Illustration: Lucy Sherston
Illustration: Lucy Sherston
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A Lesser Wife

In an excerpt from Ayelet Tsabari’s memoir, ‘The Art of Leaving,’ how a Yemeni grandmother found freedom in Israel, but failed to pass on the immigrant’s new rootedness to her daughters

Ayelet Tsabari
February 11, 2019
Illustration: Lucy Sherston
Illustration: Lucy Sherston

Savta is over 90 years old. No one knows her exact age because in Yemen dates weren’t recorded, birthdays weren’t celebrated. When I’m with her, I can’t help but be mindful of the looming end, the impermanence of things. But she is also a reminder of my beginning, of a past I sometimes forget while in Canada, where I’ve been living alone, unfettered and unanchored.

Savta’s name is Esther, like the biblical Jewish queen, wife of the Persian King Ahasuerus. It suits her: her raised chin, her natural gift for drama, the size of her clan. Except it is not her name at all, but a Hebraized name given to her upon arriving in Israel, not by the authorities—the practice of renaming immigrants would not begin until the founding of Israel in 1948—but by her cousin, who had been in Palestine since the early 20th century and was versed in the ways of the place. She told Savta that she must have a Hebrew name to be initiated into this new society. That new name was the harbinger of a new era, but it also represented an erasure of Savta’s past, her culture and her language, an act of silencing done in the name of assimilation.

She was born Salha (a name her family and friends would continue to use her entire life) moments before her twin sister, Saida, in Haidan a-Sham, a northern Yemeni village flanked by steep mountains that were freckled with caves. Her childhood was marked with tragedy and abandonment. Her father died when she was 2, and shortly after that, her mother left her and her twin sister in Yemen and walked to Israel with a new husband. Nobody could explain to me why she left. Perhaps nobody knew. The twins stayed with family in the village, where girls were married off at a prepubescent age and bore many children; where Jewish men worked as artisans, had many wives, and died of unnamed epidemics.

In the family, we called her Savta. Hebrew for “grandmother.”

Growing up, hanging out with Savta was not my idea of a good time. We had no common language: She barely understood my modern Hebrew, while I struggled to follow her heavily accented one. Her wit and wry sense of humor were lost on me. In elementary school, I weaved elaborate fantasies in which my grandmother was a European pioneer who’d paved roads and planted trees in the land of Israel, and my grandfather was a partisan in the concentration camps in Poland. I envied my classmates whose grandmothers took them to matinées and cafés in Tel Aviv, where they sat with their puffed hair and tailored skirts, speaking Yiddish as they sipped their filtered coffee, leaving lipstick stamps on the edge of their cups. My grandmother didn’t watch movies and I couldn’t imagine her lounging at a café. Savta drank her coffee with hawayij, a Yemeni mixture of herbs that tinted the coffee a rusty shade and floated on the surface like leaves in a pond. Even as a child, I knew you couldn’t find hawayij in Tel Aviv cafés.

In one yellowed picture from my childhood, I am dressed in authentic Yemeni clothing: an embroidered tunic with red-and-yellow stitching and a hood, a row of silver coins arranged over my bangs. This was the extent of my interest in my heritage: a Purim costume passed around by my cousins, just like the Dutch girl outfit I had worn the year before, or the Japanese kimono I donned the year after.

By the time I graduated from high school, I could discuss the Zionist movement and their immigration to Israel in detail, but I knew next to nothing about my own heritage, which, along with other Mizrahi narratives, was only briefly covered in our history textbooks. In literature class, I was rarely taught work by Mizrahi authors, or by Palestinian authors for that matter, as though our country was a European enclave accidentally dropped into the heart of the Middle East, as though 20 percent of Israeli citizens weren’t Palestinian Arabs, and Mizrahi Jews who came from Arab lands didn’t make up half the Jewish population.


