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''She Who Mourns Will Cry'': Emotion and Expertise in Yemeni-Israeli Wailing



Wailing, a mourning ritual that still persists in the Yemeni community in Israel, is performed by a special woman wailer who composes memorial lyrics for the deceased and chants them in a sorrowful melody in the home of the bereaved family. Having been created in Yemen and brought to Israel with Yemeni immigrants, wailing is currently waning and belittled by the younger Yemeni-Israeli generation, possibly because of its apparent emotionality and religiosity. These characteristics, which locate wailing in the realm of the traditional, also appear to prevent it from being assimilated into modern Israel. Participant observations and twenty in-depth interviews conducted with wailers as well as other members of the Yemeni-Israeli community in 2001-2002 demonstrate how the construction of wailing consists of several interwoven perspectives. One perspective analyzes wailing as a post-traditional phenomenon contrasting with the emotionally restrained mourning rituals of Ashkenazi-dominated secular Israeli society, while another perspective focuses on the interplay of personal feelings and the wailing performance in order to problematize modern constructs such as "hybridity" and "professionalism."
‘She who mourns will cry’: Emotion and Expertise in Yemeni-Israeli
Published in Journal of Anthropological Research, 66, 4, 485-504, 2010
Dr. Tova Gamliel
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Bar-Ilan University
Ramat Gan, 5290002 Israel
She who mourns will cry: Emotion and Expertise in Yemeni-Israeli Wailing
Wailing, a mourning ritual that still persists in the Yemeni community in Israel, is performed
by a special woman wailer who composes memorial lyrics for the deceased and chants them
in a sorrowful melody in the home of the bereaved family. Having been created in Yemen and
brought to Israel with Yemeni immigrants, wailing is currently waning and belittled by the
younger Yemeni-Israeli generation, possibly because of its apparent emotionality and
religiosity. These characteristics, which locate wailing in the realm of the traditional, also
appear to prevent it from being assimilated into modern Israel. Participant observations and
20 in-depth interviews conducted with wailers as well as other members of the Yemeni-Israeli
community in 2001-2 demonstrate how the construction of wailing consists of several inter-
woven perspectives. One perspective analyzes wailing as a post-traditional phenomenon
contrasting the emotionally restrained mourning rituals of Ashkenazi-dominated secular Israeli
society, while another perspective focuses on the interplay of personal feelings and the
wailing performance in order to problematize modern constructs such as "hybridity" and
(Key words: Wailing, Emotion, Expertise, Israel, Yemeni)
She who mourns will cry: Emotion and Expertise in Yemeni-Israeli Wailing
This study explores how wailing has persisted in Israel among Yemeni-Jewish women as a
post-traditional form in late modernity. The wailing performance, which is becoming
increasingly rare, takes place in the homes of the bereaved and at cemeteries. Women may
perform their wailing in a small group at the graveside or, on occasion, in “solo”
performances in the homes of the bereaved. A wailing woman, known in Hebrew as
meqonenet lamenter or wailer - composes memorial lyrics for the deceased and sets them to
a sorrowful melody. The style of the lyrics and the melody are familiar to those present, who
usually respond with demonstrative sadness and weeping. This paper explores and
problematizes the hybrid construction of "tradition" in the case of wailing and locates it
within broader constructions of "East" and "West," religion and secularism, and ethnicity and
In order to understand the meaning of wailing, it must be considered in association
with the broader social discourses in which wailing is performed as affective display,
including discourses of social hierarchy, power, gender, and ethnicity. Throughout the
analysis I will be shifting between external and internal points of view, speaking with wailers
and with their audience. Unlike most (but not all) other forms of women's wailing analyzed by
anthropologists in Venezuela, Bangladesh or Tonga, the wailing I discuss is conducted within
a relatively Western and modern setting and by a woman wailer who is regarded by Yemeni-
Israeli respondents as a "professional" (a term I will later problematize). I argue that
polyphony and intertextuality the two main features of traditional wailing highlighted by
Briggs (1992, 1993) in the context of Warao women in Venezuela should be explained, in
our case, with reference to the social dynamics surrounding a waning tradition, its audience
reception, and related inter-generational conflicts. My description will shift between the
exotic and familiar aspects of wailing, challenging its external stereotyped perception and
showing how community members are contesting the meanings of wailing. I use
transcriptions of the voices of wailers in order to examine features of the poetic patterning and
thematic contents of wailing. I argue that the emergence of ambivalent attitudes, rather than a
clear "collective voice," reflects the complex reality of an oral, "Eastern" traditional in a
modern, secular, Ashkenazi-dominated society. I begin the ethnography by describing,
through the community members' points of view, the polyphonic and intertextual combination
of "traditional" and "modern" perspectives on wailing. The poetic and thematic patterning of
wailing is then analyzed through an examination of its performance and "emotional labor." I
argue in the concluding section of the article that making sense of wailing and its social
character presents a theoretical challenge to our social scientific dichotomies of modernity vs.
tradition as well as to modern constructs such as "professionalism" and "hybridity," which
need to be problematized rather than taken for granted.
