I am still on cloud nine after having attended the Yemenite Conference at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan in early June. An international academic conference, it focused on the cultural heritage of Yemenite Jews and the common values they shared with their Muslim neighbors. The conference opened with an evening of Yemenite culture, with song, dance and traditional garb, and ended at the UN with an evening commemorating 400 years since the birth of Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, the poet. The two days in between were packed with sessions featuring various facets of life and culture. I made sure to attend the talks about the life of the Yemenite woman in hopes of learning something new about food.
On opening night, I happened to sit next to Professor Tova Gamliel, who was going to present on Jewish Yemenite wailing culture in Israel. I asked her whether she knew about any special mourners’ food. She briefly mentioned lentils and eggs and how mourners ate small bits of food that kept their mouth closed as identification with the dead. I was fascinated, but it did not sound like a very promising subject to develop for a food article nor was it particularly uplifting.
The next morning I found myself at a lecture held in a model birthing room in “The Teimani [Yemenite] Experience,” part of an exhibit at the Center. Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, senior curator emerita at the Israel Museum, lectured on Jewish and Muslim customs for women following childbirth in Yemen. The mother’s birth room was where a new mother spent 40 days of confinement after giving birth. It was a beautiful, spacious room covered with colorful textiles and symbolic objects, such as ostrich eggs to represent fertility and bitter herbs to ward off the evil eye.
A fascinating fact I heard was that Yemenite women allegedly did not experience postpartum depression. At the time, however, mortality rates for women during childbirth and babies where quite high. Mother and baby were still vulnerable during the several weeks after birth, and the confinement period played an important role in protecting and nursing both to good health. The mother stayed in the room during that period while the other women in the family tended to her and the baby. Every day she would receive visitors who kept her company and shared song, dance, stories and laughter.
She was given rich and nourishing food to strengthen and restore her to good health. The menu included a chicken a day, as well as carbohydrates, nuts, seeds and dried fruits, such as dates and raisins. She also received galoub, fried pita torn into bite-sized pieces, drenched in samna (clarified butter or ghee) and drizzled with honey every morning. Imagine eating that for 40 days! The comforting richness of this food and the presence of other women seems to me like the panacea to ward off the blues.
This period of confinement exists in many cultures, but the galoub with samna is the privilege of the Yemenite mother—assuming there is someone to cook it for her. My sisters always left the hospital with their newborns and went straight to my late mother’s house. She would make them this traditional dish for breakfast. Living an ocean away from her, I was not as lucky.
I feel lucky now though: as I was preparing this article, I got to cook it with my sister, who is visiting us from Israel with two of my nephews. We reminisced—and, of course, indulged in the deliciousness of this concoction of bread, butter and honey. It took me back to the days of my mother preparing it for us for Shavuot and on mornings before I returned to boarding school or the army.
The Yemenite Conference served as an eye-opening opportunity to dive into the two millennia of my heritage. Though much has been lost, I was pleased to find that many of the flavors and aromas have been preserved—mostly, at least.