A pair of letters that I came across recently sheds light on an aspect of Eastern European life forgotten in light of the tragedies that followed. With emigration composing for the most part of men who left the shtetl with the intention of eventually sending for their wives and children, the inevitable issue of agunot would occasionally develop. Towns and cities of Eastern Europe were littered with agunot, deserted wives, women who refused to receive or were not granted a divorce writ, known as a get; widowed women whose brothers-in-law refused to grant them permission to remarry (yibum); women whose husbands’ remains were not found, women who received improperly or incorrectly written gets; women whose husbands became mentally ill and were not competent to grant a get; and women refused a get by husbands who had converted to Christianity or Islam.
These letters sent by the Brisker Rav, R. Yitzchok Zev Halevi Soloveitchik (1886-1959) to Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, tell of a different scenario, one caused by the British blockade against Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael.
The letter written from Brisk to Tel Aviv describes the scenario where the husband moved to Tel Aviv but the wife was unable to obtain immigration papers to join him, leaving her alone and in effect an agunah for over four years. The second letter (typed) follows up on the matter, asking Rav Herzog if any progress was made.
Despite the Brisker Rav’s known anti-Zionist stance, it is interesting to see the respect and honorary titles he bestows upon Rav Herzog, the official Chief Rabbi of Israel at the time. A scion of the Soloveitchik rabbinical dynasty, the Brisker Rav is commonly referred to as the Gri”z (an acronym for Gaon Rabbi Yitzchok Zev) and simply “the Rav.” He was known for his stringency in halacha and advocacy for non-participation in the Israeli political system.