Short Stories

The Agunah

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Talya Jankovits

An agunah, “chained woman,” is a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get, a Jewish divorce document, thus trapping her in the marriage.

Adina reaches down, her slim fingers outstretched, finding the eggplant bruises decorating the delicate bulb of her ankle. She caresses them―the black, blue, and mauve gems that color the hurt of her skin. She is careful when lifting the wide metal cuff, bringing it up her leg a few inches―the only wiggle room its width allows―so that she can reach the damaged parts beneath. Offer it attention. Relief. Hope.

The act is secondary now. She doesn’t think of how careful to be anymore. The bruises come and go, as do cuts, depending on how forgetful she becomes in her movements. She knows exactly how to lift the cuff just so, to reach the normally hidden skin, to allow it to breathe a bit but not irritate any skin above or below it. It was like scratching a scalp itch or adjusting a slipping bra strap. Mindless movement. Familiar. Temporary. The relief, that is―not the cuff that her husband secured to her left ankle three years ago. Its long, heavy chain nailed to the center of the floorboard, a flat metal piece that anchored her every movement to the middle of the room. Chilling to her bare feet in the winter, cooling in the summer. The chain linked together much like Adina used to link strips of colorful construction paper to create decorative cuffs for her family’s sukkah when she was a little girl―her tiny body stretching up and up, straining her arms to reach a low-level palm branch where she could secure her hard work. But those chains always broke. Soggy from rain, they’d break in two, hanging dejected yet free.

Once, many years before, her husband adorned her with shiny things, with actual jewelry. Diamonds sparkled around her waif wrist, his soft fingers trembling as he tried to secure the bracelet in the marital room just after the chuppah ceremony. He only just touched her skin for the first time minutes before, and everything felt like fire, shocking and electric―like that first grasp of each other’s palms, holding hands for the first time as they made their way down the aisle away from the wedding canopy. Streams of dancing family and friends escorted them to a room, where after all that time, they were finally alone together.

You have to slide that long piece inside, then press the clasp down. Adina instructed, almost in a whisper, nervous with anticipation at her first time alone in a room with a man. Her husband. She felt unsure of herself, ill-prepared to converse with the opposite sex in so intimate a moment. The whole room filled with only the two of them, their heavy breathing colliding and mixing in the small space between their bodies.

I know! His voice came out a little rough, but Adina knew he was nervous. And then, once he properly clasped the bracelet, he held her hand in his before leaning in toward her face, placing a kiss on her cheek as gentle as morning dew. She felt she couldn’t be happier.

She couldn’t.

On each anniversary before she was chained, he gifted her a box from the same jeweler in Brooklyn. It was a blue box with a silver ribbon that was attached to the top and bottom separately, so that each time she opened his gift, she never actually unwrapped anything. She used to save each box, keepsakes that morphed into bitter reminders.

Her husband spared no expense. He didn’t need to. His family was exceptionally wealthy. They were known in Brooklyn for their immense generosity. Their last name was featured on many school buildings and shuls, spelled out in calligraphy on the invitations to the many fundraiser banquets that honored them. It was their commitment to tzedakah, charity, that prompted Adina’s parents to encourage her to accept the shadchan’s suggestion.

He was the very first boy redt to her. Of course, she knew who the boy was, who the family was. Everybody did. She was twenty years old and, like her peers, she was primed for marriage. But she was also very nervous, waiting a full year post-seminary before accepting any matches. She still felt too young to be a wife at just nineteen. She had hardly even talked to a boy yet; to live with one alone felt terrifying. So she kept busy with her undergraduate studies in pursuit of speech therapy, and while she wanted to marry, she also didn’t mind taking her time.

Adina wasn’t from a family with yichus, prestigious lineage, or any influence in the community, so it was a surprise when the shadchan called her parents asking about Adina for the son of one of the most influential families in all of Brooklyn. Quickly, they all became infatuated with the idea of the match. Apparently, the boy’s mother saw her at a mutual friend’s wedding and was adamant, the shadchan said.

His mother called me the night of the wedding. My goodness, what we had to do to try and figure out which girl at this wedding she was talking about! But then she said green eyes and auburn hair, and I knew it was your Adina! She is a beauty, that one. And so lucky! Imagine, your daughter marrying into such a family!

The shadchan didn’t hold back on her insistence that Adina pursue the match. Adina, while flattered, even a little giddy at the prospect of such a match, was concerned about the disparity in the two family’s incomes. Her father, a podiatrist, and her mother, a physical therapist, earned a comfortable living together, but by no means were they wealthy. Adina felt that the boy’s family might look down on hers. It was her father who convinced her to go on the date. He pointed out that if the boy’s family had agreed to the match, it meant they were above the kind of pettiness of comparing incomes and she should be as well.

On their first date, he took Adina to paint pottery. He said the shadchan told him that Adina enjoyed drawing and painting. Adina was touched by the gesture of him considering her interests. She settled on a spoon rest, and her husband chose a small salad bowl. At first, Adina painted self-consciously. But soon, she forgot any discomfort and found herself fully invested in his company. By the time they both finished their pieces, they hardly realized three hours had passed. Adina returned home gushing to her parents about the date.

The shadchan called that very night to confirm a second date.

They went on twelve more dates before they were engaged. Adina was one of the lucky ones―the first boy she ever went out with was her bashert, her soulmate.