Today, I brought a video camera to Savta’s house. My family is used to me endlessly documenting, snapping shots with the old single-lens K1000 I had bought on Granville Street in Vancouver during my photography studies. But the video camera is a new toy. I borrowed it from my friend Elsin to videotape a family party and I enjoy fooling around with it. I pan over the old photos by my grandmother’s raised bed: my two handsome uncles as young men, flashing the charming family grin; a smiling granddaughter in a ponytail. The camera settles on my grandmother. She sits between my mother and my aunt Rivka, staring at me, blinking slowly.

“Yafa,” I say to her, the feminine form of beautiful in Hebrew.

She snorts.

“How do you say beautiful in Yemeni?”

“Halya,” my mother answers.

“That’s Hatma’s daughter’s name,” Rivka says. “You know who Hatma was? Your grandfather’s wife.”

“His first wife?”

Savta scoffs, unimpressed. “Yes. She was first.”

Once, in a drawer in my mother’s bedside table, I found a Palestine Immigrant Certificate for Saleh Mahdoon, my grandfather, issued by the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Aden, a port city in the south of Yemen, on Dec. 14, 1934. The picture showed my grandfather and his two wives, one on each side, black-and-white ghosts, cheeks sunken from hunger: my grandmother and her tsara, the biblical word for a sister-wife, also translated as “trouble.” In Israel, my grandmother, for whom the first wife was more trouble than sister, quickly discerned that polygamy wasn’t practiced among the local Jews. “It’s me or her,” she told my grandfather, and then took 2-year-old Rivka with her and left. My grandfather followed her soon after. The first wife never forgave my grandmother this transgression, and forbade her daughter, Halya, my mother’s half-sister, from seeing her siblings. Even after the first wife had passed, the daughter continued to reject her half-siblings’ efforts to reconcile, carried on the inheritance of hurt and indignation until the end of her days.

“And then he married you?” I ask my grandmother.

“Then he married another one. Then me.”

“So he had three wives? Wow. I didn’t know that.” I look at my mother accusingly. There is so much she hasn’t told us. We didn’t even know about my mother’s estranged half-sister until my brother happened to run into her son in the army and he explained the family relations. “I’m sure I mentioned her,” my mom said when my brother confronted her. “Didn’t I?”

“The second wife’s brother got jealous,” Savta says, “because his father loved your grandfather very much. So the brother did ish’here on your grandfather. He drugged him.”

I glance at my mother, who translates the Arabic word: “A spell.”

“Wait, what?” I move the camera so I can look at Savta eye to eye. “The second wife’s brother tried to kill Saba? What happened then?”

“His father-in-law saved him. He gave him oil to drink. Bottle after bottle.”

My mother arches her eyebrows. “I’ve never heard this story.”

Rivka shakes her head. “Me neither.”

My grandmother’s stories always came about accidentally, reluctantly, always a slip of the tongue. Stories to her were luxuries, like dreams and regrets. Perhaps she believed, like many immigrants, that to become a true Israeli, she had to leave the past behind, along with the stories that encompassed it. Or maybe it was her children who rejected her stories; like many first-generation sabras—native-born Israelis—they wished to dissociate themselves from their parents’ diasporic history, assert their differences, and stake a claim for their own distinct identity.

“After that, your grandfather couldn’t stay there,” Savta says. “He moved away with Hatma and then he married me. You know how long the second wife waited for him? Waiting, hoping. Maybe he’ll come back for her. Until she realized: en samara.”

No use.

I picture this woman, standing on curvy dunes I borrow from Aladdin, searching the horizon for my grandfather. I file this romantic snapshot in my imaginary family album, the one I carry with me in place of actual photographs.

“Savta,” I say, “I want to hear more stories. If I come by, will you tell me?”

She frowns, waves her hand. “Maybe. If I’m in the mood.”


Elsin calls me as I am getting ready for work one day. She’s sobbing and her words are disjointed. When they finally come together, they make no sense. “My father is dead,” she says.

I cancel work and head over. When she sees me, she bursts into tears in my arms. “He tried to rob a bank,” she says. “My father tried to rob a bank.”

