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Aesthetics of Sorrow

The Wailing Culture of Yemenite Jewish Women

Tova Gamliel

Publication Year: 2014

The term “wailing culture” includes an array of women’s behaviors and beliefs following the death of a member of their ethnic group and is typical of Jewish life in Yemeni culture. Central to the practice is wailing itself—a special artistic genre that combines speech with sobbing into moving lyrical poetry that explores the meaning of death and loss. In Aesthetics of Sorrow: The Wailing Culture of Yemenite Jewish Women, Tova Gamliel decodes the cultural and psychological meanings of this practice in an ethnography based on her anthropological research among Yemenite Jewish communities in Israel in 2001–2003. Based on participant-observervation in homes of the bereaved and on twenty-four in-depth interviews with wailing women and men, Gamliel illuminates wailing culture level by level: by the circles in which the activity takes place; the special areas of endeavor that belong to women; and the broad social, historical, and religious context that surrounds these inner circles. She discusses the main themes that define the wailing culture (including the historical origins of women’s wailing generally and of Yemenite Jewish wailing in particular), the traits of wailing as an artistic genre, and the wailer as a symbolic type. She also explores the role of wailing in death rituals, as a therapeutic expertise endowed with unique affective mechanisms, as an erotic performance, as a livelihood, and as an indicator of the Jewish exile. In the end, she considers wailing at the intersection of tradition and modernity and examines the study of wailing as a genuine methodological challenge. Gamliel brings a sensitive eye to the vanishing practice of wailing, which has been largely unexamined by scholars and may be unfamiliar to many outside of the Middle East. Her interdisciplinary perspective and her focus on a uniquely female immigrant cultural practice will make this study fascinating reading for scholars of anthropology, gender, folklore, psychology, performance, philosophy, and sociology.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Series: Raphael Patai Series in Jewish Folklore and Anthropology

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright Page, Quote, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-42

The event that evolved into a cultural enigma took place one village afternoon. We were at a house of mourners. The house, so-titled for seven days, was packed with adults and surrounded by children who scampered across its verdant lawn. I was one of them, and as we played...

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1. Wailing: A Topic That Defies Research

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pp. 43-64

The tension between covert values of continuity and life, represented by scientific investigation, and melancholy and dread of death, associated with wailing, transformed my research into a story of squandered opportunities. As a researcher, I was eager to attend places where a wailer...

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2. Johara: Mother of the Wailers

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pp. 65-102

They called this eminent woman Johara. Anyone who pronounced her name followed it with a metaphor of exaltation, as in “Johara was a jewel” or “Johara was a gem.” Her name was uncommon in Yemen but walked before its owner like a loyal caddy and was the best-known name...

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3. Giving Words

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pp. 103-134

Wailing is an outpouring of a speaker’s heart, akin to a collection of evocative metaphors, and represents the possibility of transforming experience into words. Wailing crafts the experiencing of trauma, the sensing of loss, and the heartache of anxiety into a verbal art (Finnegan 2001)...

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4. The Performance Stage

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pp. 135-208

Women’s wailing is a creative act embodied in performance. For it to be brought to fruition, it needs not only the giving of words but also the voice of someone mired in looking sad and the dramatic movements and gestures that she makes. Th e lament, expressed in melodic form, finds...

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5. Melancholic Power

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pp. 209-274

Wailing strums the strings of melancholia in tones and metaphors of black. It is a gloomy dirge that grips its listeners and generates an inseparable mixture of melancholy and power. This chapter focuses on the audience’s response to the performance as though the performance were a...

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6. Mission

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pp. 275-342

Women’s wailing is a maker of reputation. The wailer is sought after due to the sheer respect that she commands, and it is on behalf of this respect that she captures people’s hearts. Authorized by the force of a mitzvah (a religious imperative), her performance is privileged with rapt...

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Epilogue: The Lament of the Printed Words

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pp. 343-398

By using the expression “the wailing culture of Yemenite Jewish women,” one reveals one’s attitude toward something that is foreign, inscrutable, different, archaic, and so on—adjectives that erect permanent barriers between cultural realities. A women’s culture that was lifted out of exile...


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pp. 399-408


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pp. 409-432


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pp. 433-450

E-ISBN-13: 9780814339756
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814334768

Page Count: 408
Illustrations: 9
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Raphael Patai Series in Jewish Folklore and Anthropology