Adina’s mother-in-law, whom she met only a week before the engagement, chose the ring before Adina even met her. A large, ornate thing that badly clashed with Adina’s style. It was the talk of all her friends during the engagement party. Adina accepted the compliments with a shy smile. She couldn’t imagine telling her chosson, groom, that she didn’t like it, nor could she stomach her mother-in-law being offended. After all, she was marrying her only son. He was also the eldest, the first to be married, and the only child set to inherit the responsibilities of his father’s medical supply company.

Get used to being the envy of all your friends. You’ll never have to work a day in your life, he told her after everyone left their engagement party. Adina thought of the speech therapy program she was interested in. Oh, but I kind of want to work. She never considered not working. Both her parents worked. Adina! You’ll be too busy to work, taking care of the home and our family. Four to six! Adina smiled, a nod to their conversation about how many children they wanted to have. Maybe he was right. Maybe she wouldn’t work.

The diamond ring was only the first of the engagement gifts. When her husband showed her the brownstone his parents purchased for them, Adina hardly knew how to react. The home was bigger than her own parents’. It was remodeled from rooftop to basement, fitted with the best appliances and, to her surprise, fully furnished by her mother-in-law―linens on the bed included.

Did she fill the drawers with underwear for me too? Adina joked.

My mother had these linens custom-made. There is even a second set in the linen closet already, that way when the maid comes there is already another set to put on the beds. She didn’t want you to have to worry about a thing!  

A maid? Adina thought. What do I need a maid for?

He walked her through the house, proudly displaying the double sinks, two dishwashers, and two ovens, a kosher kitchen fit for a princess. After touring the main floor and the bedrooms, he brought her down to the basement where there were two guest rooms, a bathroom, and a large, carpeted area where he proudly announced: Here is where our children will play one day! She wondered how she’d ever invite her married friends, all of them cramped in small apartments they could barely afford rent on, into her large and fancy home.

You don’t think it’s all a bit too much? Adina asked. Her husband smiled, Why start out in a starter home when we can begin our lives in our forever home?

Everything is so beautiful, she said, trying to sound gracious.

I knew you’d love it! I told my mother that my bride has fine taste. I told her nothing too modern, to choose items that reflected your personality.

Adina was wondering how her mother-in-law knew much of her personality when she noticed a door at the end of the hall. She left her husband busy in front of a utility closet where he was muttering about some loose wires to investigate. The hinges on the door moaned softly as she opened it. She poked her head in enough to see that the room was empty. It was dark, save a bit of sunlight pouring in from a small, frosted glass window. In the center of the room was a heavy metal chain. It seemed to glow, spotlighted by the filtered sunlight. Adina squinted, trying to get a better look. There was something sinister about the room; it appeared devoid of the same lightness as the rest of the house. The hairs on Adina’s arm stiffened as goosebumps erupted, sending a stark chill down her spine. What could this room be for, she wondered, but before she could step inside, the door was being pulled shut, forcing her to step backward into the light-filled hallway.

Don’t worry about this room. Every house has one. It comes with every marriage. But you are a wonderful girl, Adina, and I know we are going to be so happy together. Best we just ignore this room.

Is it already fitted with linens as well? Adina joked, though really she wanted to ask what he meant. Every marriage? Ignore it, a room in her own house? She knew every nook and cranny of her family’s home, and she was certain there was no such room in her parents’ home.

Her husband ignored the remark, signaling for her to follow him upstairs. He wanted to show her the pavers in the driveway that melt the snow in the winter. She followed him, still wondering about the room downstairs.

As she admired the intricate laying of brick for the driveway, she thought of the room. Was it true? Was there a room like this in every marriage? She meant to ask her mother, but there was so much to do before the wedding that she forgot all about the room and the chain. She was too busy even for school, dropping out after the end of the semester. She figured she could always re-enroll later.

During all that time, she didn’t think much more about the room with the chain. Not as she married her husband under the chuppah. Not during the shattering of the glass beneath his stomping foot. Not during the eruption of hundreds of guests who witnessed their union all calling out “mazel tov” as the thirty-piece orchestra played the infamous Jewish wedding melody.

The first year of marriage was a strange dance of learning how to live with each other. Adina learned which toothpaste brand her husband preferred. His sounds in the bathroom. How he took his coffee and the intimate thrill of going to bed together each night. But she also spent the first year figuring out how to fill her time. Her friends were busy with school, jobs, or newborn children, and she was surprised by how lonely she felt as a married woman. She considered going back to school, but then her husband reminded her that she could get pregnant at any moment and would need time to be home with the baby. So, she attended a Torah lesson here and there, volunteered at local charitable organizations, and cooked fresh dinners each day.

The first time she cooked for her husband, she made roasted chicken with rice. He ate it enthusiastically and complimented her, but then, right before bed, he casually mentioned that his favorite dish of rice and chicken was the one his mother made. She felt wounded, but she called her mother-in-law the next day for the recipe. And the next time Adina’s husband complimented his own mother’s brisket while eating Adina’s brisket, she knew to request that recipe as well. Until slowly, all the flavors familiar to her, the recipes she meticulously wrote down from her mother, were replaced with her husband’s family recipes. So, Adina felt lonely even as she chewed her food each night across from her happy husband.

