A Yemenite Jew and an Ashakenaz Jew are having a picnic.
It sounds like the beginning of a joke. Maybe something about kashrut. Maybe it’s Shabbat and the Yemenite is having pipping hot soup and the Ashakenaz is eating some kind of delicious vegetable emulsified and drown in obscurity by oil, eggs and flour. (I have philosophical problems with kugel, okay?!) But that was my first date. (The picnic part, that is.)
A Yemenite Jew and an Ashakenaz Jew are having an engagement party.
Uh oh, sounds like someone is going to argue about the music.
A Yemenite Jew and an Ashakenaz Jew are standing under the chuppah.
My kallah teacher told me there’s a midrash that says that the chatan and kallah’s entire future and past generations are standing in the room watching while they get married. For some reason under my chuppah while the rabbi was reading the ketuvah, that was all I could think about. How many people must have been in that room that never would have had the opportunity to meet. There was little to no chance that my great great grandmother who lived in Aden, Yemen would met my husband’s great great grandmother who lived in Poland. They would argue over chicken soup recipes, how to properly pronounce words in the Torah, and what the gemara meant when it said you shouldn’t speak after washing your hands at a meal.
I thought about how my kids were all going to be super white American Jewish children who would never have the opportunity to go to a Yemenite shul.
If they did, they would never feel like it was theirs.
I had a lot of apprehensions about marrying an Ashkenazi guy. I felt like I was giving up a fundamental part of my Judaism. Following Yemenite minhagim and learning about my history made me feel like I had something unique to offer to the Jewish world, whether they wanted it or not.
Yemenite Jews are a small and ever-shrinking faction and besides for our insanely delicious food, are mostly overlooked by the Jewish world.
Yemenite Jews, as a whole, are quite dark. Most Yemenite Jews have ink black, kinky hair. Dark eyes, dark skin. The narrative you’ll find on most parts of the internet is that Yemenite Jews were undereducated, impoverished, and when the Israeli’s started saving them from Yemen, they were welcomed with open arms.
The truth is a very different story.
My father wrote a book about my grandmother being orphaned at a young age in Yemen and how she hardly survived, but no Israeli publisher would publish it.
“No one wants to read about Temanim. They want to read Holocaust stories.”
“This is very well written, but no one will care.”
“This is very important, but we won’t make any money.”
Watching my father go through this process when I was in high-school, I knew this was my messorah. I knew I had an obligation to keep it alive, in anyway I could. But I didn’t, did I? I was marrying an Ashekanaz guy. He unironically likes potato kugel (I really don’t get it, okay?!). He pronounces words in Hebrew oddly and his minhagim made no sense to me. I grew up in New York, so I knew these things existed but I never wanted to touch them. Now I had to. Love, man.
When I was a little girl my father once took me to a Yemenite shul and one of the kiddush club men laughed at me and said “go back to Russia where you belong”. My father shot back with our admittedly impressive Yemenite yichus and the man apologized. But I was always that white girl in a sea of Yemenite Jews and I would never be able to prove myself, even though both sides of my family can be dated back in Yemen for many generations. I grew up in a racially homogenous community, I didn’t have the experience or exposure to realize that having darker skin came with it’s own set of struggles, as much as I was taught so. The genetic freak accident that is my skin color grants me a lot of privilege over the rest of my family. I had to acknowledge that.
So when I got engaged, I knew I had to have a henna. A henna is in short an engagement party that usually happens right before the wedding proceedings or the week before a wedding. There’s dancing, food, and guests give you blessing as they rub henna into your hand. It was my last chance at celebrating a Yemenite custom without being a “guest” in my parents home. With a little reluctance and unsettled excitement that I even wanted this, my parents agreed.
While I danced with my husband’s family, Yemenite dances I only hobbled through for my family, I realized all of my anxieties were misguided.
I will probably spend the rest of my life learning how to live a culture very different to the one I grew up being proud of, but I am still me. Everything that I felt that made me feel like I had something unique to offer wasn’t disappearing, because everything I ever learned about being Jewish through being Yemenite wasn’t going anywhere. It still lives in me, knowledge and wisdom that I could take with me everyday.
I love my husband. Besides for being two creative weirdos, we’re proof of achdut. They say when mashiach’s coming, Jews from all four corners of the Earth will come together. It doesn’t matter how different a person’s perspectives on Judaism are from yours if you are willing to listen. I am honored to be one half of my marriage, it has taught me to be kinder to Jews I have seemingly nothing in common with, I have a better understanding of Am Israel, how incredible it is that people with such different cultures are all a part of something bigger and much more important. For that, I am grateful.