Dear Mrs. Bluth,
Fifty years ago, I married a man whom I thought to be a true ben Torah. Though I really didn’t like him and thought the fifteen-year age difference was too much, as the eldest of twelve children, I was under a tremendous amount of parental pressure. After the wedding and sheva brochos, we went to live in his home country where he had a job in his family business. I found his family to be very cold and distant, and people who viewed me as a necessary inconvenience. In addition, my new husband seemed to have turned into someone completely different than he appeared the two times we met before the wedding. I was afraid to speak to anyone about his rages, the first of which took places three days after we arrived in Europe.
We had spent the first two days and nights in his parents’ home, a large sprawling house full of children and grandchildren all speaking a language I did not understand and making little effort to speak to me in Yiddish or Hebrew, which I knew they spoke fluently. On the third day, we moved into a tiny apartment of our own and that night my husband struck me across the face for not having his dinner ready for him when he came home from work and before he went to shiur. How could I shop for anything to cook when I didn’t know how to ask for it or understand what the vendors were saying to me? No one had offered to help me or show me how to work appliances so different from what we had in Israel. I was in shock after that slap, not knowing what to do, whom to call or even how to use the phone to call my parents in Israel. So, I kept quiet.
Over the next ten years, we had four children and the rages, beatings and cursing continued and got worse. After each attack, he would apologize profusely, blaming it on the failing family business, and each time, I would forgive him.
Eventually, the family business did close down and we moved here to the States where my husband got a job as a rebbe in a yeshiva in Brooklyn. I was thrilled because I did have some distant relatives in New York and two of my childhood friends lived in Brooklyn. I was eight-months pregnant when we arrived and moved into a cold and dank, mold-infested basement apartment. The beatings intensified, the rages became daily fare and, still, I stayed silent, not wanting people to know, teaching my children to love and respect their father in spite of their ill treatment at his hands – and even though my fifth child was still-born, due to a well placed kick to my abdomen.
I made friends in my new neighborhood and we bought the house we lived in. My life took on a pattern of caring for my family, the house and babysitting four other babies to bring in a little extra money which I had to turn over to my husband. In the evening, the torment started and often lasted until he went to sleep. Soon, it was all I could do to conceal the black and blue marks, chipped tooth and welts that could not be covered up or hidden beneath clothing. What’s more, my older boys began being disrespectful to me, calling me the same names my husband used and even pulling my tichel off if I didn’t do something they wanted.
My daughters were terrified of their father, who treated them as he did me, and would disappear when they heard his key in the lock in the late afternoon. Many times they would vanish in middle of supper when he arrived home earlier than expected, and go to bed hungry. I realized that my children were adversely affected by what they saw and experienced at home and never spoke to anyone about their home life. Time went by, years in fact, and they grew up and married.
I often looked into they eyes of my daughters-in-law and in three of them I saw the same haunting, terrified look that I must have had after I married. But I never asked questions and they never brought anything up. Silence ruled. After the last child married, my matzav became life-threatening. His anger knew no bounds and one night, during a particularly brutal episode, he took a frying pan with hot oil and beat me over the head and face with it. The hot oil seared my scalp and burned the left side of my face, fusing my left eye shut. Not able to stand the pain, I howled and screamed in pain and shock, drawing the attention of neighbors who drove me to the hospital as I heard my husband explain that I clumsily left the frying pan at the edge of the stove and when I bent down to pick up a dishtowel, it tipped over on me… by accident. I was admitted to the hospital with third-degree burns to the head and face. The horrific treatment needed to deal with my wounds was the last straw for me. I finally understood that if I didn’t take drastic measures, I would die by his hand and it would all appear as an accident. Little did I know of the groundwork he had been laying over the years.
When I came home, I asked the rebbetzin of our shul for help. I poured out the anguish I had lived with for the first time. What the rebbitzen told me totally blew me away! She recommended that I seek psychiatric help immediately. She said my husband was an exemplary ben Torah, respected in the community, who had been sharing with them for years how he suffered from my personality disorders, frequent self-inflicted accidents to make it appear as if he had abused me, and terrible mood swings. She said that my husband had approached her husband for a heter meah Rabbonim because he knew I would refuse him a get! All those years I remained silent so as not to bring shame to my family! All those years of hiding evidence of his abuse, not telling anyone about what this rasha did to me and to his children, and this is what I had to look forward to? I simply couldn’t accept that the people who knew me would believe him, but they did!
When I came home, I called three of the ladies I had thought were good friends and they promptly told me not to call them again. The lady who had brought me to the Rebbitzen was the last of those who would eventually disassociate themselves from me. Even my children, for fear of suffering the same fate as I, turned their backs on me, as did all but one daughter-in-law who admitted to suffering the same abuse at the hands of my son, but now would no longer talk to me.
I, the abused wife, became an outcast and a pariah, shunned and excommunicated in my community and by my own children. Backs turned to me when I walked in the street and little children spit at me from school bus windows. My husband never had to ask for a heter meah Rabbonim, as I gladly and willingly accepted his get, forty-eight years overdue.
I have gone home to Israel and live quietly, alone amongst my own family who love and care for me and look after my needs. My nieces and nephews have become like my children. I daven often at the Kotel asking for mechillah for whatever I have done to earn such a punishing life, but thank Him for allowing me to live out my last years in the love and warmth of my family and plead for the health and well-being of my own children and children in-law, that they never know the pain and terror with which I lived and never inflict the treatment visited upon them on their own children, even though I know it may already be too late for that.
I ask you to please print my story to encourage any woman who experiences even one slap or shove, one foul curse levied by her husband, to speak to someone and listen to her heart. I know that not every argument or fight should lead to drastic measures such as divorce and that most troubles in marriage can be corrected and solved with the proper help and guidance, but it must be attended to and worked upon. Left unattended and shrouded in silence, the kind of abuse I experienced will leave women broken, alone and in constant pain.
Thank you, Mrs. Bluth, for offering a forum whereby women in crisis can reach out and receive the help, resources and empathy they so desperately need.
I too hope that the pain and anguish you share will touch the lives of others. Even though we have made some strides in the area of abuse, there is still a huge amount of work left to be done before we can say we have it under control and offer viable, practical support. There cannot be only one person in a marriage and thus in some situations – where this is any kind of abuse, mental illness and sometimes addictions – divorce becomes an inyan of pikuach nefesh.
My heart breaks for you and I hope that your story will offer the countless many living in fear, shame and pain at the hands of an abusive spouse to reach out to all of us who have made it their life’s work to save them.
I find it hard to believe that Hashem seeks to “punish” us with hardships and suffering. In my heart, I understand that you may accept it as such, but I know that after 120 years when you stand before the Kisai Hakavod and ask why you were put through so much, the answer will be truly clear and just, and will put your soul at ease. In the interim, He has given you peace and solace in the bosom of your family.
You have my love and support for any need that I can offer; you have but to reach out to me and, if it is within my power, it is yours.
P.S. To the many of you who called me out for “encouraging” the woman in her second marriage to divorce her husband, I would like to clarify that I don’t encourage divorce. I recommended that she, her husband and the daughters responsible for the marital discord seek professional help. However, if that can’t happen, and she remains unhappy, there may not be any other choice. Imagine how difficult it must be to be in a situation where your husband is always submissive to another person, leaving you on the outside.