Elisheva Stamper watched a group of giggling teenage girls pop balloons and play musical chairs. The woman sitting beside her at the party pointed out one girl who looked about 10 years old. “She’s 13 and married,” said the director of the absorption center for new immigrants. “Most of the other girls older than 12 are also married, and many of them have at least one child, if not two or three.”
The teenagers were Yemenite Jews in an absorption center near Jerusalem. They had been in Israel between four months and two years and would stay at the center until they were ready to enter the mainstream of Israeli society. Stamper had just arrived for two months with Otzma, a project bringing post-college Americans to volunteer in Israel.
“I was shocked,” said Stamper. “Coming from my background, it felt like rape to think of these girls in sexual relationships with men.”
The Yemenite Jews had arrived in Israel on Magic Carpet II, a secret operation carried out by the Joint Distribution Committee in partnership with the Jewish Agency and funded by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Since 1992, some 300 Yemenite Jews have joined the 46,000 others who arrived in Israel in 1949 and 1950. They are religiously observant, and continue their traditions from Arab-dominated Yemen.
“As we grew to know each other, I learned that the girls were betrothed without their involvement,” said Stamper. “The men paid the girls’ fathers a dowry, usually of necklaces or beads. The girls had no choice in the matter at all.”
Some of the girl-brides were clearly unhappy in their relationships. One 17-year-old told Stamper she was scared, and didn’t like the man she was to marry. Another young woman, whose first child was more than a year old, refused to go to the mikveh, the ritual bath. Jewish law prohibits physical contact between husband and wife until the new mother goes to the mikveh. By refusing to go, this woman prevented her husband, whom she feared, from having sex with her.
Among the Yemenite Jews in Israel, major conflicts about the roles of men and women are brewing. In Yemen, women were not allowed to read or have books, and their roles in the home were clearly defined. In Israel, however, women are learning Hebrew and job skills, while many men study in the yeshiva. This changing dynamic is causing tensions. In particular, problems arise in the case of multiple wives, who often don’t get along in their new, Israeli environment. “If a 40-year-old man wanted a new wife, he didn’t take a 35-year-old woman,” Stamper reports. “He took a 14- or 15-year-old. The new wife is usually his favorite.” To get back at her husband’s new wife, one woman would turn off all the lights in her home just before Shabbat, thus keeping the new wife in the dark for 24 hours.
Yet some of the girl-brides are content. One girl, whose father insisted she marry before they left Yemen, had been 12—and terrified. A year later, she seemed happy with her 17-year-old husband. “It seemed as though with time, the women often grew to love their” husbands,” Stamper said.
While the American volunteers helped these women adjust to Israeli society, they were reluctant to judge the culture they were encountering. “We were supposed to teach them about matching clothes, but we didn’t want to take the Yemenite out of them,” said Stamper. “They wore lively-colored clothing that was beautiful. It wasn’t normal for Israel, but it fit their culture.” Instead the Americans put on Yemenite clothes and showed the Yemenite theirs. The Yemenite teens taught the volunteers to make pita; the Americans demonstrated pancake-making.
“They saw us as Jews from another planet, yet for the most part they were very tolerant and accepted our differences,” said Stamper. “We wore pants, didn’t cover our hair, and were lighter-skinned, and the fact that we weren’t married was just one more difference, both as Jews and as women.”
One meaningful moment occurred when the Americans invited the Yemenite girls to a Havdalah service. “It was very special. They saw us doing a Jewish ritual that they could recognize. It helped them to see us as Jews.”