The start of a New Year. The house sparkles. The smell of freshly-baked challah and sweet kugels waft through the kitchen. The shelves hold honey, the fruit bowls scarlet pomegranates and yellow-green star fruits. All my family is gathered around me, children and grandchildren. I feel rich with blessing, and unutterably grateful to G-d for His endless bounty.
And yet, along with the brightness and joy, there will be some dark shadows, cast by people facing quite a different kind of New Year.
There is the Rebbitzen “Ruth” whose adulterous husband is living in a penthouse with her twelve children, while she lives in a dungeon of an apartment in the basement of a decrepit building in Meah Shearim. It will be three whole years she hasn’t seen her children. Since I wrote of her, a second daughter got married. She, like her sister, never invited her mother. She never even called to say she regretted the situation. “Ruth” has developed breathing problems and is taking cortisone. Her doctor says it’s her living conditions. Her teeth are in bad shape too, and her glasses recently broke, but all those things will have to wait. All her money has gone to pay her lawyer. She’s deeply in debt, and doesn’t know how she’s going to be able to afford to continue her fight to get the rabbinical courts to give her back her children. For the second time, I saw her cry. The first was during a shiva call for her father, where she sat alone, unwelcome to join her family. And now she wept again, realizing for the first time, she says, that no court can bring her children back to her. They have been so brainwashed with lies, only a miracle could convince them to seek her out.
In the midst of all my personal happiness, I can’t forget Ruth.
Then there is M. A., mother of five, whose mentally-ill husband from a prominent Rabbinical family, abused her for years with the silent acquiescence of rabbis, to whom she went for help, and of neighbors, who heard her screams. When M.A. finally went to the police and the newspapers, her husband fled, leaving her an agunah. He also left her with a 25,000 NIS bill for pornographic phone calls. Her religious-Zionist community has shunned her, unwilling to believe she is telling the truth (a pattern that keeps repeating itself shamefully in religious circles concerning abused women). But after all she’s been through, M.A. has grown used to living without her neighbors’ help. This New Year, however, she risks losing the only way she has of feeding her children: The principals of both State religious schools where M.A. has taught English for the last six years are doing everything in their power to have her fired.
They are her neighbors, both religious men, pillars of the community. I wonder if they’ll think of her, at their festive New Year’s tables?
And what about “Devorah”, my little lost girl? After her family abused and starved her to convince her and her sister to go to an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school, the two girls finally ran away from home. They wound up in a shelter full of prostitutes and drug addicts. Finally overcoming their fears, they contacted a social worker, who found them immediate housing in a shelter run by kind , religious people. She is not used to eating so much, Devorah tells me. And they are good about giving her clothes. But she’d like to go to a regular school, not the small class in the shelter. And she’d like to take guitar lessons, and invite her friends over….She’d like a real home.
As I sit in the synagogue praying, I know the following words of a haredi reader from Square Town, New York will also shadow my thoughts: “I am just wondering why in an unperfected world, you choose to attack one group of people for their failures?” he asks.
It’s a good question, and this is my answer: “Seek justice. Relieve the oppressed,” the prophet Isaiah says. That was the true goal of Judaism, I remember being taught as a yeshiva girl so many years ago. But where does one start? I think everyone has to begin in that tiny corner of the world they call home. The silent shadows at my New Year’s table are my friends, my neighbors, part of the religious world I call home. And although there are those in my world who persist in calling “evil good and good evil,” I still have faith that the religious Jews among whom I live are the most likely candidates to take G-d and Isaiah seriously.
It is my New Year’s prayer that I will merit seeing that faith rewarded. That I will see “Ruth” reunited with her children, living in the home she deserves, her family repentant for all the suffering they’ve caused her. That I will see M.A. supported by loving neighbors and a caring community. That I will see the Rabbis who failed her — and so many other women — begging her forgiveness and promising to do better in the future.
That I will see Devorah growing and happy, preparing to embrace life and all its possibilities with joy. That I will see her and her sister reconciled with their parents, who will ask their daughters’ forgiveness for caring too much about cold, abstract ideas, and too little about the needs of warm, living girls.
Oh, what a beautiful sight that will be! It’s Isaiah’s vision. The same one that keeps me going.
A happy, healthy New Year to all of you.