When I was growing up virtually all my parents’ friends were Polish. I don’t remember meeting any Czechs, Russians or Romanians, no less any Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews. My parents were determined to hold on to their language, their food and their customs. They belonged to a Landsmanschaft, a kind of club whose members came from a common town or region, it was a way to help them feel comfortable in their new home. This was not uncommon at the time, synagogues were also established around cities of origin, as were burial societies.
You might be able to imagine their reaction when I brought home Isaac. J., a young man I met when I was about 16, whose family had moved from Yemen to Israel and then eventually to the United States. The fact that Isaac came from an observant home and that his brother was the Cantor at a local Orthodox synagogue made no difference. Fortunately for me his family did not have the same reaction. Isaac’s mother was short in stature but she had a big heart, and in spite of the fact that we didn’t share a common language she always made me feel welcome in her home. Her kitchen was nothing like any other kitchen I had ever been in, and her dishes included unusual ingredients like cilantro, turmeric, cumin, and Hawaij, herbs and spices I had never seen or tasted. I remember two dishes that she seemed to prepare each Shabbat, Jachnun, a bread that baked overnight, served with grated tomatoes and Zhug (a spicy Yemenite version of salsa), and a traditional Yemenite Soup, fragrant and green. This was not my mother’s chicken soup and matzoh balls.
Last week I went to the home of a friend sitting Shiva and I peered into a pot sitting in the kitchen. It smelled and looked just like the Yemenite chicken soup that Mrs. J. used to make. (in fact it was not, but that will have to wait for another post) Later in the week I came home and made a version of Yemenite soup. If my parent’s had only tried it, I think they would have liked it.
2 medium onions, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
8 cups water
Salt, to taste
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 large russet potato, cut into chunks
1 14 oz. can chickpeas, drained
1 bunch fresh spinach washed and chopped OR 1 bag frozen spinach, defrosted and
excess water squeezed out
1 bunch of cilantro, stemmed and chopped