Yemen and the Yishuv
The one saying that was always associated with the Yemenite Jewish woman was “Kol kevudah bat melekh penimah”—she is honored as a princess within the confines of her home (Psalms 45:14). The Jewish community of Yemen was extremely conservative, both in its everyday lifestyle and in its Sabbath, holiday and ritual observances and celebrations. Accordingly, tradition required that a woman’s life would also be carefully circumscribed from infancy to maturity.
From early childhood, the Yemenite girl had an extremely rigid schedule in her daily activities as well as in her life-cycle events as the years progressed. She did not go to the mori (the private school teacher) and had no formal religious or secular instruction. Nevertheless, she was the recipient of a very structured education. From the age of four or five, she was gradually taught all aspects of housework in combination with the religious obligations that she would need later in life. For example, she learned how to follow dietary laws, to perform separation of hallah, the kashering (soaking and salting) of meat and the ritual immersion of utensils, to eschew forbidden foods, to say blessings for meals, for candle-lighting and for other occasions. She was also taught to adhere to dress codes, personal modesty and the precepts concerning the menstrual cycle. These numerous and quite complicated instructions were given orally, as obligations, without any discussion of their philosophical or historical background. The woman associated strict observance of these halakhot (religious Jewish laws) with yir’at shamayim (love and fear of God) and did not challenge them. These practices were the ways of her mother, grandmother and all previous generations. The Jewish woman saw herself as one link in the traditional chain of thousands of years and took pride and comfort in this perception.
The daily routine of the woman in Yemen was strenuous. She had to rise before dawn to fetch water and prepare the gisher (Yemenite coffee), grind flour, bake and have breakfast ready when the men returned from the prayer service in the kanis (synagogue) at sunrise. By the time a girl was about eight years old, she participated in all of the daily household responsibilities: cleaning, washing, cooking, sewing, etc.
The Yemenite girl was often engaged to be married before she was twelve years old, and she was not able to choose her future husband. When young children were orphaned, there was a danger that the Yemenis might force their conversion to Islam and remove them from the Jewish community. Thus, marriages of very young people were often arranged to prevent this tragedy. However, it appears that young girls lived with their husbands only after they matured. Marriage to older men was not unknown, and neither was polygamy. The major circumstance leading to polygamy was the practice of levirate marriage (a religious obligation to marry the wife of a brother who died without issue), which was encouraged among Yemenite Jews even into the twentieth century. Following her wedding, the bride moved to her mother-in-law’s house where she joined the pool of female workers, continuing the same arduous tasks that she had been trained for by her own mother.
The wedding was definitely the highlight of a woman’s life in Yemen. She was the center of attention not only on that momentous day, but for several weeks before and after the wedding. During this period, she was put on a pedestal and exempted from chores.
Today, the picture of the Yemenite bride in her beautiful costume bedecked with jewelry is regarded as the image of the Yemenite woman. Ironically, this image is not at all representative of most of her life. However, as a new mother she was similarly given a few weeks to relax from her hectic routine. Her friends would arrange a women-only celebration in her honor by dressing her in festive garb and hair covering specifically reserved for this occasion. Thus adorned, she reclined in a specially ornamented room scented by fragrant plants to receive guests and well-wishers.
Yemenite jewelry, known for its beauty and delicate filigree, is probably the most popularized of Yemenite art forms. In Yemen, jewelry was one of the luxuries enjoyed by women, for whom possession of a few pieces was important in that it served as a status symbol. However, the wedding costume and its jewelry was not owned by each bride, but belonged to a wealthy member of the community who rented the ceremonial outfit repeatedly. This custom was carried over to many Yemenite communities in Israel and abroad.
Since women in Yemen did not read or write either Hebrew or Arabic, a major historical source for describing their lives is their oral poetry, which was recited in Yemeni Jewish dialects and has been compiled and translated into Hebrew and English. Their poems and songs documented their happy moments, aspirations and disappointments on the personal, as well as the more complex family and communal levels. This poetry often reveals internalized desires that were somewhat inconsistent, both with the mundane functions prescribed for them by traditions of generations and with their smiling faces and festive dress at weddings. Although the treatment and status of women depended mostly on the particular household and the internal family relationships, some generalizations can nevertheless be made. The women understood that they functioned in a world whose order was unchanged and unquestioned and which placed them in well-defined normative roles. They were therefore mostly content and fulfilled within the framework of their expectations.
