Sins of the Husbands

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"Women's Minyan" a play by Naomi Ragen, The Toby Press, 2006, $12.95.

During the rehearsal stage of her debut play, which examines women's abuse, silence and suffering within the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community of Mea Shearim, Naomi Ragen met with a prominent Haredi rabbi. She offered him a deal: The rabbi would secure a meeting between Rachel, a woman who had escaped domestic violence, and her children, estranged from their mother ever since. In return, Ragen would tear up her contract with Habimah, where her play based on Rachel's story was due to be performed. The rabbi asked for some time to think about it. Later he replied to Ragen that he could not - or would not - comply with her conditions.

Ragen says she was not surprised by the rabbi's refusal. In a recent conversation with this reviewer, Ragen, author of six novels, says that "we [both Rachel and herself] didn't believe that the play would help Rachel, but maybe it could help other women. It was part of the process of inching our way to understanding these women's reality, turning it into common knowledge." Ragen says the play aims to break through the wall of collaboration and silence that surrounds the issue of abuse in the Haredi world. "None of the Haredi audience that came to see the play complained that it was untrue, just that there was nothing they could do about it," she notes.

From its inception, through its writing, performance and recent publication, Ragen's play has been part of a dialogue between life and the stage. What roots the play is the true story on which it is based, and the heavy presence of real and shattered lives behind the dialogue and stage directions. Ragen's close and ongoing relationship with Rachel, her real-life inspiration, raises a host of challenging questions about the borders between art and activism, the responsibility of a writer to her 'sources' or muses, and how to comprehend the damage to a protagonist's real life that exposure on stage can do.

"Women's Minyan" is not an easy read, and at times even risks melodrama. But it would be wrong to categorize the play as sensational or sentimental. Even as an unperformed bare text, it paints a wrenchingly sad tableau of loss, helplessness and hopelessness.

The action takes place in a claustrophobic space, a room in a Mea Shearim apartment that becomes a stage on which lifetimes of frustration, anger and distress are played out. The tragic fall from grace of Chana, model mother of 12 and community counselor, dominates the narrative. Escaping the murderous beatings of her husband Yankele, she is shut out of her previous life. Her community closes ranks around the husband, accusing Chana of abandoning her family and dishonoring him, and forbids her to see her children.

Armed with a court order mandating access to them, Chana arrives for her first visit home in two years. The reception committee - mostly antagonistic female family members and acquaintances, many of whom still regard Yankele as "saintly" - tells her that, apart from the two eldest daughters present, Chana will be unable to see her children. Chana proposes the 10 women form a minyan, a prayer quorum, not to pray, but as a court of opinion of her peers, to listen to her side of the story and decide for themselves whether she deserves to see her children. The full extent of years of suffering emerges, and the minyan finally votes to allow Chana access.

Currency of fear

The minyan and its independent vote is a victory for free choice and collective action by women, which runs counter to the values of the Haredi community as expressed in the play. As such, it is doomed to have a symbolic rather than an actual effect. The hollowness of the women's authorization victory is clear when, during the much-anticipated offstage meeting, Chana's children turn away from her in terror. The community's rabbi has told the children that Satan took their mother away and, as Chana's most loyal daughter, Shaine Ruth, declares to her mother, "if they looked you in the eyes, they'd die."

The play explores the social and religious intimidation that keeps the community together, with more than a dash of physical coercion in the form of the Modesty Police. Any step outside the norm is an irreversible act replete with the danger of expulsion. Even those willing to accept such consequences are paralyzed by the shadow that would be cast on their children's future lives - in particular, their marriage prospects.

Ironically, in escaping a savage marriage, women like Chana are faced with the risk of sentencing their daughters to inauspicious and unwanted, if not necessarily violent, marriages. Chana's escape meant the derailment of a match with a promising yeshiva student arranged for her eldest daughter, Bluma, leading to the daughter's intense bitterness toward her mother.

The currency of fear in these women's lives is yichus, or lineage, used to evaluate the relative standing of a potential matrimonial candidate. The "contamination" of a family's yichus is a material and spiritual defect that continues through the generations. Ragen's work reflects the way in which a threat to yichus can justify violence. According to a recent study, over 13 percent of Haredi men agreed that a husband may beat his wife if she causes problems with a marriage arrangement for their children. Since there is no obvious mechanism of "rehabilitating" yichus within the community, abusive marriages imprison women even more securely.

Even if women are courageous enough to escape, no justice system aids them. The writ of secular courts carries little clout in a community that recognizes only the judgment of the religious court system. Chana's challenge to the minyan simply to hear her story reverberates forcefully when contrasted with the voiceless passivity of women in the rabbinical courts - "Taliban or Iranian-style religious courts" as Ragen describes them.