“Of course he did,” I say. “What did you think? That he was going to die of an overdose? He had to make a spectacular exit.”

I make her laugh, for just a moment. Then we both cry.

Elsin has been one of my closest friends since we met in the army. Back then, she was a hipster and I thought she was so much cooler than I ever was, and beautiful in a heroin-chic kind of way: skinny, pixie cut, high cheekbones, dark rings around her eyes. That was before I learned that her father hailed from one of the roughest neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, that heroin was an addiction that afflicted her family, and that the only reason she appeared cool was because, like me, she spent time working at it, trying to be less Yemeni, less Mizrahi, more Tel Avivi. It was a journey we each had to take on our own, but we arrived at the same place. We are both here now, still best friends. More than friends: sisters. For the next few weeks, I watch Elsin sink deeper and deeper into grief. A couple of times I sleep over, clean, and fill the fridge with food. We watch TV together, sprawled on her couch without speaking. We drink Turkish coffee sweetened with heaps of sugar and chain-smoke. Until one day she says, “Why don’t you just stay here?”

“I can’t afford rent,” I say.

“I don’t care about rent. You need a place and I need company.”

So I move in, bring a few clothes and some toiletries. In the kiosk by her house, I buy a small bottle of water and a glass tube, burn a small hole in the plastic with my lit cigarette to insert the tube. Voilà. I have created a bong.

The apartment is on Herzl Street, a congested narrow street in the heart of Florentin, an industrial area turned hip in South Tel Aviv, filled with galleries and bars and tradesmen shops. The city slithers through the shutters, rattling the windows and glassware with the din of traffic and construction, demanding attention. An air-conditioning unit mounted on the living room wall hums noisily.

I come home from the restaurant any time between 4:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Still buzzing from work and the early morning espressos, I shower off the sand, the sweat, the beer and hummus stains, then recline in front of the TV, drinking beer and feeding the bong. Sometimes I write terrible poetry, but that’s OK, because it’s better than not writing at all. In rare moments of clarity, I suspect that pot doesn’t lend itself, at least not in my case, to very good writing. It blunts my emotions too much, keeps them at bay. When I read old diaries, I’m astounded by the intensity of my moods. I never feel that much anymore, which I suppose is the trade-off for not falling apart.

Eventually, I crash on the couch in the living room. When Elsin wakes up for work, we trade places and I collapse onto her mattress for a few more hours. It’s the kind of friendship we have, the two of us: We share pillows and sheets and dead fathers. Both our fathers died between Pesach and Lag B’Omer. Both were poets, Yemeni, poor, too young.

When I wake up for work in the late afternoon, my back is sore and my thighs are raw from constant chafing, the sand impressed into my skin. Behind the closed shutters, the city’s drone is already starting to recede, the workday nearly coming to an end. “How’s Canada?” my sister asks jokingly on the phone one day, because I’ve been in Tel Aviv for weeks yet she hardly sees me, our days and nights are at odds. As though there are still time zones and oceans between us. As though I’m not even here.

And on one of those days, indistinguishable from those surrounding it, I turn 30, and nothing happens. Nothing changes.


One night I volunteer to watch Savta while her caregiver is out with friends. My mother was delighted when I offered, pleased by the close relationship that is developing between us. We sip mint tea in her front yard, the old concrete dyed orange by waning daylight. Savta stares straight ahead, blemished hands crossed in her lap. Every now and then, she sighs heavily, slaps her thigh, and wobbles her head, engaged in her own private conversation. Above us, a naked lightbulb sways, inviting mosquitoes to come die in its alluring glow.

“Savta, are you ignoring me?”

She sips her tea noisily.

“Why are you hanega?”

This gets her attention. She squints at me, cloudy eyes dotted silver. Hanega is a Yemeni word that describes the elaborate display of annoyance and indignation one might show a person who offended or displeased them. It is a word my mother and aunts use often, but this is the first time she hears me say it. I can tell she’s trying not to smile.