Wailing in Anthropological and Socio-Cultural Context
Wailing denotes singing about the deceased and about death with the aim of creating and
propagating an outward articulation of sorrow. Anthropologists consider wailing as a social
discourse (Abu-Lughod 1986, Abu-Lughod and Lutz 1990). Performed mainly by women,
wailing has been studied in diverse ethnic and cultural groups such as Greece (Holst-Warhaft
1995; Danforth 1982), Bangladesh (Wilce 1998, 2002, 2009), Balto-Finnic countries
(Utriainen 1998; Tenhunen 2007; Tolbert, 2000a,b, 2004), Warao in Venezuela (Briggs 1992,
1993), Bedouin in Egypt (Abu-Lughod 1986), and Macronesians (Lutz 1988). In all these
examples, the emphasis is on mourning in a public-ritual context that is particular to the
culture and not merely to the participants’ idiosyncratic emotions.
The analysis therefore
refers to mourning and bereavement and not to grief (Stroebe and Stroebe 1987). Concurring
with Huntington and Metcalf (1979), I claim that mourning is not necessarily an index of
grief. Ritual sobbing does not necessarily shed light on the nature of subjective feelings.
In many societies, weeping and wailing are identified as an activity of women. In their
study of oral laments, Caraveli (1986) and Holst-Warhaft (1995) have shown that lamentation
provides Greek women with a potential vehicle of social protest and transgression. On the
other hand, as Ebersole (2000) argues, "the shedding of ritual tears can also be used to 'buy'
social status and prestige. For instance, in many cultures, a woman who weeps for her
deceased husband, a relative, or a neighbor thereby displays that she and/or her family
embody specific cultural and moral values associated with being a proper wife, mother, and
so on" (p. 228). These readings depict women’s wailing as a practice of power formation and
an arena for the intensification of political demands by women (Seremetakis 1990; Abu-
Lughod 1993). Women's wailing, evidently a weapon of the weak,"\ can thus be construed as
a means of both protest and re-affirmation, through which the personal becomes political and
Yemeni wailing that has persisted in Israel should be located within several social and
theoretical contexts. Israel is an immigration country and an arena of cultural encounters for
many ethnic groups. There are two major groups of immigrants in IsraelMizrahim (Jews
who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries such as Yemen, Morocco, and Iraq) and
Ashkenazim (Jews of European or American origin). These groups are perceived as having
clashing relationships with modernity (Ya’ar and Shavit 2001; Ben-Rafael and Sharot 1991;
The majority of anthropological studies conducted on ritual wailing were carried out in distant and exotic
cultures. The common denominator of many of these studies included an emphasis on wailing as essentially
defined by an "affective discourse” (Abu-Lughod 1990, 1993) or “wept thoughts” (Feld 1995). This emphasis
inadvertently reproduces the image of primitive society as emotional (and hence irrational), as opposed to
modern, Western society (Wilce 2009).
Katz 1982). While the values of the Protestant ethic, individualism, and self-control are
usually attributed to Ashkenazim, the traditional values of family, community life, religiosity,
and mystical beliefs are associated with the Mizrahim (Ya’ar and Shavit 2001). In the
country’s first few decades, Jewish ethnicity was downplayed in favor of creating a
homogenous 'Israeli melting pot, where in actuality the outlooks of the dominant Ashkenazi
group determined the collective identity and basic value consensus (Ben-Rafael and Sharot
1991; Shohat 1988; Smooha 1993). As part of nation-building, the goal of ethnic assimilation
also led to forced secularization (Shokeid 1985; Ben-Rafael 1996).
Yemeni Jews, as an ethnic group, fall into the Mizrahi category. Israeli society labels
them as traditional, emotional, and folkloristic (Gilad 1989). Scholars have noted the
preservation of the traditional Yemeni-Jewish heritage in music and dance, and even the
partial adoption of this heritage by Ashkenazim over the years (Loeb 1985; Lewis 1984;
Regev 2000). Yemeni wailing, which is strongly religious, remained separate and has not
been assimilated into the Israeli "culture of bereavement" that developed around the collective
commemoration of fallen soldiers (Rubin et al. 1999; Sivan 1991; Palgi and Durban 1995;
Witztum and Malkinson 1993). A tentative explanation would be that the perceived
emotionality and religiosity of Yemeni wailing, which for many Israelis locate it firmly in the
realm of tradition, also prevented it from being assimilated into modern-day secular Israel.
Theoretically speaking, traditional Yemeni wailing in contemporary secular Israeli
society is presumably a hybrid phenomenon that blurs the accepted dichotomy of "tradition"
and "modernity." Wilce (2005, 2006, 2009), Saunders (2007) and Tenhunen (2007) have
recently mounted a similar claim regarding the post-traditional, postmodern analysis of
laments. When looking at Yemeni-Israeli wailing we should hence be alert to the dialectical
construction of its cultural space. While modern, disenchanted rationality largely disregarded
laments as a form of primitivism and backwardness, the recent interest in studying laments as
a dying performance is also connected to a postmodern, nostalgic realization that the narrative
of modernity "hinges on 'loss' as much as 'progress'" (Wilce 2009, p. 193). Some scholars
proposed that wailing and lamenting are a potential answer to the modern-day emotional
alienation from death and a predecessor of psychotherapeutic processes for the resolution of
grief (Wouters 2002; Bauman 1992; Haussaman 1998; Aries 1981). In Finland, laments are
being revived also as a therapeutic means (Tenhunen 2007). Heelas (1996), Delanty (2000)
and Beck et al. (2003) have also stressed the co-existence of traditional mourning rituals in
contemporary settings.
