Sunday, October 15, 2006

Rosh Ha'ayin

My sister Sarah, as many of you know, lives in Rosh Ha'ayin. In the 1950's, Israel helped bring many Jews from North Africa, Yemen and Iraq to Israel. Israel was a young country, it needed to build it's population and many of the Jews of North Africa and the Edot Mizrach - the more Eastern areas, weren't exactly living the easiest lives in terms of political freedom. It wasn't a perfectly executed plan. Unlike the Jews of Eastern Europe, who mostly came on their own or in small groups, either before or after WWII, these Jews came as whole families or even villages to Israel. They came to a country that wasn't that sophisticated in terms of how to help them acclimate. Most of the European Jews considered themselves the intellectual elite here in Israel and looked down on the Moroccan and Iraqi Jews as barbarians and too much like their Arab brethren. They ate Middle Eastern foods and listened to Middle Eastern music. It was all too close for comfort at a time when there was no hope for peace in the region. These Middle Eastern Jews were brought to Israel and first housed in tent cities, called "ma'a'barot" and pretty much abandoned to their fates - no job training, no ulpan to learn the language, no chance to feel that they could connect in to the life here. Their only hope was that their children would become Israelis and pave the way for the parents.

I saw a movie based on the writings of one such immigrant. He moved to Israel as a teen and lived in a ma'a'barah. He was offered the chance to be "retrained" on a local kibbutz with a group of Iraqi teens. The kibbutz was completely unsympathetic to the kids having left their families, their religious observance (as the kibbutz was secular), and even in some cases, their names (the kibbutz counselors changed most of their names as the kids had arabic sounding names). Interestingly enough, the kibbutnitzkim had names like Oleg, Sonia and Itka - European names, not Hebrew names but somehow these were "kosher" in their eyes. These Jews of Sephardic and Eastern Lands ultimately made good in Israel but it took a few generations to help right some of the ills of their difficult beginnings. The later immigration of Ethiopian Jews in the 90's, was also marred by some mistakes of how to properly integrate a different socio-economic group into Israeli society but there's alot more sophistication in how to make these things happen these days. The Russians have been a different situation entirely. They were a more sophisticated group entirely in terms of education and savvy. Their immigration is felt to have been a very successful and alot of their success had to do with their ability to come in and retrain for jobs and stick together to support each other as a group. There are Russian shops, restaurants, and television stations. The Russians have been successful politically as well, something that took Sephardic Jews many more years to achieve. Ultimately, the real measure of success is when people marry within the different groups.

I digress. Rosh Ha'ayin is a place to where Yemenite Jews were taken in the 50's and pretty much left there. When Sarah and Michael and their family moved there in the early 90's, it was a very small town. Sarah's neighborhood, Givat Ha'sla'im, was one of the first of a bunch of new neighborhoods being built as part of the Rosh Ha'ayin municipality. In those days, Rosh Ha'ayin looked like nobody had paid attention to it in years. The infrastructure, such as it was, was minimal - simple streets, almost no traffic lights, few shops and a general run down feeling. Part of this was cultural - people were used to it being that way. There's a certain for lack of a better way of putting it, white trash nature, to Rosh Ha'ayin. The older crowd built simple, boxy houses as they moved out of their tents. Most people built their own homes although there are also simple kinds of government apartment buildings in the older neighborhoods. As people moved up in the world and wished to upgrade their houses, they either added on wings, or just build a new house a few feet away from the old one, abandoning it and whatever else that was deemed old and in the way, sort of like a trailer park in a not so good part of town. Their children, as they married, moved a few blocks away and built houses that are newer and more sophisticated but the architecture tends to be flighty and fancifull and with many of the flourishes that one notices in Arab houses in Arab neighborhoods - decorative porches and flat roofs with cut outs and curvalinear shapes that Jews from Eastern Europe just don't do. As Sarah says, not unkindly, "they're Arabs."

Sarah has been singing in the Rosh Ha'ayin choir for more than 12 years. She is the only white person in it. Her choir members are proud of her. She's learned to sing in Yemenite and to ululate with the best of them but the one thing they don't trust her with is cooking. Now understand that my sister is an excellent cook, perhaps not as daringly original as her younger sister...anyway, once a month, the altiot (altos) eat dinner together. The menu never varies - fresh veggies and parsley, green onion and lemons for adding to your soup. There is lachuch which is like a yeasted pancake, and pitot and other Yemenite breads. (Yemenites make the best Everyone gets a deep, soup bowl filled with Yemenite soup (chicken soup with spices) and hilbeh, fenugreek paste and schug, a spicy, green condiment. Aseed - a semolina flour mixture is made right before you eat it and it goes into the soup but Sarah finds that it leaves her cold - "sort of like thick baby cereal in your soup." In your soup you get chicken, potato and aseed and then you squirt lemon and hilbeh and schug if desired and you eat your soup and chomp on your greens while eating. After the soup, you eat ja'a'leh which is all kinds of dried fruit and nuts. Sometimes the younger ladies will serve a sweet carrot salad or even a cooked kind of compote which the ladies acknowledge is somewhat Ashkenazic in style and that their mothers wouldn't have done it. Tea and coffee is served as well as some cookies and cake at the very end but again, that's less traditional, however, at this point the Yemenite community has lived in Israel for about 50 years and has coopted some of the local traditions for cake with tea by this point.