While both Adina and her husband’s family lived in Brooklyn, they prayed at different synagogues and lived on different sides of town. The brownstone was conveniently located near her in-laws’ home. In the first year of marriage, they ate frequently at her parents for Shabbat meals and split all the holiday meals. But in the second year, Adina’s husband complained about how long the walk was to Adina’s parents. Soon they were joining her family for Shabbat meals less and less until barely at all. And then Adina’s in-laws invited them to Israel for Sukkot and to Panama for Passover. There was always a destination holiday that Adina’s husband wanted to join, and Adina could hardly remember when she last shared a holiday with her own family. When Adina brought this up in their third year of marriage, her husband spat back at her, If you get pregnant, then we’d stay in our own home.

Adina didn’t need reminding that she wasn’t pregnant. She didn’t think too much about it when the first year of marriage came and went, marked by the diamond eternity band but not a swollen belly. When she still wasn’t pregnant by the time she received the second anniversary box, inside of which was a set of sapphire and diamond earrings that her husband helped to fasten to her ears, she was in a panic. Her husband’s younger sister, who got married the year after them, was already so big in her stomach that she could barely walk straight. Adina was ashamed; she didn’t know who to turn to. She asked her husband if he thought they should speak to a doctor, or even a rav, but he was incensed. The idea of anyone knowing the details of their intimate lives enraged him. And Adina realized he was clearly hurting too. A gnawing guilt ate at her, that this was a secret to be kept. But it became clear to her that people were taking inventory.

Her mother-in-law elbowed cousins at family weddings, shoving a kiddush cup full of the wine that all the ceremonious blessings were made on, insisting that Adina drink the wine right there as she repeated in front of uncomfortable onlookers, It’s not just a segulah (remedy) for marriage, but it is also a segulah for children! Adina gingerly sipped from the sterling-silver cup, her cheeks as red as the sweet wine. Nosy elders would nunu her, asking when she was finally going to be a mother. And friends and family continued to announce pregnancies, tote slobbery babies on their hips, and say the dreaded “G-d willing by you!”

It all became too much, and slowly Adina invented excuse after excuse until she finally stopped attending celebrations altogether. Her husband still went anyway, dressing carefully for a wedding or a bris as Adina lounged in her bed, reading a book, trying to pretend there wasn’t a balloon of angst between them.

They’ll notice your absence more than your stomach. Her husband threw these kinds of comments at her as he readied to attend whatever it was he was attending without her. Worse than not getting pregnant is your self-pity about it. Sometimes Adina waited until he left the room to cry herself to sleep, and other times she threw a retort back. And how do you think it looks that you keep showing up without me? Sometimes he slammed a door. Sometimes he slammed a door so hard it knocked a picture frame down.

Things were shifting at home. An unsettling atmosphere was festering, and Adina was consumed with figuring out how to undo it. More than ever, she was desperate to have a baby. It was the only explanation for why things were changing. If she could just have a baby, things would go back to how they once were.

And just as Adina stopped going out, her husband stopped coming home.

She found herself frequently eating dinner alone. Those meals that were once the part of her day that she most looked forward to were now just cold food in a lonely kitchen. He said he was late because of work. Because he was going to a Torah lecture. Often, he gave no reason at all.

After too many consecutive nights alone, Adina feigned impromptu visits to her childhood home. Her family was so happy to see her that no one thought much of it. Until Adina stopped visiting altogether.

Adina arrived home one night after having dinner with her family to find her husband waiting for her. She walked in as usual, dropped her keys and purse on the console, and headed to the kitchen, where she found the shadow of her husband sitting at their table in the dark. She jumped, emitting a small scream. His eyes focused on hers, as if he had been staring at that very spot for hours, just waiting for her. Without a word, he lifted the dinner plate she left for him, wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it warm. In one swift motion, he raised it above his head and hurdled it toward Adina.

Chicken, rice, and green beans exploded in a shower mixed with broken ceramic around her feet. A small piece of the plate scraped her just below the ankle. Adina stood frozen in place, her body unable to respond to the shock of such a violent reaction to her absence. She clenched her eyes shut, as if she could will this all away by simply not witnessing it. But the cut on her ankle was throbbing, and she could feel the moisture of blood wetting the thin material of her stocking. She opened her eyes and looked down. The food she had spent the afternoon cooking was scattered across the otherwise spotless white tile of the kitchen floor. Without a word, she stepped over the food, reaching for a roll of paper towels. It felt easier to address the mess on the floor than the cut on her foot. As he sat, watching her clean the mess, her husband said, It’s a wife I want to come home to, not a cold plate of food.

That was the last time Adina had a weeknight dinner with her family. But it was not the last night that her husband threw something. Always in her direction, even if not aimed directly at her. Always a thing that shattered. Always a broken thing that she cleaned up alone.

The first few times, she said nothing. Maybe if she didn’t bring attention to it, it would go away. But then she said nothing because when she spoke up, when she told him he was out of control, he threw a second item. She learned to navigate his moods. She learned how to sense that something was stirring and could often enough avoid it ending in something shattering. But it was exhausting and time-consuming. She stopped answering calls from her friends. She barely spoke with her parents. She stopped volunteering. No one thought to check on her. No one thought to ask. Because she was Adina, the wealthy, lucky woman in the big, fancy house.