The findings were obtained in the course of an anthropological study among members
of the Yemeni-Jewish community in Israel during 20012002. The study, conducted using the
participant observation method in homes of the bereaved, included twenty separate in-depth
interviews conducted in Hebrew and Yemeni-Arabic with wailing women, non-wailing women,
and men. Most of the respondents moved to Israel in the mass emigration from Yemen in
19481953; several settled in Israel in the early 1990s. Most belonged to the socioeconomic
lower-middle class and were sixty to eighty years of age. They lived in towns and villages in
central Israel. Some of these localities were ethnically mixed, while others were homogenous
and constituted centers of the Yemeni-Jewish ethnic community. All subjects spoke two
languages: Yemeni-Arabic and Hebrew.
Women’s wailing is waning among Yemeni Jews in Israel. The decline of wailing is
manifested by research based on documentary and literary sources only (Lysaght 1997). I am
probably investigating the Yemeni-Jewish wailing culture in its "dying days." To my
estimation wailers today are less than 5% of what they were 20 years ago. This affected the
data collection process and made wailing difficult to investigate, including the fact that
wailers are performing less and less often.
Wailing in the Eyes of Community Members
The literature presents Yemeni-Jewish women’s wailing as a composite subject.
Because it is Jewish, it is credited to broad categories such as “religious chantingshared by
men and women (Tsadok 1967; Dehoah-Levi 1995). Because it is Yemeni, it is also viewed as
a Muslim practice (Holst-Warhaft 1995). The singing of Yemeni-Jewish men is described by
community members as distinguishable from non-Jewish singing in that it is replete with
grieving, yearning for the advent of the Messiah, and search for redemption from a life of
suffering, poverty, and enslavement in a fanatic Muslim country. The singing of Jewish
women, in contrast, is described as replete with the types of melancholy that daily life inflicts:
grueling labor, betrayal by husbands who have taken other wives, and women’s nostalgia for
their parents’ home.
There are testimonies indicating that wailing in Yemen was considered a practice typical
of, and almost exclusive to, Jewish women (Dehoah-Levi 1995). Elderly community members
told me how in Yemen, Muslims would invite a Jewish woman to wail at their places of
mourning. The wailing of Jewish women is sung in Yemeni Arabic and abounds with Arab
folk motifs while also embodying Jewish and biblical features. It is a hybrid of two oral
traditions that nourished each other as long as Jews resided in Yemen. During that time, the
Jews of Yemen maintained a religious way of life and were known for their adherence to the
Jewish religious code and for separatism, even though they were subjected to Muslim rule
(Tovi and Yeshayahu 1976). The all-embracing religiosity and the barriers against foreign
influences in Yemen precluded the incursion of any identifiable forms of secularism. In the
eyes of community members that stressed what I call the "traditional perspective," one could
not gauge the significance of a Yemeni-Jewish ritual, text, or custom, as practiced in Israel,
without associating it with the Jewish identity and heritage of this ethnic group.
Community members admitted that they sensed the decline of wailing and blamed this on
the influence of the inter-cultural encounter in Israel and, especially, the encounter of tradition
with modernization and secularism. A young woman in the home of a bereaved man told me
that people no longer wail and cry because of yeridat ha-dorot, a religious concept denoting
an inexorable intergenerational decline. I have heard many stories of how "professional"
wailers were asked by their own children not to wail in family funerals. When I presented
myself as someone who was interested in learning to wail, the wailers ridiculed me and said
they were "the last of their breed." Although inexorable, the decline of wailing was seen by
both young and old in the Yemeni community as part of the weakening of ethnic and
community ties. This was regarded by some community members as pitiful, since the
traditional customs were considered superior in the sense of being more meaningful and
socially engaging than modern, "Ashkenazi" customs (cf. Lewis, 1989). The following
conversation between two women in a group of interviewees demonstrates the inter-
connectedness of these perspectives.
Respondent A: “We’re in such an era, a generation that doesn’t recognize its God. If a
women wails, they just make fun of her [….] What’s more, she comes all made up with
lipstick; she comes wearing shorts. Nowadays women in Israel go to funerals and make
themselves into a disaster. In Yemen, no woman took even two steps following the [funeral]
Respondent B: “In Yemen, women weren’t allowed to follow [the procession] [.] It
was for-bid-den [emphasizing the significance of the transgression]. But here there’s
permissiveness.” This emphasis on following the procession, and its ban, has parallels in the
time of Solon (Wilce 2009).
Respondent A: “In Yemen, women would look on from the side and wail. And how they
wailed! The heavens would shake [….]
Respondent B: “Today, if someone [wails] a little, they tell her to shut up.”