A few days ago, on my way to see her, I passed a small bungalow on Michal Street with a for-rent sign in its window. On the way back, I stopped by it again. The outside was bare and painted an unattractive brown. It had a small front porch with room for a hammock, and a ledge where one could place planters for flowers and herbs.

The truth was, the appeal of my peripatetic lifestyle was starting to wear thin. For nearly a decade, I traveled as though my life might go stagnant without perpetual motion, moving fast and often because—as in the intifada—it was safer to keep going than to stand still. I was tired of starting again, tired of apartments with no furniture. I found myself yearning for a set of fluffy pillows, a chest of drawers I’d pick in an antique store, walls that I’d paint myself after choosing colors from paint strips. Sometimes, I wondered what my life would have been like if I had chosen to stay, if I had pursued the journalism career I once had, if I had lived close to my family. If I hadn’t been so terrified of staying in one place.

Lingering by that little house, I tried to conceive what settling down here would feel like. There was nothing waiting for me in Canada anymore but a few boxes scattered in storage places. What if home didn’t have to be as complicated as I made it to be? What if I belonged here? In this neighborhood?

When I was 23, I brought a friend from Banana Beach, a lovely Ashkenazi girl from Haifa, to Sha’ariya. I had just returned from my first trip to India and saw the place in a new light, found it charming and quaint. We smoked a joint on a park bench at sundown, watched Yemeni kids with kippahs and side curls playing basketball and old women on benches, speaking animatedly in Yemeni to each other. “It feels like we’re in the ’70s,” my friend whispered, wide-eyed.

Despite growing up within walking distance of Sha’ariya, I sometimes felt the same way, as though time stood still here, as though nothing had ever changed and nothing ever would. Most houses had been there since the neighborhood’s inception, their plain style reflecting the dearth, austerity, and simplicity of those early days.

In 1949, a year after Israel was founded, 50,000 Yemeni immigrants arrived in planes on the famous Operation on Wings of Eagles, which many people erroneously call Operation Magic Carpet as it satisfies their exotic notions of Yemenis arriving from Arabia on flying rugs. Many new Yemeni immigrants settled in Sha’ariya, and eventually, the neighborhood was annexed by the city of Petah Tikva: Stores opened, some main roads were paved, buses started running. A synagogue was built. A small movie theater.

And still, while the city around it grew more modern, sprouting apartment buildings and shopping malls and multiplex theaters, Sha’ariya always remained behind, overlooked, a relic from the past.

This distance between two places in such proximity mirrored the insurmountable gulf that spread between my grandmother and me. Only two generations apart, our lives were so fundamentally different. As a child, I couldn’t fathom what her life in Yemen had been like. My grandmother must have found me as alien and peculiar as I did her: a fast-talking, freakishly tall girl (as Yemenis were known to be petite) who wore jeans and tank tops, exposed her hair, and didn’t worry she might get too dark in the sun. I was mouthy, defiant, disrespectful to my elders—qualities that would have undoubtedly gotten me in serious trouble had we remained in Yemen. Once, when I was 12 (the age she was when she had been married off), I made a big scene refusing to wash the dishes with the women after dinner, stomped my feet and demanded that my brothers help, too. My grandmother stared at my mother in disbelief while my mother shrugged as though she had nothing to do with my education.

I grab my camera. The light is perfect. It’s that hour before sunset when faces are washed with a radiant glow, wrinkles softened and smoothed.

Bas,” Savta says in Yemeni, her mother tongue. Enough.

Lama?” I ask in Hebrew, my mother tongue.

Lama, lama,” she mimics. “What am I, a fashion model?” She bursts into laughter. I rush to take the photo but she moves and the picture turns out blurry.


Summer shoves the short-lived spring out of its way, drapes over the city, viscous and stifling. Whenever I’m away from it, I mythologize Israeli summer. I picture flowing dresses and lazy days by the seaside. Ice cream cones and open windows and kids running through sprinklers.

