My Bubby, The Agunah (Part 2)
In last week’s column, Pesach-Yonah Malevitz honors the memory of his dear bubby on her 41st yahrtzeit by relating an incredible story that unfolded in her early years. Henya-Bluma, as the youngest of several siblings, was the only one still living at home in Korostyshev, Ukraine when her elderly parents whose welfare she had seen to passed away within months of each other. Not long thereafter, the young single woman left the country of her birth at the urging of a sister who had asked her to come live with her and her family in Chicago.
Shortly after stepping foot on American soil in December of 1909, Henya-Bluma was coaxed by her kin into meeting a “nice young man” — whom, it turned out, they’d never seen before. Since she sensed that she was invading her sister’s private space, Henya-Bluma agreed to the shidduch without much ado … and soon found herself living with a virtual stranger in their newly purchased home located in a non-Jewish neighborhood.
Henya-Bluma’s serious problems set in almost instantly after marriage — when her husband had her minding his grocery store all week long, including on Shabbos. The tenacious 22-year old would not be deterred; even as she sat behind the counter of the grocery on Shabbos, she made sure not to desecrate the holy day and devised her own little stratagem to avoid being mechalel Shabbos.
Her infuriated husband took matters in hand by locking his wife in the house whenever he went out and otherwise turning into an abusive and aggressive spouse.
Part one of the spellbinding account concludes as Henya-Bluma hands their mail carrier a letter through an open window. She had unburdened her tale of woe to a beloved uncle — a rav and a sofer who had immigrated to the United States at the same time as his niece.
Read on and be inspired as our author – the grandson of a remarkable and courageous woman – continues his narration.
Henya-Bluma received an answer to her letter within a few days. Her uncle wrote that she was to leave immediately and that he had already spoken to his daughter, Sarah, who agreed to have her cousin stay with her and her family.
According to plan, Sarah and her husband came to fetch Henya-Bluma by day when it was presumed that her husband would not be home. He was — and watched wordlessly as she packed her few things and took her leave.
Upon her return to the Jewish section of Chicago, Sarah and her husband arranged for Henya-Bluma to see their friend a divorce attorney — who was confident that she would be granted a civil divorce without a hassle. (A civil divorce was legally required before a bais din could issue a get.)
As the attorney had predicted, the judge awarded Henya-Bluma the divorce. Since she wished to have no further contact with her husband, she declined alimony. The divorce proceedings over with, Henya-Bluma approached her husband in a gesture of good will and told him how sorry she was that things hadn’t worked out.
She wished him luck and said she had but one last request of him — that he grant her a get. He looked her in the eye and coldly informed her that for as long as he was alive he would never give her one. He then walked out of the courthouse and disappeared.
Henya-Bluma went to work full-time at a Jewish-owned factory and rented a small apartment nearby. The next five years were uneventful as Henya-Bluma carried on with her job, read Tehillim, davened from her Tchina and had no expectations of change to her lifestyle. The whereabouts of her husband, who had sold the grocery and rented out their house, were unknown to anyone.
Henya-Bluma occasionally ran into Leah, a middle-aged widow who lived downstairs in the same apartment building and was employed at the same factory, in a different department. Whenever they would meet in the hallway or on the street, they would greet one another cordially but were not really friends.
One day Leah knocked on Henya-Bluma’s door. She had come to tell her neighbor that although they were not well acquainted, Henya-Bluma made a very favorable impression on her — and she had a friend whom she knew from way back in Melitopol, Ukraine. Yosef Pearlman was a 34-year old widower whose wife, Rochel, had passed away a few months earlier from tuberculosis at the age of 29.
Their three children – an 8-year old girl and two boys aged six and two – were placed in the Children’s Home since their father worked full time as a tinsmith. Leah extolled Yosef’s virtues and added that she thought the two of them would make a good shidduch.
Henya-Bluma listened politely, then confided in Leah about her agunah status. Yosef sounded like a very nice person indeed, but her own husband had refused to give her a get and she didn’t even know where he was.
An emotional Leah hugged Henya-Bluma and expressed her hope that things would work out for the younger woman and that the two of them could become good friends.
What happened next was pure hashgacha pratis. A few minutes after Leah left, there was another knock on Henya-Bluma’s door. This time it was her recalcitrant husband standing before her, with a smile on his face. He had come to tell her that this was her lucky day… she was going to become a rich woman.
He then let her know that he had a buyer for his house but that the realtor reviewing the documents had learned that the house purchased after his marriage belonged to them both. As co-owner, Henya-Bluma was entitled to half the profit of the sale of the house. All she had to do was sign some papers he had with him.
Henya-Bluma kept her apartment door open all the while that he was there. She looked him straight in the eye and told him that she did not want one penny for the house and would sign the papers accordingly — after he would give her a get.
Give her a get? The man was delirious with joy. Here he thought he would have to give her half the profits of the house, and now he would get to keep all the money for himself! Of course he would give her a get!
Henya-Bluma told him that her uncle Chaim Nuchem Winarsky, a rav and sofer, lived within walking distance and that she wanted him to accompany her there straightaway. The uncle was quite taken aback at the sight of the two of them but wasted no time in making the necessary arrangements for the bais din.
On the appointed day, the rov told Henya-Bluma’s soon-to-be-ex-husband to hand her the get. As he did so, he produced a document with his other hand for Henya-Bluma’s signature, by which she would relinquish any profit from the sale of the house. The man walked out the door with the signed document and was never seen or heard from again.
This time it was Henya-Bluma knocking on Leah’s door, to relate the news of her good fortune. As Henya-Bluma would have to wait a halachically-mandated period of time before remarrying, Leah suggested that she and Yosef meet at her place for tea and get to know one another. If things went well, they could put up a chuppah at the appropriate time, G-d willing.
After several dates, Yosef took Henya-Bluma to meet his children. They bonded immediately and the children could hardly wait to finally come home to a real home again. They married in 1916 and had three children together: my mother, Eedis (1917-2006) and my uncles Yonah-Dovid (1920-2011) and Avrohom-Meir (1924-1986).
Yosef’s three children from his first wife were Faiga (1907-2000), Yehudah Laib (1909-2001) and Yitzchok Yisroel, born in 1913. My Uncle Yitzchok Yisroel is a ben meah, ad meah v’esrim.
My grandfather Yosef Pearlman (1881-1971) and grandmother Henya-Bluma (1887-1972) lie next to each other at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
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