The Failed Marriage with the Ten Lost Tribes

Dina Stein

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Photos by David Eldan and Zoltan Kluger, 1949–1950. Courtesy of the Government Press Office, State of Israel National Photo Collection.

The Israeli Folk Archives (IFA) at the University of Haifa hold about twenty narratives that tell of a member of the Ten Lost Tribes who miraculously saved a Jewish community. Among these, there are a few that mention an eventual marriage between a local woman and the foreign savior, whom we presume lived happily ever after. Curiously enough, there are two stories told by Yemenite informants that end differently. They record a failed marriage of a woman (!) savior from the tribe of Dan and the man who called upon her.

Before taking a closer look at the tales we should bear in mind that stories told of the Ten Lost Tribes—beginning with Eldad the Danite's account in the ninth century—may have had as much to do with intercommunity issues in a geographically spread-out Jewish world as with a messianic fantasy that involves the return of the Tribes. We should also consider the underlying, even opposing, goals of the IFA, founded by Dov Noy in the 1950s: to give voice to marginalized groups and corpora and to provide further support for the image of Israel as a melting pot of Israel's "Twelve Tribes."

The two tales (IFA 11289, 11292) begin in a familiar fashion. A community is faced with an ultimatum posed by its local king: either they prove that they have a single warrior who can overcome a thousand gentiles (to "prove" the verse from Deut. 32:30) or else they are doomed to be exiled or killed. A messenger is sent out to the land of the Ten Lost Tribes (or Sons of Moses), and after a standard number of trials and tribulations, including of course the challenge of crossing the unbridgeable river, Sambation, the messenger returns to his community with the Danite savior—a woman in this case—who can perform the necessary acts of salvation. The community is thus saved and granted at least temporary relief from Gentile persecution. The trouble, however, begins when the Danite woman and the messenger are married, and domestic, mundane life replaces the adrenaline-charged moment of existential strife. In one story, the newlywed couple moves back to the Land of the Ten Lost Tribes (11292); in the other (11289), they remain in the land of the saved community. The crux of their domestic hardship and their incompatibility in both versions is the same. IFA 11289 reads as follows:

The couple lived together for a short time. They fought constantly and could not live in peace. They did not have a common language. When the husband used to say to his wife: girl, bring me two beans, she gave him two beans exactly, no more no less. And likewise, when he used to say, as a figure of speech: bring me a cup of coffee, and such things, she used to follow his words and make only one cup of coffee, because the Sons of Moses are people of truth . . . And because they didn't understand each other, and because they didn't succeed in overcoming their hardships, the woman went to Rabbi Abraham and said to him: I wish to divorce my husband, because this man does not speak the truth, and I cannot, and am not used to living in a society that does not speak the truth . . . He (the husband) granted her a divorce and said: leave in peace. She said to him: let me bid you farewell forever, my champion, with a kiss. She kissed him on his mouth and he died instantly. She vanished from the eye.

This unique comic coda seems to undermine what is usually perceived as a solemn national myth. It is also clearly modeled on a Talmudic story (Nedarim 66b), which tells of domestic misunderstandings between a Babylonian who marries a native Palestinian woman. In the Talmudic story, as in the IFA tales, the lack of understanding between the couple supposedly stems from their different dialects / use of language. But, unlike the Talmudic story, which ultimately imagines Babylonia and Palestine to be part of one "imagined community," which also holds the promise of reproduction, in our story no such harmony (however tension ridden it may be) is intimated, the couple divorces childless (in the 11292 version their two babies die at childbirth). In other words, whereas the Babylonian/Palestinian couple of the Talmud is imagined as belonging to the same arch-group, the incompatibility between the Danite woman and the messenger designates them as belonging to different groups, almost two different peoples. Furthermore, the "truth" by which the Danite woman abides is absurd: it does not take into account the metaphorical and especially the pragmatic aspects of language. If elsewhere the Ten Lost Tribes are fantasized as the keepers of "authentic," "true," traditions, then this humorous anecdote frames their alleged "truth" as unfit for practical, everyday life.

The carnivalesque quality of the anecdote is indeed surprising. Why, and when, would such an addition be made to the standard, albeit varied, tale of the savior of the Lost Tribes? The possible answer to that is speculative, since by and large we do not know the different contexts in which the tales of the IFA were told and to which they referred. We indeed may not know the "original" contexts, but one context is clear enough, and that is the context in which the tales were written down. In our case, we know that the stories were recorded at the early stages of the founding of Israel, probably in the mid-late 1950s. Obviously our tales, including their codas, may have been told in their country of origin, Yemen, or even by early Yemenite settlers in Palestine. Or maybe not. What is undeniable is that they were seen fit by the storytellers to be told, or retold, in the context of IFA's projects. Read in the context of the IFA project— with its implied dual alliance with "folklore" in the service of building an imagined (unified) nation and as an expression of the marginal and defiant—one explanation of the tales emerges. If Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel was envisioned in messianic terms—as it was indeed by many of the immigrants from Yemen (dating back to earlier Yemenite immigrations)—then our story with its humorous coda surely sticks a pin in an inflated ideological balloon. The story invites one to imagine what the postmessianic, mundane world looks like. But indeed it says more.

Much has been written on the role Yemenites played in the Zionist melting pot before and after the founding of the state, including the deportation of Yemenites from the Kinneret farmhouse in 1936 or the alleged disappearance of Yemenite children in the 1950s, an affair that resurfaces periodically in Israeli journalism. The ambivalence towards Yemenites as "noble savages" and "natural workers" perceived as inferior to the Ashkenazi leaders of the Zionist revolution, and hence meant to serve the latter, is evident already in the Kinneret incident. The immigrants of the early 1950s were presented with a harsh reality, both physical and spiritual-religious, and with a patronizing establishment.

This is not how the immigrants had envisioned the return to Zion, the moment of salvation. A year after he had arrived in Israel, Rabbi David Gavra, the leader of the community in Ajur (near Bet Shemesh), wrote to Israeli officials:

You gentleman know that we, the Jews of Yemen, left our homes and lands, and left our belongings, because of our love for the Land of Israel and because of our love of our brothers, the dwellers of this land, the Ashkenazim and the Sepharadim. Why is it my brothers and friends that you look down upon as and disgrace us . . . and what sin have we committed. If you shall say that we have no part in the land and that we are not Jews, you better return us to Yemen without belittling us.

His words are loud and clear: the hope of being part of one Jewish community is shattered.

Structurally, Rabbi Gavra's letter (which is signed by other Yemenite leaders) is based on a match that fails—between the Yemenites and the rest of Israel. As in the folktale, the match and its failure take place after the moment of salvation. In the IFA tales it is after the miraculous salvation of the Sana'a community, in the rabbi's text— about a year after the miraculous salvation of his own community (and at the peak of immigration from Yemen). The structural analogy between the two narratives renders the folk-narrative a symbolic staging of the historic-experiential narrative, as articulated by Rabbi Gavra. A symbolic reading of the IFA tales will accordingly see the failed marital bond between the Yemenite and the member of the Lost Tribes as reflecting the failed bonding between the Yemenite immigrants and the larger Jewish community, the pseudo-"Lost Tribes." Rabbi Gavra's words are explicit and painful; the folktale is implicit and playful. Both express the trauma of Yemenite immigration in the nascent days of the state.