In reality, you don’t want to be at the beach between noon and 4 because you’ll likely get heatstroke. In reality, you sweat all the time, air conditioners hum day and night, a tireless, tedious soundtrack to our lives, and everything is faded and fatigued in the glare of sunlight. July and August in Tel Aviv are not for the fainthearted.

This may explain the increase in my fainting spells. They’ve been happening, on and off, for years. Always from smoking too much pot. Because: everything in excess. Because: fuck moderation. Little deaths on a trail in Manali, a sidewalk in Tel Aviv, a hotel room in Nepal. In Vancouver, in Mexico, in Thailand. On the street, in the park, in bathrooms, in people’s living rooms. Most of my close friends have collected me from the floor at one point or another.

Lately it’s been getting worse. I get lightheaded almost every time I stand up, my vision darkening, usually for just an instant, until the particles reunite to construct that lost image. But sometimes my vision doesn’t return, my muscles dissolve into jelly, my skin goes tingly, then numb. By now I can pinpoint the moment right before the fall, blindly trace the nearest wall and lower myself onto the concrete, the tile floor, softening the landing with a controlled descent. Most times it only takes a few moments before it’s over.

Secretly, a part of me enjoys the romance of the swooning heroine, relishes the loss of body, the checking out, as though my fainting spells are some mystic journey I get to embark on, a portal to a private universe that is all my own, like fiction, an access to this place of temporary death. But like Tel Aviv summers, the fabled story I tell of my blackouts is grander than life. In reality, I haven’t written fiction in ages and there is nothing on the other side but a sleep-like stupor. In reality, I sometimes miscalculate and crumble on the floor, hit my head, bruise myself.

“Everything seems to be fine.” An apathetic doctor glosses over my blood test results. “Except for a little bit of low blood sugar.” He studies me, adjusting his glasses. “Do you do drugs?”

“No,” I say hastily. Pot isn’t really drugs, is it? It’s been a while since I’ve done anything else. Besides, I’m not going to tell someone like him. He’s seen hundreds of me: another stoner in Tel Aviv is not a story. Life is stressful here. A few weeks ago, a bomb went off at my friend Omer’s workplace on his day off; another blew up on a bus I frequently take. And just yesterday, 23 people died in a Palestinian suicide attack in Jerusalem. Some days I get off buses for no apparent reason, following misguided gut feelings. When a bus pulls up next to a car I’m in, I pray for the traffic light to change and the instrument of death to drive away. He must know that. Maybe he smokes too. What else are you supposed to do?


Today, Savta is not in the mood. She scowls at the lens pointing at her face, her answers curt. When I ask her about the trip to Israel, she says, “We walked. It was long.”

“How long?”

She jerks her chin. “Long.”


“No, not years.”



“Two months or six months?”

“I don’t know. I was very sick.” She sighs somberly. “I was suffering.”

“What did you have?”

“I was sick all the years. Even today.”

“Today you’re old. But then you were young.”

“Then also I had many problems.”

“Like what?”

“Sick, sick.” She raises her voice. “Sometimes this, sometimes that. But the kids were OK, thank God. I gave birth OK, thank God, and I took care of them, even though I was sick.” She swats a fly. “Finished?”

We were around the same age when we left our homes and set out on a journey to a new country. But while my grandmother uprooted her life for the dream of a Promised Land, the home the Jews of Yemen believed they were destined for, the one place in which they could truly be free, I was an accidental immigrant. I did not relocate to Canada; I drifted there. And even then, I was unable to fully settle, continued to seesaw, one foot here and one foot there, spending months at a time in Israel and taking off traveling in between.

I titled my bank account during those years of travel “the wandering Jew fund.” And indeed, there is something deeply Jewish about that somber, nostalgic yearning for a place where one can feel at home. Of course, historically, that pining was pointed toward Israel, the same country I had chosen to leave.

