Enforced Marginality: Jewish Narratives on Abandoned Wives

Enforced Marginality: Jewish Narratives on Abandoned Wives

Enforced Marginality: Jewish Narratives on Abandoned Wives

Enforced Marginality: Jewish Narratives on Abandoned Wives

Synopsis

This illuminating study explores a central but neglected aspect of modern Jewish history: the problem of abandoned Jewish wives, or agunes ("chained wives")--women who under Jewish law could not obtain a divorce--and of the men who deserted them. Looking at seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany and then late nineteenth-century eastern Europe and twentieth-century United States, Enforced Marginality explores representations of abandoned wives while tracing the demographic movements of Jews in the West. Bluma Goldstein analyzes a range of texts (in Old Yiddish, German, Yiddish, and English) at the intersection of disciplines (history, literature, sociology, and gender studies) to describe the dynamics of power between men and women within traditional communities and to elucidate the full spectrum of experiences abandoned women faced.

Excerpt

My father deserted my mother when I was still in utero, returned when I was six months old, and left, never to be seen again, when I was about a year old. My mother raised me by herself, supporting us with strenuous work in garment factories as an “operator”—the term for a seamstress who operated machines. Gaining authority solely through absence, the invisible, missing husband and father became a potent center of our small family, but my mother and I developed very different sensibilities in response to this absent figure. She, devastated and humiliated by abandonment, saw herself as incompetent, incapable of “holding onto a husband,” and felt both victimized and ashamed of her victimization. I, on the other hand, although always aware that I was a fatherless child, refused to see myself as a victim, and surely not the victim of an invisible phantom who had run out on me in some vague, unremembered past. But even as a phantom, he did nevertheless exist for us; and because to no one that my father had deserted us. He was to be considered dead, and although I was not an especially obedient child, I maintained the silence. But my unacknowledged rage at being left impoverished, vulnerable, and silenced was occasionally relieved by creating new, ever-more-dreadful causes of his death each time anyone asked about him. Only decades later, when I finally divested myself of the debilitating secrecy and silence imposed on me, could I begin to understand not only that the shame that was rightfully . . .

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