Saturday, March 01, 2014

Blessed by Scandal

Picture a young woman nineteen years old standing on the deck of a ship, sometime about 1900. She is on a journey to a land both strange and familiar, the land of her ancient ancestors. Her black dress stretches down to her black shoes, and the lace apron that clings to the top of her dress is something she crocheted with her own nimble fingers. In one hand, she clutches a prayer book. The other pushes her glasses higher up on the bridge of her nose. She brushes back a wisp of hair pulled loose by the wind. She has a sharp mind, a quick wit, and a surprisingly strong sense of irony for someone so young. She is leaving safety and comfort of the only world she has ever known, and she is heading for a new one fraught with peril. She is on a journey to prove to those she left behind that they are wrong about her. There is a prayer on her lips and hope in her heart.

This is my great-grandmother Bat-Sheva, a rabbi’s daughter and, through no fault of her own, a young divorcee.

She is on a journey from Poland to Jerusalem, the city where one of her ancestors—the woman whose name has been passed down in her family for thousands of years—was once a queen. Now it is under strict Ottoman rule, as it has been for centuries, but that will change in a few years. Soon she will be a witness to history.  But on this day she thinks about her tarnished reputation, and still she holds her head high.

It wasn't her choice to get divorced. It wasn't even her choice to get married, not exactly. She was a rabbi’s daughter from Poland. He was a rabbi’s son from Austria. They were from two of the most respected rabbinical families in Europe. Everyone had agreed that it was a good match.

A year later, however, her groom changed his mind. He demanded a divorce, claiming that she was barren. How could he stay married to this girl, if she couldn't bear him any children? What would become of his illustrious family line with no one to follow him? And so a divorce was granted. And so the rumors began. Bat-Sheva wasn't fit to be a wife. She couldn't have children.

But she knew something others did not, and in her old age she would joke about it with her many friends. “How could I have had children with him?” she asked. “We never shared a bed. It would have been a miracle!”

At nineteen years old, though, my great-grandmother could share her secret with no one. After all, who would believe that a rabbi's son would not sleep with his wife for an entire year? The Torah demands it. Nature, for most men, demands it. So what sort of man would not fulfill this mitzvah? She couldn't simply tell people the truth. No one would believe her. She had to prove she was not the barren girl her husband had claimed.

But she was a rabbi's daughter. She couldn't marry just anyone. And no rabbi wanted his son to marry a barren woman. People talked in two countries and in every country in between. Everyone knew the rumors. But only she knew the truth.

As luck would have it, she wasn't alone.

In another part of Europe, there was a rabbi's son whose reputation had been similarly tarnished.

My great-grandfather's first wife had “decided to become nonreligious,” which was a common euphemism in the orthodox Jewish world to describe a woman who had run off with another man. Of course, you can imagine the gossip. No rabbi wanted his daughter to become this young rabbi's second wife.

My great-grandmother and great-grandfather found out about each other, probably through a matchmaker. It was decided that the best course of action would be for both of them to start over in a place where they had no reputations, a place where they would be wanted, a place like Jerusalem.

 Holocaust survivors attempting to get into British Mandate Palestine with the Exodus in the background on July 18, 1947. (The Palmach Archive vis PikiWiki) My great-grandmother Bat-Sheva arrived when the land of Israel was still under Ottoman rule about fifty years earlier.
People sometimes think I'm brave, because I’m raising autistic son. I think I am about as brave as the great-grandmother I am named after. I am brave through lack of choice. What other choice do I have? What other choice did she have? She could have let the lies and the gossip destroy her, or she could try to fix the situation. And so she uprooted herself and set out on a journey to fix it.

I've learned three lessons from my great-grandmother’s story.

First, we shouldn't judge and we shouldn't gossip. No one truly knows what goes on in a marriage, except for the two people involved. Some of my friends have gotten divorced, and I’ve seen their friends take sides and play the blame game. “Whose fault was it?” they say. “I don’t want to take sides, but it was definitely . . .”

I don't want to hear it. They don't know the whole story; and until they do, they have no right to judge. If they are truly my friends, I will support them both.

Second, people who love each other should be together, and people who don't love each other shouldn't. Why is this so difficult for some people to understand? I don’t know why my great-grandmother’s first husband never shared a bed with her, but clearly he didn't love her the way a husband should love his wife. Perhaps he loved someone else, and perhaps societal pressures prevented the two of them from being together. We all deserve love. We all deserve to be happy. And when two people are denied that, the unhappiness it causes ripples out into the world. Love is hard enough to find, and there's nothing we want more. Who are we to deny it to two people who are fortunate enough to have found it in each other?

And finally, I learned that sometimes bad things happen for a reason. Perhaps it was not enough for my great-grandparents to get married, so they could have my grandmother Rivka. Perhaps it was necessary for both of them to suffer from gossip in Europe so that when they married and started a family, it would be in Jerusalem. My great-grandmother saw the Ottoman Empire replaced by the British Empire, and she saw the British Empire give way to the Jewish state. If she had stayed in Poland or Austria . . .

At nineteen, my great-grandmother stood on the deck of a ship, with a prayer book in her hand and something to prove. And soon her prayers were answered. 

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