When Adina finally got pregnant in their fourth year of marriage, she told her husband by painting the words “we are having a baby” on a resting spoon, a tribute to their first date, a plea to return to happier times. He wept with joy, embracing her, wrapping his arms around her waist and resting his head against the baby growing inside her. Maybe he had been hurting all this time. She forgave him. It was easy to do because he was nothing but kind, gentle, and loving throughout the whole pregnancy. After Adina delivered a healthy baby boy, there was a blue box waiting for her: a pearl necklace he fastened with gentle fingers behind the base of her neck.

Life became a storm of diapers and sleepless nights. Time moved in fragments, marked by well-visits and baby milestones, so that the space between Adina and her husband was filled with the care of a newborn. They were both so elated at being parents that neither of them was concerned with what kind of spouses they were to each other. Adina almost forgot that things ever shattered.

But it was only so long until his outbursts began again.

One Shabbat afternoon, Adina dozed off while their two-year-old son played quietly next to her in the basement playroom. She woke abruptly to shouting. Her eyes snapped open, finding her husband hovering over her, scolding her for falling asleep on the couch while their son was still awake. Great globs of angry spit landed on her face as she trembled beneath the shadow of her husband. A reprimand so loud it made their son cover his ears and hide in a corner. Then her husband ran suddenly in the opposite direction toward their son, and Adina jumped off the couch and threw herself over the toddler to protect themselves.

What in the world are you doing?

Adina looked up at her husband, wondering the same thing about him.

I thought you were going to hurt him! 

What kind of person do you think I am? I would never hurt my son.

Only your wife, then?

I have never hurt you, not once.

What do you call this then? What do you call what you are doing to me right now?  

Without another word, her husband turned from her and left her on the floor, her body still a human shield. She listened as he went up the stairs and slammed the front door, signaling his exit, likely on his way to afternoon prayers. Beneath her, her child trembled. She pulled back and looked down at her son.

Why is Abba being so mean to you?

Mean. Yes, she thought, my husband was mean to me.

Is Mommy sad? he asked.

Adina nodded, not realizing she was crying until her son lifted his small, sticky hand and wiped a tear from her cheek. And this is when she realized she was not happy. She did not like her marriage. Her husband was mean.

Will you play with me? 

Adina reached for the Lego on the floor and, as she helped her son construct a tower, she took inventory of her life.

She was now twenty-seven years old and married for six years. She dared herself to ask if she was ever truly happy. Maybe she was happy for just one or two years and not even consecutively. And when she was happy, was she happy with her husband? Or was it because of the conceptual life she earned by marrying her husband? How could this even be, with the giant ring and big, fancy house? How could the man who used to make her laugh and open doors for her now throw things at her and hover over her in a rage?

She stacked Legos and stacked her life. She lived in a house whose deed had her in-laws and her husband’s name on it. She never finished school. She hadn’t held a job since she married nor had any credit, as all the bank accounts and credit cards were under her husband’s name. Logistically, there was no sound financial exit strategy. And what of her son, her beautiful son? She couldn’t compete with the kind of legal team her in-laws could provide her husband. And even if she did choose to fight him in court, what were the risks of losing her son?

Her son stacked more and more Legos atop each other. The tower wobbled, top-heavy on a faulty foundation. The tower buckled, collapsing. Prime-colored pieces of plastic scattered across the floor. Adina laughed. Her son, thinking she was laughing with joy, laughed along with her. There was nothing she could do except restack the tower until it fell again.

Another year passed before Adina decided she would no longer restack her fallen tower.

After their son’s celebratory haircut at age three, hosted in a hall lavish with her in-law’s wealth, Adina needed four stitches.

Her husband counseled her over and over on what to say when the hospital asked how she cut herself.

You were trying to take out the pit of a small avocado.

An avocado?

It’s one of the most common hand-abrasion injuries the ER treats. 

But why wouldn’t I tell them what really happened?

Because they won’t think it was an accident.  

Adina found the excuse to be so boring that she was concerned the ER doctor wouldn’t buy it. But he did. Why wouldn’t he? The cut was across her left palm, and she was a righty. The cut was deep enough but also still shallow enough that it could have been self-inflicted, a wound that could form with enough time for the nerve sensors to kick in and for her to react and retrieve the knife from inside her palm.

She was not to tell them that her husband grew so angry at some trivial matter that he grabbed whatever object was closest to him, which was a glass picture frame, and threw it at Adina. Adina impulsively tried to catch the frame, thinking it might hit her precious son. It was best that she did try to catch the frame because it likely otherwise would have hit her in the head.

Barely a minute had passed after both Adina and her husband registered what had just happened. Her husband ran over to her, apologizing, almost compulsively. As she bled over their carpet, their son screaming and crying, Adina, finally enraged, yelled at her husband. Get away from me! It was chaos―their son crying, Adina shouting repeatedly at her husband to get away from her, and her husband making promises over and over. He’d stop throwing things. Dishes. Vases. Sharp-edged toys. A glass salt shaker. The book of Genesis. A wine glass. But Adina already decided by the time he came up with the fake avocado story that while she’d go along with it, she wouldn’t go along with their fake marriage.

Adina plotted as the doctor stitched.

