His story/her story: Complaints from a mother in Aden

An 11th century Yemenite mother corresponds with her mostly unresponsive sons.

July 4, 2013 14:56
3 minute read.
Cairo mosques

Cairo mosques 521. (photo credit: Reuters)

An interesting letter from the Cairo Geniza was written by a mother to her son and published by S.D. Goitein in the original Judeo-Arabic, together with a Hebrew translation; Joel L. Kraemer also published portions. (See The Yemenites, “Women Speak for Themselves.”)

In the 1220s, this mother, most likely widowed, was living alone in the port city of Aden, Yemen, because her two sons had gone off on business trips. Umm al-Sadid was quite unhappy about this and declared that she was crying nonstop in their absence. They don’t seem to have been communicating a great deal with her, although she claimed that they complained about her infrequent writing. (Letters often went astray.) According to her count, she had written nine letters! This letter was sent to Cairo during the holiday of Succot and addressed to her son, Moshe ben Rabbi Elazar.

This mother went to a scribe, who unsuccessfully tried his hand at creating a few impressive opening lines. However, by the third line, there is no doubt that the mother was directing him and dictating her own words; it is her voice that reverberates throughout the letter. This woman was opinionated, not hesitating to speak her mind and criticize her son.

For example: “You wrote that you sent me a dress. Yes, it arrived. Aren’t you ashamed to have sent me a dress like that, something which everyone is mocking? It would have been better to have kept it by you. If you want to do something nice, you can send me a handsome dress for Yom Kippur.”

(Goitein informs us that women wore new dresses on Yom Kippur rather than on Rosh Hashana because the sages determined that on a day when you cannot eat or drink, you honor it by wearing clean or new clothing.) Her son’s taste clearly left something to be desired and his mother was not about to be ridiculed because he chose an inappropriate outfit for her.

She then berated Moshe because she had to pay the poll tax for both him and his brother; she was forced to mortgage the house in order to pay their debt! She adjured him to return home, and let him know that she knew he had written to someone else in the community but not to her, no letter or greeting came her way – this fact made her miserable.

She then wished him good health, which in most languages is intended as a blessing but can also be said facetiously when one is annoyed. Goitein believed that she realized she should bless him at this juncture so that there would not be a mother’s curse upon his head. She sent him some betel nuts (probably for him to chew) with a courier, and let him know with whom she had sent them and to be sure he received them.

News of unfortunate developments in the community followed.

The Muslims were completing observance of the month of Ramadan and ending their fasting, but some were looking to complicate the lives of the local Jews. Although the Jews were allowed to drink wine in the privacy of their homes, they were forbidden to do so in public. A Muslim entered a Jewish home where he was received courteously by the three men present, but proceeded to lodge a (false) complaint with the Muslim judge. The three were beaten, arrested and fined large sums of money; one of them was a trader who, as a result, might not be able to pay for merchandise his son was sending him.

Following this report, news regarding who had died in his absence was included. Her sister then sent regards to her nephew, asking him to buy her a head covering (probably of silk) with the money she had given him.

At this point, his mother commanded him to come home for Purim, and not to be a minute late! She ended her letter with some advice, telling him to “be a man,” to receive regards from his sisters and informing him that his brother had a partner; and lastly, not to forget to buy his aunt what she requested.

The scribe included her name on the return address and sent it to a shop in Old Cairo, instructing them to deliver it immediately, if not sooner. One wonders whether or not he opted to come home for Purim.

The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and the academic editor of Nashim. She is currently on sabbatical.

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