Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Alter's Divorce, i


           Each Spring, after the conclusion of Purim, Alter Ashkenaz brought his wife to the rabbi in Podloz for a divorce.  Each year, something or someone intervened, and the divorce failed to happen.    
           In the beginning of their marriage, it was Alter’s heart which was the most formidable obstacle.  He dearly loved his young wife Sarai.  But after the first two years of marriage, it was apparent that Sarai was barren.  Alter was forty-five, and had been married before.  His first wife bore a son who died before his circumcision.  Then she bore another son who died along with her hours after the difficulty delivery.  After the period of mourning, the town matchmaker approached Alter and arranged the marriage with Sarai. 
            So, when two years elapsed without a baby, Alter surmised the problem lay with Sarai.  The two remained tight lipped about the problem.  What was there to say?  She visited the ritual bath every Friday, and following the evening meal, they would go to bed.   
            In a quiet, but devout way, they loved each other, and that loved spilled over its decorous limits into passion.  But their fervent union brought no children.  When Alter couldn’t sleep with Sarai because it was her time, he was glum, not because he couldn’t share her bed, but because once again she was not pregnant.  Yet another month without a child; yet another month and Alter was no closer to having an heir to help him in his cobbler’s shop. Yet another month with the growing dread that he would have to divorce the woman he loved or grow to old age without children.
            “You should divorce her immediately,” Mendel the baker, whose shop was next to Alter’s, constantly chided him.  “She is barren – it is your obligation to bear children.  To remain married to her is a sin.”
            “No,” Alter shook his head and drew smoke from his pipe.  He sat on a sack of flour in Mendel’s bakery, and watched his friend kneed dough.  “I should give it more time.”
            “Time!” Mendel spat. “Who has time?  May you live to 120!  The Lord gives and the Lord takes, and Blessed be the Name of the Lord.  The Talmud says a man can divorce a woman for any reason at all!  Because she spoils his dinner, or because another woman turns his head…”
            “She would not consent,” Alter answered tightly.
            “Consent!  Heavens Alter, you act like a greenhorn.  You don’t need her consent.  It’s up to you.  If you can divorce her for burning your kasha, you can certainly divorce her for not bearing a child!”
            Alter dispelled Mendel’s words, but their echo rang through his mind.  He watched Sarai walk about the house, cooking, cleaning, mending, and a hundred times he found the words on the tip of his tongue.   
            Then, three years after their marriage, right after Purim, he suddenly uttered the horrid words.  He found himself saying the dreaded phrases to Sarai with his eyes downcast, for he could not bear to look at her face.  He could only gauge her reaction by her wavering voice, which was brimming with tears.
            He still did not look at her as he hitched the horse to the wagon and she climbed aboard.  A divorce must take place in a city with a river, so they had to make the day long journey to Podloz, where a branch of the Vistula flowed through the center of the village.
            They arrived, and Alter placed his fist on the door of the rabbi’s house, a prelude to knocking.  But then he heard the sound of gentle crying.  He was surprised to find it was his own.  His heart was broken.  He could not do it.  Sobbing, he grasped Sarai by the arm and led her to the wagon.  They climbed up and did not speak the entire ride back.

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