Not so long ago, we traversed the area of cholent. One could say that a “close sister” to cholent is Yemenite breads, especially kubaneh and jachnun, as they are heated from Friday night until the next day.
I had the privilege to speak with Doreet Jehassi, owner of The Ma’lawah Bar in Northern California, who specializes in selling Yemenite breads. Her grandparents lived in Yemen and her parents came over to Israel and then relocated to the United States after the Six-Day War. Many Yemenites were forced to relocate to Israel in the last century due to persecution. Due to the emigration of close to 50,000 Yemenites by 1950 to Israel via Operation Magic Carpet, Yemenite foods have become a mainstay in Israeli culture.
Doreet brought over this now-popularized Middle Eastern food to Palo Alto and views the business of being in Yemenite foods as her passion. She explained to me that the evolution of Yemenite breads was based on the harsh economic conditions endured by the Yemenites. They had to search for easily accessible ingredients to create a lasting meal and flour often fit into that category. In our conversation, she conveyed to me how the Rambam is a hero to the Yemenite Jewish people. As we will soon see, he saved them from spiritual chaos and unduly burdensome taxes.
Yemenite Jewish History
In Yemen, during the period around the destruction of the Second Temple, there arose a conflict between Jewish and Christian values. The Himyarite Kingdom rose to power and abandoned pagan beliefs and embraced monotheism. Eventually, after being so impressed with Judaism, the Himyari ruling family converted to Judaism, and Christianity was wholly abandoned. In 525 CE, King Kaleb Ella Ashiba of Aksoum (modern-day Ethiopia) invaded and took control. At this point, Christianity took hold. But it was not long until Mohammad’s army invaded in 629 CE and Islam became the dominant religion. During this time, the Jews were given religious freedoms and not forced to convert.
The 12th century was one of the most challenging times for Yemenite Jews, both politically and spiritually. Ali Ibn Mahdi, who saw himself as the savior for all Muslims, began preaching radical and extreme ideas which stirred his followers. Upon his death, he was succeeded by his son, Abd Nabi Mahdi, who showed great hostility to the Jews and was calling on the Jews to convert. While this was happening, a Jew claimed he was the Messiah and began preaching to the population. Many began to believe that the final redemption was near. In 1172, Rabbi Yaacov ben Nathanel from Yemen wrote to the Rambam for guidance. In response, the Rambam penned his famous Iggeret Teiman and explained to the rabbi that this purported Messiah is false and that the religions of Christianly and Islam are fallacious. In addition, the Rambam appealed to Saladin in Egypt to reduce the tax burden on the Jews of Yemen. Soon, the Messiah incident passed, and strong Islamic rule retreated. Yemenite Jews hold the Rambam in great esteem for the calm that he brought to their communities.
In 1919, once again Islam brought hardship to the Jews. With the departure of the Turks, the Muslims tried to convert young Jewish children in what became known as the “Orphans’ Decree.” This and other actions made life for the Yemenite Jews difficult during this period. A turning point came in 1947 with the UN Partition Plan, which separated Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. The Arab world couldn’t accept a declaration for a Jewish state. The Arabs in Yemen reacted by perpetrating riots and killing 82 Yemenite Jews. This led to the eventual emigration of most Yemenite Jews to Israel.
The Varieties of Yemenite Breads
Kubaneh is a pull-apart bread baked in a metal tin and is traditionally heated over Friday night and served the next day. Rabbi Korach, a Yemenite and OU rabbi in Israel, explains that the idea to have this bread during the day before the main meal upon which they recite the beracha of mezonos is to increase brachos adding to the spirituality of Shabbas. It is served with eggs, tomatoes, and spicy dips. The Wall Street Journal reported on Uri Scheft, a Danish-Israel baker, who upon first seeing kubaneh bread, said, ‘‘The bread was warm, buttery and sophisticated, savory and slightly sweet at the same time.” He has since created his own recipe, which appears in a book he co-authored with a food writer.
Jachnun has some similarities to kubaneh in that it is also sometimes warmed up over Friday night. It consists of rolled sticks of dough smeared with butter and is served with sides of eggs, tomatoes and sauces.
Malawah is a flaky flatbread. It can be prepared quickly in a frying pan. It turns into puffy layers of dough and is served with eggs, tomatoes and sauces.
Lachluch is made with a yeasted batter. It’s cooked in a pan and because of the heat, air holes form on the outside.
Gold Medal Flour
The Yemenite Jews proved just how creative one could be with flour. James Ford Bell – the founder of General Mills, which produces a top line of flour under its OU Kosher Gold Medal brand – before establishing General Mills, was appointed by Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. Food Administrator, to head the humanitarian relief effort to offer food assistance in Europe during World War I. This effort saved 10 million people in Belgium and France.
Online, Gold Medal Flour offers expert guidance on how to become a master baker.
Sustainability is about Life
The buzzword in the food industry is sustainability. The reason for worrying about the environment and preserving natural resources is to ultimately sustain and preserve the life of every human being in the safest way. Yemenite Jews were able to sustain themselves the best they could, with less expensive ingredients. Before becoming the founder of General Mills, James Ford Bell headed a flour-based relief effort that saved 10 million people in Belgium and France. Unfortunately, the lives of three Jewish fathers were cut down this week in a terror attack in Israel. How then do we sustain ourselves as a nation? Sefer Bereishis gives the answer: Yaakov tells Yosef that he conquered the Amorites “b’charbi u’bekashti – with my sword and bow,” which Targum Onkelos translates to mean tefillah. Our greatest salvation can come through prayer.