Two grandsons offer a musical glimpse of their ancestral Yemenite history

Two grandsons offer a musical glimpse of their ancestral Yemenite history

Ofer Callaf and Tom Fogel bring the songs of their Israeli immigrant grandmothers to Jerusalem's Confederation House for a one-night show on July 5

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Sometimes it’s the third generation that returns to its old-country roots.

That’s been the experience for Tom Fogel, the 32-year-old grandson of Yemenite immigrants on his mother’s side, who has made his family’s former world into the focus of his professional life.

This PhD student in Yemenite folklore took the fruits of his regenerative process, and, in collaboration with musician Ofer Callaf, created a show called “The Muganiyat Show — Song of the Mothers of Ofer Callaf and Tom Fogel,” which will be performed Thursday at the Confederation House in Jerusalem. It’s part of the center’s efforts to enrich the ethnic music scene in Israel.

Muganiyot are the Jewish singers of Yemen, and this show was inspired by Callaf and Fogel’s grandmothers, weaving the music and words of their grandparents’ Yemenite histories.

Ofer Callaf, a musician who specializes in Yemenite music, will perform with Tom Fogel at Jerusalem’s Confederation House on July 5, 2018 (Courtesy Assaf Sudry)

“It’s the third generation syndrome,” said Fogel, “and it’s very real. It does happen a lot with our generation; it’s a story of a generation from someplace.”

Fogel and Callaf met by chance during a performance at Carousela, a cafe in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, where Fogel was presiding over a jaale — a traditional Yemenite gathering around a table laden with fruits and nuts, where people tell stories and sing songs.

They began talking and realized that their grandparents were neighbors in Jerusalem and had emigrated from the same village in Yemen.

That long-ago connection became the source of a strong bond between the two, and led to other collaborations, including Callaf’s offer to professionally record Fogel’s singing of his grandparents’ traditional Yemenite music.

“I don’t really sing, I just sing in the synagogue, or around the table,” said Fogel. “Ofer is the musician, I’m a cantor.”

Still, much of what Fogel sings is now part of a book he is working on about life in Gabsiya, the Yemenite village where their grandparents came from. It includes a chapter on women’s music and songs, and that particularly inspired Callaf.

“He was lit up by it, and he came back to me with a full show, written by him, but inspired by what I wrote,” said Fogel.

Now the two will present the results of their work in a one-off event Thursday night at Jerusalem’s Confederation House, supported by the Culture Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality.

Tom Fogel, whose love for his Yemenite grandparents brought him to study Yemeni folklore and song, and a collaboration with Ofer Callas (Courtesy Branica Schneider)

It was always the music that brought Fogel to this research. His own interest was precipitated when he was 17 and his grandfather died, leaving a painful gap where a strong, loving relationship had once existed.

“I experienced a kind of lack of knowledge of his traditions,” said Fogel.

His grandparents had come to Israel from Yemen in 1949. Their daughter, Fogel’s mother, hadn’t kept up her parents’ ways — common enough in children of immigrants.

Fogel, however, felt he was left adrift without his grandparents’ traditions. He returned to his grandfather’s synagogue in the small town of Yehud, where the man’s friends and cronies taught him their music, including how to sing in the Yemenite synagogue and how to be a cantor. “A path of learning,” he called it.

“They brought me in, I owe them everything,” he said. “Most of them are not around any longer, but it’s a place that is warm in my heart.”

Fogel didn’t initially plan on studying Yemenite folklore. He majored in botany but came to realize that this area of culture was his passion, and switched into the folklore department of Hebrew University.

He is now working on his doctorate, focusing on the work of professor Shelomo Dov Goitein, a German-Jewish ethnographer, historian and Arabist known for his research into Jewish life in the Islamic Middle Ages.

Fogel recognizes that Israelis of Yemenite background cannot return to Yemen, and that people like him and his friends cannot “freeze any fragment to carry it on as a symbol of what was.”

“What we are doing in all kinds of ways, whether through art or research or music, is taking building blocks of the culture that we experienced from grandparents or parents and taking them to see what there was and make something new, to build something new,” he said.

Learning Arabic is a critical part of that, particularly in relation to countries that Israelis cannot visit, like Yemen.

“The language is a window to the whole culture,” said Fogel.

He’s even made connections with Yemenis through posting videos of traditional Yemeni Jewish music on YouTube, which has proved to be an acceptable channel of dialogue for citizens of two countries that have no official ties.

“They tell us, “it’s just like we sing; we miss the Jews,” said Fogel. “It’s all the things that YouTube can do that the countries can’t.”

Fogel remains amazed at where he’s gotten to thanks to his past.

“I can speak in this world of academia because of what my grandfather went through to give me this privilege,” he said. “I think about that all the time.”

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