The Yemenite Mystique

He tried to disconnect himself from his heritage, and succeeded in becoming totally `Israeli' - until a conversation with his mother changed everything.

Friday, 29 March 2002
Aviva Lori

Yosef Tzuriel

Yosef Tzuriel outside the Arab house that was given to his family: "I can't live there."

     Yosef Tzuriel was born in Yemen and came on aliyah with his family from Sana when he was 14. Like many immigrants of that era, he wanted to become a sabra as fast as possible. He let his hair grow, cut off his sidelocks and lost his guttural accent. He wore khakis, joined the Scouts, went into Nahal (the unit that combines army service with work in outlying settlements), became a combat soldier. He spent all of his adult life as a journalist at the daily Ma'ariv, at the heart of the "Askhenazi establishment." He felt that he was practically Ashkenazi himself, until one day 11 years ago, his elderly mother opened his eyes. 

"One day - it was an ordinary Thursday - I brought baskets of groceries from Mahaneh Yehuda back to my mother and we sat together a little and drank coffee," he recollects. "And I asked her if she had seen the show by the Inbal Dance Troupe on television. It was a Yemenite wedding dance. She said that she had seen it. Then she was quiet for a moment before she said: `Tell me, how long is this lie going to continue?' 

"I asked her what she meant, and she asked: `You don't know your aunt's story?' My aunt was sitting about 10 meters away, embroidering in the other room. I knew something about this aunt, about the hard life she'd had, but I didn't know what had happened exactly." 

Tzuriel decided to ask his aunt to tell him her story. "You should have seen this woman's face. She burst out crying and told me the whole story of her life. This was the basis for `Klulot' [Wedding, Tzuriel's first novel]." 

"Klulot," published by Schocken Press in 1992, was later made into a television movie called "Homot Hemar" ("Clay Walls"), directed by Haim Gil for Channel One. It was based on the story of his aunt, who, at the age of 12, was married to a much older man. It was followed by "Kera'im" ("Rifts") in 1995 (Ma'ariv Press), about how a Yemenite family copes with the black sheep of the family. His latest book is "Halamti Yonim" ("I Dreamt of Doves," published recently by Zmora Bitan). The book's title comes from a women's folk song about a girl's longing to be wed, but the subject is actually the Jewish-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of two uprooted peoples - the Palestinians and the Yemenite Jews. 

Tzuriel has devoted himself to writing since taking early retirement from Ma'ariv in 1992. He has come under fire from some in the Yemenite community who say that his books give them a bad image. "I tried to write about other subjects," says Tzuriel, "but I could smell the lie in the words. Meanwhile the truth is right here at my fingertips. Also, at the age of 66, I think I'm allowed to be critical." 

The plot of "Klulot" could certainly be called criticism. The book is based on the traumatic experience of Tzuriel's Aunt Bint, an experience shared by many other women in Yemen: the custom of marrying orphaned girls to older men, on the pretext that if this were not done, they would end up being forced to convert. Tzuriel says that it was the hypocrisy of the custom that infuriated him. 

"I once went to see a man who had married a young girl and I said to him: `Tell the truth now. It's been 40 years.' And he said: `What conversion? It was a convenient way to take a second wife without divorcing the older one, so there would be one to run the household and one to serve me in personal matters. What's wrong with that? It didn't hurt anyone.' 

"It was forbidden for a woman in Yemen to go out to work, and if the father died, there was no one to support the family, so the old man was supposedly the girl's redeemer. It sounds humane, but what do you expect a man of 45 or 50 who takes a 15- or 16-year-old girl to say? That his sexual urges were that intense? Look, he had to find a more aesthetic-sounding explanation, like, `I saved her.' It's a reasonable-sounding, acceptable excuse." 

