The Chained Wife, an Excerpt
By Maria Lerner, translated by Chloë (Zisl) Piazza
Maria Lerner (1860-1927) was born Miriam Rabinovitsh in Berdichev, Ukraine. She married Yoysef-Yude Lerner, who founded a Yiddish theater troupe at the Mariinsky Theater in Odessa. There, he staged productions of many of his own translations and adaptations, in addition to producing the works of others, including his wife, who herself became a prolific playwright. The Chained Wife (Di agune) was produced at the Mariinsky in 1881, on the eve of the 1883 Russian ban on Yiddish theatre, making it the earliest performed Yiddish play by a woman playwright that we know of. The Chained Wife, and this scene specifically, offers a glimpse into the mind of an early Ashkenazi feminist, using the Yiddish stage to tackle one of the oldest struggles faced by Jewish women: that of the agune, a woman who is abandoned by her husband without a proper divorce, and is therefore, in literal translation, "chained” to an unwanted marriage and unable to remarry as long as her husband neither returns to provide a divorce nor is discovered to be dead.
In the following excerpt from The Chained Wife, Rosa’s husband Neumann has abandoned her and left her an agune. She is still in love with Adolf (she has been since before she married Neumann) and wants to marry him, but she first needs a get, a divorce. Rosa’s family has sent out a messenger, Yisroel, to try to track down Neumann to retrieve a get, but they haven’t heard any word from him in some time. Her father, Grossman, who has just been sent to rest, is quite literally sick with guilt that he masterminded a plan to thwart the love between Rosa and Adolf and instead arrange her marriage with Neumann, who quickly turned out to be a crook.
This scene zooms out and offers a bigger picture of the conditions of Jewish women under rabbinic authority in the mid-to-late 19th century. Likewise, it offers an inside look into the feminist aspirations of some 19th century Jewish women more generally, and of playwright Maria Lerner in particular. Lerner makes a deliberate choice to have Adolf articulate the woes of Rosa's position, rather than Rosa herself, perhaps because the social environment in which this play was staged may still have been more open to hearing these criticisms voiced by men rather than women. While Adolf carries the weight of Rosa's tragic fate in this scene, Rosa mostly resigns herself, perhaps as a consequence of her powerlessness to change her circumstances, to dreaming her way into a livable reality, rather than concerning herself with the unlikely possibility of changing the ways of the world.
—Chloë (Zisl) Piazza
Excerpt from The Chained Wife, Act III, fifth curtain, Scene 1
The scene is an ordinary guest room.
ADOLF: Oh, poor old man. His conscience never lets up. He’s burdened by the weight of his mistakes! Such great regrets…
ROSA: (Returning) He’s lying down. Hopefully he can get some rest… I was afraid he might have another attack like the one the other week…
ADOLF: The reason he’s doing worse than us, Rosa, is because it’s on his account that any of this happened at all. It was his own doing. Could you ever have imagined we’d find ourselves in such a situation?
ROSA: Why, yes I could, Adolf. I remember how you used to speak to me… You said something like this would happen if we weren’t always here for each other. What we wanted so desperately to be between us—it was possible… but Neumann is an unusual kind of man.
ADOLF: You didn’t want to believe me. It could have been something entirely different if your father hadn’t been so fooled by Neumann and so disturbed by the interest there was between us. We could’ve been so happy.
ROSA: Oh, don’t speak that way of my dear father. You see how he’s suffering now, how ill he’s become over this! The matter allows him no peace!
ADOLF: The matter couldn’t allow anyone peace!
ROSA: You’re mistaken, my dear. I myself am quite calm. I don’t allow myself to be terrified by the thought that I might be left here an abandoned wife. Our love simply must be realized through an honest, decent life together. This situation is the last thing standing between us. If you think about it that way, it’s almost a relief. Believe me, Adolf, one fleeting moment of your love is worth more to me than anything in the world. I simply don’t know what else a person could possibly need. I believed you were dead to me, and now I have you once again!
ADOLF: Oh Rosa. Rosa! How could I possibly redeem myself from how I’ve sinned against you? How could I possibly answer for how little I knew you, my smart, blessed Rosa? But I’ve already been punished, and it’s quite punishment enough to see you next to me knowing you love me as much as a person can love, and yet you cannot be mine.
ROSA: Why can’t I be yours? I am only yours. If I cannot be your wife—I’ll be your sister! Listen to me, Adolf. When I really think it over, I can see our relationship divided into three parts. You’ll see how peaceful, how joyful these phases can make us, especially the last part, if we think about it this way. It’s bittersweet: in the first part, I was your beloved Rosa. Oh, how good it is to recall the days; how pleasant it is to remember those precious moments! The second phase is when I was your bride, but not your living bride. No, your adorned and beloved bride lying in her grave. Your dead bride. She was lying in her grave when she went to the canopy with Neumann. But after that, at long last, we can finally enter into the third and final phase—the period of our love—and feel happy and joyous and glad!
ADOLF: No, we can feel neither happy nor glad! That man will not keep you chained forever! We will find him and he will no longer stand in our way!
ROSA: Well, when we are freed from him, we can cross that bridge. In the meantime, I must believe with every bone in my body, I must completely immerse myself in the possibility of that third phase of our love. When I am no longer your bride, but your sister… Oh, how precious, how dear we are to each other. Your sister, Adolf, is your best friend. You will always be able to talk to her about your deceased bride, because she knew her so well. With your sister, you can while away the bittersweet hours, reminiscing about every trait of your dear, beloved bride who is no longer in this world. You are always looking to be in the company of your sister, because she—and she alone—can give you the materials to truly remember what once was, my dear beloved brother! My heart does not ache for your beautiful bride, resting in her grave, but for you, my brother, only for you! How glad will I be in those moments, when I can finally sit with you and ease your suffering, hear you out, empathize with you. And if there comes a time when your sister notices that your pains are beginning to heal, that your worries are getting smaller… Oh, then, Adolf, she will strive to remind you of your deceased bride less and less often. However lovingly she speaks of your dead bride, your sister will hide all of her feelings. She will be happy that her dear brother is finding peace and forgetting what once was. And if there comes a time, when your wounds are completely healed, and another woman can take the place of your dead bride, then your sister will no longer exist for you, and it just may be that then you will build a new and joyous life for yourself… I don’t want you, on my account, to deny yourself the greatest joy life has to offer—that of a family life!