The oral poetry was composed as a direct response to various situations and differed from region to region and town to town. The women’s singing while they worked together served both as an emotional outlet for their feelings and repressed sentiments and as an expression for their poetic talents. In addition, women sang and danced within their own circles on the happy occasions of the life cycle, always separate from the men. There were recognized expert singers in every community who received as a family heritage a reservoir of songs for every event. The singers also spontaneously changed, deleted and added to the verses, and were therefore composers and poets as well as performers and entertainers.
As the women labored at grinding flour, washing clothes in the river, carrying water from the spring, cooking and sewing, they expressed themselves by singing. The elevation of the spirit during happy and sad times in women’s lives gave birth to these poems, which embody universal themes and appeal to women the world over. During wedding ceremonies, empty tin cans and wooden tambourines were used to accompany the voices. There were many “separation” songs, such as those of young women leaving their mothers to become young brides and others by wives of men who worked away from home and returned only for the Sabbath. Many of these poems bore some similarities to those of the Yemenite Arabic women, since they express universal anguish.
The following verses from four poems express a range of emotions, love and happy moments, as well as the frustration and bitterness of women who could not escape their destiny. These songs tell of sorrow, sadness and yearning for a life of gentleness and love.
I do not want an old man
Nor his money.
I wish to have a young one
To play with and to kiss!
I do not want an old man
A broken scythe handle is he,
I wish to have a young one
To squeeze all the bones in me.
* * *
Why is it, my cousin-husband,
You are subjecting me to accepting another woman as your second wife?
If the cause is beauty,
I am as pretty as the moon and the stars.
If the reason is my locks,
Then I have two hundred braids.
Is it for children?
I have borne you two sons already.
If it is my character,
The neighbors will be my witness.
If my housekeeping and cooking are challenged,
The guests will be my references.
I hardly eat, I hardly spend.
So why, oh, why are you bringing a second woman
Who is far less valuable into this household?
Other poems/songs document the elevation of spirit of the Yemenite woman who is in love with her surroundings and her mate.
Let me rejoice, happiness is my lot.
While I’m young, my blood sings within me.
My heart yearns for joy and singing,
My God, grant me a music box within me.
The sun rises, impossible to stop it.
Do not prevent desires from the soul.
My lover met me at the spring.
“Hello, my girl,” he said.
“You have enriched me.
Your hair is thick, beautiful and glorious.”
Whoever does not have a lover
Is truly deprived and miserable.
Yemenite women were not part of synagogue functions and ceremonies. When and if they came to hear tefillot and Torah readings, they sat in a separate room. They obviously did not take part in the religious writings and they did not leave written memoirs. Thus, the historical narrative mistakenly placed Yemenite women in the periphery of the South Arabian Jewish community. In Arab countries, one could hardly expect the Jewish woman to be the mediator between the two societies and of course they did not fulfill any political function. Yet in the social, cultural and family arena they were a dominant force and thus set the tone of daily life, in and around their homes.
Yemenite women were voluntary social workers. They helped poor brides in arranging wedding ceremonies, providing basic clothing, household equipment, assistance and food. They supported orphans, the sick and the elderly. It was generally accepted in Yemen that if one was able to help the needy, it was incumbent upon one to do so. While men and women did not participate together in these endeavors, the women were often the first to discover the needy and to begin helping them. In organizing to provide the help, they basically created a women’s organization. While it had no president, officers or board of directors, it definitely had very active members who did the actual work. All these separate activities such as assisting the needy, arranging weddings, cooking, singing and dancing among themselves at happy occasions and working together at household chores, created a network of support groups where close-knit relationships developed and remained a most important and meaningful part of their lives.
