The Songs of the Mothers

A new show in Jerusalem honors the musical tradition of Yemenite Jewish female singers.

Tom Fogel (left) and Ofer Kalaf (right) listen to a recording of a Jewish woman singing in the Mughaniyyat tradition (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tom Fogel (left) and Ofer Kalaf (right) listen to a recording of a Jewish woman singing in the Mughaniyyat tradition
(photo credit: Courtesy)
recently Jerusalem’s Confederation House hosted a unique performance with roots in the Jewish community of Yemen. “Mughaniyyat: The Songs of the Mothers” features the works of female Jewish poets of Yemen, women whose poems were passed from generation to generation before reaching Israel.
 The project is the brainchild of Tom Fogel, a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, currently researching the archive of the late Shelomo Dov Goitein, one of the great scholars of Yemenite Jewish culture, and musician Ofer Kalaf.
“The thing you need to realize is that Yemen is huge and the vastness creates very strong differences, not only between city and village but also between North and South and various dialects and trades,” says Fogel.
In the community his grandparents lived in, there was a tradition of men leaving the village, which was on the slopes of Jabal Sabir in southwestern Yemen, for half a year to work and sell jewelry in a Muslim town.
This tradition highlights the roles Jewish people filled in Yemen as well as the security the Jewish community in that part of the country felt, knowing that women and children left behind would be largely protected by the authority of the tribal leaders of the region, who regarded the Jews as subjects.
Fogel is careful to point out that these good relations did not mean equality between Jews and Muslims, rather that a complex social network existed in which roles were allocated and strictly observed.
“The real clash was between those who wanted to live in a social structure, like the Jews or the land-owning Arabs, and outlaws or radicals who wanted to break it down,” he explains. “Tribal law is so ancient that it pre-dates Islam. So if a criminal would harm a Jew who is accepted by the culture as under their protection, the norms were that the leader would avenge the insult [not because he liked that particular Jew but because it was his honor, his authority as a leader, that needed avenging].”
Fogel also notes that in Yemen, Jews were the only non-Muslim group, numbering roughly 50,000 members among tens of millions of Yemenite Muslims. The result was, he says, that a social norm existed that Muslims would reprimand Jewish people if they saw them violating this or that Jewish custom. “Where is your Yahawudiaya [value of being a Jew]?” the Muslim neighbor would pointedly ask.
 Left to fend for themselves for half the year, the women brought water to the village, did needle work, harvested wheat and baked bread, all the while creating collective working songs that were, in a relative sense, extremely free as they were sung by women for other women.
 “In Yemen, religious norms were absolute, so gender-based separation was the norm for everybody,” Fogel explains. “And a part of that is that women would normally be illiterate as only Jewish men would be taught how to read and write. The result is that these songs are in Yemenite-Arabic, not in Hebrew, and that they were never written down or recorded until now.
“The wedding songs are usually very sad,” says Kalaf. “In Israel, we don’t get it because weddings are such a happy moment, right? But in Yemen, marriages were controlled by the families and even the tribal rules. Little girls would be married off to men at extremely young ages; we’re talking about six years old here. So sure, it’s sad and women cry because they remember their own marriages, which were usually forced or at the very least without the romantic element we think of as normal.”
Kalaf, an accomplished musician and singer who never thought he would reconnect with his heritage using music, tears up when he shares how his own mother married his father in such a marriage.
“I know today as a man that this wasn’t a picnic for him either,” he says. “He was an adult man and nobody asked him if he wanted to marry that six-year-old girl. What does a grown man need a six-year-old child for? But that was the culture.”
He shares how a Muslim woman showed so much interest in his father that she locked him up at her house and tried to force him to convert to Islam – another example of how intimate, and unequal, Jewish-Muslim relations were.
 Kalaf rebelled against the strict Yemenite education he received at home by listening to Stevie Wonder and Israeli musician Matti Caspi. He later went on to become an accomplished singer and musician, translating into Hebrew Dichterliebe (The Poet’s Love), a German collection of poems written by Heinrich Heine and set to music by Robert Schumann.
“Perhaps one of the reasons I wanted to keep my distance from Yemenite music is the shock I experienced when I learned my mother was orphaned and married off to my father at such a young age.”
FOGEL AND Kalaf met at a Yemenite cultural event with which Fogel was involved. Kalaf invited Fogel to meet his mother and they discovered that they are distant family members with roots in the same community in southwestern Yemen.
 Their shared performance of women’s songs as sung by their male descendants begins with Fogel introducing a portion of the original song as he learned it from the women in that community and that is taken up by Kalaf as an invitation to share his own original exploration of the theme in Hebrew.
Kalaf, who initiated this performance, says he always knew that his singing voice is in fact a feminine one. Both his grandmothers were noted female poets in the Hogriah district of Yemen, and their voices are deep inside him, he says. Kalaf traces the sounds that accompanied his grandmothers together with Fogel, whose family also came from the Hogriah region.
Fogel studied the diwan specific to that area and documented women’s song among elderly women of the community. In this performance, Kalaf and Fogel presented rare Hogriah piyutim along with original melodies influenced by the feminine roots of the Mughaniyyat.
“This was not an easy thing for me to do,” Kalaf explains. “As part of trying to reconnect myself with Yemen, I started drinking coffee with hawaij (a traditional spice mix popular among Yemenites) as a means to connect to these women who are now grandmothers. I even wrote my songs using a female voice, writing with a female pronoun as a ‘her,’ as if I was opening a box that was locked for many years.
“You know, many of these elderly ladies we met along the way when we created this music were fierce. They had this permanent scolding expression on their face and they always sat with their arms folded over their chest. Even as a child I noticed it and it always alarmed me. Why are they sitting like this? Who are they angry at?
“When we came and started asking questions, the corners of their mouths began to rise a little. They were so surprised someone wants to know! And stories came out, very hard stories about losing family members and being married off at a young age, and coming to Israel and starting out with nothing. It was then that the arms finally dropped to the side, and the chest, their heart, was allowed to be open for a short time.”
Kalaf says most Israelis have only an inkling about the rich cultural heritage of the Yemenite community.
“Yemenite people are unique in the sense we are the non-Ashkenazi group with the longest experience of being in this story called the Israeli project,” he says. “On some level, that’s a good thing. Non-Yemenite people know we have a culture and respect that. They may know very little about it, but at least we are on the radar. People know Shoshana Damari, for example, who was an iconic singer – and know she is Yemenite.
“But on another level, it’s also not so great because we lost a lot of heritage. This performance honors that legacy as well as our mothers.