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Memoirs: The Return to a Place – Vered Madar

Around 25 books were published in Israel in the past three decades by women and men who were born in Yemen and immigrated to Palestine /Israel.

The publication of memoirs has undergone a revival in recent decades, thanks to the writers’ growing access to print publication and to other avenues of circulation. Moreover, this development is a direct extension of various critiques aimed at the mechanisms that shape memory and history, particularly into generalized categories such as national history. The postmodern and postcolonial discourses as well as feminist critiques have encouraged the dismantling of such categories, in favor of disparate units and local communities. The writing of memoirs is in fact one product of these trends, and it constitutes one link in a diverse chain of shapes and locales in which the memory of communal and familial past is formed and structured.

Like in other immigrant societies, memory of days gone by is usually located in a place and a space that is different from the place where that memory was originally formed, and also from the context of that original place. The place of one’s childhood and past interacts in various ways with the place of one’s present, in which the memoir is written. These relations are the focus of my research, in which memoirs written by Jews from Yemen will serve as a test case.

Around 25 books were published in Israel in the past three decades by women and men who were born in Yemen and immigrated to Palestine /Israel. Their immigration took place in the 1940s and 1950s, through the early independent immigration by sea, but primarily by the organized aerial operation which was officially named “Magic Carpet”, or “On the Wings of Eagles” as dubbed by Yemenite Jews.

In the Israeli discourse of identities, the community of Yemenite Jews has a unique place, and this has to do with religious practices, historical processes and social trends. The community’s special place has been expressed in texts of various genres whose objects were Yemenite Jews: travelogues, political ideological writings, and literary and poetic works by members of the community and by non-Yemenites. Furthermore, the Jewish Yemenite community has been at the focus of diverse research in numerous disciplines both prior to and after Israel’s establishment: sociology, history, anthropology, literary research, ethnomusicology, folklore studies and more.

In spite of the multiplicity of genres of written in different periods and contexts, all of these texts have in common the unique tension involving the Zionist narrative’s view of the Jewish Yemenite community. This bi-polar view merges adoration and mythicization with scorn and rejection. In some texts, this tension occurs as a representation, a reflection or a positivist claim about the community. In others, the tension is at the focus of critical research in the postcolonial field. In their memoirs, members of the Jewish Yemenite community look back at those who are looking at them. The former are holding a dialogue with the latter, addressing the two poles of tension mentioned here. In some cases, they employ self-orientalizing tropes, and in others they dismantle the foundations on which such views were built.

The mythicization of Yemenite Jews, which often involves expressions of condescension and marginalization, is anchored in the almost intuitive connection between them and biblical Jews. This connection has been expressed in diverse social and cultural works: visual art, literature and social political writing. Authors, scholars and politicians, such as Z. Raban, D. Ben Gurion and S.D. Goitein have established and cemented this connection through various means of expression. Against this backdrop, I will focus on the manner in which this image of Yemenite Jews functions in shaping the Yemenite and Israeli space in the books.

The descriptions of the place in Yemen, and the dialogue this place holds with the place in Israel will be at the center of the discussion, as the means of conceptualizing and understanding processes of memory formation, the immigration experience, and the relations between “diaspora” and “redemption”. These have been key organizing axes of contemporary Jewish culture

Dr. Vered Madar is a researcher of folklore. In 2011 she received her Ph.D. from the Program for Jewish and Comparative Folklore at the Hebrew University. In her dissertation she studied Yemenite Women’s Songs for the Parturient and their Laments over the dead, focusing on the text, body, and voice components and the creation of a “women’s vocal community”. Dr. Madar was a postdoctoral fellow at CAJS, Upenn, and at the Open University in Israel where she started and developed her study of memoirs of Jewish women from Yemen. Currently she is extending her research to topics related to place in memoirs of both men and women at “Da’at Hamakom”, the Center for the Study of Cultures of Place in the Modern Jewish World, Hebrew University, suprvised by Prof. Richard I. Cohen. Her main topics of interest are the concepts of place regarding the past – Yemen and the present Israel; the fluid borders between autobiography and history; the transition from oral culture to literacy-based culture, and the ways in which the paradoxical phenomenon of “oral textuality” takes shape.

 

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