Not All Yemenite Brides Need to Look the Same

Abder is amazed by the variations Yemenite garments have undergone in Israel.

In 1949, tens of thousands of Jews from all over Yemen gathered in the southern city of Aden and waited there two months for planes that would take them to Israel as part of Operation Magic Carpet. Many of them brought with them from their homes their families' traditional bridal garments and valuable jewelry. But as they were about to board the plane, many found that they could not bring these items to Israel due to their weight. And so when the Yemenite Jews came to Israel, they left behind their local traditional garments.

"People said they just took off the garments, left them in bath houses and were left wearing lighter garments," says Dr. Carmela Abder, a folklore researcher who specializes in the culture of Yemenite Jewry. "But even if the reasons for removing the garments were technical, I see it as a kind of stripping of identity. A woman in Yemen had a very deep attachment to this garb, and she was familiar with each and every detail of her jewelry and clothing. And suddenly they were willing to part with the dresses and jewels that they were so attached to."

None of this prevented Yemenite bridal jewelry from becoming a kind of Israeli brand, one of the symbols of the fulfillment of the ideology of the ingathering of the exiles. Yemenite embroidery and jewelry went through a process of preservation and change at the hands of commercial and ideological groups, and of the Yemenite community as well. According to Dr. Abder, in the Israeli melting pot, the variety of regional traditions was replaced by a uniform item that became most identified with the community: the splendid bridal garb of Sana'a, the capital of Yemen.

"Everyone is familiar with the magnificent garments of the Sana'a bride, with the crown of pearls and silver and gold jewels," she says. "Yemenite women adopted this garment, mainly at henna ceremonies, even when their parents came from another area with a different tradition."

In effect, the original garment of Yemenite women looked quite different, depending on the area where they came from. Women from Hidan, in the north, were distinguished by a black head covering (shila) and indigo-dyed dress; women in Al-Sharaf, west of Sana'a, wore an asymmetrical, tightly-embroidered garment whose patterns resemble Ethiopian embroidery; women in the region of Bihan and Haban were known for their silver belts and multiple braids. And these are only a few of the clothing styles that existed in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

Dr. Abder spoke yesterday at a conference at Bar-Ilan University in honor of the 60th anniversary of the "On the Wings of Eagles" wave of immigration from Yemen. According to Abder, "Israeli society was very warm to the Yemenites - at least until Uzi Meshulam and Yigal Amir. They had a reputation of being the nice Jews, relaxed, and also of a community frozen in time that had preserved the culture of the Hebrews from the Biblical era. But as the Yemenite Jews adapted to being Israeli, they went through an interesting process: They created for themselves a kind of general Yemenite, Israeli identity. So they adopted the custom of wearing the traditional Sana'a bridal garments, with the high crown of pearls, and it became an icon with an exotic air.

"Even though in Yemen less than a fifth of the Jews wore it, in Israel all of the families adopted this garb, and it became associated with the henna ceremony. It became 'the new Yemenite-ness.' This image appeared on posters, in encyclopedias, and even in Ofra Haza's music videos. All of this helped to publicize this image."

And so the Sana'a bridal garments became a symbol for all Yemenite Jews. Yet according to Abder, "The origin of some of these components is not necessarily typically Jewish. In part, it is borrowed from the Muslims. Only in Israel did it become a Jewish symbol. This is an example of utilizing existing elements within a new framework."

'It wasn't this way'

Dr. Abder, who teaches at the Hebrew University and at Ben-Gurion University, is the daughter of parents from the area of Bihan in the southeast of Yemen.

"My father very quickly wanted to be Israeli in every respect, and therefore these subjects didn't interest him a lot," she says.

As she tells it, her interest in the traditions of that area started at her sister's henna ceremony. "At the henna, Rabbanit Bracha Kapach, the wife of Rabbi Yosef Kapach and the chief dresser of the community, dressed her sister in the garments identified with Sana'a. I remember that my mother said: 'By us, it wasn't this way.' This sparked my curiosity and I became interested in the garments of Bihan."

Abder is not the only one. In the late 1970s, when the Israeli melting pot began to disintegrate, Yemenite families also started showing growing interest in the traditional garments of their forefathers' homes. In recent years, a new tradition has emerged at weddings and henna ceremonies: Throughout the evening, the brides change into the garments from different regions.

"At the start of the evening, the bride is wearing the familiar dress from Sana'a," says Abder. "Afterward, she changes into garments from Hidan in the north, and then into garments from Haban in the south."

Abder is amazed by the variations Yemenite garments have undergone in Israel. "I started studying this subject in order to keep alive my parents' tradition," she says. "But I don't think that the contemporary garments are less authentic or that there is something to mourn."

However, according to her, the wedding garments have over the past decade become a real industry. "The bridal wear industry is flourishing," she notes. "The henna ceremony is being transformed into a festival of garments, and sometimes not only the bride but also the entire family gets dressed up. It is happening in other communities, too; for example, among the Moroccans. In a certain sense, the Mizrahi Jews (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) are romanticizing the East."