Many community members, who expressed the view that modern life was "deficient" in
terms of the meaning that religion can impart (cf. Gilad 1989) nevertheless also regarded
wailing as backward. The tension between regarding wailing as significant and as backward is
an indication of the complex situation of the Yemeni community in Israel (see an elaborated
discussion of this general tension in Wilce 2005, 2006,2009). Traditional customs have ceased
to inform modern-day reality in Israeli society, yet the vacuum created by their growing
irrelevance is no longer filled by national collectivism or another all-embracing discourse (see
also Grima 1991). Elderly women, most of whom still wear kerchiefs and embroidered dresses
in the Yemeni custom, and old men in skullcaps who attend synagogues of the Yemeni
community, are the only ones who willingly contributed to this study and treated it as an
important opportunity to document their tradition.
Wailing as Performance
According to Jewish religious law, the close relatives of the dead “sit shiva.” This
means that, for seven days following the death of their loved one, they adopt a set of
restrictions that apply to people who assume the social role of “mourners.” During this time, it
is the custom among Yemeni Jews for mourners to sit on the floor and avoid all purposeful
labor and even some activities in service of their own needs. They spend most of their time
seated on mattresses, men and women separately. At prayer time, male mourners pray with
guests who have come to comfort them; women mourners listen to the prayers and
acknowledge them by saying “amen” in unison with the men.
The first three days of mourning are “days of tears.” This time limitation of the display of
emotions is especially pertinent in regard to women’s wailing customs. This is because, from
the moment of death to the seventh day, the deceased is mentioned in men’s prayers in
segments of eulogy and requiem, but these texts are read out almost like any other prayer
service. The vocalization of the melody by the group of men and the special order of the
sentences determine the proper form of deliveryan uninterrupted enunciation of verses. The
following example is taken from a sidur (religious anthology) of laments (hespedim) from the
Jewish-Yemeni tradition. Although the textually-fixed discourse can be different from the
actual, spontaneous performance of wailing, it still captures its essential contours and
Menucha nechona biyshiva elyona tachat kanfei hashchina.
Bema'alat kdoshim utehorim, kezohar haraki'a meirim umazhirim.
Vechilutz atzamot, vechaparat ashmot, veharchakat pesha, vehakravat
Vechemla vechanina milifnei shochen meona"
A proper rest in the Supreme Assembly under the wings of God’s presence.
At the ascent of the holy and the pure, casting illumination and splendor
like the splendor of the Firmament.
Resurrection of the bones, atonement for misdeeds, distancing of
transgression, and drawing near of deliverance,
And mercy and forbearance from He who dwells on high.
The performance of wailing can be described as a chain of sequenced behaviors. The
perception of the phases places the performance in the category of “restored behavior”—
behavior to which the wailer should relate “as a stage director relates to a filmscript”
(Schechner, 2002: 28). As one of the respondents told me: “When she [the wailer] enters the
mourners’ home, she doesn’t start wailing right away. She sits down, looks left and right, and
then covers her face and wails.” Thus, instead of beginning the performance “right away,” the
wailer takes preparatory actions to determine whether the time (she should not perform when
the men are engaged in religious study or prayer, nor during meals) is appropriate.
As the wailer covers her eyes, she makes her first body motion and utters her first sound.
She sways gently, from side to side and back and forth, in cadence with the wailing text. Her
other hand moves in circles and motions that lend substance to her words and claims about the
deceased and death. At times she shakes her head slowly in a sign of negation that
accompanies the rest of her motions and reinforces the impression that she is disengaged from
her surroundings. She sits erect, her legs slightly apart, never crossed. Her dress descends
almost to her heels. The contrast of spinal undulation and erect pelvis and legs creates the
impression that the wailer is attempting to extricate herself from some misfortune. The wailer
allows her waving hand to pound her hip in sorrow and to splay across her breast. Sometimes
she makes a choking sound that combines with the overall rhythm and the rhyming pattern of
the lyrics. Wailing is a harmonic performance that demands perfect coordination of bodily
motions, breathing, enunciation of words, and melody. The wailer’s vocal and physical
motions are minute, meticulous, and repetitive.
The wailing lasts about half an hour. The wailer approaches its conclusion, like its onset,
in three interactive ways. First, she is attentive to voices in the audience and notices, through
the kerchief that covers her face, indications that the audience has had enough. Second, she
responds to the audience’s direct encouragement. Third, she slowly lowers the volume. One
respondent had the following to say about a non-expert performer, “She went on for an hour
or an hour and a half, without a break, until she was hoarse [….] She’d wail and wail until
people wouldn’t cry anymore [….] until you couldn’t hear her anymore. They were worn out;
they’d run out of tears.” In contrast, one woman informant described a “great wailer” as
“flexible” in terms of the audience’s needs; “She knew when to stop even though they never
wanted her to stop.” In most cases, women in the audience know how to signal their interest
in ending the performance. They turn to the wailer gently and indicate that they would like to
soothe her, e.g., by saying, “I feel sorry for your lips. It’s enough; calm down,” or “Enough,
dear. You’re tired.” The encouraging words express approval of the performance, a repayment
of a favor in kind, so to speak. The wailer seizes the opportunity that the appeasing remarks
create. Her lyrical vocalism abates and declines into a sequence of separate words. Finally,
she responds to her interlocutors and slips into their conversation. I now turn to describe a
typical wailing session that I observed. The account includes the audience’s response.
