JERUSALEM — I was thinking lately about my grandparents. They were Austrian Jewish refugees; they fled Vienna for New York City soon after the Nazi invasion of Austria in 1938. They were smart enough to get out on time; else I wouldn’t be here typing this.
I was thinking about how, even though both their marriages were troubled, they stayed together till the end. These days, among the secular-liberal people I consort with, to speak of lasting marriages and low divorce rates in an earlier era automatically prompts retorts about suffering, oppressed women kept prisoner for life by despotic husbands.
But of course it wasn’t that simple. In one of my pairs of grandparents, it was, indeed, the man who was the difficult character and made the marriage a challenge. In the other, it was the woman. Our minds are so infested with politically correct clichés that I was surprised to remember that.
They stayed together, both pairs of them. Money certainly played a role. As immigrants in the New World with limited command of English, they struggled; I still remember their humble Manhattan apartments with their Old World air and ambience of German. And it was partly their ethos and values. In those days, even among people like my grandparents, who weren’t particularly religious Jews, marriage was a binding commitment.
Having been divorced myself for seven years, I can’t help but be struck by the contrast between our time and that old, lost time. My divorce occurred here in Israel, a country where the divorce rates are considerably lower than in the U.S. but, still, quite high, from 25 percent to 33 percent depending on different statistics I’ve seen.
It is only a quantitative difference. Divorce Israeli-style is basically the same phenomenon as in other Western countries, and experiencing it is quite sufficient to teach you about the phenomenon in general.
The world of divorce is a world of people who are adrift, confronted with a fundamental void that they try to fill with involvements that usually turn out to be transient. Yes, some divorced people successfully — that is, lastingly — remarry. But studies of divorce tell us that those cases are a minority. In the U.S., the divorce rate for second marriages is even higher than for first marriages, and considerable numbers of divorced people never remarry at all. And to this picture must, of course, be added the many people who, these days, never get married in the first place — of which, even here in “family-oriented” Israel, there are plenty as well.
Considering how strong the disintegrative forces are even for people who are still in marriages with children, it’s not surprising that once people are divorced things are pulled with even greater force. We live in a mall culture; there’s an endless array of products out there, ever-new and varied. Pairs of divorced people may hope to achieve something lasting, but more often they end up going steady for a while like teenagers; once the thrill wears off, or something more intriguing comes along, there’s little reason to persist.
People at ages that, in more traditional cultures, were seen as appropriate for reaching wisdom and demonstrating wisdom to the young, are busy exercising, dieting, tending to the minutiae of their personal appearance in the hope of luring and maybe even keeping someone, for a while, through physical charm.
It’s a world of chatrooms for unattached adults in their forties, fifties, and even sixties, of cyberflirting, of all-night instant-message sessions with people who may live in the same town or at other ends of the earth. A world of singles bars where middle-aged people dance to the same rock songs they danced to 30 and 40 years ago, with the same boyish or girlish hopes of maybe meeting someone tonight.
And beneath the froth of gaiety and adventure are new dimensions, newly discovered continents, of human loneliness. No, divorce and singlehood are not modern inventions; but never before have there been so many people afraid to turn off the computer at night, cut off contact with the cyberfriend or cyberlover, and face the void.
I don’t know much about how my grandparents felt about the marriages they were in, about their respective spouses. I don’t know whether, or how much, they wished things could have been different, if they could have given each other up and looked for new pastures. My memories are enough to tell me that the difficult person in each marriage remained (as is generally the case) difficult to the end, causing exasperation and pain to the partner that probably didn’t lessen much with the years.
But I also have distinct memories of the affection they expressed to each other, these elderly immigrants in their dusty apartments, the profundity and depth of the attachment between them. To their children — my parents, my aunts — they modeled constancy despite hardship, devotion transcending temperament. In the end they were buried next to each other; their graves are peaceful places that I still visit.