The 11th Floor

A Perpsective Overlooking Jerusalem, Israeli Life, and Talmud Torah

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Rabbeinu Gershom's Opera

After arriving Tuesday evening and surviving the amazing and breath-taking moves of the sherut driver, we headed to bed at the reasonable hour of 11PM to put ourselves on Israeli time. However, Wednesday morning, we woke up at 4AM from jet lag. We turned on the TV and noticed an Israeli opera sung in Hebrew.

We finally figured out the plot was about the Ashkenazic (Eastern European Jewish) ban on polygamy and a Sephardic (non-Eastern European Jewish—Spanish, Greek, Yemenite…a poor definition but one that works in general for now) male family head protesting the ban with his two wives. It was hard to tell who the villain was…the Ashknazic niece by marriage of the family head who took the case to an Ashkenazic court? Or was it the male head of the family (called Ben Attar) for having an ulterior motive of revenge on the Ashkenazic woman as his wife after she turned his proposal of marriage down years ago?

There weren’t really any catchy tunes, just a lot of dialogue, sung of course in opera style. Why would anyone want to dramatize this part of Jewish history? It is interesting, though, because Israel has such a large Sephardic population. A member of an Israeli group visiting America said that Israelis call America “Ashkenazi land.”

Well, we turned off the opera after about a half an hour, because although the sets were very creative (people being the waves of the sea all connected through their costumes), the lack of melody was grating. However, after searching online for the opera, we found out that it was based on an A.B. Yehoshua story with a very opera-like ending, which follows. After traveling from Spain, Ben Attar takes his case of polygamy to two courts, and the Ashkenazi court rules that he must dissolve one of his marriages. The second wife, whom he married later and has no children, commits suicide so that Ben Attar does not have to choose whom to divorce.

Wow. That is pretty sad, as all operas are. I sincerely hope this fate did not await all polygamous families back during the Decree of Rabbeinu Gershom, which did really happen in the 10th Century. The experts on the 11th floor say they don’t think people had to divorce wives to abide by this decree (people just couldn’t take any multiple wives in new marriages), and it also only applied to Ashkenazic Jews. That’s a relief, but I applaud A.B. Yeshoshua's focus on women's fates from a male-created decree. Who knew he was such a feminist?

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