The government, therefore, requires official per-
mission for anyone, Yemeni or foreigner, who
wishes to visit the Jews. Getting permission re-
quired me to navigate Yemen’s formidable bu-
reaucracy, a process taking days. Once I had
received the permission letters, actually record-
ing the folklore proved a chal-
lenging and often frustrating
endeavor in its own right.
Equipment was unavailable or
hard to find; storytellers were
noncommittal, and they often
promised to meet at a later
time, only to ignore my calls
when that time came.
However, after all the phone
tag and bureaucratic hoops, the
project came through, and I left
Yemen with hours of stories
recorded with professional-
quality sound and video.
With the death of a lan-
guage, so too dies a commu-
nity’s history, myths, stories,
ideas, tragedies, celebrations,
and perception of the world. The Jewish com-
munity in Yemen will not remain forever. I am
glad to say I could be a part of the process of
documenting and recording those words before
they are gone.
From left: Yusuf Musa Marhabi, father of the rabbi; Yahya Yusuf Marhabi, the rabbi;
Shuma Marhabi, the rabbi’s daughter; Josh Berer; Musa Yahya Marhabi, the rabbi’s
son; Nabila Marhabi, the rabbi’s daughter.
second. When the day arrived and I came into
their homes loaded with cameras, tripods, and
microphones, the children gathered around,
watching me set up until their grandmother
came in and chased them out. The storytellers
sat on a bed, chewing qat, a plant whose leaves
produce a mild stimulant when chewed for
hours. I never saw its appeal, but its use among
Yemenis, Jews included, is ubiquitous. During
our recording sessions, people would filter in
and out, curious to see what was going on, and
the women would bring us endless pitchers of
tea, regardless of how many times the storytellers asked them to stay out.
The format of the stories takes several traditional forms, all readily recognizable in our
own, Western story traditions. For example, the
antics of the fool teach a deep and profound
message, or a poor and dejected village boy
learns he is of noble birth and thus brings populist understanding to the throne. Many of the
stories told to me by Yemeni Jews were stories
also told in the Muslim community and were,
therefore, not exclusively Jewish.
From a practical perspective, the process of
collecting folklore in Yemen was tricky, but not
impossible. At present, the Jews living in the
capital are wards of the state, having been
moved from their homes in the north of the
country following threats from Shi`ite rebels.
The stories I know best, those from the Hebrew Bible, are the first “Jewish” stories. They tell us about great leaders. Abraham palms his wife off as his sister to save his kin. He gets rewarded, but not before the foreign king, Avimelech, (in the second version) reproaches first God and then Abraham with a rather astounding claim: “Things that should not be done you have done to me.” (Genesis 20: 9) David, great- est hero, beloved of God, is caught in be- havior unfit for a king, at least a king who rules the people of God. He, too, is roundly reproached. Each story insists we form our own judgments, giving us details but not necessarily the narrator’s view. God’s judgment may also be absent. A “Jewish” story, then, is willing to submit even the most powerful to scrutiny. It insists that we read with a moral compass, and, while entertaining, it is never indifferent to what unfolds in front of us. Yet Jewish skepticism of power is hardly unique. Tolstoy’s parody of Napoleon on the eve of battle, or Dicken’s contempt for the lawyers of the chancery come readily to mind. Adriane Leveen is assistant professor of Bible at HUC-JIR in New York.
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