Yemen Yearnings

As far as I know, I’m Ashkenazi through and through; Dad’s family hailing from Polish Galicia and Mom’s, a”h from Latvia. So there’s nothing in my lineage to account for the strong, natural draw I feel for all things Yemenite.

(As I write this, I’m listening to the new disk of Temeni (Yemenite) music I just picked up.)

It’s really not only Yemenite-ness that stirs me, actually, to one extent or another, it’s all things Sephardi.

The music lifts me out of the mundane and brings me to a place that says “Oh, yeah, that’s what life really is; a spiritual trip through a physical world.” Yet at the same time it speaks to my body, making it want to move and soar (quite a trick nowadays for these creaky bones).

I used to think it was because it reminded me of some of the old psychedelic music that stirred me in my youth, but I’ve since concluded that it’s the other way around – that old stuff had moved me because it hinted to its real and rectified form, the true music of my soul.

Then there’s the food. My taste buds and sensibilities just naturally synch with the intensely spicy, vibrantly colored, vegetable-laden fare. Left to my own cook’s device that’s what would emerge from my hands and in fact it’s pretty close to how I’d been eating before I’d ever heard of kishke and schmaltz herring.

There’s an aesthetic in everything from their homes and shuls, to their customs and the way they do holidays, that to me just fits and makes sense. And maybe I’m missing something, but it seems pretty self-evident that light (colored and weighted) garb just works better in the Middle Eastern clime in which I live than lined black cloaks, felt fedoras and fur hats.

Then there’s the amazing vitality that burns out from behind so many Yemenite eyes and animates so many Yemenite frames. Let’s face it; they just look healthier.

So why don’t I just ‘convert’? You might ask. The truth is that if I’d known then (i.e. when I first discovered Torah) what I know now, I might well have. But things didn’t turn out that way and not only have I grown less flexible in my middle-age, and have a family to consider, but I accept that where I come from is no random chance and (at least in this lifetime – as I’ve certainly mulled over gilgul-reincarnation issues as a possible source for my predilection) I’m meant to live as an Ashkenazi Jew.

So I’ll settle for dipping my challah in five-alarm zechug at my Shabbat table (while my more-comfortable-in-their-skins Ashkenazi-palated clan looks on in horror) and try to enjoy the best of the West – even as my heart yearns for the East.

About the Author
Nesanel Yoel Safran, US born and a graduate of Brandeis, now living with his wife and family in the Judean Hills, is a writer, chef, and a teacher/student of Jewish spirituality. He blends these assorted vocations on his blog, Soul Foodie, where you can join him on mystical cooking adventures and glean practical wisdom for the kitchen — and for living.