When growing up in Israel, I never thought of our family holiday dinners as anything out of the ordinary. Everyone I knew would be caught up in the holiday frenzy of shopping for the right ingredients to prepare the customary meal and thoroughly scrub their home clean, especially before Passover. However, these days, far removed from my childhood environment and a lot older and feeling very nostalgic, I am continuously drawn back to those days when the entire family would congregate at my grandparents’ home in Shaaraim, Rehovot, for Shabbat and holidays. I think back to how unique those experiences were, and how lucky I was to witness a culture that is so foreign to most people these days—a culture that is, sadly, foreign to my own children as well.
The way we celebrated Passover seemed so natural, as though everyone else had followed the same rituals and executed them in a similar manner. It was never a topic of conversation among my friends because it was the custom all over Israel to celebrate; as kids, we had other, more important, things to talk about other than the manner in which our families celebrated holidays. Only now I can see life events in their right context and I understand how unique and different it used to be. Also, I realize the reason my grandfather always talked about Yemen was due to his remarkable memory and keen attention to detail. He too was a very nostalgic man—and although he had fulfilled a dream by immigrating to Israel, he pined for the old days in Yemen when keeping with Jewish tradition seemed somewhat simpler. We would hear detailed accounts of his life and the people around him, and through his eyes we had a vivid picture of young Zachariah during his childhood years in Yemen.
When thinking about our Yemenite-style Passover, I remembered certain rituals but I didn’t have a thorough understanding of their origin, so I referred to a book titled The Customs of Yemen by Yoseph Kapach. When I read the book, it took me back to my childhood days and I had a better grasp of why my grandfather continued with such customs in the first place. Zachariah wanted to give us the most accurate account of holidays in the Yemenite tradition, so we would all participate in preparing the house for the Seder, just as they had done in Yemen when school would break at least two days before the holiday in order to allow every single member of the family, male and female alike, to take part in the pre-holiday madness.
In keeping with tradition, we would empty the living room of all its furniture and transform it into a large dining hall, but in this instance we were expected to sit on cushions strewn on the floor, next to a low “L”-shaped table in front of us. Our table was also piled high with greens and I recently learned from Kapach’s book that in Yemen, all the vegetables for Passover were called “adama” i.e., “earth.” It was their custom to send a representative of the family back to the market in order to purchase leftover vegetables and distribute them among the poor, and ask the rich to take the rest of the produce off their hands. They did this in order to ensure that no Arab would be left with surplus vegetables after the Jews had shopped for their holiday meal. Always mindful of their status as Jews in a Muslim country, they feared that a loss of income would persuade the Muslims to sow fewer seeds for the coming year and reduce the amount of crop they could buy for observing the holiday. Buying every single, last bit of produce was their way of maintaining the peace.
Next, the ritual of biyur chametz meant that we would scour the house for any leavened foods, and in Yemenite households they would use a small candle designed specifically for this occasion. They were made by Jewish candle makers and distributed for free, and this explains my grandfather’s habit of using a small candle, I suppose, and taking us along with him to check every corner of the house for chametz. In Yemen, the local Arabs would wander through the streets looking to barter with anyone who was willing to give them their leftover chametz products in exchange for freshly picked apricots. Yemenite Jews would never engage in selling the leftover chametz to non-Jews as was the custom in other parts of the world.
My grandparents would prepare the charoset together, and just as in Yemen we were given the task of removing the stones from the dates and sifting through the nuts to look for shells. They called the charoset “duka,” and it’s also the way that Jews had called it in ancient times. This fact can be traced back all the way to the Tannaim (the Talmudic Rabbis), states Kapach in his book. I remember my grandfather in charge of this task and always instructing my grandmother with regard to the precise measurements for preparing this sticky, sweet mixture: 300 g. dates, 300 g. raisins, 100 g. dried figs, pomegranate seeds, 200 g. toasted sesame seeds, 100 g. almonds, 100 g. walnuts, 20 g. black pepper, 20 g. cumin, 10 g. kirpe—a type of hawaiige mixture, 10 g. ginger and a pinch of cardamom. My grandfather would use a mortar and pestle to grind each of the ingredients separately before combining everything together for one final, thorough mix. My grandmother would add wine to one half of the mixture and soaked raisins to the other.
The preparations for matzah shmura would begin in the month of Tishrei, the harvest season. Yemenites would use the wheat they had harvested themselves in order to fulfill the commandment in Exodus 12:17, which is the obligation of eating matzah and guarding it to ensure that it doesn’t become chametz. They would purchase a small parcel of land from Arab farmers so they could personally oversee the growth of their own wheat and follow a very strict code of conduct from the time the wheat was harvested to the storage and preparation of the actual matzah. Right before or after Purim, three women per household were required to take on the exhausting task of sifting through the wheat to choose grains that were unblemished and whole. This would take hours of back-breaking work, and the women who were normally accustomed to talking or singing while engaged in housework would remain silent throughout the process; they couldn’t utter a single word for fear of one tiny drop of saliva coming in contact with the grains and thus producing fermentation.
My grandparents didn’t have to worry about growing their own wheat, but they did bake their own Yemenite matzah in an outdoors tabun (clay oven) that my grandfather had built for this very purpose. The entire affair was steeped in ceremony; my grandmother would prepare the dough while my grandfather watched over the measurements, after which he would take over the task of kneading the dough and shaking the bowl continuously in order to prevent the dough from rising. Meanwhile, my grandmother would tend to the kindling of the fire, and once the temperature was right she would dip her hands in water all the way to her elbows then grab a handful of dough she quickly shaped into a ball before she stuck her hand inside the oven and slapped the dough onto the walls.
