“Nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. Ghosts love Yiddish — they all speak it”. Issac Singer.
So far I have posted upon stories by Yiddish writers about Eastern European and Russian communities of Jews, immigrants in Paris, New York City and Toronto. The stories of Rikudah Potash focus on Mizahi Jewish women living in Israel. Their ancestral homes were in Yemen (by far the most),Turkey and Iran. Their customs go back to very old traditions, older than Eastern European Jews, commonly called Yiddish. In common parlance they are often called “Oriental Jews”. Girls were considered ready for marriage at thirteen.
Part of my fascination with Yiddish Short stories lies in expanding into history, areas of knowledge and literature far from my time in academies.
Wikepdedia has a good summery of Mizahi people’s place in Israeli Society:
“After the establishment of the State of Israel and subsequent 1948 Arab–Israeli War, most Mizrahi Jews were either expelled by their Arab rulers or chose to leave and emigrated to Israel. According to the 2009 Statistical Abstract of Israel, 50.2% of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi or Sephardic origin.
Anti-Jewish actions by Arab governments in the 1950s and 1960s, in the context of the founding of the State of Israel, led to the departure of large numbers of Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East.
25,000 Mizrahi Jews from Egypt left after the 1956 Suez Crisis, led to the overwhelming majority of Mizrahim leaving Arab countries. They became refugees and most went to Israel.
Today, as many as 40,000 Mizrahim still remain in communities scattered throughout the non-Arab Muslim world, primarily in Iran, but also Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.
Refuge in Israel was not without its tragedies: "in a generation or two, millennia of rooted Oriental civilization, unified even in its diversity," had been wiped out, writes Mizrahi scholar Ella Shohat. The trauma of rupture from their countries of origin was further complicated by the difficulty of the transition upon arrival in Israel; Mizrahi immigrants and refugees were placed in rudimentary and hastily erected tent cities (Ma'abarot) often in development towns on the peripheries of Israel. Settlement in Moshavim (cooperative farming villages) was only partially successful, because Mizrahim had historically filled a niche as craftsmen and merchants and most did not traditionally engage in farmwork. As the majority left their property behind in their home countries as they journeyed to Israel, many suffered a severe decrease in their socio-economic status aggravated by their cultural and political differences with the dominant Ashkenazi community. Furthermore, a policy of austerity was enforced at that time due to economic hardships.
Mizrahi immigrants arrived with many mother tongues. Many, especially those from North Africa and the fertile crescent, spoke Arabic dialects; those from Iran spoke Persian; Mountain Jews from Azerbaijan arrived with Azerbaijani; Baghdadi Jews from India arrived with English; Bukharan Jews from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan arrived with Tajiki; the Bene Israel from Maharashtra, India arrived with Marathi, Mizrahim from elsewhere brought Georgian, Judaeo-Georgian, Juhuri and various other languages with them. Hebrew had historically been a language only of prayer for most Jews not living in Israel, including the Mizrahim. Thus, with their arrival in Israel, the Mizrahim retained culture, customs and language distinct from their Ashkenazi counterparts.”
The marvelous anthology, Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women happily contains five set in Israel stories about Mizahi women living in Jerusalem, Potash adopted home, a city she dearly loved.
As the story opens we learn that Jezbel is an old Yeminite woman, a widow who had her first child at thirteen. Her neighbors are mostly Bukharan Jews originally from Uzbekistan. She has been there a long time and despite occssional Cultural conflicts with the Bukharan, she is happy where she lives.
“Down below behind the great house, in the low road almost level with her window, Jazal had lived many a long year. Jazal didn’t like to talk about herself. She lived her life according to her own view of the world. But somewhere lost within her was a classic among Eastern types, capable of performing theatre but not quite aware of it. Jazal remembered that when she was a young girl in Sanaa, in old Yemen, she had loved to mimic different types of people, to copy their expressions and sing their songs. Songs which sometimes told of drunkards, sometimes for no reason at all, of lunatics and also of buffoons. But that was long past, shadows really, like paper cut-outs wandering in her memory just as they do in everyone when they grow old. For Jazal, there was no great distance between her girlhood and the present. When she added it all up, by thirteen years of age she had already become a mother; it seemed to her that everything that had happened to her had been but a dream. Her husband the shoykbet believed that all the fowl he’d slaughtered would return during the slikhes period, shrieking and carrying on, demanding to know why he’d killed them. He himself was now in the “true world.” Sometimes the megile of a wasted life would unroll before Jazal. It was, she thought, a life in which her years now returned to her, as the fowl had returned to her husband, crying, “Why did you slaughter us?” Not a single line of bitterness, God forbid, had been etched on Jazal face. The very opposite was true. Her face was smooth, dark-skinned and full of charm, with huge green eyes. Perhaps they were not green at all but their depth changed in the daylight. Perhaps she had chameleon coloured eyes which changed with her wisdom, becoming two deep reflecting wells containing the great mystery of the source of life which ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows, welling from unknown distances and depths. Alone, like a straw fallen into the sea that cannot escape the waves and is tossed about in the swirling waters. Year after year, Jazal swam within the enclosed borders of the Bukharan quarter. Her colourful clothing lay hidden in the carved Bukharan trunk, dreaming dreams about Jazal once young and beautiful, who had sacrificed her youth to the old sboykhet; he, who had taken her poor and barefoot and made her his wife. He, who suffered from lethargy, had nonetheless picked out as wife the most capable, the most beautiful.”
Excuse long quote but few will be able to read the story. She and her husband had three sons but they have all passed. A match maker approached her with an offer from a Yeminite man, Jazal screams at him to leave her House.
“Since then, everyone knew that Jazal chased away all the matchmakers and lived a strange, reclusive life. She would often stroll about, hands on hips, especially in early springtime, but in fact she was strolling through her own wellsprings which bubbled with silent wisdom within her. But when the trees began to blossom and the mimosas donned their yellow earrings, Jazal was filled with a fantastic yearning. She wanted to play the role of Queen Ester going before the king to plead for the Jews. Jazal took out the antique, wondrously embroidered Yemenite clothes and put them on.”
The ending is very dramatic.
I admit a fondness for the closing line, spoken by Jazal.
““So will all the enemies of Israel lie at my feet!”
1906 – 1965
From The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women Website
Crowned “the Poetess of Jerusalem” by Sholem Asch (1880–1957), Rikudah Potash wrote in Yiddish about the landscape of her beloved city and its diverse ethnic communities. She brought to Yiddish readers the rarely seen Middle Eastern Jewish woman. Potash’s Jerusalem, both the heavenly and the earthly, was a capacious universe which she inhabited body and soul for thirty years.
Potash was born into a prosperous and enlightened family from Tshenstokhov (Czestochowa), Poland. In 1904 the family moved to Skale-bay-Oytsov (Ojców, 16 km nnw of Cracow), the “Switzerland of Poland,” where Rikudah was born in 1906 and which inspired her early nature poetry. Her father, Yekutiel Potash, was a correspondent for Unzer Lebn; her older brother, Mordekhai Narkiss (1898–1957), a curator and art historian, was director of the Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem from 1932. Potash was raised in the traditional Jewish spirit but became enamored of Polish culture, which was reflected in her early writing.