A 4-Year Journey Back to Heritage

davy1By Davy Ran, a student of MPH in Global Health Leadership & Administration, 2016-2017 Cohort.

Sometimes you can be on a journey without even knowing. Mine started approximately 4 years ago on a busy street in New York City. I remember it in the way you remember a particularly good meal or a sunset at the beach. A moment not special enough to remember all the particulars, but nice enough to recall the generalities when you need to.

I was walking out of class with my Yemeni boyfriend when I spotted something on the ground. It was silvery and dulled by dirt, like an old quarter, which was enough for me to bend down and check it out.

It wasn’t a quarter. It was a strange, dirtied, broken tube with some straggling bits of string attached. A little metal ball hung off one end and there were a couple interesting faded patterns here and there. I have a habit of picking up bits and bobs of the street, but generally that entails small coins or cool stones. This wasn’t like anything I usually pocketed and yet I felt drawn to it. I threw it in my bag without thinking about it further, resolving to wash it and look at it more when I got home.

For the next four years that little piece of metal became my lucky charm. Cleaning it up didn’t make it any more obvious what exactly it was but I loved it nonetheless. I would run my fingers along the grooves when nervous, flip it around when antsy, grip it when I needed that extra boost of confidence. For the rest of winter I never left the house without it in my coat pocket, and when it got warmer it took up permanent residence inside my bag.

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When I moved to Israel at the end of 2016 I didn’t think twice about bringing it with me. My bag was coming, my coat was coming, my charm was coming. At one point a friend I met in Haifa was digging through my bag when she spotted it, pulled it out, and asked what it was. I didn’t have a good answer for her beyond “it’s a thing I found on the ground, and I like it, so I carry it”. My friend thought it was cool too, but even putting two heads together neither of us could think of what it actually was. It faded back to relative anonymity soon after.

Before I went back to America for break I had enough time for a final hurrah. I planned to go with my friends from Haifa to Akko to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We were just about finishing up our allotted time in Tel Aviv when I remembered a couple galleries I’d been meaning to check out. Even though I’d been dying to visit Jerusalem, I suddenly felt the urge to stay and peruse some more traditional Tel Aviv art instead.

Putting our Jerusalem plans on the back-burner my friend and I wandered semi-aimlessly through the old streets of Jaffa (יפו), bordered on either side by a mix of zodiac tiles, Jewish graffiti and artist spaces. We walked through several stunning romanesque archways only to find a falafel stand waiting for us at the end. We were urged through a dilapidated doorway straight into someone’s house, where they sold handmade sculptures so fancy we could barely afford to gaze upon them. Jaffa is filled with little inconsistencies like that; polished metals creeping into the cracks of ancient Jerusalem stone, virtually unknown alleyways filled with famous works of art.

So when together we happened upon a stunning jewelry shop containing glass cases filled to the brim with glittering trinkets and glossy curiosities, we weren’t fooled. This was not the broke-student-affordable type of gallery we were looking for. Given our experiences up until then, we figured this jewelry store was more likely to contain the lost crown jewel of some ancient empire than the little touristy tchotchkes I planned on bringing home.

Sharing a look of amusement and regret my friend and I continued on to the little patio next door. This outdoor space was much more our style*, made up of a group of couches framed by overhanging trees and tilting rooftops which corralled the light into a perfect little square. It didn’t look like many galleries were open, but at least we’d found this cool little skylight.davy2

I’d only just suggested sitting down when the door across from us opened. A man poked his head out and smiled, gesturing us in.

“!יָאללָה בנות, בוא אלי! אנחנו פתוחים “

“Come in girls, we’re open!” 

The site was a local workshop for Yemenite silver metalworking, the manager explained, featuring a small museum about the history of Yemenite Jews. It was completely free to look around, and the staff inside welcomed us with excitement and gracious hospitality. They supplied us with multiple cups of Yemeni coffee, and insisted we eat some dates while we were at it. They turned on a movie for us about the history of the place- it was run by an 8th generation Yemeni Jewish silversmith named Ben Zion- and had us look through the variety of brochures, books, photo albums, and informative posters on display.

