A Story About Marriage and Tradition


A Story About Marriage and Tradition


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Opinion & Society

Five Gold Bangles and a World of Difference

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman

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

I sat down beside her, the softness of the mattress causing our bodies to curve into one another and 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 the bracelets became warm as I held them in my hands. 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 light and made a tinkling sound when they touched one another.

"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, was married off to 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 within the week, she was on a ship with her new husband sailing to Haifa, never to see her parents again. The bracelets on my arm were the same ones that Jamilla had received from her husband as a token of his commitment to marry her.

Living in the 21st century it is hard for me to fathom an arrangement like the one Jamilla's parents made for her. I barely get a vote as to whom my daughter dates and knowing, as I am certain that Jamilla's parents did, that I would never see her again or be able to hold my own grandchildren on my lap, is a thought too painful to consider.

It is hard to believe that as recently as the early 1900's, my great grandmother spent her days cooking and cleaning side by side with the same woman who shared her husband's bed at night. Yet for Sephardic Jews who lived in communities influenced by Islam, like Egypt, Yemen, Morocco and Turkey, polygamy was an accepted practice. The bitterness that Jamilla tasted each day was not from the dark Turkish coffee she drank every morning while preparing her husband's breakfast, but from his first wife who could not give him the son he so desperately desired.

The Bible is filled with stories of unhappiness and the problems that exist in a polygamous marriage: Sarah was derided by Hagar because she couldn't have a child, Leah was jealous of Rachel because Jacob loved her more, and Solomon's many wives brought idolatry into the land of Israel. My great grandmother suffered a similar fate when, at the age of 13, she gave birth to my grandfather. Barely a teenager herself, she cried whenever he did, unsure of how to care for her newborn or decipher what it was that he wanted. What saved her during those difficult years and throughout her life was her wit, wisdom and undying love for her son, my grandfather.

The laws on polygamy within the Jewish tradition, which often created hardship and injustice for women, have thankfully changed. In Eastern Europe, a ban on polygamy was decreed by Rabbi Gershom in the 10th century. Although Sephardic Jews did not accept Rabbi Gershom's prohibition, when Israel was created in 1948, the Israeli government permitted those marriages already in existence to stay in effect while forbidding any future ones. Today, the ban on polygamy is universally accepted in the Jewish world.

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 my future as a Jewish woman. For it is because of the wisdom of my tradition and its ability to change and respond to laws that are patently unfair or result in causing hardship and injustice, that I am able to have faith and hope for the future of my children and grandchildren.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a Jewish family and life columnist in more than twenty papers nationwide and author of "To Life! Jewish Reflections on Everyday Living" and "One God, Many Paths: Finding Meaning and Inspiration in Jewish Teachings". You can read more about her at www.amyhirshberglederman.com

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from the July 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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