In times of mourning (and these were not rare in Yemen), the women got together (they sat in a separate room during shivah) and more easily provided comfort to one another. Mortality was high and the women shared each other’s sorrows, so many having unfortunately gone through the same experiences. Infant mortality reached dreadful proportions. It was not uncommon for a woman to give birth to twelve children and see only two reach adulthood. A special function thus emerged for some Yemenite women: official mourners. Referred to also as “wailing women,” they had the unique task of leading the women’s crying during the first three days of the shivah. This performance channeled the other women in the group and focused their weeping. The wailing woman came prepared with a memorized text that was modified spontaneously according to the situation and characteristics of the deceased. She was helpful both in verbalizing the family’s grief and in providing consolation. This exhibition was not merely an emotional outburst, but was rather a calculated stimulant for the community’s involvement in the mourning. The wailing tradition was generally not preserved once they left Yemen. It seemed too harsh and was often considered uncivilized for western culture.
Marriage was expected; it was a part of life. Men and women shared responsibility in marriage, but the division of labor was clear. Women were in charge indoors while the men’s responsibilities were outdoors, including shopping and providing a livelihood. Women were secluded and their clothing covered them from head to toe. Promiscuity was virtually unknown.
The total segregation between men and women in the public sphere of the Yemenite community created a natural female support group. The women listened to each other’s woes, consoled grieving and suffering friends and helped those who needed assistance in overcoming life’s hardships. In all these separate communal activities the women strengthened themselves and each other. In addition, their Jewish identity was clearly expressed through these charitable acts. Strong bonds developed among them and these friendships were very much valued and cherished in the many Jewish communities of Yemen.
In the towns, Jewish women hardly ventured out of the designated Jewish Quarter. They did not go to the market, and therefore had no business or social contact with the Muslims. Fathers, husbands and brothers shopped and brought food home. The Jewish woman was therefore spared the humiliations often suffered by Jews at the hands of Muslims in public places.
In the villages and countryside, the women did sometimes interact with Muslims, since they spent many hours outside their homes and neighborhoods. They collected firewood, brought water from the streams and frequently took their baskets and other handmade ware for sale in the general market. They were also known to assist their artisan husbands in their crafts when necessary.
There were no hostelries for Jewish travelers in Yemen. Jews everywhere were expected to welcome and host Jewish sojourners who were passing through and needed to spend a night, a Sabbath or a holiday. Therefore, much hospitality was practiced both in the towns and in the villages. The women were responsible for the additional food, water and bedding, and graciously accepted their role as generous hostesses who understood the importance of the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim.
The Yemenite woman was also an educator. In addition to training her daughters, the mother was in charge of sending the boys to study in the kanis. She was also responsible for providing food (as a form of payment) for the traditional teacher, the mori, and his family. While she herself was not a teaching mori, she knew enough of Jewish law to teach her sons some blessings and mitzvot and to make certain that they attended the synagogue. Mothers, aunts and grandmothers influenced all the children in the extended household, particularly through ethical and moral instruction. In addition, popular idiomatic expressions and folkloric stories were used as teaching tools to instill manners and proper behavior in both sons and daughters.
Jewish women excelled in their capacity as healers. They learned effective techniques from their mothers or other women in the family. Many were known as popular “medicine-women” who knew how to use herbal medicines to cure illnesses. Some were called to bedsides many miles away. Naturally, they also ably served as midwives.
The Yemenite Jewish housewife/mother was a multi-task functionary of her society. Although she was subservient to her husband or mother-in-law in some aspects, she did have many opportunities to show initiative in dealing with numerous challenges within her sphere of influence. To a great extent, it was she who made the family’s social wheels spin.
