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Behind the scenes in a Yemenite village

 1984 - 1992

In the early 1980s, I moved to Israel with my husband Ronny and our two young children.

After spending a year and a half in an absorption centre, we were still unsure where to live. One day we found ourselves driving through a backwaters Yemenite village, half an hour outside Jerusalem.

My eyes were wide open trying to absorb everything – the women with colourful scarves on their heads, squatting next to large tubs in the front gardens, plucking chickens. Kids of all ages playing games with sticks and stones or riding their pet donkeys or sheep. Men gathered in groups sipping Turkish coffee, chewing a leaf called gat, and nibbling on pumpkin seeds. How different this world was to the one I had left behind.

Ronny and I decided to stay in this village for a few months. At least then we would have some time to think about our next move. At first life seemed very surreal and poles different to suburban life in Melbourne. But the people were welcoming and hospitable which helped us adjust, and those initial few months stretched into eight years.

Meanwhile we had to think about making a living. Ronny, a doctor, had intended to start work in a nearby development town, but his job fell through due to government cutbacks. As a hobby, he loved to draw intricate designs on graph paper. I was an artist, and enjoyed illustrating. Before moving to Israel, we had dabbled in designing and painting marriage contracts for our friends.

Meanwhile, we started working together on the the five Biblical scrolls  – he, on the decorative illumination, and I, on the illustrations. What started as a hobby developed into a full-blown business.

Illustrating these scrolls was daunting. I wasn’t sure how to go about painting all the people in the Biblical scenes. Then I realised that I was living in the perfect environment – my low-key, easy-going Yemenite neighbours would become my models.

Slowly I transformed them into kings, princesses and villains, and dragged them to historical sites around Jerusalem. These sites, such as the Old City, the YMCA, Bedoin camps, Arab villages and ancient monasteries became the backdrops for my paintings.

I dressed our neighbours in beautiful robes that I borrowed from Moroccan friends in the nearby development town, Beit Shemesh.

Ronny and I painted the Judaica on goatskin, which was then carefully sewn together to form scrolls that were metres long. The finished work was often set in ornately designed silver holders.

We spent 8 wonderful years in this village (Moshav Yishi). Yasmin was only 3 months old when we moved there and Gil was born there. The children grew up caring for each other and playing outside, and would go to the neighbours (The Rashads) to watch their favourite program on TV. We made life-long friends and learnt many skills from their own culture, and are forever indebted to the kindness, warmth that was shown to us.

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