Aunt Bint was a victim twice over. Once, because she was married off and again because she did not cooperate. Tzuriel explains: "Aunt Bint, though not an orphan, was married off at age 12, but there was a gentleman's agreement between the fathers that the groom, who was over 20, would not touch her or come close to her until she matured. He did not keep his part of the bargain and on the wedding night or the night after, she jumped from the window barefoot and in her nightgown and ran back to her parents' house. She knocked on the door to get them to open it. But her mother looked out of one window, one of her sisters looked out another and her father stood at the third window and forbid anyone to open the door. He told her, `Go back to your husband.' 

"She went back and, a few days later, both fathers felt so humiliated and offended by the disgrace they had suffered that they agreed that the husband would marry another woman and that my aunt would remain an aguna [a `chained woman,' unable to marry] for the rest of her life. He had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and she was left to wither, as punishment for having dared to expose this shame to everyone." 


     Tzuriel lost his father when he was still in Yemen. So, at a young age, he became the head of the family that included his mother and his younger sister and brother. His mother and his aunts made a living from embroidery and from grinding flour. A kind man, the owner of a small grocery store, used to leave a basket of items on their doorstep every Thursday, making it possible for them to survive. 

Tzuriel stopped attending school at age nine - "We learned the Torah portion of the week and a little bit of midrash" - and went to work to help support the family. "I was an apprentice to a goldsmith. I sat on the floor, I looped chains together, I soldered and did other things." In December 1949, the family arrived in Israel, at the tent camp in Rosh Ha'ayin. On his first morning in the homeland, as head of the family, Tzuriel was sent to bring breakfast for everyone. 

"I get a tray with hot drinks, some fish, a dish of jam and another dish with some cubes of margarine, and I put it in front of my grandmother. We sit down to eat. We taste the sardines, drink tea and eat the bread with the jam, but we don't touch the margarine. At the end of the meal, we wash our hands and then each of us takes half a cube to spread over our hands and face. We were sure it was a special cream. I still stink from that margarine. 

"In Yemen, there was no margarine and no butter. I didn't see a glass of milk until I came to Israel. There was no fruit in Yemen. Babies would get milk from a wet nurse and, as for little children - in the morning, it was an egg with hilbeh [a spicy sauce], for lunch it was soup with hilbeh, and in the evening, bread spread with hot oil." 

Tzuriel remembers all the confusion of the first days at the transit camp, but these memories actually spurred him not to join the wave of protest concerning the disappearance of Yemenite children from these camps. Several commissions were set up to investigate allegations that chilrden had been kidnapped from the camps and given up for adoption. The Kedmi Commission submitted its findings just a few months ago. Yes, children disappeared, the commission said, but this was due to bureaucratic errors; these were children who had died, apparently. 

"I can ascribe arrogance, indifference, disorganization and irresponsibility to the yishuv that absorbed us, but I am not at all prepared to say there was a conspiracy," says Tzuriel. "I saw these aunts from the kibbutzim and the moshavim and the nearby cities running around like grasshoppers with blankets and used clothes, diapering the babies and carrying and trying to calm crying children. I saw all this, and all this volunteering was very chaotic, which added to the parents' confusion and their not knowing the language and their sense that there was someone to rely on. I myself helped to collect and move babies. 

"Did it occur to anyone to put a sticker on their hand with their name on it? The babies were taken to be looked after, and from there they were taken to hospitals and institutions and no one knew for sure to whom they belonged. The parents could also be held accountable. Where were they? One hour after the child was taken from them - I'm not talking about a day or a week - one hour? When people made a political issue out of it, I wasn't interested." 


     Tzuriel's family left the transit camp after a short time and, thanks to the connections of an uncle, moved into an abandoned Arab house in the Mekor Haim neighborhood in southern Jerusalem. This house is the protagonist of Tzuriel's new book, "Halamti Yonim." Tzuriel says he still recalls the scent left behind by the Arab tenants who had fled for their lives. "Since then, the house has stood like some kind of huge monument that cuts across my soul. This is the reason I can't live there. At the first opportunity, I left and never went back." 

