Their faces were serious as they looked intently at me. I looked back at them, one face after another, slowly moving my head to absorb that unique scene. These ladies were supposed to be married women, some even mothers, but they looked to me like teenage girls, may be 14 or 15 at the most.
The way they dressed, clothes wrapped around their very lean bodies, their insecure, hesitant movements and their giggling did not bode well to start with. It would not be easy to introduce them to modern Israeli life. And moreover, to prevent cultural shock, it had to be done slowly and with immense respect to their own thousand years old traditions. Their culture was almost directly opposite to the culture that my friends and I were raised in. We had freedom of choice, we talked back to our parents, boys and girls found their own mates, and we had our chutzpah of youth. And now at the ripe age of 21, I was teaching these young immigrants how to live in a modern Jewish society….
They looked lovely like young girls, which they were. Their dark skin was fresh; their big eyes wide open with wonder, and also with awkwardness, not knowing how to behave. Being in class and learning Hebrew was a powerful first for them. They were not allowed to be near any man without their husband or a brother near them. But in our school, they were free to talk to me without any other man around. And we both liked it.
All my classes were in the evening, when the rest of their families could take over the duties of these young wives. I enjoyed their wonder, fresh look at life in a new country and they loved to learn Hebrew and all that goes along with it. Take Shoshana for example. She stood erect, very lean, head partially covered. And very quiet. When I asked her, her name, she hesitated, but was goaded, non-verbally, by the women near her to answer me. Some shook their heads slowly up and down, in approval, some looked at her with expectation.
When she answered, I could barely hear her, so quiet she was. “I cannot hear you.” I said gently. Slowly she repeated: “Shoshana,” “Shoshana,” louder, and louder, with my encouragement, until we all heard her. I was not sure in the beginning, if it was Shoshanna’s modesty or fear to speak in public, so exposed.
All Yemenite Jews were poor, second class citizens in the primitive Muslim Yemen, and their diets had been inadequate for centuries. It was clear that they had lived on very limited diets all their lives, because these young women did not have the full, curvy bodies of typical young Israeli teenagers. After classes, a group of men and older women waited for them to escort each of them home- to their family tent. Some of the men were old enough to be their fathers, but I was told that actually they were their husbands.
Rina and I were among the teachers hired to help bring these new Yemenite immigrants into the 20th century. It was the fall of 1950. These immigrants had come secretly from Yemen just a few months earlier during the secret Operation Magic Carpet. Fifty thousand Yemenite Jews flew on 400 flights directly to Israel in extremely crowded small DC-3 planes. All the planes seats were removed and they sat on the empty metal floor. It was so cold that some wanted to start a fire in the plane to warm themselves. The pilots stopped them in time. However, their transformation to contemporary life was amazing. Thirteen years later, one of these young Yemenite immigrants became a pilot of a jet fighter in the Israeli Air Force! All Israel celebrated that.
That was not my first encounter with the lovely Yemenite Jews. Three years earlier I was a leader of a group of new volunteers to the Lechi underground. Two of the six youngsters, 15 and 16 years old Yemenites, were close relatives. They were well disciplined, meticulously clean, polite and dedicated beyond any one else I had known before. They went directly from my group to active military fighting and saw more action than was due them at that young age. But they insisted on immediate active duty at the front.
Just one of them returned alive. And I felt guilty since I had received a military deferment due to my technical skills.
So when I was asked to teach new Yemenite immigrants, I was happy to do so. But frankly, since my girlfriend Rina was part of the teaching team, that was a strong motivation too.
The new immigrants lived in large tents placed on the huge concrete platform that was a British Air Force base from WWII. The teachers lived in reasonable housing, built for the staff. But we had no showers, and they did not either. The immigrants used buckets to wash themselves. However, we were fortunate, every Friday evening the teachers went as a group to a nearby kibbutz to use their shower facilities. The kibbutz allocated two hours for all of us and we had to be on time, since their own members wanted to use them too.
At that cold period of the year, it was a “Mechaye”, real joy, to wash ourselves in hot water. Just a short time earlier I had been living in a Negev kibbutz and, like these immigrants, we each had just one small water bucket to wash ourselves each Friday. But here we could let hot water run on us without hesitation.
One night, after I dismissed my class, a thin, neatly dressed polite Yemenite man, probably 30 years old, was waiting for me near the door and when everyone left said to me.
“My father is the head of a very big family. He is a very important man in our community. He would appreciate it if you could come and talk with him.”
I hesitated, wondering why he wanted to see me, but we agreed that I would be their guest at 7 pm the following night, after my class.
I found the family big tent with some difficulty. There were more than a hundred such tents. When I finally found the right tent, I introduced myself to the closed tent flap and waited for an answer. The son I met earlier — Moshe, opened the “door” of the tent widely and graciously invited me in, “Be-vakasha, tikanes” (please come in) he said. As I came in Moshe bowed slightly to me pointing to a large pillow and said: “Could you please sit down on this pillow. My father will be with you in a moment.”
“Ken,” yes, and I bowed slightly in return and set down.
After he left, I looked all around the tent. The place was very austere, and nearly empty. Just a few thin hand woven rugs were spread around on the plywood floor. I pitied them for the coming cold, rainy season. At least in Yemen they had solid thick-walled buildings to protect them from the weather. But we did not hear any complaints from any one of them.
All Israel participated in the absorption of immigrants. Prime Minister Ben Gurion dedicated half of the meager Israeli national budget to immigrant absorption! Our national austerity program lasted from 1949 to 1959.
It took quite a few minutes before the head of the family came in, introduced by his son Moshe: “This is my father: Rabbi Yaacov.”
Moshe showed considerable reverence to his older father and left us alone after the introduction.
We sat and looked at one another and I waited with respect for him to start the conversation. Rabbi Yaacov had a long, white beard, and wore tzitzit, (a semi-hidden prayer cloth) and the typical large kipa all Yemenite men wore in the camp. In the meantime, I noticed his erect body, the natural dignity of the man, his self confidence.
I had nothing to say; I just wondered why an old man like that wanted to talk with me so urgently?
And then he said quietly:
“I have a large family, Mister Matania. I am proud of my family. I was very lucky; my two wives have been very productive, each gave me four live children, three boys from Sara, and 2 boys from Rivka. I am blessed.”
And he stopped talking for a few minutes.
“You are a young man, Mister Matania; you have a lot of life in front of you. However, I also have a lot of life in front of me. My father lived to a very old age, so did his father. I would like to have a larger family. In our culture, the number of sons gives importance to a man. Gives also power.”
I nodded my head as if at least not in agreement, but understanding.
Then he emphasized:” My two wives cannot bring me more children, we tried, but they are too old now. I want a new wife. A wife who could give me many more sons.”
I looked at him not grasping why he is telling those important thing to me, a stranger. And waited.
“I noticed you have a very fine girlfriend; I believe her name is Rina.”
“She is very athletic, very attractive.”
“I want to buy her from you. I want her for my new wife.”
I did not say a thing for few seconds, wondering if he was joking, but he was not. His face said it all.
I controlled my anger and, trying to remain patient, said:
“First, I do not own Rina, she is a free lady, she can do what she wants. I do not own her!”
I held my breath momentarily and added:
“Second, we do not sell or buy women here. They make their own choice who to marry.”
But he did not hear me.
“I will give you a goat for her, a very expensive goat.”
“Rabbi Yaacov, there is nothing to talk about, she is not mine, and we do not buy or sell people here!”
And I opened the tent flap and left before I would say much more that could embarrass both of us.