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.
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.
Featured: Let us not taunt ourselves with that which we cannot have
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.
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.
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.
In front: The little tube I’d found on the street, featuring one little squished metal ball bravely hanging on.
In back: A beautiful traditional handmade Yemenite necklace resting on a finely decorated wedding tunic.
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?
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.
And that, chaverim, is the Story of the Amulet.
*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…..
TAKE THE JOURNEY WITH US:
Jaffa Port, Tel Aviv:
The street “Mazal Daggim” (Pisces/Lucky fish) on which we first passed the store:
The Jewelry Store itself:
(See inside the store and workshop HERE)
The Workshop Entrance (right across the patio):
The Museum (inside the workshop):
ADDITIONAL RESEARCH ON YEMENITE AMULETS:
Introduction to Yemenite Jewish silversmiths (sayegh) in Yemen. Part 2: Use of amulets – Kutub in Yemen:
“The power of amulets were sought to: protect… cure disease… survive difficult times. Any object that had shown particular effects or had been acquired under special/unusual conditions – e.g. a silver ornament – could become an amulet.
Silver amulets: Amulet holders were made of various materials and in various shapes according to their purpose. Circular shapes relate to unity and eternity, triangular shapes refer to the spirit, coiled shapes are used to mark progress.
The use of a particular amulet was transmitted orally, that is: when to use it, and for whom it would be beneficial. The occasion at which it would be worn is also important, as well as the spot where it is worn on the body. Silversmiths have always taken special care in making the amulet holders – called kutub, those possessing an inherent protective strength. The hollow box suffices to give protection to the wearer; still, it was usually filled, in order to serve specific functions. It includes: A hand-written parchment, myrrh, wadding that can be drenched with perfume to ward off the evil spirits.
Text written on parchments have a specific aim and the owner only can feel its effect. Those written for the Jewish population include psalms, prayers and passages of the Bible, written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Although Judaism is rich in references about curative and protective powers, the strength of these parchments relies on the names of God and angels. Kabbalistic formulae accompany or surround the text. Since holy texts were used, the amulet had a sacred status, high enough to be worn on festive occasions, but not enough to be inherited. Instead, amulets were usually destroyed after the owner had died, unless they had shown strong protective or curative powers.
Some sealed amulets have side ends with open “arches”, which enables one to look through them. Some have hollow spheres (dugag) attached, which resound like bells and possibly subdue evil powers… The glittering of the silver would confuse the evil spirits and repel them, while the amulet would confer protection.”
Yemeni Silver Beads:
“Jews came to flourish as craftsmen in Yemen, excelling as gold- and silversmiths until the mid-20th century. Then, in 1949-50, virtually all the Jews in Yemen left for Israel… Yemeni pieces are distinguished by their quality, and to this day, the finest are praised as “Jewish work.” The largest community of Yemeni smiths congregated in Sana’a, the capital, where several hundred Jews once worked in the silver suq. Their silver supply consisted in large part of recycled silver.
Protective ornaments have many forms and functions. Cylindrical or rectangular amulet cases are also sewn to children’s clothing, and a woman’s necklace may incorporate several such cases. The cylindrical cases are called hirz by Muslims and ktab (pl. kutub) by Jews. Some may be opened for the insertion of sacred verses from the Koran or Jewish scripture. Others are left empty and soldered shut. The cases themselves are believed to be invested with amuletic powers that not only can turn away malevolent forces but can attract benevolent ones. Arrowlike triangles and swinging tassels turn away evil.
Many motifs recall primeval forms of human adornment—seeds, fruit, leaves, flowers. These symbols of nature endure in Yemeni jewelry as stylized rosettes, foliage, grain, almonds, berries, and mangos. While their specific meanings are often unknown, these motifs are associated with general well-being. Grain and pomegranates, bursting with juicy seeds, are symbols of abundance and fertility. Wheat and barley are also linked to women’s daily task of grinding grain to make bread, the basic staple of the Yemeni diet. The Jewish preference for wheat motifs can be traced to the Bible, which tells that barley was used as fodder for Solomon’s horses. Jewish silversmiths were learned craftsmen who knew the significance of each motif—its magical attributes and connection to Koranic or Talmudic texts—and they matched their designs to their clients.”
Amulets, Talismans, and Magical Jewelry:
“An Amulet or talisman works because, like a dream, it gives us access to what is right under our feet. If we can turn inward the prayer or meditation, focus on what we need, and call upon the angelic messengers and the sparks of the divine within, and do the all important digging, we can often get what we need. The amulet or talisman or magical jewelry merely serves as a template for this process. It is something to hold on to, or something to hang on oneself, or something to hang one’s hopes on.
Yemenite Jewish amulets are usually inscribed on parchment. Often the inscriptions are washed off in water or vinegar and the resulting inky fluid is swallowed. The washed parchment is then rolled and placed in a silver prayercase, and tied or hung around the neck where it comes to rest between the breasts and over the heart. We need to focus on what is needed, and to articulate it, and then, to take the feelings of longing and fear and need inside ourselves, to swallow and digest and assimilate. Herein lies the real meaning of using amulets as a way of ascent to the unseen, ever-present almighty within.”
IMAGES OF OTHER AMULETS:
The Jewish Museum Collection
A pinterest board I made for this: