Five Gold Bangles and World of Difference

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman

The morning of my wedding day, my mother called me into her bedroom. “Come sit with me,” she said quietly, patting the spot next to her on the bed.

I sat down beside her, the softness of the mattress causing our shoulders to touch.

She turned her face towards mine, looking happier than I had seen her look in years. I attributed it to the fact that her almost-thirty-year-old daughter was finally getting married.

Smiling, she handed me a box.

“Open it,” she urged.

Inside the box were five beautiful, gold-filigree bangle bracelets of different patterns. The gold was unlike any I had ever seen and warmed to my touch. They were not new, their shapes having been altered from perfect circles to imperfect ones by the wrists they had adorned.

I turned them over in my hands and, one by one, slid them on my right arm. They were truly beautiful.

“Oh, Mom, I love them! Where did you get them?”

She answered by telling me a story about my great grandmother, Jamilla Danino, who, at the age of 12, married a man more than 3 times her age to become his second wife.

Born in 1882 to a poor family in Alexandria, Egypt, she had no choice but to respect the arrangement her parents had made. One afternoon he arrived with gifts and a week later, she left on a ship with her new husband for Haifa, never to see her parents again. The bracelets on my arm were the same ones that Jamilla had received from her husband as an engagement gift.

Living in the 21st century it is hard to fathom an arrangement like the one Jamilla’s parents made for her. I barely get to meet the boys my daughter dates, let alone have the deciding vote as to whom. And the very idea that I might never see her again, or meet my grandchildren, is a thought too painful to bare.

Yet as recently as the early 1900’s, my great grandmother lived side by side with the other wife who shared her husband’s bed. For Sephardic Jews who lived in communities influenced by Islam, like Egypt, Yemen, Morocco and Turkey, polygamy was an accepted practice. But for the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe, polygamy was banned by Rabbi Gershom from the 10th century forward. This created a difficult issue when Israel was created in 1948 because some of the Jewish immigrants had multiple wives. The resolution was that the Israeli government permitted those marriages already in existence to stay in effect but forbid future ones. Today, the ban on polygamy is universally accepted in the Jewish world.

The Bible is filled with stories of the unhappiness and problems that exists in a polygamous marriage: Sarah was derided by Hagar because she couldn’t have a child, Leah was jealous of Rachel because Isaac loved her more, and Solomon’s many wives brought idolatry into the land of Israel. Jamilla suffered a similar fate when, at the tender age of 13, she gave birth to a son, Albert. She was detested by the other wife who could not have children and suffered greatly at her hands. What saved Jamilla during those difficult years was her wit, wisdom and undying love for her son, my grandfather.

The laws on polygamy, which often created hardship and injustice for women throughout Jewish history, have thankfully changed. Other laws which produced similar inequities and left women totally vulnerable in marriage, such as the law which permitted a man to divorce his wife against her will and the laws of inheritance, have also changed over time. But inequities exist to this day regarding a woman’s ability to get a religious (as compared to a civil) divorce. A husband still retains the power to delay or prevent his wife from divorcing him by refusing to give her a divorce decree called a get.

I treasure wearing my gold bracelets for many reasons. They help me remember my great grandmother, a woman whose courage, strength and devotion carried her through a lifetime of struggle. They remind me of my mother, who wore them as a young girl when she was raised by Jamilla as a result of her own parents’ tragic and untimely deaths. And they give me a sense of optimism about our future as Jews. For it is through the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and its ability to change and respond to laws that are patently unfair or result in causing hardship and injustice, that our greatest hope for the future lies.