Longest-serving 'chained wife' finally breaks free after 48 years

Susan Zinkin divorced her husband in 1962, but only now is she able to marry again

Susan Zinkin divorced her husband in 1962 but was forbidden from looking for new love for almost 50 years. Only when he died an old man this week was she released from being a "chained wife" under Jewish law.

Ms Zinkin, 73, a retired Orthodox Jewish teacher from north London, divorced Israel Errol Elias in Britain's civil courts 48 years ago but she was never able to obtain a Jewish divorce (known as a "get") from him. And yesterday she spoke of her relief at finally being freed from her status as the world's longest-serving "chained wife".

"As awful as it may sound my ex-husband's death is a great relief and a huge weight off my shoulders – to be stuck like that was so cruel," she said yesterday in an interview with The Independent. "I'm quite convinced that had the rabbis wanted to get their act together they could have done something within Jewish law and found a solution."

She had made repeated attempts to get her former husband to grant her a Jewish divorce, which would have allowed her to remarry. She, and many others, even resorted to regular protests outside his house in Golders Green, north London, in a bid to publicly shame him into granting her a religiously sanctioned separation, but the protests only seemed to strengthen his resolve.

But despite widespread public outcry, her "agunah" (literally "chained") status remained in force until earlier this week when Mr Elias, 86, died.

Speaking from her home in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv, Ms Zinkin called on Britain's network of beth dins (Jewish courts) to do more to help chained women and to speak out against husbands who refuse to grant divorces. "The Jewish religious authorities come together to talk about and solve all sorts of religious and social problems but they never seem to get around to discussing [agunahs]," she said. "It is time they did."

Under halakha (Jewish law) only men have the power to grant a get. Women who cannot persuade their husbands to free them from marriage become known as "agunahs" or chained wives. Although they are legally divorced under British law, chained wives (particularly those within Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities) often find themselves ostracised if they dare to remarry or speak out.

Ms Zinkin, who describes herself as "mainstream Orthodox", said she felt unable to find a new husband because, without a get from her first partner, any new marriage would be considered unlawful by the wider community. Her children – and any of her future offspring – would also be shunned as mamzers, a halakhic term to describe the offspring of adulterous or incestuous relationships. "That's a terrible stigma for the child," she explained. "They're illegitimate for Jewish purposes and I just couldn't do that to any child of mine. Even Jews who aren't very religious wouldn't necessarily want to marry someone and have children born with mamzer status."

Attempts by rabbinical authorities to tackle recalcitrant husbands has been met with varying degrees of success. Rabbis from the Liberal and Reform schools of Judaism will often issue gets to women if a husband refuses three times, but the more orthodox branches are notoriously reluctant to intervene, believing that any sort of coercion would invalidate the get.

In the United States, some Orthodox rabbis have encouraged the use of pre-nuptial agreements which financially penalise a stubborn husband. Jewish courts in Israel have even gone as far as placing intractable husbands in prison until they grant a get. But campaigners say the Orthodox beth din courts in Britain have been much slower to look for solutions.

"It's a very frustrating process," says Sandra Blackman, a co-founder of the Agunot Campaign who regularly used to protest outside Mr Elias's house alongside Ms Zinkin. "We need the Orthodox beth dins to be courageous and recognise the appalling injustices that are being carried out by some husbands. Other countries have found solutions but people seem afraid to implement them here."

One academic hoping to find a way out of the impasse is Professor Bernard Jackson, an expert in Jewish law who until last year was head of the Agunah Research Unit at the University of Manchester. Last summer he published proposals which offered courts viable alternatives that still conformed to Jewish law, including the promotion of pre-nuptials, provisional gets that would be issued in advance of marriage, and the retrospective annulment of a marriage by a rabbi. The response from the Orthodox community has been limited.

"I can only say that meetings have been initiated, and there clearly is some willingness to look at our work and discuss it with us," he said. "The problem is that batei din are generally reluctant to go out on a limb alone, for fear of appearing 'divisive'. They are looking either for a consensus or for a lead from the greatest rabbinic scholars of the generation."

Hopes for such a lead were dashed in 2006 when an international conference to discuss agunahs was called off by Israel's chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, just five days before it was due to begin. It was widely reported in Israel that pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox community led to the cancellation.

"I'm convinced there is a way," said Ms Zinkin. "We need to get all the rabbis together to reach some sort of consensus on how to solve this problem within Jewish law."

Until rabbis take a stand, there is little that chained women can do, other than resort to public protests in a bid to shame their former husbands. "I just hit a brick wall and there didn't seem to be anything I could do," she recalled. "I knew I just had to carry on with my life and try to forget about it."

Few women dare to speak out about their agunah status for fear of reducing their chances of ever obtaining a get, or because they are worried about how the community might react to such public criticism. Ms Zinkin did speak out. By the end of the 1990s she was approached by a small group of Jewish women who, like her, had either been or still were chained women. The first the mainstream press in Britain heard about agunahs was when a devoted band of Jewish women bewildered north London motorists with regular protests outside Mr Elias's home in Golders Green, calling on him to free his wife. Week after week they met outside his home but Mr Elias dug his heels in. The public coverage of the protests did, however, spur the rabbinical authorities into trying to persuade Mr Elias.

"Prior to [those protests] the Jewish authorities hadn't even been prepared to make a phonecall or approach him in any way," she said. "Whenever I approached Jewish judges they just said they couldn't do anything. So the protests might not have worked in my case, but they did with others."

The demonstrations also thrust the issue firmly into the wider public's consciousness: "People just didn't realise that this sort of thing can drag on for so many years. When I told people what had happened they were absolutely stunned that you can be an agunah in Britain for more than 40 years. I just hope I'm the last of a long line of agunahs."

For the meantime, Ms Zinkin is happy just to reflect on the fact that – for the first time in nearly five decades – she is officially free. "I suppose it is a bit of a record but it's not exactly one I'm proud to hold," she said. "I'm just glad it's finally over. I feel a great sense of relief, but also sadness because it was all so unnecessary. I just hope that other men will think twice about the enormous distress they can cause by not granting their wife a get."

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