The bleak image of life in the Haredi community portrayed in Women's Minyan and its staging in the heart of Tel Aviv to a largely secular audience (the play was first performed at Habimah in July 2002) could leave its author open to charges of "Haredi-bashing." Ragen's response to this charge is clear-cut: "All societies should be open to criticism. The crime [of abuse] is the offense and not the exposure of that crime."

There are few images of happy marriages or relationships in general in Ragen's play; men create a balance of terror at home and in the bedroom; obedience is the cardinal female duty; slander and gossip are pervasive and are consciously manipulated by communal leaders to divide and rule, to break autonomous thinking and solidarity. Modesty squad vigilantes police the community, illustrated in the play by the broken arm and leg inflicted on Chana's friend Zehava at their hands when Chana sought sanctuary with her.

Saints and sinners

Apart from dramatizing the dark side of Haredi life, the play has a self-consciously strong polemical, campaigning tone. This is particularly blatant when reading the script, unmediated by the characterization of actors in a performance. On the one hand, Ragen clearly aims to raise awareness of the invisible suffering of Haredi women, who are usually outside the public's consciousness. On the other hand, it shows how the issues raised by Chana's story are universal: marital abuse is hardly confined to the Haredi community, nor are Haredi women the only ones locked into abusive relationships. It is this polemical tone that raises the first of several problematic issues in regard to the play.

A polemical play does not hesitate to state its position and its sympathy for specific characters that embody this position. In the case of Ragen's play, it is hard to argue with the play's message, but the reader feels intimidated by the bluntness of its expression. Like a morality play, the cast is divided into saints and sinners, and despite the partial redemption/conversion of the sinners at the end, many of the characters appear to be two-dimensional mouthpieces, ironic and disappointing in a play with real biographies as its source.

The theme of abuse itself is also stretched toward caricature. Late in the play, there are revelations of additional sexual, financial and moral abuses committed by Yankele against Chana, boys in his yeshiva, Zehava and even his sister. Strangely enough for the moral of the story, it is not the abuse endured by Chana that tips the minyan's balance in her favor, but rather the additional horrors revealed by other characters.

The effect of such a surfeit of abuse is problematic. Surely Chana's original charges are more than sufficient? Do the other charges not detract from the seriousness of marital abuse? Is the abuse of a sibling so much more shocking than that of a spouse? Does the play run the risk of depicting Yankele as evil incarnate, a character so grotesque and a story so exceptional that few broader lessons can be learnt? Does 'everyday' abuse seem insignificant, not worth protesting, next to Yankele's monumental horrors?

According to Ragen, the writing of the play was done with Rachel's full knowledge and cooperation. Although mindful that the public staging of the play could damage her chances of seeing her own children again - art influencing life - some artistic naivete also seems to have been involved. There were moments of elation during the staging of the play, and encouragement from the public; some members of Rachel's family did actually contact her, while a number of theater-goers were sufficiently moved to offer Rachel assistance in the form of legal and financial support.

But after the dust settled, her Haredi contacts broke off in the face of social pressure, and the theater-goers' momentary solidarity yielded little follow-up. Worst of all, the latest rabbinical court decision cited Rachel's public "brazenness," a coded reference to the play and its impact on "her children, their honor and good name" as a key reason for "this abnormal and problematic situation." Eleven years have now passed since Rachel last saw her children.

It could be argued that such is the fate of many whistleblowers who face up to strong institutions. Ragen herself asserts that "only good has come out of this [play]" for Rachel and for other women caught in the same trap of abuse and exclusion. "There is a new openness in the religious courts, some of the harsher rabbis have been removed, and there is the start of a debate about removing the rabbinical courts' jurisdiction over some child custody cases to the civil family court system. There are now shelters for abused Haredi women and their children", she remarks.

Ragen recently organized a fundraiser for Rachel - now divorced but without alimony, in poor health and living in squalid conditions in an apartment in Safed. Is this a breathing space, a time for recuperation to regroup energies to continue the fight? Or is it recognition of the end of a chapter, and the start of a new life, whatever such a trite expression might mean for her?

In whatever way Rachel's personal narrative develops, one vivid phrase from the play sticks in the mind, spoken by Chana's ever-faithful friend, Zehava: "A man doesn't need a gun to kill a wife. He can squeeze the life out her, drop by drop." And in Rachel's case, even an ex-wife can be prey to the slow and painful murder of self, motherhood and hope.