It is midday. The mourners are seated on the floor, their shoulders slumped. In their midst
are six womensisters and daughters of the deceased womanand three men wrapped in
prayer shawls. They sit in a special tent that is open on either side to receive consolers. Many
consolers sit on chairs that face the mourners at a short distance from them. They form two
ellipses, one for men, the other for women. The mourners and the consolers bow their heads
and converse quietly, mulling at random over bits of current events and affairs that are taking
place outside the tent. A small group of older women enters the tent. Each woman in
succession blesses the women mourners—“May God console you”—and sits down nearby.
One of the older women mourners suddenly begins to weep. She breathes heavily and bites
her lips. She covers her eyes with her hand, she strains with all her might to look at her guests
and nod in response to their sighs: “Oy, what a shame it was about your sister, what a good
woman [….] But what can one do about it? It’s Heaven’s decree.” She adds, as they listen,
that she does not understand how it happened, how her sister was stricken.
As the medley of words rustled about in the tent, one of the older women consolers
opened her pocketbook, withdrew a small cloth kerchief, and covered her face, mainly her
eyes. She then launched into a wailing melody that immediately silenced those present and, in
one stroke, brought tears to the mourners’ eyes. From the outset, the melody was
accompanied by lyrics. The wailer’s head moved right and left. At times the entire upper half
of her body, leaning slightly forward, swayed from side to side. As this happened, she
expressed the meaning of the words by extending her other hand in cyclical motions. No one
in the tent said a word. One of the male mourners stepped out and moved away. The others
stared at the wailing woman, their faces expressionless, or sobbed in unison with the
mourners. The wailer’s voice was audible for quite some time; it described the personality of
the deceased and the void she left behind in the hearts of those who loved her. People who
were about to join the group in the tent heard her from the outside as they walked along the
paths. They entered the tent and groped through their tears to find chairs and join the cycle of
melancholy. Another woman untied the knot on her kerchief and pulled the cloth over her
face. She now gripped the wailer’s hand and, sobbing, blessed her for her exertions, attempted
to soothe her, and asked her permission to continue the lamentation. The first woman nodded
and allowed her wailing to ebb gradually. The second woman began to wail in a slightly
different and higher pitched voice. She described her own sorrows and connected them with
those of the deceased, as she knew from stories about her. Several of the men, their faces still
covered with their prayer shawls, groaned in agony. The first wailing woman pulled her
kerchief over her facethe kerchief was dry; her facial features had softenedand sipped
from a cup of coffee that had been served to her. The sorrowful tune was sustained a little
longer, until consoling women calmed their colleague with soothing words and thanked her
for her special lyrics. Silence ensued. Afterwards, people began to speak hesitantly about the
deceased’s personality and misfortune. The tears dried up. Another wailing episode had
Wailing as an Expertise
The Yemeni wailer had an important role in the community; as one of the interviewees
said, “You respect a groom by singing and respect the dead by wailing.” The wailer
had no leadership status in the community but was respected and reputed for her
wisdom. This role has however diminished with modernization since an increasing
number of members of Israeli-Yemeni families are not Yemeni as a result of “mixed
marriages” and wailers may be subjected, especially by the young generation, to
condemnation and silencing by consolers who prefer 'modern-day' emotional restraint
(Gamliel 2005). In old Yemen, wailing was performed originally in a an egalitarian
circle of wailing women. In Israel, in contrast, wailing is often performed as a solo by
a woman who is surrounded by other women. Traditionally, the life-time experience
of old women was regarded as a precondition for wailing expertise; in the words of
one of the informants, “since an old woman has already gone through lots of troubles,
what she says is truer.” Women's life events such as wedding and birth-giving were
presented by respondents as connected with suffering. Of note, in Yemen the
separation of the daughter from her mother upon marriage was often so final and
difficult that the community developed a wedding song that resembled wailing in its
melancholy characteristics. Women’s old age and menopause were further depicted by
respondents as unshackling them from behavioral and emotional constraints. In terms
of role-modeling and training, many wailing women traced their performance to
elderly women whom they had heard when they were young. They learnt their craft in
houses of mourning, where they consorted with other women in the outer circles of the
wailing collective. Although normally there would be no formal training, sometimes
older women trained younger women directly, usually in the case of mothers and
daughters. Many of the interviewees described becoming a wailer in terms of a
motherdaughter relationship. It was argued that each wailer has a style, and a
daughter’s style would resemble that of her mother.
Explaining the wailer’s role, respondents described her as a woman who can “make
stones cry.” This trite and accepted expression attests to the wailer’s expertise as an
orchestrator of emotions. This expertise, acquired through experience, is a social function that
is rooted in the awareness of its potential influence. “It’s like when you go to a party,” one of
the interviewees explained to me. “You glow with joy from head to toe. Well, the same thing
happens with death. Some wailers have words that make you emotional. You can’t help
crying, even if you have a heart of stone, because those words really, really make you cry.”
Members of the community described various degrees of expertise. One of the informants
explained the matter in these terms: “My mother was a first-class wailer [….] There’s the sort
who are professionals, who know how to wail, to string together words about the deceased
and his family and what happened. Some are really [....] even if your heart were made of steel,
you’d cry a river.”
“What’s the difference between a first-class and a third-class wailer?” I asked him.
“A first-class wailer,” he answered, “composes words, sayings [….] The whole thing
takes place in tears.”
