Darryle and Michael Gillman of Lincolnwood were determined to get the story out — to make sure others knew about the nightmare that their daughter was forced to endure for years.
They urgently told that story to local documentary filmmaker Beverly Siegel, and as disturbing and astonishing as it was, Siegel wasn’t in a position to jump into it right away. But once she and filmmaking partner Leta Lenik started, they knew they would not let go until “Women Unchained” was completed.
The documentary, which was eight years in the making, is a comprehensively-assembled examination of the heartbreaking and infuriating difficulty that women face in obtaining a Jewish divorce — known as a “get.”
Screened Sunday at Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation, it contains an array of women who tell different stories with certain commonalities: Men in each case held power over them by denying gets and standing in their way of moving on. Their lives were frozen as their husbands exerted vengeance, extortion and even blackmail, because the system and the way it was implemented allowed them to do so.
One of those lives belongs to Darryle and Michael’s daughter, Ariel.
“Seven or eight years later, we’re doing OK,” said Michael Gillman last week, a few days before the screening. “But what we went through was more than just eye-opening.”
Ariel married her husband in 1988. Ten years later, Michael said, “the marriage exploded” when she learned her husband had been having an affair with his business partner. Although she tried to stick it out and even went to marriage counseling, the relationship was clearly irreconcilable.
But Ariel was soon to find out that her husband was handed all power over whether to grant a get.
In the end, the great support from Ariel’s family, the threat of exposing her story in the Jewish press and the willingness to pay dearly — but unfairly — gained Ariel her freedom. Others are not so lucky.
Michael Gillman said that when he went through Jewish divorce court to try to unchain his daughter, he found many women in the same situation.
Like Gillman, Siegel knew of the issue, but she didn’t know the extent of it until she began to research her film.
“It was hard to believe how many women faced this terrible thing and what they had to go through,” she said.
Actually, no one really knows how many women go through it.
One study over a five-year period reported 462 “agunahs” — defined as Jewish women chained to their marriages. But that number is clearly under-reported, Siegel said, and there are multiple factors that make accurate statistical reporting all but impossible.
What’s easy to say, though, is that the terrible experience of being an agunah is far more prevalent than most realize.
“Making an independent film is a labor of love,” Siegel said. “This one you might say is a labor of love gone very, very bad. It’s also been a labor of passion for justice, and outrage for the injustice that takes place in so many Jewish divorces where the get becomes — as they say — an issue.”
According to traditional Jewish law, an agunah in religious circles cannot remarry and start a new life until she receives a get from her husband — regardless of her divorce status in civil court. If she does so without the get, Siegel said, her children are regarded as “bastards” and she is considered in violation of Jewish law.
Although the filmmakers were uncovering a lesser-known controversy when they began making their movie, news about the agunah problem in Orthodox Judaism has more recently exploded.
This fall, Brooklyn Rabbi Mendel Epstein, who appears in “Women Unchained,” was arrested in a federal sting for assembling a group to kidnap and torture a husband into granting a get.
“He’s been a very controversial player for a long time in the underworld of goon squads and strong-arm tactics against get-withholders,” Siegel said. “Now he has been silenced. I think this arrest has really upped the ante on this issue for the Jewish community. I think it’s raised the urgency to an unprecedented level.”
“Women Unchained,” narrated by Mayim Bailik of “The Big Bang Theory,” premiered a couple of years ago in Jerusalem as the opening film in the Women in Film Festival celebrating International Women’s Day. Since then, the film has been featured in Jewish film festivals across the world including Toronto, Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Palm Beach, and even Brussels and Budapest.
It also has played at special screenings and had a six-week-run on the Jewish Channel on cable television.
Siegel said that while the material is “sad and grim,” it was not their intent to create “a depressing movie,” drawing inspiration from the Holocaust film “Life is Beautiful.” There are laughs in “Women Unchained,” but none of them take away from the serious-minded determination that clearly fuels the project.
“According to Jewish law,” Bailik says in the film’s opening, “a Jewish woman may not remarry until her husband gives her a special writ of divorce. It’s known in Hebrew as a get. If he refuses to give her a get, she becomes an agunah. She is a chained woman, a prisoner in a dead marriage.”
All Jews in Israel are subjected to these restrictions since the law of the land is Orthodox Judaism. But many Jewish women in the United States regularly suffer because of the agunah problem as well.
In “Women Unchained,” we meet five of them who have been seriously wronged, even physically abused, but they have not been able to gain their freedom — at least not until their former husbands have exacted a tremendous toll over many years.
“It was an abusive relationship,” says Carrie, one of the women interviewed for the film (only first names were used by the filmmakers). “He was actually taking food away from me. I weighed 88 pounds when I left.”
“You believe you’re nothing,” says Leslee, who was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship.
“As I was laying there on the gurney, I said to myself, ‘No one is going to convince me ever again that I am not worthy of breathing,’” says Jeanette, who was physically abused.
To break away from her husband, Ariel’s family has to pay the equivalent of more than $431,384 to her former husband.
The film is breezily paced, packed with important information along with the women’s heartfelt and sometimes-harrowing anecdotes. It is peppered with historical background provided by a cadre of knowing scholars and other experts.
Neither Siegel, nor the film’s activists, advocate changing Jewish law, but they believe there are ways to address the problem. A key one is for rabbis to require strong prenuptial agreements before they will marry couples. There are also creative interpretations of Jewish law that can better protect women.
“They have the tools,” says one of the film’s scholars, referring to the rabbis. “The problem is they’re not using them.”
Siegel believes all members of the Rabbinical Council of America should be forced to watch the movie and discuss why they don’t require a prenuptial agreement.
“I think there needs to be massive community education on this issue since all the rabbis don’t require the prenuptial agreement,” she said. “Every person needs to know about this so when they get married or their daughter gets married or their friend’s daughter gets married, they tell each other, ‘Don’t let that marriage happen unless there’s a prenuptial