His son Yiftah, 30, now lives in the house with his family. Tzuriel has another son, Assaf, 33. The house is surrounded by overgrown vegetation and an old well stands in the yard. The walls of the foyer are missing some plaster, but the floors of the bedrooms are covered with colorful mosaics. "When we got there, the window grilles were still lying on the ground and the plaster in the entranceway was not finished. I think they barely lived in the house, because there were mounds of sand outside and there was a bullethole in the front door." 

After they settled in the house, Tzuriel began his journey to Israeliness. He went to school and says he taught his mother reading, writing and arithmetic, so she would be able to cope with life in the new country. To make money, he sold newspapers in the morning. He enlisted in Nahal, in a group that had ties to Kibbutz Beit Ha'emek. He also went to night school and earned his matriculation certificate at age 20. 

"The big effort I made to become Israeli meant that I disconnected myself from being Yemenite and from Yemenite friends," he says about those years. Among other things, he changed his accent, especially the pronunciation of the letters het and ayin. After completing his army service, he got a job at the Haboker newspaper. One of his first journalistic efforts was a series of articles on education in development towns in the Negev. He asked the deputy director-general of the Education Ministry for a response. "I'm asking him questions about my tough findings and, in the middle of the interview, he takes off his glasses and says: `Mr. Tzuriel. Tell me, are you Yemenite?' I tell him yes, and then he says: `So how is it that you're so unpleasant?' I knew exactly what he was after. He wanted to embarrass me and to say, `Stop talking to me like you're some Rosenbaum. You're a Yemenite and everyone knows that Yemenites are nice people.'" 

Were you offended? 

"No. This is exactly what bothers me today. The empty shell that has become the calling card of Yemenites in Israeli society. You say Yemenite and everyone sees some nice dance steps." 

Each component of society has a role to play. Perhaps this was the role of the Yemenites in Israeli society. 

"Perhaps. And after I heard what my mother told me, I took it upon myself to illuminate the dark corners of this community." 

For a long time, Tzuriel was one of the few non-Ashkenazi journalists who managed to get into the entrenched, hierarchical system of the Israeli press. He worked at Haboker until it closed down. In 1966, he started to work for Ma'ariv, and right after the Six-Day War, he was assigned to the job of reporter in the territories. Afterward, he was the newspaper's Knesset reporter and regularly wrote for the paper's opinion pages. "I loved the territories. I felt that I was closing a circle, that somewhere deep inside, I had returned to my true mentality. I was in my element when I sat there chatting with an Arab from Hebron on a balcony under a tangle of grape vines. It excited me." 

He also published one of the first articles on the missing Yemenite children. "I heard my mother talking with a woman from the Katamonim neighborhood who was telling her that her daughter had received a call-up notice for the army, but the girl had disappeared or died in the transit camp. At first, I didn't pay much attention to it. Later, I asked her if I could see the call-up notice. She showed it to me and said that she wasn't the only one, that she knew a lot of other people to whom the same thing had happened. I found 12 families who had received call-up notices for nonexistent children and I wrote an article that was published in the Shabbat supplement. It started to snowball from there." 

In 1992, Tzuriel retired from journalism and turned his attention to literary writing and a re-examination of his Yemenite identity. "Then I realized that I'd been living a kind of lie all those years. I understood that the term `Yemenite' was presented to the public in a very perverted manner. When `Klulot' came out, they invited Shoshana Damari to debate me on television and she declined, and I understand her, because all that would have come out of it would have been kitsch, and I can't stand that. It doesn't have to do with the roots of being Yemenite." In his view, Geula Cohen is the true personification of deep-rooted Yemenite-ness. "She has those wonderful eyes, the liveliness and the charm, but along with that, she doesn't budge without touching on her truth." 

His second novel, "Kera'im," was also based on a real event. "Until the age of 14 and a half, I had never seen a handicapped or retarded person. In Yemen, they kept such cases well hidden. Someone told me that he had a retarded son and that he built him a doghouse in the yard and that was where he always stayed. This man didn't see this as cruelty to the child. He just wanted to preserve his honor. A retarded child is a slight to the family honor. I started to check into it and I found that many people kept their children hidden." 