These exchanges present the somewhat cryptic nature of "professional" wailing. While
younger respondents who grew up in Israel used the term "professional," which was part of
their modern vocabulary, the wailers elderly women who were born in Yemen did not use
this word when referring to themselves and to what they do. "Professional" wailing did not
have a formal definition and respondents struggled with words when attempting to define its
qualities. Indeed, there was an inherent paradox here since "professional wailing" was
required to achieve an aura of authenticity, namely to be "genuine" rather than "professional"
(in the sense of being contrived and mechanistic). An elderly woman informant who did not
know how to wail noted, “Not every woman has this feeling, to cry and tell about the
deceased and relate what he was.” When I conversed with a woman who was considered a
professional wailer, I asked why the mourners are not content with their performance. She
replied: “There’s crying and there’s crying [….] Our crying, that of the wailers, is one thing,
and the crying of these people is something else.”
Giddens (1991) claimed that the association of “expertise” with social relations and self-
response is a result of the modern project. Indeed, one of my respondents drew a connection
between wailing and the decidedly modern profession of psychotherapy: “[Wailers] could be
very good psychologists,” she stated. “They are wise women. They aren’t educated but they
have knowledge of life.” Pausing to give thought to their special wisdom, she said, “The
wailer has to have [special] characteristics and unsullied self-sacrifice. She has to have
intelligence and emotion and she must understand what’s going on around her. She speaks
according to that.” If wailing can be described as having a "modern" function "like
psychiatry" what does this mean for its "modernity"? I return to explore this issue in the
Vocalization, Text, and an Invitation to Perform
The wailer’s expertise is manifested at three main levels: the lamentation lyrics,
contriving the display of impressions, and demand for her service in the community. At the
first level, the wailer’s talent is expressed in her vocal qualities and use of words and
metaphors. This combination, as the informants explained, enables the wailer to "touch the
sensitive points.It prompted them to describe the wailer as a “wise” and “holy” woman
who has “inner intelligence.”
“Wailers speak words that can be absorbed. It’s not just
hysterical sobbing. It is sobbing with words that have to be understood,” an informant
related with a two-pronged compliment that also reproduced the "traditional" as backward.
“It’s a special melody,” someone else said. “Those precise rhymes, she doesn’t grab them
off the shelf [….] Sometimes she explains something in words by her wailing. Those who
can understand her do so. Ignoramuses do not understand. The wailers know exactly what to
say.” When I asked a respondent to dwell on the matter of excitation, he added that the
wailer uses “a technique of the voice itself.” When I asked a woman what a wailer needed to
know as a measure of her expertise, she replied, “she has to know how to fit the right words
to the tune in order to generate such sorrow.” Consider as a typical example the following
wailing about Hoyda; the lyrics capture the social distinction which Hoyda had during her
life by recalling the good deeds of the deceased:
O, my mother, O, my father, oy, it’s a shame
My mother, my father, Hoyda, it’s a shame
My mother, my father, Hoyda, it’s a shame
O my dead mother, among the living.
5 My sisters, today is lamentation day
O my mother, he who mourns will cry
O my father, he who rejoices will hear
O my father, O my father, Hoyda, it’s a shame.
Inner intelligence refers to the experience and intuition of Yemeni women who did not receive formal
schooling in the homeland of Yemen, but have acquired a lifelong experience of mothering, care, and living in
the community.
The source of this text is the book "hod" (magnificence), published by the family of Hoyda, and edited by
Aharon Ben-David (1999). The original Hebrew text is not provided due to space limitations.
O my mother, a fragrant herb on the roof
10 O my mother, irrigated without water
My mother, of the clean hand
My mother, mother of righteous deeds and commandments
O my mother, a silver bell with the polishing tools
O my mother, your daughter does not know how to lament
15 O my mother, I will lament and bewail you, so I will
My mother, I will cry for you and so inspire women to cry.
O my mother, O my father, oy
O my mother, it’s a shame about Hoyda
My mother, everyone has already bemoaned you
20 My mother, the relatives have already come to stay.
My mother, how quickly you have gone to the grave
My mother, in the brown soil
My mother, is it light or dark where you are?
She said, "where I am, it is bad and dark.
This is praise for a woman who resembles a fine flower that has been placed on a rooftop; everyone sees it and
enjoys its aroma.
The verse uses the metaphor of a gleaming bell made of pure silver to describe an aristocratic woman.
25 My daughter, the worms will consume your flesh
My daughter, the worms will consume your flesh
My sisters, the wailer had wailed and gone
My brothers, the fire resides in the abode of the distress."
The next lamentation was performed during an interview that I conducted in the home of
a wailer about sixty years old. She composed the text after recalling a recently deceased
member of the community for whom she had not had an opportunity to wail in the mourners’
Woe, woe,
I bewail the loss of Shalom
My mother and father
It’s a shame about him
5 My heart aches as I lament you
My heart aches as I lament you
I entrust you to God
Go safely
Shalom, have a good evening
10 From me and from your children
And from your mother’s children
Your wife is greatly saddened
The distress resides in the breast, the seat of emotions. The above lines starting with "she said" are
reported speech attributed to the dead.
The deceased’s first name.
