Wanted: Missing Jewish Husband

Wood background Wild West style

How Jewish women used newspaper ads and editorial stories to track down their deserting husbands.

by Haim Sperber

What could you do in the 1800s if you were a Jewish woman married by Jewish Law, and your husband went missing one day, leaving you stuck in a dead marriage for life? Not much. That is why thousands of distressed wives tried to take matters into their own hands by taking out newspaper ads asking the public to help them track down their husbands. Between 1857 and 1896, there were more than two thousand of these agunot ads in Jewish newspapers, with the majority (70 percent) published by women who were deserted by their husbands. In most of the other cases, the husband had died, and his body could not be found or identified. Without a get from her husband, the woman was stuck in the bad marriage forever, so many figured it was worth the effort to post newspaper ads to track down the husband, possibly get the signed get from him, or, at the very least, learn the truth and get closure.

Searching through newspaper ads

The first Hebrew newspaper to mention agunot was Ha-Magid, published from 1856 to 1903 (first in Lyck, Prussia, and then elsewhere). The first advertisement was published by Eliezer Lipman Zilbermann, the editor and publisher of Ha-Magid, who put the finding of deserting husbands on the top of his newspaper’s agenda. Advertisements were published free of charge in most cases, and a typical ad provided information regarding the deserter: his name, age, color of hair and beard, color of eyes, height, scars, and other unique features, while information on the abandoned wife was rare. Occasionally, an ad would be published in more than one newspaper, but more often than not, ads only appeared in a single paper.

Women’s relatives, mostly fathers, would publish the ad in a newspaper, seeking information on the whereabouts of a husband. In many cases, the facts in the ad were verified by the local rabbi or communal official. If a woman wanted to publish a series of pleas, she had to pay for the ads. The best known case of paid advertisement is that of Bassia Freizetova, who published her requests in three newspapers in 1883. Freizetova also tried other routes to find her husband, such as appealing to rabbis and local Russian authorities. In some cases, women would publish an ad and then try again after a decade or more if she still hadn’t heard anything. Occasionally, a woman or her relatives offered financial rewards.

Most agunot ads were published in Hebrew newspapers. Yiddish, not Hebrew was the major spoken language by Jews in Eastern Europe, but Yiddish newspapers were scarce and published locally, unlike the Hebrew newspapers. Only in early 20th century America did Yiddish newspapers became a major publishing force of the agunah plight.

Because, in some cases, women supplied the editors with false information, ads were published only after the editors verified the validity of the information. For example, in June 1871, the editor of Ha-Magid reported on some instances in which a husband went away for business and, after a few weeks, the wife approached the newspaper complaining of desertion, the editor finding out later that the husband had returned by the time of publication.

In order to avoid such problems, the editors notified potential publishers of ads, instructing them on what it should include, and letting them know they would “not advertise any ads concerning agunot if the matter would not be presented to us by the Rabbi or communal officials of the place where the agunah resides.” Henceforth, no ads would be published without rabbinical consent and, in many cases, the rabbi himself would write the advertisement, which was then posted as a letter from the rabbi to the editor. In other cases, the ad was written by a correspondent of the newspaper or an official of the community.

Expanding to editorial stories

Another way a woman’s plight of marital desertion would become known was through publication of her story by a newspaper correspondent. Stories would be initiated and followed up by a correspondent of Ha-Magid. Many deserting husbands were traced across borders by correspondents, the most notable of which were Ber Dov Goldberg in Paris, David Fishman in Tiberias, and Shlomo Behor Hutzin in Bagdad.

The editors encouraged their correspondents to pursue the elusive husbands. Such was the case of Libbe Marcus. David Meyer Marcus left his wife Libbe twice. In the second abandonment, he emigrated from Russia to France. The Paris correspondent of Ha-Magid, Ber Dov Goldberg, was very helpful in finding Marcus and preparing the get, and the editor even helped Libbe reach Paris and receive the get. In some cases, readers added information that helped to apprehend the deserter.

Sometimes the editors published incorrect information in their pursuit to locate a deserter, as happened in the case of Itzhak Ha-Cohen. In 1881, in a letter to his family, Itzhak stated that he intended to go to Bombay, India. By later that year, all contact with him was lost. An advertisement was published in Ha-Magid on January 17, 1884, detailing the route Itzhak took in 1881 from Breslau through Italy, England, and Egypt; meanwhile, the family moved from Breslau to Serbia. On April 3, 1884, a correspondent of Ha-Magid in San Francisco wrote that Itzhak had moved from the East Indies to Los Angeles. However, the original advertisement was then republished on September 24, 1884. A possible explanation is that the name Itzhak, the son of Moshe the Cohen, was a very common Jewish name; the San Francisco correspondent must have reported on the wrong Itzhak.

Media changes along with the main problem

In the four decades between 1857 and 1896, there were 2,772 cases of agunot that appeared in newspapers, 2,546 of those in Jewish newspapers. About 75 percent of the media sources on agunot were advertisements. However, the percent of ads dropped from 88.9 percent in the first decade to 60.2 percent in the fourth. On the other hand, the number of news reports on agunot rose from 31 in the first decade to 330 in the fourth. This is a reflection of the professionalization of Jewish media.

In most cases, the disappearing husbands were not found. Only 20 percent of deserting husbands were located, resulting in the wife receiving her get. Still, this was a much higher percentage than in previous periods.

More important was the role of newspapers in raising public awareness to the phenomenon. Much of the Hebrew and Yiddish literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries dealt with agunot. In fact, a great deal of the poetry and fiction published was inspired by cases that appeared in the newspapers.

The contemporary agunot situation is altogether different from late 19th century Eastern Europe. Today’s agunot are assisted by international organizations that use the ever-present media and the current public sphere in more sophisticated ways than in previous times. Additionally, since 2013, there have been two meetings of the Agunah Summit, the purpose of which is to demonstrate the existence of systemic solutions within Jewish Law that can resolve current agunah cases and prevent future ones, and to commit as a community to their broader application.

Not only did media coverage change concerning agunot, but also the nature of the contemporary agunot phenomenon is different. Most agunot nowadays are women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get. It has become less about tracking down missing husbands and more about husbands refusing to give their wives the get.

About the Author

haimDr. Haim Sperber is a senior lecturer at the Western Galilee College in Israel where he chairs the interdisciplinary studies department. Dr. Sperber is an historian who has investigated various topics, including 19th-century agunot, 19th-century English chief rabbinate, 19th-century Anglo-Jewish philanthropy, and Anglo-Jewish leadership. Dr. Sperber is also a member of the Haifa university forum of researchers of immigration. During his stay at HBI’s spring 2015 seminar, “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Agunah Problem,” he will continue researching agunot in Jewish society from 1897 to 1914, a continuation of his research on agunot from 1857 to 1896 on which he published a few articles.

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