This method of baking matzah required much skill, and it was so exciting to watch that many of their non-Yemenite as well as Yemenite friends would always show up at their house at this time of the year; they also received their share of homemade Yemenite-style matzot for their own Seders. In Yemen, the custom was to prepare the matzah using salt because they believed that only ghosts would eat bread that lacked taste. Also, the obligation to never eat chametz meant that each family member was responsible for preparing food for their own family and couldn’t risk feeding another family for fear of mistakenly incorporating chametz into the food. Although my grandfather was a stickler to the old ways of doing things, and in that respect he preserved centuries-old traditions, he also understood the need to assimilate to a degree and loosen the reigns of days past, specifically in a world that was so different to the one he had come from. For this reason he had no problem preparing matzaot for their friends; however, when it came to his food he refused to eat anything other than my grandmother’s cooking, no matter what time of the year.
In Yemen it was the men’s job to fill the table with layer upon layer of adama, after all, Passover represented one of three harvest holidays. They would set plates of charoset across the table, hard-boiled eggs and a couple of roast meat dishes. The food was then covered in a festive, white table cloth—a custom that I vividly remember from my grandparents’ home as well. The women would light the candles and the men would go to synagogue.
My grandfather dressed in his holiday attire and walked over to the synagogue next door; it was only an arm’s reach away from home. It’s a well-known fact that in every Yemenite neighborhood in Israel there used to be multiple synagogues dotted along one street alone, and not because there wasn’t enough room to house all the congregants at once. Yemenites were so particular about their own unique style of prayer, which differed from region to region in Yemen, and their ears were attuned to fastidious accuracy of each and every single letter and word pronounced that with so many different opinions it was easier to move out of one synagogue and erect a new one that subscribed to one’s own liturgical rites.
Zachariah always smelled good; in fact, when I think of him the fragrance of delicate flowers comes to mind first and foremost, and in Yemen they would store their holiday clothes in dried flowers that would bathe their clothing in a unique, festive perfume. Zachariah’s clothes may not have been stored in dried flowers any longer, but he always carried a bunch of basil leaves in his pockets. After the Maariv prayer, Yemenite Jews recite the Hallel, and this too is a practice that dates back to ancient times; if Passover falls on Shabbat, they recite the Yigdal with a special holiday melody. We could always tell when the service was over, their mood would soar, they were loud and cheerful as they wished each other the traditional holiday greeting. Imbued in the spirit of the holiday, they would return home to begin the Seder. I recall my grandfather wearing a long, white caftan in accordance with their practice in Yemen to change into festive, yet comfortable house-clothes after prayer.
We would follow the custom of each family member reading a portion of the Hagadah, even though in Yemen only the males participated while the youngest member of the family was expected to recite the ma cha bar, which was the abridged version of the Hagadah in Arabic. They did this for the benefit of the younger children and women who didn’t understand Hebrew. The children anxiously awaited this part of the reading because it was meant to be taken lightly, and the youngsters’ mistakes, in a culture so punctilious over the mere pronunciation of a single letter, meant that they could let loose and enjoy themselves for a change.
When it was time to eat the meal, my grandfather would hold up the middle matzah, tear it in half and make the blessing for the bread and while one half was distributed among the rest of us, he would make the blessing for eating matzah, and the other half was covered in cloth and hidden from sight. However, in Yemen, since they didn’t condone stealing even in jest, the tradition of stealing the afikoman was never followed. Once again, my grandparents showed a commendable ability to adapt to the changing world around them and they allowed us to steal the afikoman.
Apart from the meat roast, my grandmother would also serve her delicious chicken soup with a blob of chilbe in the middle—a sort of spicy salsa made from fenugreek seeds, and so delicious when you sop it up with freshly-baked matzah. In Yemen, the Seder would end with Shir Hashirim, it was not the custom to sing Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodea, or leave a cup of wine for Eliyau Hanavi, although my grandparents allowed these new practices in their Seder as well.
One of the highlights of my Passover experience was the breakfast we ate during the holiday. This time we would gather around a table set outside on their veranda; we sat beneath grapevines that produced a mixture of green and red fruit that had spread above our heads to create a biblical-looking canopy. My grandparents would make a fresh batch of Yemenite matza in the tabun, and we would tear off a piece to dip inside the one pot of eggs prepared with ghee—a delicacy among Yemenites and a taste that is permanently encoded in my memory. When I think of Passover, all of those sensory experiences from my past captivate me, and they make me smile and remember how lucky I’ve been to learn about a culture that is slowly slipping away. The change is inevitable, it’s the way of the world, and even my grandfather had adopted a few new customs when he emigrated from Yemen in the 1920s. He managed to upset his father, Shalom, when he cut off his simonim (sidelocks), and exchanged his jellabiya and turban for western-looking attire.
In spite of this, both grandparents were responsible for exposing us to colorful traditions infused with cadenced song and speech that date back to ancient times and pervade every single memory of holidays celebrated in their home. It has filled our lives with meaning and a great appreciation for the Yemenite culture, even though I have to admit to doing things a little differently these days. Ahuwei!