The turning point leading to a gradual change in the status of women occurred with the immigration of Yemenite Jews to Erez Israel/Palestine. The first aliyah in significant numbers was made in 1882 and coincided with the east European “First Aliyah.” Additional waves of Yemenite immigrants arrived in Erez Israel in the early 1890s and 1900s. By the year 1914, fully one-tenth of the Jewish population of Yemen had made aliyah, an unprecedented percentage as compared with other diasporas. On the eve of World War I they numbered about five thousand in Erez Israel. Of these, some three thousand lived in Jerusalem, about 1,100 in agricultural settlements (moshavot) and about nine hundred in Jaffa. In 1914 Yemenite Jews constituted about six percent of the Jewish population in Palestine. When the “Eagles’ Wings Aliyah” of 1949–1950 arrived in the independent State of Israel, it is estimated that the fifty thousand arriving Yemenite Jews equaled the number already living there.
For the Yemenite immigrants, arrival in Zion did not mean a break with religion, old customs or cultural heritage, but rather a precious opportunity to observe the commandments even more strictly in the sanctity of Jerusalem and other places in the Holy Land. They clung tenaciously to their traditional folkways and naturally expected the status, honor, function and place of women to be as it was in Yemen. The Yemenites’ aspirations that their aliyah would serve as a religious redemption, as it is said, “rejuvenate our days as of old,” were not consistent with the secularist ideology brought by European Zionists.
In fact, the Yemenite immigrants confronted a quite unexpected reality, which was different from their hopes and dreams of maintaining their traditional ways. Conditions arose that removed the women from the framework for which they had been trained and to which they were accustomed. It became evident soon after their arrival, both in Jerusalem in the 1880s and 1890s and in the agricultural colonies in the early 1900s, that the “old world order” could not survive. Often enough, only the women in the family could find more permanent employment (usually in domestic service) that provided the family’s meager subsistence. Under such circumstances, the men faced a major upheaval: employed women were out of the house for many hours. They were gradually gaining self-confidence and because of their income their self-image evolved. They also became more sophisticated socially, acquiring knowledge in the ways of the world that many men altogether lacked. This upheaval was perceived as a serious threat to the fabric of family life and to the social and communal order.
In Jerusalem, Yemenite women had to struggle on several fronts. Their labor for meager pay was arduous and exhausting, and they sometimes suffered the verbal abuse and disdain of their employers. At the same time, they were confronted with mounting spousal disapprobation in direct proportion to their increasing independence. To make matters worse, a 1902 ruling of the Jerusalem Rabbinical High Court forbade the employment of Yemenite women without the express permission of their husbands. This petition by Yemenite men to the Jerusalem court and its ruling demonstrated a desperate attempt by the religious establishment to try to force the women to conform to their traditional roles. However, not only did the reality in Jerusalem exhibit a general disregard for this anachronistic decision, but even the rabbis of the court had to acknowledge in the latter part of their announcement that the status of Yemenite women was indeed changing. Showing contemporary sensitivity to women’s rights in the same document, they forbade the betrothal of girls not yet twelve years old and discouraged arrangements whereby young women would be given as brides to elderly men. Nonetheless, family and communal coercion still existed in order to keep the women “in line” regardless of social and economic developments.
In the agricultural settlements, Yemenite women and men together endured abominable living conditions, lack of food and a distressingly high rate of child mortality. They were sometimes employed in the fields, but the women also labored in the farmers’ households. There were reported incidents of public humiliation by the farmers which, although strongly condemned by other Ashkenazi day laborers, nevertheless left deep scars on these Yemenite pioneering women.
Careful examination of the heroines in the literature portraying Yemenite Jews in Erez Israel reveals a strong character ascribed to Yemenite women. Mordechai Tabib and Hayyim Hazaz both describe the women’s extraordinary strength and ability to cope with hardship and suffering. In their writings, the women are regarded as able to face changes and challenges more successfully than their male contemporaries.
For the first generation of Yemenite women immigrants in the urban areas, menial work was almost the only occupation available for them outside their community. However, even though these were servile jobs, and certainly did not represent upward mobility on the socio-economic ladder, the different environment the women encountered on a daily basis introduced them to an entirely different existence outside the limits of their ethnic background. It was often the daughters of this generation of immigrant women who fulfilled their mothers’ aspirations of breaking away. They gained an education and professional degrees in non-sectarian schools and led a more modern, western life style, significantly improving their standard of living.
