Commentary Magazine


Yemenite Wedding:
From the Israeli Scene

At the time I met Masal she was about seventeen years old. She was working in the household of friends of mine. They were Americans, like myself, who had come to Jerusalem as visitors, taking with them their four boys, and had stayed on, at first because they were interested, then fascinated and, finally, used to life in Israel. After four years in the country the boys spoke classical Hebrew fluently and English quaintly. Theirs was an informal, easygoing household, full of fun and banter. The mother was a graduate of an American college and the father a professor at the Hebrew University. The children called their parents by their first names; all four did household chores and could, if need be, cook a meal for the family. What they did not always succeed in doing was to clean up the mess left in the kitchen. And then Ann, their mother, would chide them; not gently. She gave full service to them and expected a full return. It was a delightful home, with frugal meals, good talk, and an excellent collection of books and records.

Masal came into this house as a maid, and all six of them, parents and boys, liked her instantly. They had always missed a daughter and sister, and suddenly they had one in Masal. She was a tiny Yemenite girl with enormous sparkling eyes. They pampered her, teased her, and loved her. She was easy to love. She soon learned to give back laugh for laugh, joke for joke, and upset her employers one day by suddenly addressing them as “Abba” and “Ima,” father and mother in Hebrew. Masal offered a plausible enough reason: since her father killed her mother, way back in the Yemen from which they had come to Israel, she was in a sense an orphan and thus entitled to call Ann “Ima.” Her father was eighty-six years old (her mother had been his fourth wife), and was more of a “Saba,” a grandfather, to her. So she needed an “Abba.” Her father’s killing her mother she explained to us very simply. “Do you Ashkenazim know the Bible?” she asked. “If you do, surely you must remember the Ten Commandments. I don’t exactly know which number it is,” she added a bit shamefacedly—”maybe the fourth?” she said, turning to the youngest of the boys, nine-year-old Jonathan; “Woallah, child, you are so clever, which is the one that says ‘Thou shalt not adulterate’? My mother did,” she went on, “and so my father had to kill her. The village people tell me he poisoned her.” She sighed. Jonathan in the meantime went to look up the word “adultery” in the Webster that was always ready at hand.

The first sign of trouble with Masal came when she began to refuse to go home on her days off. “What is there to go home to? Home,” she said scornfully; “it is not a home, it’s just awful. They nag you all day.”

“Who nags you, Masal? Who are ‘they’?”

“‘They,’” she said, “are the whole village.

‘They’ are my six sisters, my four brothers.

‘They’ are my hundreds of aunts, uncles, cousins, children of cousins, cousins of cousins, young neighbors, old ones, and worst of all, the old women. But,” she said, half carried away by anger, and already laughing, “the worst of them all are the village elders.”

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One day Masal failed to return to work so we went to look for her in her village. Lifta, on the way to Jerusalem, is a village once occupied by Arabs and now settled by Yemenites; it lies in a deep gorge, almost at the bottom of a small canyon, its houses, straggling up and down the rocky slope, are connected by steep, winding, broken steps.

The house Masal lived in was her eldest brother’s and was better than the rest because he was the “mukhtar,” mayor, of the village. It had a half-broken wall around it, a wooden door hanging askew on its hinges, through which one passed into a clean-swept court and then into the one huge room which was the house. It was a bare, dark, cool room, and at one end, in a corner, Masal lay on a low couch with a wet rag around her head. Our coming embarrassed her. “Shalom, Ima, shalom to you, too,” she said. “You have come to see me in my castle with its American frigidaire, tiled bathroom, and foam rubber mattress? Sit down, dear visitors, there, on my upholstered chairs,” she said, pointing to two low hassocks. The room, meanwhile, began to fill with people; they pushed in steadily and silently, old and young ones, children, matrons, and crones. They stared at us, and we smiled back uncertainly, not knowing how to behave nor what to expect. A very old man with a long beard, side-locks, keen bright eyes, and an earnest mouth, crinkled, though, from much laughing, opened the conversation.

