Hannah Nagila’s sons are 3 and 5 years old, and they already know what an agunah is. They have told their mother what their father tells them: “Daddy says you’re going to be an agunah until you pay back every cent.”
Agunah is the term for a Jewish woman chained to a dead marriage. Under Jewish religious law, a husband must issue his wife an official bill of divorce, known as a get, to end an Orthodox marriage. The central provision of the get is simple: “You are hereby permitted to all men.” Without a get, the woman is branded an adulteress as soon as she enters another relationship. She cannot remarry under Jewish law, and any child from another man is labeled a mamzer, or bastard child. A mamzer can only marry another mamzer or a convert.
Historically, agunah cases were the result of a husband’s death, disappearance, or mental insanity. Today, they more often stem from vindictive husbands who exploit the get as a form of control. The get becomes a bargaining chip—leveraged for large sums of money or custody of the children.