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.