“So, you are the ‘Ima’ of our Masal, is that not so?” he said to Ann. “See for yourself how she is”—he mimicked her prone position. “She is so sick! Sick of what?” He answered himself: “Sick of disobedience, sick of defiance of her elders. The doctor of the Sick Fund,” he shrieked, “says it’s Psykologia. Where, I ask you is the Psy-ko-logia? In the head? Well then,” he grinned, “did he peep into it? Made a hole and peeked? I am no doctor but I could cure, oh, how quick I could cure her.” He fingered his belt. “Her mother,” he went on maliciously, “she paid the just price for lawlessness. But what’s the use here?” he lamented and raised his eyes piously to the ceiling. “Here in Israel, in Jerusalem the Holy City where the Almighty in His eternal wisdom saw fit to bring us, blessed be His name, raise a hand to a girl and what happens?” He spat on the floor. “I’ll tell you what happens. First the accursed girl runs off to the Social Aid Bureau, complaining against her elders. And then comes troubles,” ticking them off on his fingers. “Trouble Number One is a shameless wench in a sweater.” And now he outlined the voluptuous figure of the social worker. “So, she comes and befuddles even an old man like me. This Number One comes and preaches at me like a Holy Rabbi.” He mimicked to perfection the high female voice: “‘In Israel,’ she says, ‘women have equal rights with men. And no one can hit them, not even you.’ Pfui, I say. Pfui on Israel, blessed be the Lord, who in His wisdom brought us here, where women are the same as men. Same,” he smirked, “when every fool knows they are not. Shameless!” he shrieked, and by now he was enjoying himself hugely, for he was a born actor. “Shameless the women and shameless their ways!” Masal was holding her head with both hands and looking at us through her fingers, half mortified and, it was evident, quite amused. “I don’t care,” he held one finger up, “is the First Law of the Youth. I don’t want to, the Second. And the Third,” he shrieked, “is the most accursed of them all: You can’t make me!”

Masal, at this point, seemed to grow weary of the tirade, and yawned hugely, breaking the mood at once. “Go away, all of you; I am not to be excited, the doctor said. If you do, I’ll get worse.” “Worse, you can’t get worse than you are, you rebel, you woman-soldier in pants, you—you” and now he worked himself into real rage—“you shamming pill-taker, I know, too well I know, what ails you. You don’t want to be married according to the will of God, blessed be His name,” his anger mounted, “in accordance with the choice of your family.” At that Masal turned over and faced the wall; the crowd lost interest and began to file out, and the old man, spent, squatted on his haunches, his head on his knees.

Now Masal began to cry; hot, scalding, wordless tears. The crying wracked her frail body; she clenched her fists and abandoned herself to sobbing. “No, I don’t want him. He is only a silly boy. And such a tiny one, too! Just because my sister married his brother and my aunts are his too! That’s no reason for marrying anybody, is it?”

“Masal, darling,” Ann said, and piled endearment on endearment. “Sweetheart, what’s the matter, honey? They want to make you marry someone and you don’t want him? Is that right? Come,” she coaxed, “tell your Ima. Ima won’t let you marry anybody you don’t choose. Nobody can make a girl in Israel marry against her will.” Masal poked her small fists into her eyes, wiped her nose on the back of her hand, and got up from the couch. “I am coming home with you,” she smiled at Ann. We helped her pack her few belongings: a tight white sweater, a pink sheer nylon nightgown, and a few more “European modern clothes.” She walked past the old man with a toss of her head and a wriggle of her hips.

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For two months she did not once go home to Lifta. All this time she was gay, abandoned, and affectionate, buying gaudy, useless gifts for her “brothers” with her earnings. She went to the movies two or three times a week, and from the way she walked and talked afterward, we could guess whether she had seen Marilyn Monroe or Lana Turner. Meanwhile emissaries arrived almost daily from Lifta to see Masal, and once Yedidya, the proposed bridegroom, came, bringing her an especially low-cut sweater as a gift. This concession to “modernism” seemed to change Masal’s mind. The day after his visit she announced: “I am going to marry Yedidya. He promised to be a ‘modern’ husband. And he promised never to beat me.”

“But if he does?” I asked.

