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Little lies

By the time a young woman in an arranged marriage learns her groom's dirty little secret, it's too late

A friend of mine, who dabbles in matchmaking, recently shared with me a story about a successful match she had proposed.

The groom was from a “good family”; his father is head of a large hospital unit. The bride is also from a “good family.” Her father has a dental clinic, which employs around a dozen employees. His father is a professor, hers a doctor, it seemed like they were two peas in a pod. My friend only knew the mothers, but the similar socioeconomic status and background seemed an adequate indication for a good match.

Only a minor detail might have prevented the match from being finalized: the prospective bride was substantially older than the groom. However, this challenge was not difficult to resolve: the young couple was simply told that while the girl was indeed older, it was only by two years, a negligible age difference.

The match was good to go. The young people met, became a couple, and after several months of companionship decided to tie their future together. When it became clear that they had both been misled by the matchmaker regarding their ages, it was too late. Love had blossomed, and they decided the age difference was not an issue.

The fact that my friend lied when she made the match did not bother her. She said that in the matchmaking business everybody lies. In fact, she said, you must lie a little when making a match.

The match my friend proposed had a happy ending, but so many other matchmaking stories have ended in divorce. In my capacity as a religious court advocate, I have had the unfortunate job of representing many women whose husbands refuse to unchain them from marriages which had been misrepresented. So many trapped women, who might have been spared their fate, if only… I feel compelled to share the lessons of our labor.

Not long ago, a young woman in her mid-twenties came to me for help. She came from a Hassidic neighborhood in Jerusalem. She hated school, though her parents forced her to finish seminary. She loved to travel, dress up, buy clothes and go out with friends.

Hers was an arranged marriage. She had been told that the prospective groom was an easy-going man from another Hasidic faction in Bnei Brak. After the second meeting the two mothers awaited the confirmation of the young couple. There was not a single reason to think the match would not succeed. They were beautiful, happy and young, with a similar background: a match made in heaven.

Before the wedding they had never met alone. Their parents took care of all the wedding arrangements and the groom’s mother even designed the wedding invitation. His parents were eager to marry him off — perhaps too eager — but the bride’s side preferred to ignore this, and the wedding took place not too long after the couple had met.

Immediately after the wedding, the young husband began to disappear at night. When he returned in the morning, he was always accompanied by Arab men, whom he introduced as his colleagues.

About a month after the wedding, the young man told his bride that he was going abroad with Muhammad for a few days on business. This turned out to be the first of several trips. He began to be absent for days at a time and never brought home money, though on one occasion he gave her a watch he had brought from China.

The days passed. She became pregnant, gave birth and then was pregnant again. Her easy-going husband was not so easy-going with her at all. He had forgotten her existence. He performed his marital bed duties in a perfunctory manner, and very rarely at that.

On the other hand, his relationships with his friends from work became tighter. His wife found hotel and resort receipts among his belongings. It turned out that he had also gone on vacation with Muhammad.

The wife began to suspect that things were awry, and started asking questions. She then discovered what everyone else seemed to already know: her husband apparently preferred men. When she turned to his parents, she discovered that they were aware of his homosexuality and were therefore so quick to marry him off. The secret turned out to be not much of a secret after all. Everyone knew – except for her.

Another client, Sarah (not her real name), found out that her husband was mentally ill about a week after the wedding. She noticed that every morning and evening he took some pills, and when she inquired about the nature of these pills she was told they were vitamins. She said to him: “Forget about the vitamins, you are healthy and young, you do not need any vitamins.” The next morning she told him she threw his pills in the trash. “Don’t worry,” she said, “every day I’ll make you a garden salad, fruit, vegetable dishes. There is no need for artificial additives.”

But after a few days she noticed changes in his behavior. He acted strangely, was irritable and aggressive. He withdrew into himself, and it became increasingly difficult for her to communicate with him. Rummaging through his personal effects, she found prescriptions for psychiatric drugs. When confronted, he confessed and told her he had been hospitalized several times in recent years. Sarah felt that this was a terrible betrayal of her trust, and she could not bear the thought of being married to a man who had collaborated with such a big lie.

Since they did not have children or common property, it seemed that an agreement between the couple would be reached quickly and a divorce was imminent. But to Sarah’s astonishment, her husband’s parents made the divorce contingent on her signed agreement that she, her friends and her relatives must never tell anyone that her husband was ill. Sarah’s father-in-law insisted (through his attorney) that she deposit a large sum of money as collateral, so that if anyone ever revealed the state of her husband’s mental health, even by mistake, he would be generously compensated.

Sarah was shocked. She was certain that the judges would rule that such terms were absurd, that they contradict the halakhic [Jewish legal] ruling that one must explicitly tell the whole truth in matchmaking. But to her astonishment, even the rabbinical judges agreed with the husband’s family. She was told that she had to sign the agreement – otherwise, she could stay married to him forever. (As her advocate, needless to say, I refused to allow her to succumb to the extortion; we argued the case on purely halakhic grounds and ultimately, justice was served.)

Such lies are lies which are verifiable only after a prolonged period of cohabitation. As Jewish law forbids cohabitation before marriage, religious and Haredi youth who do not live together before the wedding are particularly in need of reliable information from the matchmaker regarding the match offered to them. Ironically, it seems that in the realm in which transparency and truthfulness are most required, in fact much concealment, denial and deception take place. We must do all we can to create a culture of openness, information and truth, in the hope that one day, none of our daughters, sisters or friends will find themselves trapped in this situation.

About the Author
Osnat is a rabbinical court advocate and attorney who serves as director of Yad L'isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network.