The first step in Adina’s exit strategy was to tell her parents. At first, they were disbelieving. There was no way their son-in-law, from his prestigious family, had an anger problem. And how could it be that this was the first time they were hearing of it in seven years? Yes, okay, maybe they didn’t see her very often. And come to think of it, she didn’t call very often, and he certainly never called or came by. But they tried to get Adina to explain away the unexplainable. Maybe he tripped and dropped the plate by mistake. Maybe the vase was at the end of the counter, and he accidentally knocked it down at her feet. Adina was hysterical. How come you don’t believe me! She held up her palm, the stitches still visible. But you said that was because of an avocado. She looked at her parents, from one to the other. When have I ever eaten an avocado? That’s when her parents remembered that she was allergic. Her parents were at a loss. What to do? They asked her if she might try to stay a little longer so that they could all think and make calculated and informed decisions, for the sake of the child, they told her. Her parents knew too well how situations like these ended. They didn’t want their child to lose access to her own child.

The next time, she came over with a round, red bump on her temple, her son at her side. Abba got really mad and threw his Shabbos shoe at Mommy. That’s when Adina’s parents understood that their daughter needed rescuing.

Adina wanted to move into her parents’ home with her son immediately. Her parents counseled her against it.

If you remove your child from the home without due consent from the father, he might claim parental kidnapping, Adina’s father explained.

Adina tightly grasped the mug of tea that her mother had made her. While her son played in another room, they spoke in whispers, like conspirators.

But there is domestic violence, Adina said, both physical and emotional.

Her father nodded. What about documentation? How will we prove it? I spoke to a lawyer. We have to be careful about how we go about this. Did you take any photographs of the broken items he threw? Of your cuts or bruises from the things he threw? Anything at all? Text messages? Emails? Anything?

No. The opposite. I’ve spent the last several years trying to hide it. What am I going to do?

Adina’s mother reached her hand out to her daughter.

We are going to call his parents.

Adina stared at her mother blankly. What good will that do?

She is the head of that household and yours too for that matter. If we can appeal to her, she can influence your husband to make this as painless as possible for everyone.

She’ll never believe it. She will blame me. She will turn this whole thing on me.  

Her parents insisted. They claimed she was a mother too. A woman. A good person.

Her mother-in-law reacted exactly as Adina had anticipated.

These are outrageous claims! To even dare to accuse my son of such despicable actions is an act of slander!

Adina’s parents tried to intervene, to appeal to her as a mother of daughters.

But I am the mother of my son. If you insist that Adina is so unhappy, if you want to perpetuate lies, then let’s bring this to the rav! 

Adina’s parents agreed. It was not unreasonable to ask a rav to consult on shalom bayit issues, matters of the peace of the home.

You want me to sit with a rabbi and tell him my husband threw his dress shoe at me and ask for what? For a blessing? We are wasting time! He didn’t throw anything at me until our third year of marriage. How many years will he wait until he throws something at our son?  

Don’t shut this down so fast. Maybe the rav can help. Maybe he can talk to your husband. The rav can be a middleman! A rav can appeal to your husband, talk to your in-laws, rally on your behalf!

Adina’s muscles spasmed. She swallowed repeatedly, finding her mouth dry. Her heart beat furiously inside her chest. She felt trapped. Every exit shut, locking her inside. What choice did she have? She agreed to see the rabbi.

It was no surprise that Adina’s husband insisted that they see a rabbi of his choice. Adina begged him to see a rabbi who knew neither of them, an objective individual, but her husband told her that there wasn’t a rav in all the Five Towns that didn’t know his family.

The rabbi’s office was lined with shiny, mahogany bookshelves custom-built, ceiling to floor. The rabbi kept them waiting, despite their appointment. The office, located in a shul, bore a large plaque on the exterior boasting the family name that Adina had gone by for the last seven years. When the rabbi finally joined them in his office, both Adina and her husband stood to give him honor, but Adina’s husband also leaned over, his arms outstretched, embracing the rabbi like an old friend. Adina watched the two men, interlocked, wide palms gently patting the other’s back. Her armpits grew sweaty. Her husband chose an ally.

I understand we are all here because we want to be. Yes? The rabbi said as he took a seat in the worn leather chair behind a great, dark desk ladened down with stacks of Talmud.

Adina’s husband shook his head.

No? The rabbi asked leaning backward, more deeply into comfort.

I am here because Adina wants to be here. Because that is the kind of husband I am. I am not sure why Adina feels the need for us all to meet.

You’re not sure why!? Adina asked.

Adina, please, let me finish. We have a beautiful home, a small but beautiful family, and a loving marriage. Look, look at Adina’s beautiful diamond necklace. I just gifted this to Adina to celebrate our seven-year wedding anniversary. 

Kaneina hara! The rabbi said.

Adina’s husband nodded his head, accepting his rabbi’s well wishes.

But it has come to my attention recently that my wife suffers from a serious sadness, maddening degrees of sadness-

Maddening? Adina asked, her eyes wide, her mouth falling open.

Adina, please! Let me talk. Adina’s husband shifted back to the rabbi who nodded at him, signaling him to go on. As I was saying, my wife has maddening degrees of sadness that cause her to forget her wifely duties and sometimes even her motherly ones. I remember one moment in particular when she fell asleep while our son was wide awake! The fear that gripped me when I thought of all the terrible things that could have happened to him while unsupervised!

Unsupervised? There was a gate blocking the stairs and nowhere else for him to go! And where, might I ask, were you when I fell asleep? Adina was shocked by her boldness. But she had never heard her husband utter such deceptive lies, and she was shaking with anger.