In addition, the pioneering experience in Erez Israel opened a path for young Yemenite women, allowing them sometimes to break away from their former constraints. In Yemen, there was no other Jewish “host society” that could have absorbed women rebel-refugees had they opted to leave their traditional framework. In Erez Israel, an exit from their social confinement (mainly into the Ashkenazi laborers’ circles) was indeed forming even before World War I. Shoshanna Bassin’s romance with and marriage to an Ashkenazi secular and socialist laborer met with violent disapproval by her family. Her account points out the many obstacles that were strewn in the path away from the traditional Yemenite community. She and a few others like her soon discovered that their new milieu was at the end of a one-way road with no return to their ethnic community. In the post-World War I era, more Yemenite women opted for involvement in the prestigious and ideologically dominant labor circles in the country. Within the Yemenite families there was gradually more acceptance of the new avenues that these women chose. Bat Sheva Mauda-Oded, who in 1939 married Giora, the son of Alexander Zeid, the legendary Second Aliyah shomer (watchman), was wholeheartedly supported in her choice by her parents and siblings.
Unique and unusual was the Yemenite Jewish woman’s experience in the Moshav Ovdim. Equality between husband and wife was one of the basic principles of this type of agricultural settlement that was supported by the Zionist Movement. It was assumed that the woman would be a full economic and social partner in the enterprise. Indeed, in most Yemenite families husband and wife went out to work in the fields together, but the woman still had the responsibility of caring for the children, preparing meals and performing other household chores. She was thus often forced to carry her babies with her while she worked at her farm chores. Yet Yemenite women fought for and succeeded in achieving equal standing in the land leasing agreement with the Jewish National Fund. They signed the contracts and were co-lessees of the land and co-owners of the homestead.
The change in the women’s economic role was not immediately translated into any reform in their social status within Yemenite circles. Their absence from public life within their communities in Erez Israel contrasted significantly with the position of Eastern European pioneering women among their peers in the labor movement.
Rachel Zabari (1909–1995) was born in Yemen and came to Israel at an early age. She studied in Teachers’ Seminary and at the Hebrew University, was an active member of the Labor Movement and joined the Haganah. A teacher and a supervisor for the Ministry of Education, she was also elected to the Second Knesset and served continuously until the Sixth Knesset. This Yemenite woman reached the highest echelons of Israeli politics on the eve of the birth of the state. Although her accomplishment was exceptional, it nevertheless demonstrates the considerable distance Yemenite women traveled from their homes in Yemen to communal contribution at a most significant historical moment of the Jewish People.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s a few groups of Yemenite Jews settled in New York City, arriving in the United States via Erez Israel. During their first years in New York, many Yemenites lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, later moving to the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. Quite a few succeeded in saving enough for down payments to buy houses, representing a big step in their upward mobility. The significant improvement in their standard of living considerably changed the status and image of Yemenite women. Their traditional domestic role gave way to additional functions. They were often employed outside their homes, many as seamstresses or in the service industry. Several attended night school to learn to read and write English. They definitely had more opportunities for education and fulfillment in public life than any other contemporary Yemenite community in the world.
Bound together by their very distinct ethnic customs, Yemenite men formed their traditional religious kanis while the women ventured into unprecedented charitable work. The international scope of activities of the Yemenite women’s group was truly remarkable. The Yemenite Ladies’ Relief Society was organized in the 1930s, less than a decade after their arrival during the major economic depression era in the US. The impetus for the growth and development of American-style charities came about as a result of a severe famine that struck Southern Arabia and the persecution of Jews in many areas there. In addition, there were growing needs of several impoverished Yemenite Jewish communities in Palestine from the years preceding World War II until the 1950s, following the mass immigration. Previously stifled by male-dominated community structures and still overwhelmed by economic hardships, these extraordinary newly literate Yemenite women made tremendous financial contributions to needy brethren while simultaneously elevating themselves to a remarkable plateau of organizational achievement compared with any other newly arrived immigrants in New York.