Her heart aches
She pleads to God
15 Why have you gone?
It causes her grief
There were ten men in the synagogue
And now one is missing
The Torah scrolls will bemoan you […]
The comprehensible, varied, and original lyrics of the lamentation give evidence of
expertise. If a wailer’s performance evokes judgments such as “she has two or three words,”
then she is clearly not an expert. Metaphors gathered from Yemen and adapted to the
deceased are indicative of great expertise. One of the wailers was renowned not only for her
voice but for her innovativeness. Her son described her special performance: “The people in
every mourning home felt that she’d made up something new.” Some likened this great expert
to popular Israeli singers because “she has lots of words.” In the middle of a cemetery, a
woman informant distinguished between two wailers who emoted in tears at one tombstone.
One of them, she said, “cried for herself” and “really told her deceased a story about what she
had been doing lately." She "sounded like a wailer," but her performance did not meet the
standard of expertise because she said simple, personal words, devoid of metaphoric
inspiration. The informant described the second wailer, in contrast, as an expert because “she
didn’t repeat herself with every sentence.”
A crucial component in defining the Yemeni-Jewish wailer’s expertise is the assessment
of the truth that the text represents. Warao wailing stresses the same factor: Sana [laments]
serve as a central forum for establishing the ‘truth’ about the deceased, the circumstances
surrounding her or his life, and any other factors that can be construed as having contributed
to the death” (Briggs 1992, p. 341). On the surface, we find in the search for 'truth' something
that crosses time and place. One of my informants praised an outstanding Yemeni-Jewish
wailer in similar terms: “She would tell [you] who the deceased was, how he went about his
life, in words that penetrated the soul so deeply that no one seated next to her wouldn’t cry.
She told only the truth. For her, the truth was the most important thing. She was honest.”
Another woman told me about an admired wailer, “she said a few good words [about the
deceased]. She didn’t go on and on because she didn’t want his critics to be scornful, to say
‘Look, she’s saying things about him that aren’t right.’ If they do that, it’s humiliating.”
However, in the case of Yemeni wailing the concept of 'truth' was construed differently,
compared to the Warao. The 'truth' in Warao wailing was personal and expressive of the
wailer's subjectivity. It could involve "strong words" of accusations directed to people of
power, with the understanding that the wailer should not be subjected to retribution. In
Yemeni wailing, the 'truth' is both social and personal, both expressive of the wailer's
expertise and of her personal sorrow. As Tolbert (1990a,b, 1994) has shown, the modern
distinction between expert performance and personal emotion turns out to be yet another false
dichotomy in the context of wailing.
At the second level, the wailer is an expert in giving over the impression of
commiserating with the bereaved. In most cases, she buries her face in a kerchief and
immerses herself in her lamentation, even though she herself rarely cries. “It’s not that [the
wailer] is heartbroken about the deceased,” one respondent said. “It’s her job. She comes
there to shock the rest of the people there.”
“Does she sometimes shed tears?” I asked.
“No, since when?! She might not have had any relationship with the deceased.”
In Jewish practice, public worship requires the presence of at least ten men.
One wailer expressed this point in the following way: “The tears don’t come down. You
hide your face and the tears don’t come down. It’s just the words, the words, that do the
crying.” I asked another wailer, “Are there situations where you go in and do not cry with
tears?” She replied, “There are lots of [situations] where I cry and some where I don’t.” One
of the women respondents related, “She [the wailer] would cover her face with a kerchief so
you’d cry and say emotional things. But she doesn’t cry.”
“Why does she cover her face?” I asked. “So they won’t see whether she’s crying or not.
She goes like this [the respondent makes the motion of unfolding a kerchief] but she doesn’t
cry. I’ve seen it.” Sometimes the wailer does not content herself with the kerchief; she also
prepares staged tears. Thus a wailer’s niece described what once happened in a house of
I stepped outside with [my aunt] and told her, “Aren’t you ashamed?!
Aren’t you ashamed?! The uncle, the grandfather, died and you’re putting
spit in your eyes?!” She answered, “Where will I get tears from, you crazy
thing? Where? Gone, gone! My mother’s gone, this one’s gone….”
“But she would cover her eyes,” I said to the respondent. “So why did she need the
“What would they see when the kerchief fell off?!” the wailer’s niece responded
rhetorically. “Look here,” she continued:
To this day, lots of Yemeni women go about with a cloth kerchief. They
open it up; it’s like a ritual. They lay it on their forehead, clutch it, and
wail. But my aunt could do that and, like, put spit [on her eyes] so they’d
see the tears flowing.
Respondents who described wailing as an expertise considered the acceptance of
payment to be beneath a wailer’s dignity. Instead, they explained, she is given three things:
delicacies such as dates, raisins, and meals; a place of honor in the mourners’ home; and
blessings and compliments for her talent. The wailer has no special status in the community,
they asserted, except for her reputation as a warm and respected woman. The respondents
seem to have contrasting attitudes toward remuneration for a wailer but have no ambivalence
about rewarding her in some way. As my research proceeded, I found that the differences in
reward customs originate in the scattered nature of the Jewish community in Yemen. Jews
there inhabited different and geographically far-removed parts of the country and were in
loose contact only. The areas were differentiated in a few customs and in social attitudes.
Furthermore, it is reasonable to be ambivalent about rewarding a performer who seems to be
emotionally involved.