“Then,” she answered, “I’ll kill him. By the living God, I’ll kill him the way they killed my mother, may she rest in peace.”

For a while Masal spent her time between the clinic and Lifta. She invariably returned from the clinic in high spirits, telling us in fine detail what advice the “head” doctor had given her about marriage, the many questions he asked about the way she felt, and the answers that she gave him. From Lifta she usually returned in a state of depression: “They don’t understand me and our modern ways. So I got mad and to spite them I called the wedding off—yes, I did.” She defended herself hotly against our dismay at this latest decision. “But why, Masal? What happened this time?” First she hesitated to answer, but under our persistent questioning she finally blurted out: “It’s because of you, Ima, I have called off the wedding, because of you,” she repeated. When she saw Ann’s consternation she said: “They say you and your modern ways have turned my head, and that I am not to come back to you after I am married. And that big bridegroom of mine, that hero,” she giggled, “who is so scared of the army, he got swelled up with all their talk. ‘Not my wife, she’ll not be a maid for Ashkenazim,’ he said. And I said, ‘You shut your mouth, it’s the only thing big about you. I am not married to you yet.’ And you know what he said?” she turned indignantly to Ann, who was as usual mending a pile of the boys’ socks. “He said: ‘If you talk the way you do, you’ll not be married to me or anybody else. You are a shrew with a headache made by a doctor, an Ashkenazi doctor.’ That’s what he said to me! Well, I packed and here I am, and here I stay until I am old enough to be a soldier. And then I’ll have to leave you or else the Old Man”—she meant Ben Gurion—“will be after me.”

“Well, if that’s the case, off you go and do some work for a change,” Ann teased; she was glad to have her Masal for another year.

But once again—the third time—the wedding day was set, for the third day of the week reckoning from the Sabbath. For on this day the Lord had said twice: “Behold, it is good”—on all other days of creation, only once. We were convinced that the wedding would really take place this time when we saw Masal fuss for weeks over her wedding gown, which was to be of white nylon lace with a train two meters long. “Oh, how I will raise the dust at the wedding dance,” she sang out in front of the mirror. “And this two-meter train will cause two hundred meters of talk. You wait and see.” To have or not to have a permanent, was the next concern. We cajoled, pleaded with, entreated Masal: “Don’t spoil your lovely sleek hair. Leave it as is, it’s so simple and lovely.”

“So you too want to drag me back to the old days of darkness, even you,” she sputtered. “Look at your hair and then look at mine!” We guiltily contemplated our own groomed short hair and the thick long braid hanging down her back. “But we never had such lovely hair to begin with,” we offered feebly. The next day Masal appeared with a tightly curled permanent that robbed her of much of her charm. It seemed as if even she regretted her rashness.

At last we were ready to go down to Lifta. When we went to look for gifts for the bride we wanted to buy a hand-wrought bracelet or necklace, although, fearing Masal’s disappointment, not one of Yemenite design. But she detested all Near East handicraft. To please the bride I decided on a set of multi-colored aluminum cups and a yellow pitcher, while Ann bought an equally ugly coffee set, which she knew Masal admired.

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Going down on a dark night, we could see nothing until the muffled sound of rhythmic chanting guided us to the house where the wedding was being held. The hall was lined with benches on which the guests sat or squatted. In front of the benches stood roughly nailed wooden horses supporting raw pine boards. The boards were heaped with mounds of peanuts, sunflower seeds, cookies strewn with sesame seeds, bits of chocolate, bottles of soda squash, and Arak, a drink which is almost pure alcohol. From time to time a woman entered from the courtyard carrying a basket filled with more peanuts and seeds. When she saw a flattened mound, she poured new heaps on top of the empty candy wrappers and husks of seeds. The small children scattered everywhere rushed over. They stuffed food into their already unwilling mouths and then withdrew to a corner. There they curled up like puppies, slept a bit, rested, and came back to feed some more.

The seating arrangement was not left to chance, it seemed. The more important notables were placed on either side of the bride and groom, who sat under an approximation of the traditional canopy. It was a homemade affair pieced together from the same pine boards the rest of the furniture was made of. Only the seat of the bridal couple’s chair was covered with sacking on top of which was spread a magnificent ancient rug. But the rug was small and the sacking showed.

