For decades, the popular Yiddish daily published in New York – “Der Forverts” – printed a column called “A Galerie fun Farshvundene Mener” [Yid. A Gallery of the Vanished Husbands]. This section featured portraits of family deserters with a short life story attached. Every few days, the newspaper devoted more than half of a page to cover the stories of dozens of deserters who lived in New York. Since the beginning of the 20th century, National Desertion Bureau provided information about these men and thus raised the awareness of women desertion to a larger audience in the American Jewish society. 1
Becoming an Agune in America
The phenomenon of an agune, a deserted woman who cannot remarry according to Jewish law, intensified as the result of the Jewish mass migration to the New World and increased in numbers that had never existed before in the Jewish society. 2 Between the 1880s and 1924, before the implementation of strict immigration quota in the United States, over two million of Jews succeeded to settle here permanently. The migration process weakened the family ties and the time of separation between men and women who had not immigrated at the same moment engendered cultural gaps between the couple. The differences between a husband and his wife as well as the significantly difficult financial situation of the newcomers caused the disintegration of the family. The men who were disappointed about their marriage life or ashamed about their incapacity of sustaining the family resolved to abandon their wives and children in order to start a new life without burden. Stories of “Der Forverts’” writer and editor Abraham Kahan, such as “Yekl” (1896), perfectly reflect the Jewish immigrant families’ dramas caused by migration process and following it rapid acculturation of the husband. Whereas the upper-classes could afford costly divorce procedure, the impoverished newcomers from Eastern Europe chose the cheaper solution to end the marriage – desertion, that was soon to be labeled the “poor man’s divorce”. 3 The contemporary statistics of the charitable organizations and the press news reveal that the family desertion became a plague of Jewish American society at the beginning of the 20th century. 4
The Jewish elites of New York, acculturated German Jews who came prior to Eastern European immigrants were worried about the rise of desertion among Jewish population in New York. Their concern, however, did not have its source in the compassion for deserted women or in the belief in family importance for the Jewish society. The Jewish upper classes were afraid that the family desertion practiced by their Eastern European co-religionists would stain the good name of the Jews in the United States and even provoke anti-Semitism. 5Thus, the family desertion issue became of a great importance for the Jewish philanthropists who immediately directed their forces to establish necessary institution fighting against desertion among Jews in New York.
The National Desertion Bureau
In 1902, the National Council of Jewish Charities created a Department of Desertion that operated under its umbrella in New York. With time, the Department became a major section of the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies under the name The National Desertion Bureau (NDB) and eventually evolved into an independent organization in 1914. 6
The National Desertion Bureau opened its doors to agunes at 356 Second Avenue. The deserted women flocked into its offices, asking for assistance in finding their husbands. In its peak, the NDB dealt annually with over 5,000 cases of desertion. 7 The files of the NDB kept by YIVO reveal the diversity of the cases, differing in the reasons for desertion, wife’s attitude toward the deserter, and the final result of the investigation. In contrast to what it was commonly believed, the most frequent reason for desertion was not financial hardship, but other women. Moreover, the majority of agunes did not expect their husbands to come back, but rather desired to receive from them financial support and official letter of divorce.
The institution cooperated with charities, Jewish welfare organizations, as well as American police and courts. The deserters who had been found were forced to reconcile with their families or at least to sustain their children, under the threat of being arrested and incarcerated in a workhouse.
Farshvundene Mener or Farshvundene Froyen?
The Gender Discourse on Desertion in Yiddish Press
One of the other methods used by the NDB to locate deserters was publishing calls for these men in the Yiddish press, expecting the readers who recognize the deserters to provide information about their whereabouts. Regular publications of men’s pictures and their stories certainly brought to the popular attention the problem of the desertion within the American Jewish society.
The announcements in the “Gallery of the Vanished Husbands” did not refer to the women and the men equally and tended to marginalize the deserted women’s experience. The column featured the men as the main actors of the desertion story and left no place for the women’s voice. As noted by Bluma Goldstein, the deserters were not only described as only actors of the story, but they were also portrayed as adventurous men. The women, for their part, were assumed to be the passive victims waiting for their husbands to come back. 8
Nonetheless, that was far from reality. First of all, the majority of women who turn to NDB to find their husbands were not passively waiting for their husbands to come home and did not want to reunite with them. 9The numerous cases of desertions reported to NDB or other Jewish charities reveal that the agunes usually did not feel despair after the disappearance of their husband and tried to sustain themselves and their children on their own. Contrary to the common belief, majority of Jewish women in early 20th century America were professionally active, working in family businesses or in blue collar jobs. Many deserted women strove to stay in the job market after the desertion, becoming the only breadwinners of the family. They faced, however, underemployment and low wages that forced them at some point to turn for help to charities or NDB to locate the husband. 10 The case of Ella Sirkle who asked NDB to locate her husband fifteen years after deserting her illustrates the independence and strength of an agune who was a single mother:
“She claims that she never made very serious efforts to locate him [her husband] because she felt that she would always be able to support herself and the children and she enjoyed being independent. It was only after Mrs. Sirkle was unable to obtain further employment that she made any effort at all to locate Mr. Sirkle.” 11
Since the majority of publications on desertion had focused on narratives of the deserters, the agunes actively sought a platform to articulate their experiences. The agunes sent letters to the popular section of “Der Forverts”, “A Bintel Brief” [Yid. A Bundle of Letters], which portrayed the women as active actors of their desertion stories.
In contrast to the purely informative announcements in the “Gallery of the Vanished Husbands”, the women’s letters were personal accounts on desertion and on its consequences for abandoned wives and their children. As it has been said, not all of the women were passive victims of husband desertion and the letters reveal that nor the women considered themselves as such. Through the letters the women reasserted their agency in the public discourses on desertion.
- Fridkis, Ari Lloyd. “Desertion in the American Jewish Immigrant Family: The Work of the National Desertion Bureau in Cooperation with the Industrial Removal Office.” American Jewish History, vol. 71, no. 2, 1981, pp. 285–299.
- Schwartzberg, Beverly. “Lots of Them Did That”: Desertion, Bigamy, and Marital Fluidity in Late-Nineteenth Century America,” Journal of Social History, vol. 37, no. 3 (Spring 2004), pp. 573-600
- A Bintel Brief, “Der Forverts”, 06/08/1921 and 06/28/1921.
- A Galerie fun Farshvundene Mener, “Der Forverts”, 1924.
- Alroey, Gur. „And I Remained Alone in a Vast Land”: Women in the Jewish Migration From Eastern Europe,” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 12, no 3, pp. 39-72.
- Goldstein, Bluma. Enforced Marginality. Jewish Narratives on Abandoned Wives, University of California Press 2007.
- Family Desertion and Non-Support. Report of the National Desertion Bureau, for 1912-1915, New York 1916.
- Finck, Liana. A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, New York 2014.
- Friedman-Sigman, Reena. “‘Send Me My Husband Who Is in New York City’: Husband Desertion in the American Jewish Immigrant Community 1900-1926.” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, 1982, pp. 1–18.
- Hyman, Paula E. “Eastern European Immigrants in the United States.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on September 28, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/eastern-european-immigrants-in-united-states>
- Igra, Anna R. Wives without Husbands. Marriage, Desertion & Welfare in New York, 1900-1935, The University of North Carolina Press 2007
- Joselit-Weissman, Jenna. “Modern Jewish Family in the United States.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on September 28, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/modern-jewish-family-in-united-states>