Conclusion: The Labor of Wailing
Respondents described women’s wailing among Yemeni Jews in Israel as a practice of
social and religious significance. They further depicted it as the diametrical opposite of
mourning rituals of Ashkenazi Jews (those of Northern-European origin), said to represent
modern emotional restraint. Others would say that it might also reflect a unique Eastern-
Jewish symbiosis between religion, family and community (Shokeid 1984). The unique
characteristics of Yemeni-Israeli wailing should be located in its changing meaning and
performance vis-à-vis the challenge of secular and modern outlooks.
The preparations for the wailing performance, including the saliva in the eyes, should
not appear unique or surprising. It is quite a common feature for professional singers to "fake"
emotions, including the "false tears" that make-up artists prepare for Japanese enka singers,
for example (Yano 1992). The modern industry is perhaps more technologically advanced in
"manufacturing emotionality" (as compared to the wailer's saliva), but it flourishes on the
very same principles. Theoretically speaking, wailing as an emotional expertise and a learned
manipulation plays a similar role to the "self-monitoring of feelings" that Elias (1978),
Greenblat (1980) and others have convincingly shown to mark, in the Renaissance, the
instruction of bourgeois readers on how to act like persons of class. Indeed, Tongan laments
and eulogies have been analyzed by Kaeppler (1993) as an aristocratic art form that serves as
a mechanism for social distancing and control and the elevation of selected chiefly lineages.
A complementary interpretation could stress the universal relations between the
lamentation and the audience's emotional release. Wailing can be a therapeutic practice in
response to states of bereavement, in parallel to the "modern" psychological concepts of
catharsis, closure, and ventilation. Wailing releases the emotional pressure that has gripped
the individual. As one of the respondents typically explained this, “the moment you’re
ashamed [to cry] you get something not good here [points to her chest]." The house of
bereavement is a domestic arena for the display of emotions and for emotional release, quite
in line with the “modern” separation of the public-rational and domestic-emotional spheres.
Those who mourn do not sit around staring dry-eyed at the wailer, but rather take part actively
as audience, weeping themselves and repeating some of the words of the wailer. Wailing was
originally seen to "touch the dead" too, namely help the dead soul to move along rather than
stay behind; that ritual conception is perhaps downplayed in contemporary wailing
As one of the reviewers pointed out, this would be scandalous to the Karelian cry-women who work hard at
empathy, and at producing real tears, and whose emotional work actually puts their heart's health at risk
performances which emphasizes the emotional involvement of the living. In this manner,
Yemeni-Israeli wailing illustrates how lament is a post-traditional form of late modernity.
While others have found that wailing is making a small comeback in some places, Yemeni-
Israeli wailing is a dying ritual. It has not undergone a significant process of hybridization and
its performers and audience do not see themselves as having a role in adjusting it to Israeli life
and society. Aesthetic innovation and professional expertise, which could have played a part
in the hybridization of wailing, have not been used for that purpose. Wailers and their
audience do not regard the aesthetic evaluation that was applied to this genre in Yemen as
relevant to the Israeli context. The social recognition of professional expertise has also
dwindled. In terms of remuneration, while in Yemen wailers used to receive money or gifts,
In Israel during the first decades after immigration money was replaced by gifts and more
recently gifts were replaced by verbal gratitude. The respondents possibly used the terms
"professional" and "expert'" as descriptive technical labels but not as expressing a sense of
modern-day admiration. The wailers did not describe themselves as "professionals." This kind
of "cryptic professionalism" also related, in Yemen and in Israel, to the concealment of the
"tricks of the trade" so that the wailer's sorrow appears to be authentic. For the same reason,
when wailers were paid it was done confidentially. Skilful wailing demanded an aura of
authenticity, which as Walter Benjamin argued does not translate well to modern forms of
popular, anonymous, mass communication. The fading ritual of wailing in contemporary
Israel is thus rarely "dreamt of" and is less and less "lived in".
Such reading both echoes and problematizes the challenge mounted by Wilce (2002,
2005, 2006, 2009), Saunders (2007) and others against the construction of wailing within the
modern/traditional, civilized/primitive dichotomies of Western, bourgeois ideology. In the
manner indicated by Kahn (2001), "bringing modernist narratives into confrontation with
(Tolber 1990a; 1994).
ethnographic knowledge allows us to turn modernity back upon itself [….] The first
consequence of such confrontation is the challenge to a Western vision of modernity as
abstract and universal rather than concrete and particular" (p. 662). Women’s wailing can
hence join the contemporary psychological view of the so-called mourning process that
celebrates emotionality and holds feelings of sorrow and bereavement in higher esteem
(Anderson and Mullen 1998). This acknowledgment, however, appears to be too little and too
late, as wailing seems bound to disappear from Israeli society. Indeed, if ritual wailing would
become extinct, this article could itself be read as a kind of 'wailing' (see also Wilce 2005,
2006, 2009). I have presented the characteristics and merits of ritual wailing, described its
social meaning, and perhaps also illustrated how it would feel to lose it.
I am grateful to all the respondents who took part in this study, as well as to the editor and the
anonymous reviewers of this journal.
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The abstract for this document is available on CSA Illumina.To view the Abstract, click the Abstract button above the document title.