketubah is signed by two witnesses who cannot be blood relatives of the couple.

Most people know about the Jewish tradition of smashing a glass to remember the destruction of the First Temple, especially since it takes place in the presence of all wedding guests. By contrast, the ketubah ceremony occurs in a more private setting.

Whereas our wedding ceremony felt big in the presence of about 270 guests on a hill overlooking the camp’s lake, our ketubah signing seemed downright cozy. We gathered on a cabin porch in the presence of our families, a few camp friends and a handful of special guests.

Our rabbi cracked a lot of jokes, and we signed the ketubah with someone’s fancy pen.

Now, for the second divorce: Instead of the laws of New York State, it follows the law of Torah.

Flash forward almost 15 years. I find myself sitting at a table across from my husband in a setting that resembles a courtroom, but instead of a judge and jury, there are four rabbis in black suits with long beards. One, I quickly learn, is a scribe, learned in the ancient art of writing gittin. In singular form, it is known as a get – a document that is essentially the opposite of a ketubah. The scribe’s job is to draw up another contract that will undo our Jewish union and free us to marry again. The scribe seems to be the elder statesman of the group, which means, naturally, that he has the longest beard.

The rabbis speak to each other in Yiddish, but ask a list of questions in English. I’m identified as Lauren, daughter of Gilbert, throughout the proceedings.

“Are you here on your own free will?” asks the youngest rabbi, who — despite having the shortest beard — seems to be the one in charge. Interestingly enough, they explain that they have no interest in learning why we are splitting up since a Jewish divorce is “no fault.” Long ago, my people figured out that it’s better to dissolve a marriage than to live together in bitterness and conflict.

I’m a journalist, so I didn’t walk into this religious procedure without doing some background research. In fact, I had been warned by a friend who had been through the same routine – at the same place – to expect lots of awkward silences during the 30 minutes or so that it takes for the scribe to write up the document. He uses a feather quill on a piece of parchment. The actual get is 12 lines long and is written in Aramaic in the same curvy script used for the writing of Torah scrolls.

But I ask lots of questions, and quickly we found ourselves in a lively discussion about Jewish tradition. The rabbis were especially keen to talk about some recent controversy in the Jewish community. Every once in a while, a Jewish husband will essentially screw over his wife, refusing to divorce her. As a result, a few rabbis have been busted in recent years for coercing husbands to grant their wives divorces.

We’re chatting away, and things are so cordial and light that I’m certain I have Shabbat invitations to last for the next year. But when the scribe is done, the mood in the room changes. I’m asked to stand face-to-face with the man I slept next to for more than a decade, the guy who fondly called me “Snooks” and whose hair I incessantly dustbusted from the bathroom floor.

He holds the beautifully written parchment now folded into an intricate origami-like shape above my cupped hands.

We are told not to touch.

My eyes start to fill up. It is very strange to stand so close to each other again. I cannot look at his face.

We exchange some words — in Hebrew if memory serves me — and my husband drops the document into my hands, freeing me from the bonds of marriage.

And then it was time to say, “Shalom.” To the rabbis. And to my ex.

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9 Responses

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  2. billoperkins

    Bravo. I realize just now that you are among Janis Owens, Anne Fadiman and Ben Montgomery as my favorite writers.

  3. Dana z

    This brought tears to my eyes

  4. Awleib

    Lauren~ a lovely memoir. I got my Get six years ago, with the intention to create a sacred place for the then,unborn child of my ex-husband, to arrive; a newly minted Jew. He wasn’t married. I did it for my daughter’s soon to be sister, an emerging soul/life to be free in the Jewish religion. Paying it forward.

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