My Yemenite Girlfriend




yemenite bride
Yemenite bride
Flickr User: sefip.

The Jews of Yemen have lived there since the time of King Solomon, That is to say for over 2,900 years. In 1948 there were about 50,000 Jews in Yemen. Today, less than 200. What is often forgotten when the Palestinians whine about being chased out of Israel is that many more Jews (over 3/4th of a million) were expelled from Arab lands than vice-versa. Jews lived in Arabian lands even before those countries became Muslim.

In 1966 I met this most beautiful Temani (Yemenite Jewish) girl (sadly I do not have a photo of her). Her parents came to Israel in 1950 when she was only 1 year old. Her name was Yerushalamit (Jerusalem) probably in honor of the establishment of the State of Israel the year before she was born. Her hair, unlike many Israelis, was jet black. Her eyebrows, eyelashes, all equally pitched black. Eyes so deep a dark blue as to make even coal look pale. Her skin was of a dazzling cream complexion. I have met only one woman (who I married) since then who was a more stunning example of female beauty. Yerushalamit lived only a few blocks from Moshav Germanit which was at that time a section of Jerusalem filled almost entirely with Mizrahim (Jews from Arab lands). After weeks of conversations and safe kissings in the orange grove that sat between my house and the Hebrew University, she invited me over to her home to have dinner with her family.

Yitzhak, a friend of mine, told me that the dinner was an excuse for her parents to see if I am deserving of being a family member. I waved him off; I never even got to 2nd base with this girl and besides, she only seemed interested in talking and mild smooching, nothing serious.

"Well, anyway, listen and watch carefully," he told me, "you have an opportunity to observe Yemenites who have a very interesting way of being Jewish." So before meeting with them I did a little homework. What I found out was that many scholars consider the Yemenite Jews to practise the purest form of Judaism, since they were untouched by the influence of any other culture starting from the first century B.C. on. This also applies to the way they speak Hebrew, which again, many scholars consider to be closest to Biblical Hebrew of any other Jews. Since my minor at the University was linguistics (with emphasis on ancient Semitic tongues), I began looking forward to my dinner date.

Her home was brightly decorated and the carpet on the floor was filled with salads, pitot (pita breads), rice, radishes (as big as potatoes), and a large pot with cooked chickens. I noticed that one of the chickens had her neck and head arched over the pot edge and I could have sworn she was staring at me. And yes, those cartoons that one sees with the tongue sticking out happen in real life.

If one ever wondered why Jews must wash their hands before eating it becomes clear when you eat with Mizrahim: you are handed a bowl and fill it with food using your hands. No forks. So I followed their lead and scooped out a dollop of clumped rice, grabbed a radish, and pulled off a chicken leg into my bowl.

And how marvelous it was. Whatever they did, I did. At the same time I was trying to follow the conversation which would have been difficult enough in normal Hebrew but in their particular dialect it was almost hopeless for me to understand although fascinating. At this time I had only had about 1800 hours of Hebrew instruction, and so I was a bit distracted when I saw them pluck these green shapes and bite into them. I did likewise. Suddenly my mouth burst into flames or to be truthful, it only felt that way. I wasn't being as observant as I should have been. When you bite into certain hot peppers you can't bite them as if you would a banana or it will burn the tip of your tongue; you have to do it as if you were biting into a carrot, sideways and as far back into your mouth as you can. This was my first lesson in the geography of chewing foods.

When I first noticed that my tongue was on fire I grabbed what I thought was a small glass of water. Second mistake: it was Arak, a clear 100 proof brandy popular with Arabian Jews. Well, imagine dousing a flame with gasoline! Aside from an intense burning, my throat was frozen and I was gasping for breath.

After the family stopped laughing they explained to me that there is no shame in asking how to eat certain foods. They said it seemed in the beginning as if I knew what I was doing. Let me interrupt myself and say that about a year later I made a similar faux pas at a dinner table in Paris which I'll explain tomorrow. But after 1967, I've had no problem asking what something is and how one should eat it.

A Small Linguistic Digression

Older Yemenites have an interesting way of pronouncing the sound B. Sort of similar to the way V is pronounced like a B in Castillion Spanish but with more breath coming out of the closed lips. Yerushalamit spoke normal Israeli Hebrew which means she cannot properly say the soft or hard "TH" sound as in "thanks" or "those". Earlier in our relationship I taught her how to fake it so that American ears could not tell the difference. For example, instead of "thanks" I told her to say "fanks"; instead of "those" she could substitute "vose". As long as English speaking people were not watching her lips closely they would not be able to tell the difference. Try it on your friends and relatives.

Sorry for my attention deficit disorder, as usual, I digress.

Why She Wanted Me to Meet Her Family

After my tongue cooled down, Yerushalamit and I went for a walk and it was then that she told me why it was important for me to meet her family: and indeed it was as Yitzhak had told me. When I informed her that I was much too young to get married and that I was in Israel not to emigrate but simply to study, she cooled to me like an ice bath. Despite the fact that I wasn't getting any nookie, I genuinely enjoyed her company (along with staring at her beauty from time to time). But there was nothing I could do or say to put the Jinn back in the bottle. She would never talk to me again. I was too young then to know how hurt she must have felt. All that time I completely misread our relationship.

I've been blessed to have married two women who were not only stunning but also intelligent, wise in business, generous of spirit, affectionate, sexy, and who absolutely loathed leftist idiots. Perhaps it was because I wanted to continue that conversation I had with a most beautiful young woman when I was just a young man. I would have stayed married to my first wife if we weren't first cousins. Her mother and my mother were sisters, but that's a story for another day.


Yemenite Jews Trivia:

The Yemenite Jews are the only Jewish community who maintain the tradition of reading the Torah in the synagogue in both Hebrew and the Aramaic Targum ("translation").

Yemenite Jews practice a special chant when reading from religious texts. By their chant you can tell what holy book they are reading from.

Just as Jews in Southern Europe, Greece and Turkey speak Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish mixture of Hebrew, Castillion, Greek, Turkish, etc) and Jews in middle Europe speak Yiddish (a Judeo-German mixture of Hebrew, German, Polish, etc), Yemenite Jews speak Judeo-Arabic (a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew).



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