Now, now, let’s talk one at a time. In a healthy marriage, it’s never good to interrupt someone. We must allow each person to feel that what they are saying is important, of value to you.

Adina bit her bottom lip to keep from exclaiming out again.

Thank you, rebbe. And this here, this is an example of what happens at home. Interruptions. A rudeness, if you will. A disregard for safety! A lack of accountability and, if I might, there have been delusions.  

Delusions? Adina blurted out.

Her husband reached out a hand and placed it on Adina’s, which was gripping the armrest of her chair so tightly that her knuckles went as white as her face.

It’s okay, Adina. We are in a safe space. I do not want a divorce. We are here because I want to work on this with you. I am here for you. And my rebbe is here for us.  

If it’s okay with you, I think we should write some of this down so that it’s documented. Yes? The rabbi asked as he reached for a ballpoint pen from his desk.

I think that’s very wise, Adina’s husband agreed.

Write what down? These lies? These outright lies?  

Adina, let’s refrain from accusations, the rabbi said.

Everything started spinning. The room was blurring. The rabbi’s face, her husband’s, just melting images, converging into each other. The rabbi didn’t believe her.

I want a divorce. I want one right now. Adina turned her body toward the rabbi and leaned toward the end of her seat. Write that down. Please. Write down that I want a divorce, that I am asking for a divorce. All of what he says are lies! He has a terrifying anger, throwing things at me whenever he loses his temper.

Rebbe, you have known me for a long time, since I was a boy. You know my parents, MY parents. Adina’s husband tapped his chest with both his hands. These very shelves that line your office were a gift to you from my own father. Would you ever think I would lie? That I would make up such serious claims? I? A G-d-fearing Jew who prays three times a day at your very own shul?

Tsk tsk. The rabbi shook his head without really saying anything. This all breaks my heart, to see a home in so much turmoil.  

Adina watched in disbelief as a careful and quiet transaction took place in front of her.

Mental illness is an illness. I do not blame my wife. She is a victim of her own mind. I am here, rebbe, because I love my wife, I love my son, and I only want what’s best for us.

Of course! Of course! What husband doesn’t want that for his family? Adina, the rabbi shifted his gaze, what do you want for your family?

To be safe. To be valued. To be loved. None of which I am getting.

That is a serious allegation, Adina. Do you understand what the ramifications of such a statement are? To say you want to be safe? Are you not safe? The rabbi asked, leaning closer across his broad desk.

He throws things. When he is angry, he becomes enraged. Blinded almost. It’s like he doesn’t have control of his hands and he throws objects in fits of anger. Look! Adina held out her left palm for the rabbi to see. This scar is from him. And there are scars you can’t see too, scars inside my head, from his verbal assaults, which are as damaging as the physical ones. He gets right up to my face, and he yells furiously. It is terrifying. My son is scared of him too. He suffers from night terrors.

That looks like a very small cut, the rabbi remarked.

Adina’s husband laughed as he leaned back in his seat, crossing one leg over the other.

Ironic to hear her accuse me of lying when she is lying right now! Read the hospital report, rebbe. My wife cut herself trying to pit an avocado.

Is this true, Adina? Is there a hospital report?

Adina froze. Her husband was three steps ahead of her.

Ah! Suddenly she has nothing to say. Her husband smiled at her, without an ounce of joy in his face.

The rabbi nodded his head.

And really, rebbe! You have known me since before my first haircut. Have you ever seen me lose my temper? Even once?  

It is true, you have always been such a calm, well-mannered, well-behaved boy, ever since your father first brought you to shul.

But my wife, Adina―how long have you known her? How well do you know her? Her family? Who will vouch for her? She hardly has any friends. She barely attends social gatherings. She’s a recluse. She’s a hermit. She hardly even visits her own family! This is not a woman of stable mind. She deserves the help she needs, not a divorce!

The rabbi stroked his beard, rocking his body back and forth as if his entire being was agreeing with Adina’s husband.

It’s my recommendation that you have Adina see a shrink. It will be of benefit to both of you to have that kind of documentation. If Adina does truly have a mental illness, then we can get her the help she needs. But I think you should check in with me each week and update me on how things are going at home.

And who should I call? Who should I check in with? Adina asked.

No one answered.

Thank you, rebbe, really. You’ve been a tremendous help. As a token of gratitude, I’d like to make a donation to the synagogue. I will leave a check with your secretary. Adina’s husband rose from his seat, leaned over the desk, and vigorously shook the rabbi’s hand. “Tizku l’mitzvos!” 

And like that, two men decided.


Adina stood up, reaching her arms far above her head. Her torso stretched as she elongated herself so that the tips of her fingers could nearly reach the belly of the basement ceiling. Then she folded her body over, hands to toes, feeling her spine curve and extend. She stretched like this each morning after she woke, rising from the small bed provided to her. She repeated the same routine: washing her hands three times each with the bowl and cup on her nightstand, reciting the morning prayer, ridding herself of the impurity of sleep―a near-death experience―only to wake up to her hell. Prayers always came first after dressing, and followed by her calisthenics. This was every morning, each morning since the day her husband secured her left ankle to the chain cuff.

There was little movement to be had in her room, but there was value to both mind and body to have daily movement. Adina repeated these stretches three times a day: after her morning prayers, again after lunch, and once more shortly before bed. She reached one arm over her head, arching herself like a rainbow, closing her eyes, and focusing all her might on the small rays of sunshine that bullied their way through the frosted glass window, allowing her a broken but reliable warmth.