     At the center of the story in "Halamti Yonim" is an uprooted family from Yemen that moves into the house from which an Arab family was evicted. In the yard is an old well and a mysterious grave. The grave is a menacing presence. It makes all the new residents of the house uneasy. It leads them to understand that someone who steals from others will never have peace of mind in this world. 

"The issue of the right of return can only be discussed on the moral level and in the context of the personal tragedy. The public debate on this can be a fitting opportunity to express condolences, but no more than that. I'm still amazed that the State of Israel has still not raised this topic for discussion on the moral level. As a private person, I reserve the right to be forever tormented over this." 

How did the house in Jerusalem become such a deep wound from your perspective? 

"It started a year after we entered the house. I had just turned 16. One day, an Arab man appeared in the yard. He was dressed very nicely. He came from Beit Safafa, the nearby village, and asked to speak with my father. When I told him that I didn't have a father, he asked who was the adult man in the house. I told him that I was the oldest male. Then he told me that this house belonged to his relatives, who hadn't had a chance to live in it, and he wanted to work the plot of land that was in front of the house. I didn't ask my mother. I just told him, `OK, go ahead.' 

"For two or three years, this man grew vegetables there. He gave some to us and kept the rest for himself. The salad I ate from those vegetables belonging to this family left a scar in me that cannot be erased. That's why, to this day, I only look at the house from a distance." 

Why are the female characters in your books either meek and submissive or wily and cunning? 

"It's because their helplessness gave rise to two situations: cleverness and guile or total submission. I witnessed this as a boy and I asked myself what does a husband get when he has such a submissive wife, and I didn't find an answer. When the aliyah happened, it was a crisis in the sense that the wife benefited while the husband, in the best case, didn't lose out." 

The women profited by becoming housekeepers? 

"It was a big liberation. When the husband had to choose between doubling the family income or keeping his wife at home, provided she didn't rebel, they preferred the money." 

Tzuriel married in 1963. He says it was just coincidence that he married a Yemenite woman, Bracha. "I saw this young girl dragging a big suitcase and trying to put it on a bus. I helped her, and then I totally fell for her." 

Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence? 

"According to the model I built for myself, I was supposed to marry somebody named Eisenberg or Kuperstein. Now that I think about it, I know that the Eisenbergs scared me. At some level, I was hesitant to confront an Ashkenazi woman, for whom equality and listening are main values, while I come from a totally different place. My son recently called me a Saudi sheikh. A Yemenite man can be married for 50 years and never once call his wife by her name. I have never met a Yemenite man, at a wedding or any other event, who called his wife by her name. He always makes some kind of sound and she turns around right away." 

He recalls the furious reaction that the film "Homot Hemar" aroused within the Yemenite public. "It was a big mess - threats, menacing phone calls, they trashed my car. It was a nightmare. One reviewer asked: `What is he saying that's new? It was the same in Poland.' As far as I was concerned, that was fine. That's exactly what I wanted to say about the Yemenites, that they're not just about charming songs or Gali Atari bouncing around, but there is also cruelty to women, the hiding of those who are different or deformed, basically all the ills that you find in any society. After the film, Yemenites said: `Why is he badmouthing us? Even if it's true, why show it?'" 

Yemenite-ness also includes Yigal Amir and the Kahalani brothers of the Jewish underground. 

"I try to show that in my writing. What was there in Uzi Meshulam's gang? There, too, there was an extremist group of people with weapons and serious violence. So we also have our weeds. Maybe they're even a little taller than yours. After the Rabin assassination, when it became known that the killer was a Yemenite, Ashkenazi society was in shock because this went counter to all their expectations of Yemenites. `It's not nice that you did something like this to us. We still remember the nice housekeeper, Mazal, or Simha, who used to work for us,' they said."




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