I was blessed with two mothers – my wonderful biological mother who I called “Mommy,” and my loving Yemenite mother who I called “Ima.” I was blessed to have had my Mommy for fifty-six years and my Ima for forty-seven years.
In the summer of 1977 I came to Israel to learn in a six-week ulpan at Hebrew University, followed by a year learning in a brand new women’s yeshiva in Yerushalayim. I had time between the two to volunteer, and so I set my sights upon volunteering in the development town of Chazor, which is south of Kiryat Shemona. My interest in Chazor had been piqued when I visited there with my friend Martha. She had a friend who was volunteering there with the now defunct volunteer organization called Techiya. College and grad students would pay for their own airfare and volunteer in development towns in Israel. I thought it fascinating to see the American volunteers work the with mostly Sephardic population.
I called the contact person whose number I had been given. Naomi, a psychologist who worked in Chazor, wanted me, rightfully so, to come up for an interview. In those days, traveling there by bus was an even bigger schlepp than today. I did not want to have to make the trip for an interview and then again to begin volunteering. I decided to look elsewhere.
My cousin Rav Eliyahu Marcus, z”l, arranged for me to go to the community of Ofra and volunteer there. A day before I was due to start my volunteer work in Ofra, Naomi called me and told me that I could come up to volunteer without an interview. I called my cousin to update him and I ended up in Chazor. Naomi met with me and placed me in the local high school as well as in an afternoon daycare center for children whose parents could not properly care for them.
My first day at the high school was an eye-opener. As I walked into the large entrance room, I suddenly heard a door open. I heard a teacher scream at a student and physically throw him out of the class. What a welcoming!
I was placed in the school library where I tutored students in English. There I met a lovely, very frum young Yemenite teacher named Naomi Damti, and we became friends. She invited me to her family’s home on a moshav for the first day of Sukkot.
I fell in love with the family from the first visit. Ima and Abba Damti were so warm, friendly, and welcoming. Their small and humble abode was the home of ten of their thirteen children. The boys, as well as the girls helped in the kitchen and with whatever else needed to be done. I slept with Naomi in a room that doubled as a living room.
I had difficulty understanding the parents, who had immigrated from Yemen with their son Reuven. The kids would interpret their heavily-accented Hebrew. For example, they would say mitzwa, and that meant mitzva. Abba Damti would rise at dawn to daven and learn. Then he would go to work in the cowshed behind their home. Ima Damti would also rise early to prepare food for their large family and to milk the cows. They had fields as well, and they worked hard in agriculture.
I couldn’t spend enough time with them over the years. Each visit was memorable. Over time I learned more about the family. Ima Damti had married Abba Damti when she was only eleven, and the groom was eighteen. (She had not even reached puberty.) The reason that the Yemenite girls were married off so young, was to avoid having local Moslem men take the Jewish girls as wives. If a Jewish girl was not married, then the Moslems could take them away from their families. If the girls were already married, then the Moslem men did not take them away from their families. I remember Ima Damti telling me how she ran home to her parents after the wedding and stayed with them for a year. They had several infants who died in Yemen, and one who died in Israel. She gave birth to a set of identical twins in their kitchen!
The family was so happy when I became engaged. My husband-to-be was in the U.S., and our wedding was set for Rosh Chodesh Kislev. I ended up spending the High Holidays with various married Damtis. I came to the moshav for part of Sukkot. At the end of the first day of Sukkot the family surprised me with a modest traditional pre-wedding ceremony called a Chenna. They really consider me like a daughter/sister.
Ima Damti had never learned how to read, but that did not stop her from raising a large family which always seemed to have new members joining it. She had sage advice about dating, about cooking, about childrearing, etc. She would call me “binte” which means “my daughter” in Judeo-Yemini Arabic. Despite her heavy schedule, she would make the time to call me to see how I was doing. She would have one of her children dial my phone number. When I would answer the phone, one of the kids would say, “Here’s Ima.”
I well remember how she gave one of our infants a bath. They didn’t have a proper Western-style baby bath. She took a large plastic basin which she called a “gigit”, filled it with water and took the baby from my arms. She proceeded to give him a quick, but adequate bath.
My husband and children became part of the family as well. The kids always looked forward to our visits to the moshav. We enjoyed the Yemenite cuisine, the kids couldn’t get enough of seeing the cows, but most of all we loved the warmth which exuded from each family member.
With time, Ima Damti’s sight worsened, and she was also diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. But these troubles did not stop her from being an eishet chayil.
When my dear biological mother passed away in July of 2013, Ima Damti, despite her poor health, came with two of her children to pay me a shiva visit in my parents’ apartment in Yerushalayim.
When Ima Damti’s health failed more, full-time help was required. The family hired a foreign worker, originally from Nepal, named Debby. When she became exceedingly ill, in addition to Debby, the children would take turns being with her 24/7, whether at home or in the hospital. Her soul returned to her Maker while her youngest daughter Ayala and Abba Damti were with her at her bedside.
I learned many lessons from Ima Damti, but out of all of them, what remains strongest in my mind is how she was a living embodiment of simple emunah. She may not have learned Rambam in a formal manner, but her soul was equipped with a whopping dose of emunah. She went through a lot of tribulations in her life, but she always kept Hashem in sight and His name upon her lips.
May her memory be for a blessing.