Her entire day was structured around getting her through each hour until 4:30 P.M., when her son came to visit her in her room for thirty minutes. He was always escorted by her mother-in-law, who now was the one to wait for him at the school bus stop and walk him home. Her husband’s mother brought him down the stairs and through his play area, where Adina often listened with her ears up against her door to hear any sound of him that might escape down the hall and into her own bedroom. Her mother-in-law never came close enough for the two of them to see each other; to each, they were phantoms. And during these visits, Adina arranged the quilt from her bed around the center of the room, shielding her son from the sight of the chain that kept his mother from him.

Sometimes her son brought his homework, and Adina helped him with it. Other times he brought an after-school snack, and Adina peeled a banana or opened a bag of pretzels. A few times he carried a stack of picture books, and he’d curl his body up onto Adina’s quilt and listen to her read to him. Now and again, he asked when she was coming back upstairs. He asked if she was feeling better, and Adina lied to him so as not to complicate whatever falsehoods were fed to him by his father as to his mother’s long absence. And always the visits sped past them both so quickly that neither of them could ever believe the sound of the small timer her mother-in-law wound and set and placed by their door, indicating that time was up.

More often than not, Adina’s son was resilient and strong, accepting of the bizarre new circumstances. He embraced his mother, kissed her cheek, and wished her good night, telling her he’d see her tomorrow. But there were enough times when he did not leave nicely at all, when he would throw tantrums, kicking and screaming and begging his mother to come upstairs with him. Cook him dinner. Help him into the bath. Tuck him into bed. And these were the worst moments of all. She folded his arms into her, steadying his body against hers, as if she could reabsorb him, and she talked him down. She soothed his fears and fed him promises she knew she could not keep. All the while, the harsh, scolding voice of her mother-in-law would drift down the hall, never addressing Adina, only ever the boy. Admonishing him, threatening him until he finally listened, not to his grandmother but to the false hopes his mother had whispered into his ear like a prayer. A prayer he obediently swallowed and carried upstairs with him, burrowing his face into it like it was the bosom of his own mother.


After the meeting with the rabbi, Adina began to better grasp the dangerous situation she found herself in. She spoke with her parents in secret meetings while her husband was at work. They took careful notes. Their son-in-law, Adina’s husband, had managed to convince an influential member of the community that their daughter had a mental illness. That she was a disobedient wife. A danger to her child. Suffering from delusions. All of this with documented paperwork from the hospital, the rabbi himself, and now a marriage therapist that Adina and her husband saw for one session, during which Adina barely was awarded the opportunity to speak. Adina refused to return to the therapist, convinced he was under the manipulative financial power of her husband. Her husband had the therapist document her refusal to see him.

He talked not just to the therapist but to everyone he met. In shul. At weddings. In supermarkets. He would speak of his wife, her struggle, her illness, and the jeopardy she posed to their child. Friends, family, and neighbors nodded, sympathetic, and then they spoke to their friends, family, and neighbors at weddings. In shul. In supermarkets. Until the whole of Brooklyn was convinced that Adina was a threat both to herself and her family and that her husband was quietly suffering.

Then, her husband took away her cell phone. It disappeared from her nightstand one night. Then her car disappeared one night from their specially heated pavers. He removed her name from their bank account. He canceled all her credit cards. She watched the careful, calculated deconstruction of all the liberties in her life.

It’s time to take this to Beis Din. Adina’s father spoke confidently. Adina looked at her father from across the kitchen table where she once did her homework as a little girl.

His rebbe, the one who met with us all those months ago, sits on the Beis Din.

The weight of this realization was like a death sentence. And no one spoke after this. Adina simply left, careful to be home before her husband so that his dinner would be hot and ready and not thrown, cold, and scattered at the tips of her toes.

The Beis Din threw the case out of court.

She has a mental illness!

She has self-inflicted wounds! 

She suffers from depression!

She refused to cooperate with the marital therapist! 

She endangered the life of their only child!

She is prone to bouts of manic episodes!

Adina fell to her knees crying out in prayer as if the room of men before her were the court of G-d Himself. As if the mere goodness of her soul, the merit of all her righteousness, and the debts paid through all her suffering would be enough to incite justice from mere mortals. Men whose offices were lined with the custom shelving purchased and donated by her in-laws, the very shelves that held the books of Torah law meant to instruct a righteous life. As if these pious men, dedicated to the careful observation of six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, were capable of exacting true justice.

Despite all of this, Adina, your husband is committed to you. He wants to be married to you. You should be thanking him, not trying to ask for a divorce. At this time, your husband will not provide a get to you, and we, as a court, rule in his favor. If you still wish to insist upon a divorce against the will and permission of your husband, then you shall be sentenced to the chains of marriage. We hereby declare that henceforth, until her husband sees fit, Adina is an agunah.

Adina looked up from the tiled floors of the Beis Din, noticing now how filthy they were. How dirty. They were deceptively clean when she first arrived, separately from her husband, accompanied by her mother and father who now wept quietly in the corner, mourning the verdict of their daughter, destined for chains. Who was responsible for allowing so much filth to collect on the floors of the Beis Din, she wondered, her eyes steady and staring as she remained hunched over as if praying the Aleinu of the high holidays.

Her husband crossed the courtroom and, in one swift motion, lifted Adina to her feet.