She doesn’t miss Yemen, Savta says, scoffing, when I ask. Why should she? In Yemen, Jews were not permitted to carry weapons or ride horses, and their homes had to be shorter than their Muslim neighbors’ homes. Girls in Yemen weren’t allowed to study or pray, couldn’t read or write, and were subject to the authority of men: their fathers, brothers, or husbands. In Yemen, she was an orphan in the times of the draconian Orphans’ Decree—one of the collective traumas that shaped Jewish Yemeni history—and lived in fear of being confiscated by the authorities and converted to Islam. The practice, which was temporarily abolished during Ottoman rule, was renewed in 1918 by Imam Yahya, the king who reigned over Yemen at that time. To avoid that fate, Savta’s aunt— who raised her after her mother left—had Savta married off at 12 as a second wife to my grandfather, an older man my grandmother didn’t know. She was hiding when he first came to take her. Lucky for her, my grandfather was an honorable man who waited years before consummating their marriage, who treated her kindly and grew to love her deeply.

In Israel, Savta was free of her position as a second, lesser wife. Free to remove the black headdress that framed her face, and replace it with a modern headscarf. Free to walk alongside her husband, not trailing a few steps behind him. Free to speak up. Free to learn how to read and write.

She must have been in her late 60s by the time she took Hebrew lessons. I was in first grade, and the two of us sat on my parents’ balcony one afternoon and practiced the alphabet together. Glancing into her notebook, I was amused by her handwriting, hesitant and drawn as if it were a meaningless combination of lines and dots, lacking the confidence and speed that comes from knowing the shape of a letter by heart. I have a picture of us from that day. I’m in shorts and a stripy tank top, leaning over her notebook in a teaching pose. My grandmother is wearing one of her many floral dresses, her hair tucked into a pink scarf. She glares at the camera, annoyed.

By the end of that year, I was writing stories and poems and reading everything I could put my hands on. My grandmother could decipher the writing on storefront awnings and sign her name, but she never picked up a newspaper, let alone a book.

Savta doesn’t speak of the prejudice, discrimination, and abuse Yemeni immigrants faced in this new country. Upon arriving in Israel, Yemeni Jews were regarded as savages, with their plural wives and many children, their lack of table manners and superstitious beliefs in demons and spirits. Their traditions were undervalued and mocked. In his 1950 letter to Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, referred to Yemeni immigrants as primitive, “unaware of their most basic hygienic needs … far from us two thousand years if not more.” And in 1909, an essay on the front page of HaTzvi newspaper declared the Yemeni Jew, “a simple, natural laborer … without shame, without philosophy and without poetry … in a wild, barbaric state.” That sentiment echoed a 1908 memo written by Dr. Jacob Thon, from the Palestine office of the World Zionist Organization, who said, “Because they are satisfied with little, these Jews can be compared to the Arabs and in this respect they can even compete with them. … If we get Yemeni families to settle down in villages, we could also have the women and girls work as cleaners and maids, instead of dealing with the Arab help.” As he had hoped, Yemeni women soon began working at Ashkenazi homes, and Savta, who worked as a maid and a laundress for many years, was no exception.

During the late 1940s and early ’50s, the patronizing belief that Yemenis were unfit to parent and had more children than they could manage helped rationalize heinous crimes such as the systematic abduction and forced adoption of hundreds of immigrant children, most of them Yemeni (and the rest Mizrahi), from transit camps and hospitals. That devastating chapter in Israeli history—overlooked and unresolved—became known as the Yemenite Children Affair. Fortunately, my family, who had arrived prior to the large wave of immigration, was spared, but my uncle’s wife, Adina, was nearly kidnapped by the same method that many of the other testimonials detailed. She was taken to a hospital for a common cold, and when her parents returned for her the following day, they were told she had died. No death certificate or body was shown. She was lucky. Her father refused to accept the verdict; he scoured the hospital until he found her alive and healthy, in a different room, and snatched her away. Most families never saw their children again.

Excerpt from The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari. Copyright © 2019 by Ayelet Tsabari. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Ayelet Tsabari is the author of The Art of Leaving and The Best Place on Earth, winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.