Beaten, silent and forgiving
What can I do? Praise God. What suffering, what torment I went through. The tears I shed. It's impossible to tell the whole story. But you remember. You remember everything. The shouts, the blows, the curses, the threats. I only wish that evil Jews should go through everything I did. All day. He never gave me a minute's rest."
Listening to this story, one wonders how the person telling it can praise God. But maybe that is what battered ultra-Orthodox women do: remain silent, reconcile themselves, smooth things over and, above all, forgive. Not only their husbands, but God, too.
She is in her forties. The more the violence increased, the more religiously strict the family became. The more she and other family members were subjected to the husband's assaults and terror, the more pictures of rabbis were hung on the walls. She wears black and a crimson head-covering. A fine face, strong features, olive skin stretched across high cheekbones.
"It's a miracle that no marks are visible," she says, rubbing the sensitive area, a souvenir of one of her husband's many attacks, this one five years ago.
It happened on Shabbat eve: Her husband smashed her face against the floor. Her forehead split open to the temples and blood flowed freely, to the terrified screams of the children.
"After the Kiddush he sat at the table," she recalls. "I was standing by the sink, as usual, busy arranging the food. He asked for something and I guess I didn't hear him well, or didn't understand what he wanted. What does it matter? Suddenly I'm on the floor. I was living my life in constant fear. You don't know where the next blow will come from, when he will drag you by the hair through the house. I got used to it. I stopped thinking that he would murder me, like I did at first."
Her husband has not been in their house for a few months. He was forbidden from returning in the wake of an injunction issued by the Family Affairs Court. Since then he has disappeared from her life and she is no longer afraid of him. But she has new troubles. She has a terminal disease and is certain that it was brought on by the suffering and the ordeals she went through - because she was a victim and "took everything to heart," as she puts it. On the other hand, the disease is atonement for sins. Her husband was exultant when he heard that she was sick. But even now, you can hardly hear a bad word about him from her.
After that incident, when the blood streamed from her face, she did not consider calling the police or taking refuge in a shelter for battered women. The social worker who worked with the family heard about the assault a few days later and called the police, without her knowledge. She was taken by surprise when the officers arrived, she recalls, and she sent them packing.
Battered women keep their lot a secret in every society, but in the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) society the conspiracy of silence surrounding violence in the family is stronger, because marriage is a sacred institution and Haredim recoil from dissolving it. Seeking help from therapeutic agencies outside the community is often looked on as betrayal. Dirty laundry is not hung outside.
"I didn't think it was our way - to go to the police," she says. "I did not file a complaint. I told the police it was nothing."
Despite the threats to her life, she says she never went to a shelter for battered women, because of the shame. "I have grown-up children. I did not want them or their friends to know that I was in a place like that. I didn't want the neighbors to know." Yet the neighbors heard and saw and knew everything - and even testified on her behalf in court.
She lives in a distressed Haredi neighborhood, with long, train-like buildings, laundry hanging out on the front balconies and strollers piled up at the entrances. A scene of general neglect. The apartments are small and cramped. Nothing can be hidden here. The walls are thin. You can hear a chair being moved in the adjacent apartment, so how could people not hear plates being hurled against the wall?
"He broke all my dishes. If he wanted something and I didn't want to give him, then right away, smash - one dish and another and another," she relates.
She married at age 20, a pretty young woman from a religious home. Her husband grew up in what she calls a masorti (traditional) home. When they moved into one of the Haredi areas, they assumed the proper look: He wore a black skullcap and grew a beard. She wore stockings and kept her hair totally hidden. She removed the television set from the house. She registered the girls in the Haredi Beit Yaakov school. But all these trappings of righteousness did not stop the husband from using his wife as a punching bag. He never worked or provided for the family. She worked as a cleaning lady in yeshivas.
Immediately after they were married she became pregnant and at the same time got her first slap. Her memories of high holidays and the births of her children are bound up with violence. A number of events occurred around the Shabbat table.
For years she disappeared from home during some of the holidays. "The children," she says, "trembled with fear. When I was at home I couldn't leave them for a second. He would threaten and hit them."
Her husband would also not allow her relatives to visit. There were times when she did not have money to buy food for the children, and her father would come with full baskets and leave them outside, next to the door. He would knock on the door quietly with his fingernails, as a sign, so that the husband would not hear.
As a Haredi woman, she never stopped believing that the rabbis would be her salvation, but in vain. Years ago she opened a file in the rabbinic court, in the hope of getting a divorce. She spent endless days attending exhausting deliberations, at the end of which the judges hesitated to instruct her husband to grant her a divorce. In the end, she says, they always sent her to rabbis who were supposed to make decisions about her.
"Finally I stopped going to the hearings. I saw that they were not making a decision and were not interested in helping me. The judges and the rabbis simply do not understand what a woman like me is going through."
It goes without saying that she did not get the rabbis' authorization to use contraceptives, with the result that more children were born to the violence-ridden family.
In 1999 the court did, however, make a rare decision: It ordered the husband to stay away from the house for a few months. This was after her mother died and her husband did not let her observe the mourning customs. "He brought a darbuka to the house and pounded on it 23 hours a day. He turned on the radio at full volume, and this when it was forbidden for me to listen to music," she relates.
The rabbis, then, acted only when they had the impression that the husband was interfering with his wife's attempts to uphold halakha (Jewish religious law). But even this decision was marked by indecisiveness: The husband had to keep away only during the day, from 7:30 A.M. until 10 P.M., and only on weekdays. On Shabbat he was allowed to be at home. "At night and on Shabbat he continued to torture me," she says.
Two years later, after the attack in which her face was injured, the court acceded to her request to order her husband to stay away from the house altogether. But this did not help because the decision was temporary and the husband did not obey it. She was certain that after years of pleading, of court deliberations and neighbors' testimonies about the acts of violence, she would be allowed to get a divorce. In one of the hearings at this time, such a decision appeared to be imminent: A date was set for a hearing in which the husband would be ordered to give her a divorce.
"I was certain that this was the end of my suffering. But when I went back to the court they again sent me to some rabbi and threw the decision on him." That rabbi, she adds, did not have the impression that her suffering had reached its full measure. "There is no need to break up the home over this," he told her.
The magic incantation "domestic harmony" was uttered again and the routine of beatings and threats continued unabated.
It was after she fell ill that she found the inner strength to act on her own and went to Bat Hamelech, an association that helps religious women in distress. She relates that when she returned home from the hospital after surgery, physically and mentally exhausted, her husband said he should say the "Hallel" prayer for her approaching death. He made fun of her appearance, her skeletal body, and when she read Psalms in bed for her recovery he told her it wouldn't help. He also kept her family away.
"This is your punishment!" he screamed. "You are paying for everything you have done to me."
When he conveyed his message to the neighbors and everyone knew what was going on, she went to the Family Affairs Court and obtained a permanent restraining order keeping him from the house.