Come, he beckoned, you know where you have to go. Make it easy and go without a fight.

And for the first time, she remembered the room. She remembered the chain.

Adina pulled her arm back.

Think of our son! Her husband spoke in a harsh whisper. Think of what can happen if his mother doesn’t comply with the ruling of the holy court. Think of what the court might rule next about a mother who refuses to abide by Torah law.  

Fear constricted, wrapping its claws around Adina’s neck as tightly as her husband’s fingers grasped her arm now. He was right. The only way to fight for her son was by not fighting at all. She followed willingly. The entire Beis Din accompanied them to their house to assert that their ruling be carried out to the law.

They all walked through the front door, Adina and her husband first, followed by the men of the Beis Din. Down the steps to the basement, they passed the carpeted room with recessed lighting lined with drawers and shelves of all their son’s toys, a plush sofa, a toddler-sized art table. Down further, through the hallway, toward the door that Adina once briefly poked her head into when she was still a young bride.

Adina entered the room. To the right was a small, twin-size bed, fitted with sheets, a quilt, and a pillow. There was a nightstand with a single lamp, a bowl with a washing cup inside it, and a siddur and Tehillim. There was a desk to the right with a chair and a narrow door that led to the bathroom, where a toilet and single shower stall stood beside a small sink with a cup that already held Adina’s toothbrush. And there was the chain: the metal cuff at the end of a long chain that was attached to the center of the room and bolted into the ground.

Adina’s husband signaled her to sit in the chair by the desk as the room crowded with the judges. All standing with their beards of varying length and color. Their tzitzit hanging in white threads down the outer thighs of their dress pants. Their black velvet hats sitting at different preferred angles on their heads, hiding their velvet kippahs beneath. Their suit jackets open, too small now to close around the gut of their protruding bellies. Their pockets lined in gold and silver threads, sewn in by the family whose name she was destined to bear until the end of her days.

Adina sat. She watched her husband pick up the cuff from the center of the room and walk it back across to her. The heavy chain link dragged across the wooden floor, filling the room with something louder than Adina’s humiliation. It stretched all the way across to the very end where she sat waiting.

Remove your shoe and sock. Adina’s husband’s voice sounded unfamiliar, as if it were a different voice from the one that asked her many years ago to be his wife.

Adina bent over, slipping off her loafer and the nude stocking sock, never once lifting her skirt or revealing even an inch of skin. The rabbis looked down at their shoes during this time anyway, waiting for Adina’s husband’s next command to signal their need to witness this act. To give this their seal of approval. So that every person in that room could acknowledge that Adina was now an agunah under all their watchful and approving supervision.

Adina’s husband pulled out his ring of keys. There on it was a small key she had never noticed before. Had it been there all this time, hiding, waiting, lurking? He took it and unlocked the cuff, the metal splitting open in two, and then he brought the open mouth of it behind Adina’s lower leg, snapping it shut around the slope of her ankle. It locked in place with a gentle click.

It is done. You are now chained to me.

The rabbis nodded and, one by one, they turned and left her. They left her chained, locked in a room, taking everything from her, binding her to this sickly root of her home. A prisoner of all their making.

Her ankle bled for days, the sensitive skin chafed and eaten raw. She found bandages in her nightstand drawer, and she applied them each day until calluses grew. The skin grew tougher, more resilient. It still bruised often. She woke in the middle of the night in pain if she didn’t sleep carefully.

At first she tripped often over the chain, the chain that was so heavy to lift, and it still is. No one besides her son has entered her room since the day it was filled with judges. She hasn’t seen her husband since he last uttered those words: It is done. You are chained to me. Sometimes she would repeat those words over and over in a manic and compulsive way. It is done. She married him. It is done. She let him manipulate her. It is done. She let him throw things at her. It is done. She let him chain her. It is done. She let him take her son. It is done and cannot be undone without her husband’s permission.

Outside her window, she listens to the proverbial sounds of Brooklyn life: Honking horns, stroller wheels rolling across cement, children squealing, the revving power of a lawn mower roaring to life, the sirens of a distant ambulance. But inside, it is quiet. It is empty. The world cycles and re-cycles, and another day, another week passes with her chain weighing her down from the ankle up. Her parents send letters with her son, secret messages, informing her of how they are pleading on her behalf, pleading her case, protesting. But she has already heard about the banquets honoring her in-laws, her husband being invited back to speak at the yeshiva he graduated from. All their honor and prestige while they keep her chained in a basement one hundred feet from where her own son loses himself in imaginary play.

And when she cries herself to sleep at night, she can hear them. The others. Chained in basements and attics across the city, across the country, across oceans. Women who have fought in chains for years. Women who have died in them. The sounds of the men who put them there drowning out their weeping, as they link arms, dancing in dizzying circles, growing in mass and strength. Their voices shouting up songs of prayers while the loud, clapping, thunderous sound of their dress shoes slam atop the wooden boards that seal the fate of the women they put there. All their pious rejoicing pushing forward, drowning out the women, so that all G-d can hear are the sounds of men stepping higher on the backs of chained women.

Talya Jankovits, a multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, has been featured in numerous magazines. Her poetry collection, girl woman wife mother, is forthcoming from Keslay Books in 2024. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and resides in Chicago with her husband and four daughters. To read more of her work you can visit her at, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @talyajankovits.