At this point my friend and I were feeling delightfully spoiled. We’d come to see the traditional art of Tel Aviv and ended up finding a goldmine! Or, more accurately, a silvermine. It was then we learned that everything in the jewelry store next door had actually been handmade by Ben Zion himself, who would be arriving shortly to do a small metalworking presentation. In the meantime did we want to check out the work in the store?

Well. Having been wined and dined, how could we say no?

Thus, not twenty minutes after my friend and I had so disdainfully given the store a hard pass we found ourselves inside it, eyeing the delicate, handmade work with a new level of appreciation. Yemenite Jewish jewelry is traditionally made of melted down silver coins turned into tiny little wires, which are then poked and prodded into incredibly complex designs, each with their own symbolism and purpose.

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Here is where things started to get weird. I was staring at a piece of jewelry and it looked familiar. Now, the only exposure I’d had to any Yemenite culture before this was when I dated my Yemeni ex- and we didn’t exactly spend a lot of time discussing the history of his culture’s silversmiths. So I was staring at this piece, and I called my friend over, and it clicked for both of us at the same time: this piece almost looked like my lucky charm.

My friend and I shared a little giggle over this; how silly that something I found on the street resembles this gorgeous work of art! And how lucky I’d brought the charm with me all the way to Tel Aviv, half on accident- it wasn’t a conscious thought that made me bring it along, nothing more than habit.

Not long after we’re informed that the artist Ben Zion has returned, and do we want to see him actually making the work?

Of course!!!!

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I don’t know what possessed me at this point. Maybe sometimes I’m a little too bold. I took out my little tube and held it up to the light. “It looks a little like one of your pieces,” I said to the artist, bashfully, after thoroughly complimenting his work. I was expecting him to laugh, or smirk, or maybe give a noncommittal hum. Instead he took the piece from me and spent a long minute examining it. Finally he asked, in a low voice;

“When did you get this?”

“I got it back in New York a couple years ago… do you know what it is?”

Yeah, he did. Ben Zion David, world-renowned 8th generation Yemenite Jewish silversmith and founder of the Museum of Yemenite Culture and Art, looked me in the eye and said,

“It’s a Yemenite Jewish amulet of protection.”

Ha. Um. What?

The little piece of metal- silver, I then found out- that I’d been carrying around for 4 years, and just happened to carry with me to Haifa, and just happened to take with me to Tel Aviv, and just happened to have been using as a lucky charm is, actually, an old, authentic, Jewish, Yemenite, blessed amulet of protection?

I barely had time to react to that before he was taking out a small metal tool and jabbing it into a little hole in the tube’s side. “Normally there is a prayer in here,” he explained, “personalized and blessed by the wearer’s Rabbi.”

He didn’t find the prayer then, but when I went in with a pair of tweezers I managed to pull out bits of a scroll so weathered by time and age it was impossible to read. Ben Zion assured me that I can and should put a new prayer in**, personalized by my own Rabbi, to restore the protective energy to its full potential. He taught us about the history of it; Yemenite amulet cases, otherwise known as a Kutub (or Kitab, from כתב, the hebrew word for “written”), Hirz, or Mezuzahs, are made specifically for Yemenite Jewish women to wear and are often given as part of their dowry and included in their bridal outfits.

I only had one choice.

“Can I commission you to fix it?”

Ben Zion did me one better, right then and there. He not only snipped off the old string and rounded out the broken hooks so that I could properly put a chain through it, but he added beautiful handmade teardrops to round out the traditional design. The remaining ball he turned into a second necklace upon my request, and added a little flair of his own with a small addition to the jump ring.

The final result: The most stunning and meaningful pieces of jewelry that I have ever owned.

FOOTNOTES:

*SPOILER ALERT: jokes on us, because the patio and the jewelry store belong to the same space, the Ben Zion David Yemenite Silver Art Gallery.

**Upon returning home, the first thing I did was meet with my wonderful Rabbi Avram Mlotek and tell him this story.

“Tell me in six words,” he said, before we had a chance to sit down properly. I thought about it for a moment.

“Four year journey back to heritage.”

The best part was, upon telling him the story, not only did Rev Avram immediately agree to help me write a prayer for it (!!!) but he also called up his Yemenite Jewish friend for more information on traditional prayers for amulets. His friend told us we should speak to the world’s master when it comes to Yemenite Jewish amulets…..

Ben Zion.

 

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