Never was there a more miserable-looking couple than those two huddled under the canopy. They leaned away from each other, she incessantly twisting her new wedding band and he cracking his knuckles until they showed white. She wasn’t wearing her nylon bridal gown with the two-meter train, but a beautifully embroidered black traditional Yemenite wedding gown with a matching headpiece weighted down by jingling gold coins, under which her tiny face was hidden from view. She lifted her red-rimmed eyes, hardly giving us a welcome. When she saw our dismay, she raised the skirt of her long gown a bit in derision, revealing the final shameful sign of her subjugation and surrender: she was wearing long pink pantaloons. We felt her sorrow. How could we tell her then that she could easily have been the most beautiful bride there ever was. That the Yemenite gown and crown gave her a dignity and a loveliness which the sleazy nylon gown never could. That the gown she had on had been worn by generations of brides before her, while newcomers to Israel, those who came from Germany and those who were now slipping out from behind the Iron Curtain, had lost all, father, mother, heirlooms, way of life, everything, so now there was nothing left to remember. How could one tell such thoughts to a bride who wept for Woolworth treasures.

If the notables, elders, and holy men noticed the distracted bride and groom, they gave no sign of it. They simply went about the business of making this as good a wedding ceremony, according to the laws of Moses, as they could. Brides had wept at weddings as far back as they could remember, each for her own silly reasons. This one, for her frivolous modern gown that looked like an indecent nightshirt. But they cast sidelong, appraising looks at the groom, wondering if he would prove masterful and whether he could put some sense into the headstrong bride, if need be, with the flat of his hand. From the way they looked at him and then at each other, they left little doubt what they thought of his manliness. He sat, still and wan, pale under his brown skin, cracking his knuckles.

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The old men spurred each other on to introduce a gay mood. Each had brought, or improvised at the last minute, an instrument on which they beat out a rhythm with their hands. Kerosene cans, lids of pots, or plain pieces of tin made up the orchestra. Each, however, went his own way. The result was earsplitting. A slower man, absorbed in his own sounds, would look up and suddenly realize that the next man was faster, and would speed up and out-shout his neighbor.

As I sat amidst the din, an old man nudged me gently and pointed a long-nailed henna-dyed finger at the book he was reading. I recognized the familiar Hebrew words, and read on with him without having to look too often at the lines. And listening to the howling sounds, I realized that the men were merely vying with each other in holy fervor. At a particularly lovely or exalted phrase in the book, one would beat his piece of tin faster to point out to the next man that here was a real gem, a piece of beauty and wisdom unsurpassed.

The drinking continued during the reading of Holy Writ. Spirits rose and some young people began to clear the center of the hall of peanut shells and crawling babies. As they prepared for the dance, Masal’s eyes lit up and when her eldest brother approached to ask her, as was the custom, for the first dance, she rose to follow him. A couple was already on the floor, both no more than eighteen years old, and both wearing Israeli army uniforms. They danced close to each other, melting into a slow tango. The older women averted their eyes or hid their faces behind kerchiefs; young mothers, babies in their cradled arms, looked at them instead of at the dancers.

Yedidya chose this particular moment to assert his authority over her. This was unfortunate, for he violated the brother’s undisputed right. He half rose and with an angry tug pulled Masal down to the seat. She was too startled at first to react; but her brother, a tall handsome man, looked down at them with an expression of contempt and mockery. Yedidya read his face and became confused. The music continued, no one paid attention to the scene. Masal got up, wheeled sharply on Yedidya, and, her face contorted with anger, hissed unintelligible words at him as he hid his face in both his hands. Tears trickling down her cheeks, she pushed her way through the crowd. Her brother, smiling a mean, small smile at Yedidya, added softly “chamor”—donkey—and left. The groom remained in anguished shame, alone under the bridal canopy. He glanced about him furtively to see if anybody had heard the brother’s last word. He sat and cracked his knuckles. Fifteen minutes passed. The dance went on; he sat, forlorn and alone, and Masal did not return.

