One description that was always associated with the Yemenite Jewish woman was "kol kevudah bat melekh penimah" (Ps. 45:14), according to its traditional understanding: "She is honored as a princess within the confines of her home." Yet, these women's lives and experiences were rich and multifaceted even in their traditional communal settings.
The highlight of a woman's life in Yemen was her wedding. She was the center of attention on that momentous day, and for a few weeks before and after it. During this period, she was put on a pedestal and exempted from chores. The picture of the Yemenite bride in her beautiful costume, bedecked with jewelry, is still regarded today as the emblematic image of the Yemenite woman. Two articles in this issue refer to the original wedding customs and family laws of the Yemenite Jews, as well as to the changes that took place in them after the mass emigration from Yemen in the twentieth century.
Rachel Sharaby explains that weddings in Yemen were not a single-day event; they lasted for about a month. The bride's henna ritual, held separately from the groom's, was her principal rite of passage in the series of wedding customs practiced in the Yemenite Jewish communities. In Israel, even as Yemenite women gradually gained power in both the private and the public spheres and became somewhat distanced from their heritage, they also understood that holding onto traditional rituals enhanced communal cohesiveness and reinforced symbols of their ethnic identity. A joint henna ritual for both the bride and the groom has been reintegrated into the celebrations and has come to reflect the new egalitarian messages prevalent in the society as well as the change in Yemenite women's status.
Aharon Gaimani offers a fascinating description of Yemenite marriage and divorce customs, which were partly based on rulings of the Talmud and of Maimonides that had been abandoned by other Jewish communities. These customs included the marriage of minor girls, levirate marriage (yibum), polygamy, divorce against the wife's will, and compelling a husband to divorce [End Page 5] a wife who could not bear to live with him. Practiced in Yemen and by the early Yemenite-Jewish immigrants to pre-state Israel, most of these customs have since disappeared. Changes spurred by the social conditions and intermingling of communities prevailing in Israel were standardized by the 1950 ordinances of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which were imposed on all of the country's Jewish ethnic groups to promote harmonious social interaction. Thus, for example, these ordinances ended the millennia-old practice of levirate marriage.
A major historical source for describing Yemenite women's lives is their oral poetry and prose, which was recited in Yemenite Judeo-Arabic dialects. These poems, stories, and songs recorded and accompanied women's happy moments and aspirations as well as their sorrows and disappointments on the personal, family, and communal levels. As women labored at grinding flour, washing clothes in the river, carrying water from the spring, cooking, and sewing, they expressed themselves by singing. Thus, their poetry served as an outlet for their feelings and repressed sentiments and was also as a vehicle for expressing their creative talents, as reflected in the song "Why, Why, O My Beloved," a woman's complaint about her husband taking a second wife. Thanks to Dr. Uri Melammed for his expert translation from Judeo-Arabic and for his scholarly assistance with many aspects of this issue.
Yemenite women did not take part in synagogue functions and ceremonies; neither were they visible in the public sphere. If and when they came to hear the prayers and Torah readings, they sat in a separate room. They did not take part in religious scholarship, nor did they leave written memoirs. For this reason, the accepted historical narrative has mistakenly placed Yemenite women on the periphery of the South Arabian Jewish community. Yet in the social, cultural, and family arena, they were the dominant force and set the tone of daily life in and around their homes. They were voluntary social workers, helping poor brides by arranging wedding ceremonies and providing basic clothing, household equipment, assistance...