Sarah says that she had no idea what it would really be like to live in a Yemenite town when they moved here. It was a brand new neighborhood, complete with local shopping and ganim (kindergartens) but when it came time for regular school, her children ended up in local, religious schools with Yemenite classmates. They all have a mean yemenite "khet" and throaty "ayin" sound to their hebrew when they wish to put it on. What was harder was the close mindedness of the Yemenite community. Sarah said that the choir members welcomed her and she's been to a billion bar mitzvah's, weddings (the weddings are all huge, 900 people easily), and even funerals but she's not close friends with anybody. She loves singing in the choir, loves that the music is different than the average, Israeli choir and loves what she's learned from living cheek by jowl to such a culturally rich and diverse community.

The best things about living in a Yemenite community are the foods, specfically the breads. The foods are not that fancy, indeed it wasn't such a well to do community but they had flour and they made breads - kubaneh, a special Shabbat morning bread to eat after shul (meaning shul's over by 10:30am and you need a meal), melawach, a richer flatbread, and lachuch which I liken to a pancake not disimiliar to injera the Ethiopian bread, jach'noon, a rich, multilayered bread that's rolled and shaped into long rolls and baked, and f'toot, another yummy bread like object also eated in soup and there's even a Passover variety of it. Many of the breads are eaten with certain standard accompaniments - grated tomato, schug and a warm, hard-boiled egg, preferably brown colored (meaning the egg was boiled or baked with onion skins are something else that renders it dark). Melawach is used to make fabulous but indigestible sandwiches. Last Friday we ate them in the Rosh Ha'ayin shuk - Humous, schug, sliced egg, red stuff of some variety, perhaps some veggies but I can't remember exactly, all rolled up in to a hot, fresh, melawach. One follows such a sandwich with coffee, preferably turkish which is always strong, somewhat muddy in texture and somewhat sweet. Anything that can plow through the plumbing. A little Fernet Branca would probably do the trick.

The Rosh Ha'ayin shuk is my favorite. At the Rosh Ha'ayin shuk, you can get anything from underwear to radishes. We always work our way through the shuk, starting with the dry goods section - socks, undies, clothes, seconds of all sort of interesting clothing made in Israel, perfumes, fake Croc shoes in all colors. The middle of the shuk yields the food booths - the aforementioned Yemenite treats, basic felafel, candy booths, drinks and bourekas (filo dough savory pastries). Moving on to the other side, one can find produce, fresh bread for Shabbat, cakes and cookies and some prepared foods, mainly of the stuffed, filled and fried variety.

We immediately score some hits - socks, cheap pajama bottoms for 20nis or a little less than $5. Jessica is looking for Crocs for Aidan - they find fun emerald green ones for 30nis. I find camoflage painted Crocs for Natan and Gabe. Ira tries them on to determine size - the ones that are too big for him are for Natan and the too small for Gabe. We pick up some presents for Ira to bring to the US on his upcoming trip. By this point, we are deeply tired, not to mention hungry, desperately so. We breakfast - Sarah has kubanah which we all nibble on and the rest of us scarf down melawach. Daniel opts out of "harif," spicy sauce but the rest of us forge on and are surprised that it isn't that spicy. We wonder if we were given less spicy stuff given our white skin and delicate nature - "I have an order of 4 melawach for those white guys over there in the corner - they say they want harif....ha," we imagine the waiter saying this when she gives the order in to the sandwich maker. Replete, we stagger over to look at makeup - Shiseido compacts and name brand face products - who knows how old, who cares? Ira, Sarah and I have had enough and we head home.

Ira, the kids and I head back to Jerusalem at about 12:30pm. We barely make the cutoff for last minute pickup of food before everything closes. We make a quick run for Ma'a'danei Tzidkiyahu - assorted salads, plain and pickled, decent smoked salmon, some fried objects, a piece of cheese, a good bread (it's the last loaf and it looks like it was earmarked for one of the guys behind the counter but he graciously offers it up to us). We find one of the remaining Jerusalem Posts - always critical to have the Post and Ha'aretz on the weekend - and get a few last things at the over priced grocery on Emek Refaim. Fruit, veggies, some cookies, a bit of beer and a few more last purchases to see us through Simchat Torah. We head home to Akiva's Bayit house to get ready for Shabbat.

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