Page 84 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
the rise of Islam, southern Yemen had been dom inated by the
Suni Muslim sect, while no rthern Yemen fell under the dom in­
ance o f the Shi’ite sect.
Within each sect people were stratified according to wealth,
education, and sex. A majority of the population was illiterate,
yet since individuals were judged by their material possessions,
no stigma was attached to illiteracy. Within each community the
Faqui, the literate, studious and learned one, served as a scribe,
recording the documents and letters which we now possess.
Oral tradition is widespread among the Yemenites. To this day
they are commonly regarded as a people who know a trem en­
dous amount o f proverbs, poems, stories and songs by heart.
The separation of the sexes in Muslim Yemenite society and
the demarca tion o f specific fem inine tasks provided every
woman with her exclusive role in the events o f the life cycle.
These ranged from he lp ing o th e r women in ch ildb irth to
preparing the bride for her wedding ceremony, and even to
participating in the burial process. A woman’s self-expectations
were governed by the mandates of Islam. To be a good mother,
wife, and cook and to aid those around her — these were the
values on which she prided herself.
Values differed among the Jews of Yemen. Seeking to remain
separate from their Muslim counterparts, their ties with the gen­
eral community were predicated on economic considerations
alone. For the most part, the Yemenite Jews were craftsmen and
itinerant peddlers. Yet no matter where a Jew traveled, he would
bring his own dishes to keep the dietary laws, and no matter how
far he went, he retu rned to his congregation for the Sabbath and
the holidays. It was rare among Yemenite Jews to find an illiter­
ate male, since men were expected to be able to read and study
the Torah. Although they regarded their Muslim counterparts
with an air o f condescension, particularly in the sphere o f
learning, Jews borrowed many elements from Islamic culture.
They incorporated Muslim proverbs and tales into their own
folklore, frequently after Hebraizing them and adding a Jewish
flavor. The borrowing was probably mutual — Muslims bo r­
rowing from Jews as well — although this remains undocu­
mented to date.
In the villages the Jews were protected by the Muslim inhabit­
ants. Working as merchants, craftsmen and repairmen o f tools
and plows, the Jews were an invaluable asset to the community