From afar I noticed an old bearded man making his way to where we sat. He pushed aside the people in his path and waved his hand at me, calling words I could not hear. I thought he might be drunk, but he wasn’t. He bent down, took my face in both his hands, and whispered close to my ear: “For the sake of the Lord, come out, American gveret—lady—and do something.” At this moment Yedidya got up so suddenly that he overturned the table in front of him. He nearly fell over the boards and bottles. Stumbling over the debris, he bolted from the room. The old man took my hand and pulled me after him. Near the door I already heard loud voices, some cajoling, some angry, above which sounded Masal’s high, thin wail. When I put my arm around her, she leaned her tear-stained face on my shoulder and sobbed: “Ima, Ima, I don’t want him.” “Go,” I said to the old man, “go and fetch her Ima. Her name is Ann and she is the Ima, not me. You have made a mistake.” I turned to go back. Ann was already at Masal’s side, hugging and soothing her, and her crying began to subside. The old man returned after me: “You, American lady, whom I called by mistake. Don’t go back. The groom, too has run off. Get him back, lady! Talk wisdom to him. He, like his bride, is young and foolish. Talk to him of the shame he brings on the families. Hurry, in the name of the Lord and drag him back with honeyed words or with force.” He spat on the ground and sighed.

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Reluctantly I started after Yedidya, scrambling over the steep, thorn-covered rocks in nylons and high heels. It was pitch dark and I had to use hands as well as feet to grope my way up the hill. The dark covered my undignified advance and voices led the way. On the way I stopped to think over what I would say once I got there. “Anyway,” I reasoned with myself, “he is only a boy. Just go in and say in a friendly but firm voice: ‘Come on. Come along. Everything will be fine.’” And then I suddenly stood in front of his door. The voices coming from inside were not reassuring. I wanted to run away, but I went in. I saw Yedidya standing against the wall, around his neck, clinging to him, a young woman. In one hand he held a big kitchen knife and with the other he was fending her off. She spoke Arabic to him. It couldn’t really be called speaking. She laughed, cried, soothed, screamed, bullied, and pleaded, and all the while she was calming him with her body. It was his sister. Until he noticed me, he seemed unresponsive to her pleading. He was limp, his head dropped to his chest, his eyes were partly closed, and his mouth was tired. “Yedidya, please come back to the wedding,” I said. “She has come back and is waiting for you, and the guests are waiting too. Let go of him,” I said to the sister. “He will come back with me.” At the sound of my voice he straightened. His muscles became rigid, his eyes furious. “Lady from America, one step closer, one tiny step and I kill her.” He pointed the knife at his sister. It was not clear whether she understood, for she increased her loving gestures. I became furious. “Why her? What has she done to you? Here, give me that knife, you little fool. Bloodshed on your wedding day! Is that what you want? Give it to me!” I moved closer, slowly, because I wasn’t sure that he was not bluffing. He gave fair warning. “If you come close, I’ll slash your face.” He was strong, much stronger than I thought. His fist was like iron and he twisted the knife toward my face. I held on with both hands and his sister helped.

“I am no whoreson, to be persuaded by women.”

“Then come like a man. Drop the knife and come back.”

“Never will I marry that shrew!”

“Prove you are master. Show her your big heart. Be bigger than she is.” Big, it seems, was the wrong word to say. It hurt him, and his body stiffened again. I was exhausted and wondered how it would end. It did end, swiftly. Masal’s big brother came in. He took one look at us, strolled over, and, towering a head over the three of us, he simply took the knife out of his hand. Yedidya crumpled. We picked him up and put him on the couch. A woman rushed in belatedly, saw him lying there, put two and two together, wrongly, and dashed out. She came back with a pitcher of water, and, in one swoosh, she poured it on poor Yedidya, soaking him to the skin and ruining his one good suit. He lay still and let himself be handled. Masal’s brother had left and, surrounded by women, he lay and we dried him like a baby. He babbled and moaned but did not care what was done to him. Someone picked up his flattened, soppy Homburg, slapped it on his head, and we led him quietly down the hill.

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