ADOLF: Rosa, you may be able to make yourself happy through all of these fantasies of yours. There is nothing you cannot find in your gentle heart. But I—I cannot. I can only find joy in reality. Fantasies do not make my situation any easier, I cannot lull myself. I would only feel so good if I knew there were some kind of sacrifice I could offer that would free us once and for all from this law that binds our Jewish daughters. The law that gives no guarantees, no protections for our sisters and daughters, so that their lives should not need to depend upon the evil wills of depraved men. Yes, Rosa, I feel the harsh reality and I see what it is that you need to escape through your fantasies… Oh, what is it we are chained to, my dear Rosa? To Neumann’s will! You are not the first and you will not be the last to bear the name of a chained wife. Oh, how many women—young and fair—are faced with living their whole lives with that mark of abandonment. How much misfortune is in that name—waiting for a slim chance, at the mercy of evil men. For no good man leaves behind an imprisoned wife like this! So many Jewish daughters are paralyzed—they see a beautiful world before their eyes, oh how it draws them in. They want to move but they are chained! My dear, I feel their suffering, and I cannot find peace. I cannot lull myself to sleep while I am trapped in a cradle of cobwebs. Oh, how strict these laws are. We must abandon them! Jewish women sacrifice themselves and live their whole lives lamenting—their parents and friends suffering with them… Women generally suffer more than their share amongst all peoples. There are so many causes for their suffering, but more than anything it is caused by women being materially dependent upon men. He who gives bread—he is a master! Yes, much time will still pass before the woman is no longer chained to the man any more than the man is to the woman.
ROSA: There should at least be a limited, decided upon amount of time that we must wait for a man who has abandoned his wife… but to be entirely with no limit! Oh, to be an abandoned wife is worse than being punished as a criminal!
ADOLF: There’s no timeframe—no term! Maybe one day it will be different. If the Rabbis wanted, they could make it so. There have been some who have written about it. You see—a man who has been thrown out by a woman can still remarry, though it never happens. When does a woman throw out her husband? Where does a woman have such a free world? Where does a woman get the kind of education that would allow her to live independently? Yes, seldom does a woman throw out her husband, but an abandoned husband can seek freedom. Avenues for a man’s freedom have always existed and remain so now. Because men have always had more rights than women. Even amongst us Jews, where women have been more valued than amongst other peoples. Until the ban of Rabbenu Gershom, every man had the right to have multiple wives. The ban forbade having more than one wife, and was in effect for a hundred years. But after that, it remained as though it were a law that people had been steadfastly observing for many generations. That’s the reason why when a woman throws out her husband, several rabbis or very learned men can free him, because it was just a ban, not a law.
ROSA: So, what? So how do you suppose the Rabbis would be able to make it so that a woman can also be freed from forever being an agune, a chained and abandoned wife!? Of course they aren’t bound by the ban of Rabbenu Gershom forever; that’s why they can permit abandoned men to remarry. But is it not according to Torah that a woman may not have two husbands? Surely that’s more than a ban?
ADOLF: We do have one possibility: when the groom puts the ring on the bride’s finger, as he says, “hare es hamekudeshes” (“Behold, with this you are betrothed to me”), he should insert the words that she will be his wife under all circumstances except if he should leave her for more than three years.
ROSA: So why is that not always the way it’s done?
ADOLF: Do you think that the Rabbis resolve all of their questions as quickly as I can discuss them with you? You don’t know, Rosa. There are some rabbis who are so attached to every single letter that they can’t allow a single reform. It’s not that they are doing this out of malice; they’re simply so strongly bound to the letters. You and I, my dear Rosale, we won’t wait for a reform. If only Yisroel would return with that divorce. That way we could freely discuss these larger questions with a little less suffering.
ROSA: It’s been a long time since we’ve received a letter from him. Not since he wrote from Kiev that he was traveling to Odessa and from there back home… we haven’t heard a word from him. I simply don’t know what to think.
ADOLF: I’m sure the reason he hasn’t written is because he’s expecting to return home soon. But with or without a divorce… that I don’t know.
ROSA: However it turns out—we’ve worried enough!
ADOLF: Well, Rosale, I must go. I’ll be busy until 8 o’clock. Try to relax, Rosa. You said yourself that your own will has the power to calm you down. Don’t be too worried, dear. (He hugs her.)
ROSA: Why do you fret like this? Why do you feel so hopeless about the situation?
ADOLF: When I see your troubles, I forget all about mine. Adieu, I’m going. A shame that we must work; I would much prefer to remain here.
Chloë (Zisl) Piazza is a doctoral student in Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, with designated emphases in Jewish studies and gender and women's studies. They hold a master’s degree from Brandeis and a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Simon's Rock College. Their research focuses on depictions of racial, sexual, and social difference in Jewish literature as a mechanism for both exploitation and solidarity in service of clarifying a Jewish self-concept. When not performing the role of grad student, they perform original queer Jewish gorelesque. For their full translation of Di Agune, see Women on the Yiddish Stage, eds. Alyssa Quint and Miryem-Khaye Segal, forthcoming from Syracuse University Press. This translation was supported by the Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship.