My Bubby, The Agunah
The following is a true story about my grandmother, Henya-Bluma bas Yonah a”h, that took place in Chicago around one hundred years ago. I wrote it in commemoration of her 41st yahrtzeit and felt it to be most apropos to your “Chronicles of Crisis” column. My wife and I would like to take this opportunity to wish you, your readers and Klal Yisroel a G’Mar Chasimah Tovah.
In gratitude….Pesach-Yonah Malevitz
The well-known opening line in the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – about how happy families are all alike, yet every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – brings to mind the countless number of unhappily-married Jewish women whose husbands refuse to give them a get.
On the occasion of her 41st yahrtzeit, I’d like to share an amazing story about my maternal grandmother, who was born in Korostyshev, Ukraine in 1887 and came to the United States in 1909.
Henya-Bluma was the youngest of ten children and the last one, understandably, to remain at home. Being that she was the youngest of a large family, her parents were “older” when she was born. By the time Henya-Bluma was in her early twenties, her parents were in their sixties — considered elderly for the beginning of last century.
Henya-Bluma saw to their welfare until her father Yonah passed away in October of 1908, followed seven months later by her mother Yehudis (pronounced “Eedis” in the Ukraine).
Not long thereafter Henya-Bluma received a letter from her sister, Rayzel, who had already been living in Chicago with her husband and family. Rayzel wrote to invite her youngest sister to come stay with them. Of Henya-Bluma’s siblings, all of them married, four had already left the Ukraine; two were in the USA, one was in England and one in Argentina. Her siblings still in the Ukraine were all busy with their own families.
As a young single woman living by herself, Henya-Bluma thought it best to seriously consider taking her sister up on her offer. But her mother had passed away just a little over a month earlier and it was minhag Yisroel to wait a year to put up the matzeiva. Before making any concrete plans to leave Korostyshev, she went to consult with the town’s Rebbe (HaRav Twersky of the Chernobyler Dynasty) who knew the family well. He advised her to wait at least six months and one day, after which she could put up the matzeiva and then leave for the United States.
In December of 1909, twenty-two year old Henya-Bluma Peker arrived on these shores. One of her nieces, Shayna-Malka Peker, met her at the dock and they traveled together by train from Baltimore to Rayzel’s house in Chicago.
Though Henya-Bluma’s sister and brother-in-law were very cordial to her, Henya-Bluma knew instinctively that she was imposing on them. Her sixth sense told her that they preferred her to be elsewhere.
Henya-Bluma was a mere few weeks into her stay with them when she was cheerily approached by her sister and brother-in-law about a shidduch they had for her — one that would “surely lead to the chuppah.” When Henya-Bluma asked for the name of the “very fine young man” they had in mind, they answered that they didn’t know him, but that he was a friend of a friend and that their friend had spoken very highly of him.
Henya-Bluma knew then just how anxious her sister and brother-in-law were for her to leave — desperate enough to speak glowingly about a young man they had never even met. She agreed to meet with him, figuring that if he were decent enough she would agree to the shidduch.
He came the following evening. Though he didn’t have a beard, he did wear a top hat — which made her believe that he was at least traditional in his beliefs. A few weeks later they put up a chuppah and were married k’das Moshe v’Yisrael.
Shortly after the wedding, the chosson bought a house in a non-Jewish section of Chicago where he operated a grocery store. Although Henya-Bluma spoke a halting English, her husband needed her to work in the grocery.
On that first Thursday evening, Henya-Bluma asked him what time they would be closing the store on Friday, since candlelighting was early. He answered that they were not in a Jewish neighborhood and that the grocery store would be open on Shabbos. When Henya-Bluma protested that she had never worked on Shabbos in her life, he told her that she would have to get used to it.
That Shabbos Henya-Bluma sat behind the counter of the grocery, absorbed in her Tchina. A customer entered the store and placed her selected items, as well as the money to pay for them, on the counter. Henya-Bluma told the woman that she had been unable to find her eyeglasses that morning and told her which button to press to open the cash register. She told the customer that she had an honest face and to just leave the money in the register. When the customer asked for change, Henya-Bluma told her she trusted her to help herself to the change.
When Henya-Bluma’s husband learned about this, he became livid with rage. He pushed her into the house, locked the doors from the outside and went to finish the shift at the grocery. That night he didn’t come home, and when he did arrive in the morning, she had a strong hunch that he had been unfaithful to her. When a wife suspects infidelity, she is usually right.
From then on, he was abusive and aggressive toward her — besides locking her in the house whenever he was away.
Henya-Bluma had two uncles who had come to Chicago around the same time as her. One of them – a rov and sofer – had been a surrogate father to her since her own father had passed away. Chaim-Nuchem Winarsky was very well known and respected in the Orthodox community in Chicago of a century ago.
When her situation became unbearable, Henya-Bluma penned a long letter to her Uncle Chaim-Nuchem, explaining her sad predicament and asking for his advice. When the mailman came to deliver their mail later that day, Henya-Bluma quickly handed the letter to him through an opened living-room window.
To be cont’d…Rachel
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