The Yemenite Ladies’ Relief Society addressed itself to a variety of philanthropic causes over the years. In New York their charitable organization paralleled, in principle only, their traditional social-communal work for the needy in Yemen. They created a network of women who collected funds for Yemeni poor and their health care, both in Yemen and Erez Israel. They organized dinner-dance fundraisers, monitored the financial transactions, demanded reports from the receiving organizations abroad and maintained a vast correspondence for this purpose. Yemenite women in America were therefore quite different from their counterparts elsewhere in the world who had not yet attained this level of public activity. Their work was also similar in both ideology and fundraising methods to other voluntary American Jewish women’s organizations.
Within one decade of their arrival in the “goldene medinah” the women led the vanguard in adaptation and acculturation in New York. They were the first ones to learn English and they immediately harnessed themselves to help earn their families’ livelihood. Indeed, the Yemenite Jewish women in New York were the agents of change in their community, while at the same time maintaining the cultural traditions in the home.
Yemenite women proved to be most stable and resourceful, both in Yemen where tradition reigned, and also after immigration to Erez Israel and New York, facing changes and challenges in turbulent times. They adapted to changing economic, social and communal conditions, acculturated in language skills and organizational life, and were instrumental in bringing up their daughters and sons to successfully integrate into the new worlds. They fully accepted the changes, enjoying the freedom of movement, exalting in their literacy and finding a way to manifest a special mixture of modernity while still retaining Yemenite culture. The men, on the other hand, generally adhered to the strict tenets of their religious practices to express their Yemenite Jewish identity. Once their next generation relinquished those strict practices, the male Yemenite identity became very much diluted.
Yemenite women maintained most of their cultural traditions. The Yemenite heritage in song, dance, cuisine, jewelry and embroidery never ceased to be a source of pride and self-respect for the women. Thus they continued to express themselves in these areas despite the socio-economic changes in their lifestyle. Moreover, they reveled in such expression, integrated the folkloric ways into the larger Jewish cultural arena, excelled in them and even became the spokespersons for Yemenite Jewry in international forums. Eventually, Yemenite Jewish women succeeded in incorporating their folklore into the overall evolving Israeli cultural identity.
However, the characteristics of Yemenite women are not represented only by their ability to use cultural traits as ethnic resources. From the early 1900s, they were an integral part of all the major trends in the modern Jewish experience. They were pioneers from the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise in Erez Israel, both in the urban areas as well as in the agricultural settlements. They were also part of the mass immigration of Jews to the United States that formed the most prosperous, philanthropic and creative Jewish Diaspora in the twentieth century.
Being in the forefront of those turning points and cardinal events in Jewish history did not shield Yemenite women from suffering and very deep wounds. They were not part of the political leadership or in positions of national authority and their physical destiny was all too often in the hands of others. The women remember the degrading attitudes and behavior towards them, or towards their ancestors in the early pioneering days. They know of the theft of jewelry and other property as the exhausted women finally boarded the airplanes in Aden on the way to the Promised Land. Certainly, they cannot forget the tragic disappearance, kidnapping and death of some of their children in the 1950s.
Thus, the collective identity of the contemporary Yemenite woman is an amalgamation of the scars of past torments combined with immense Jewish national and ethnic pride.
Dahoh-HaLevi, Yoseph, ed. A Hymn for Yona: Studies of Yemenite Jewish Culture. Tel Aviv: 2004.
Gamlieli, Nissim B. Love of Yemen. Tel Aviv: 1979.
Kapheh, Joseph. Ways of Life in Yemen. Jerusalem: 1961.
Seri, Shalom, ed. Daughter of Yemen. Tel Aviv: undated.
Druyan, Nitza. “Yemenite Jewish Women—Between Tradition and Change.” In Pioneers and Homemakers, Women in Pre-State Israel, edited by D. Bernstein, 75–87. New York: 1992.
Gilad, Lisa. Ginger and Salt, Yemeni Jewish Women in an Israeli Town. Boulder: 1989.
How to cite this page
Druyan, Nitza. "Yemen and the Yishuv." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 16, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/yemen-and-yishuv>.