I knew when she stopped laughing at my jokes. I knew when she asked me to move out. I knew when we went to couples therapy to save the marriage. I knew when I saw my own therapist and agonized over how to end the marriage.
Of course I knew when the divorce came through.
But I didn't really know, in a visceral way, until we got our get--our Jewish divorce.
We met at a beth din, or rabbinical court, in the Garment District. Inside a sparse room there were three Hasids. The first was the rabbi. He was seated behind a long table and gray-bearded, heavy with age. The second was a hired witness with a black beard that started at his eyebrows, the third another witness with tiny glasses, like swimming goggles, above (forgive the comparison) a porcine nose.
The get ceremony is a fine example of how Judaism conflates exactitude with fairness. Or maybe they wanted us to feel like we had gotten our $400 worth. My ex-wife and I were instructed to sit at separate tables, both facing the rabbi. Then the kind old man questioned us repeatedly about names, our English names, our Hebrew names, our parents' names. (As my ex-wife had converted, the part about her parents went quickly.) He needed to know my tribe--supposedly all Jews are either Cohens, Levites, or Israelites. I was sure that we weren't Cohens, of the priestly caste. But could we be Levites? I told the rabbi that I wasn't sure.
My ex-wife looked exasperated and anxious, as if I were trying to screw this up. "You're an Israelite," she said.
With that settled, they gave me pages to read from, something about releasing me from all marriage-related vows. Next I had to appoint the witnesses, who bowed soberly when I called their names, and appoint the rabbi to write the document on my behalf.
The rabbi took out a straight razor and cut lines across the parchment. (I'm still not sure why.) He wrote the document and we signed it.
Here is the text of the get:
On the 5th day of the week, the 27th day of the month of Shevat, in the year 5760 since the creation of the world, in the City of New York and situated near sources of water, I, Gordon Haber, also known as Gershon Beryl Nuchem ben Dovid, who today am present in the City of New York and situated near sources of water, do willingly consent to release, set free, and divorce you, my wife. I do hereby set free, release, and divorce you, in order that you may marry any man you desire. No person may hinder you from this day onward, and you are permitted to be married to any man. This shall be for you, from me, a bill of dismissal, and a document of freedom, in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.
I was still digesting this when the rabbi asked for our ketubah, or wedding contract. With a startling twist of his hands he tore it in two.
He folded the get and instructed me to drop it into my wife's cupped hands. And then, according to my religion, she was now my ex-wife.
There were more formalities, but what I remember best was the sense of relief. I'd been released from my vows. Released! She could marry whomever she liked. I need no longer feel guilty for putting off having children or buying a house--for wanting instead to write. I had given her freedom and a bill of dismissal. I was responsible only to myself.
And then we were in the elevator, looking at each other. As usual I filled the silence with a joke. I pushed up my nose in imitation of the witness and said, "Who am I?" She laughed.
On the street, I could tell that she wanted to have a drink, to talk, to debrief about this strange shared experience, like we did when we were married.
Instead I stuck out my hand. "I have to go," I said.
As we shook hands she looked surprised and disappointed, and I felt a twinge of guilt. A few minutes later I was on the subway, alone, and the guilt was gone.
I do hereby set you free, I had recited. Which meant that I was free as well.