Filmmaker tackles the complicated process of Jewish divorce

Filmmaker Beverly Siegel.

Hannah Boxerman, St. Louis Jewish Light

It sounds almost medieval: women seeking a divorce, but “chained” to their husbands through their refusal to grant them a get, or an official bill of halachic divorce. A 2011 study estimated that there are more than 462 of these women, called agunot, in North America. Facing extortion and the inability to remarry halachically, the “chained women” and their families are either forced to bow to exorbitant demands in return for a get or remain technically married.

 

Beverly Siegel will be at Bais Abraham as part of the synagogue’s fundraiser on Sunday, June 16 to discuss “Women Unchained”, her 2011 documentary about agunot. The Jewish Light spoke to Siegel about the process of making the film and why the issue of “chained women” matters to all Jews.

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How did you get involved with this project?

I have a friend whose daughter couldn’t get a get—it took a year and a half and close to half a million dollars.  When you’re drawn to these social justice problems, it’s very often because you’ve suffered from the absence of justice in a particular sphere. So after that experience my friend wanted to expose the issue and do something to promote justice for Jewish women, and she enticed me into this project. It took me a while to decide to take on the project—making an independent documentary really turns into a labor of love. I became really passionate about the issue the more I learned about it.

Were women easily willing to share their stories?

There were many people who had stories to share, but it was very hard to find people whose stories could gel into a good, watchable documentary. There were a lot of issues involved; there are a lot of women who are willing to share get-related issues they’re having but not a lot who are willing to go public because they don’t want to jeopardize their ability to get a get. They were having trouble anyway, so why make their lives more difficult by exposing a husband who was in the midst of extorting them or withholding? There were all kinds of reasons why it took a long time for the pieces to come together.

This is a serious topic, yet the film still has flashes of humor.

This topic of agunot could be very grim and kind of depressing, but my partner and I did not want to make a depressing movie. Many times we just ran into very humorous situations—and you know, Jews are really good at making jokes out of horrific situations and seeing the light side. Sometimes, that just helps you gets through the night. One thing I want people to know is that this movie has a happy ending, and it’s got humor. It’s a good watch; it’s not like you’re going to come in and be depressed for two weeks. You’ll walk out feeling great.

So what do you recommend to women who are facing a get-related issue?

My primary message to audiences is that those who enter into a halachic marriage must be very careful. The best way to do so is to sign a prenuptial agreement, which is not the kind that you go to a civil lawyer to draw up. It’s a halachic prenuptial agreement that obligates the man to support his wife, generally at the rate of $150 a day, if the marriage breaks down and a get hasn’t been given. So there has been progress in the matter of preventing agunot because of this prenuptial agreement. But, once a woman is already in a halachic marriage, and if the marriage breaks down, and if the man is holding out for vengeance or extortion and there was no prenuptial agreement, she’s really has a problem! The Talmud says that if you save a life you save a world, and saving one woman from being an agunah is saving a world.

Get-related issues are generally considered to be unique to the Orthodox community. Why should Conservative and Reform Jews be mindful of the issue of agunot?

It’s true that if you have a Conservative wedding ceremony and you have a divorce and your husband won’t give you a get, they have methods to provide it for you. If you stay in the diaspora, you won’t be extorted. But, if you then get re-married and have children and those children decide that they want to be more traditional and get married with an Orthodox ceremony or in Israel, your children will have a problem [the wedding will not be kosher without a kosher get—you are still halachically married to your first husband and your children are halachically illegitimate]. The reason that the get issue matters to all Jews these days is that we really are a wandering people. We wander spiritually and we wander geographically. You don’t want to be in a situation where a decision you make Jewish-ly affects what your children do or who and how they could marry. They start out in Missouri, they could end up in Israel—you just never know.