Page 85 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

Basic HTML Version

and were duly paid with agricultural produce. The cities were
centers for learned Muslims who, according to the Shi’ite inter­
pretation of the Koran, followed its laws literally. The existing
decrees against the Jews were strictly enforced in the cities. For
example: not to carry arms, not to ride on horses, and even not to
walk on the right side o f the street.
Unlike the Yemenite Jewish men, the majority o f Jewish
women were illiterate. As a Muslim proverb has it: “A woman is
the curse o f God if she prays,” for if she spends her time praying
she cannot be fulfilling her household chores. The Jewish
woman was required neither to study the Torah nor to pray. She
was, however, obliged to learn the dietary laws and the laws of
purity. These laws were transmitted orally, and passed down
through the generations from mother to daughter. Despite simi­
larities in duties, Muslim and Jewish women differed on religio-
cultural grounds. Similarities between the poetry o f Yemenite
Jewish women and their Muslim counterparts abound. The
themes of their songs were borrowed from daily experiences and
chores and both groups led similar lives.
The Jewish woman experienced a certain tension in the per­
formance o f her duties. She found her outlet, her release from
this tension, in song. Her songs, depicting various aspects of life,
differed greatly from the poetry composed by the men. The
latter, dealing almost exclusively with matters holy and spiritual,
were recorded in writing and sung only at festive events. Wom­
en’s poetry was passed down orally and, since it told o f her mun­
dane tasks, it was sung at every occasion, from drawing water to
celebrating a wedding ceremony.
Male poetry can be described as elevating man to a sacred level,
to the awareness of being a participant in the process of redemp­
tion. In sharp contrast, women’s songs are the very m irror of life,
the reflection o f their own roles in society. The woman sings of
grinding the grain, o f her husband leaving her, o f his traveling to
distant places to sell his goods. Her poetry is earthy and her songs
are imbued with the harshness o f life and its many disappoint­
ments.19 Constrained by illiteracy, women relied on the oral
19 Mishael Maswari Caspi,
Daughters of Yemen,
University o f California Press (in