Interviewing my Yemenite friend Ofrah was so interesting that I’m giving her a post all to herself. Ophra’s a singer and vocal coach. I study with her every week, in a group. She’s a dynamic, warm, temperamental woman who never misses a beat – or anything said in the room. Sometimes I think she never misses a thought going through our heads.
While both Ofrah’s parents were Yemenite, a streak of Ashkenazi influence runs through her cooking. Her story will tell you why.
“My mother came to Israel at age two (in the Yemenite immigration of 1939). By age nine she was already working as a housemaid, in the homes of elderly Ashkenazi ladies. From them she learned to cook gefulte fish, knaidelach, other Eastern European foods.
“Do you know how she was paid? They paid her in meatballs. She’d take these meatballs home and feed them to her brothers and sisters. That’s how she helped the family. She had a tough life.
“We grew up eating gefulte fish and knaidelach at the Seder, along with traditional Yemenite foods. One is matzah fatut: matzah soaked in beef soup, with hilbeh added (a spicy fenugreek relish). Normally fatut is made with bread, but on Passover it’s matzah, of course. We’d eat a dairy fatut for breakfast. The matzah is soaked in milk and samna (clarified butter or ghee flavored with fenugreek, ).
“Other Seder foods? Eggplants, meat, fish, a million kinds of salads.
“My mother would clean the house like crazy. Everything was washed in boiling water or rinsed in bleach. We’d open all the books and shake them out. The windows shone, every object shone with cleanliness. In the kitchen, we had a separate Passover stovetop. All the spices were bought fresh and checked again. I used to love to sit at the Seder and see how immaculate every single thing in the house was.
“We didn’t sit at a table for the Seder. We would remove all the chairs and the sofa from the living room and put mattresses on the floor. Everyone sat on the mattresses and reclined to the left, and everyone read from the Haggadah in Hebrew and Yemenite Arabic. My father would read out of his father’s heirloom Haggadah. The Haggadah is hand-written and has come down from my grandfather’s grandfather to us. We ate at low tables set around the floor.
“In the community there was a woman who baked the matzot, fresh, in a special Passover taboun (outdoor domed oven). We’d buy three hand-baked matzot for the Seder from her. The rest of the week, we ate grocery-store matzot.
“The charoset was made of dates, sweet wine, ginger, walnuts, and coffee hawaij (a blend of cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom used to flavor coffee).”
Ofrah laughed when I asked what her favorite Passover food is.
“Matzah brie and kneidelach” she said. She knows how incongruous that sounds, coming from a typically short, dark, wiry Yemenite woman. But it’s typical of her many-sided self.
“My strongest memories are of my late parents. My father wrapped in his tallit, still young and strong. His voice, his personality, the mark in the middle of his forehead where his tefillin would lie while he prayed every morning. As a child, I was sure that the Shechinah (G-d’s presence) came out of that mark.
“And my mother, of blessed memory. She was a bulldozer type, like me. She’d make us kids eat outside the house the whole week before Passover so as not to bring chametz into the house. We thought it was fun. Memories of my parents are strongest when I sit with my own family at the Seder table.”
Learn more about Yemenite Jewry here with this Wikipedia article.
For more on Yemenite Passover customs, read this article from Bar-Ilan University.