Keeping ties with the past Yemeni Jews and modern challenges [Archives:2007/1084/Reportage]

September 10 2007
A fort in Raidah - Amran where Muslims and Jews used to live together.
A fort in Raidah – Amran where Muslims and Jews used to live together.
Yemeni dance from the South performed by Yemeni Jews in Israel. The group of 200 artistes tours the world presenting Jewish arts.
Yemeni dance from the South performed by Yemeni Jews in Israel. The group of 200 artistes tours the world presenting Jewish arts.
Morris Harari, continuous support to education of Yemeni Jews.
Morris Harari, continuous support to education of Yemeni Jews.
Shlomo Grafi, after an absence of almost sixty years, he came home.
Shlomo Grafi, after an absence of almost sixty years, he came home.
Shebzi Grave, a Jewish religious site in Taiz city, where Jews visit from all around the world. The star of David near the top of the dome had been vandalized, yet the shape could still be distinguished.
Shebzi Grave, a Jewish religious site in Taiz city, where Jews visit from all around the world. The star of David near the top of the dome had been vandalized, yet the shape could still be distinguished.
The designs of the cloths clearly resemble the Yemeni Miwaz worn in the south governorates of Yemen.
The designs of the cloths clearly resemble the Yemeni Miwaz worn in the south governorates of Yemen.
By: Mohammed Bin Sallam
[email protected]

Jews have lived in Yemen for nearly 2500 years. They settled down in different parts of the country whether rural and urban. Remains of their life is still visible today through distinctive Jewish architecture whether in the decoration of buildings or the Jewish temples. European researchers who visited Yemen before the 26 September Revolution in 1962 documented more than 38 Jewish temples in Qa'a Al-Yahoud (Jewish Ground), which is called today, Qa'a Al-Ulifi.

In Aden, Jews were present in large numbers in the downtown areas where what was known as the “Jews' Avenue” used to exist. Some country people still remember their Jewish neighbors in mountainous villages. Beit Qatina, located in Mahwait province, is one of such hill stations where Jews settled down in the past. Their homes and shops still exist today as was in the past before they left the country decades ago.

Yemeni Jews are natives of Yemen as they had been here for centuries before Christ and Islam. They had maintained their religion throughout the years and lived in communities within the Yemeni society until they migrated to the “Promised Land” in Jerusalem.

Yet Yemen also contains some religious sites visited by Jews from all placed. Salem Yousef Al-Shebzi, was a Jewish religious cleric, who lived in Taiz in the 16th Century after he transited from a nearby village. He is a well-respected Yemeni Jew, and Jews from Yemen and all around the world come to visit his grave, known as the “Shebzi Grave”. Although the exact location of the grave is not known, Jews flock to a site near Al-Qaherah Fort in Taiz city, and camp there for several hours. They take blessings from a small water stream in that area.

Between 1949 and 1950 majority of Yemeni Jews migrated. The migration operation was terms the 'the magic carpet', when more than 48,000 Yemeni Jews migrated to Israel. Thousands of the Yemeni Jews remained in Yemen, some held to their religion, while others converted to Islam whether by force or by choice. Some 350,000 Yemeni Jews have been converted to Islam since 1948.

Yemeni Jews today

Today, the number of Jewish remnants in Yemen doesn't exceed one thousand living in small communities in Sana'a, Amran, and Sa'ada. They freely exercise their religious rituals and have several religious occasions, which they mark every year such as Eid Al-Gufran or Eid Naisan, Khudhaira, Mudhalat or the Return.

However, they are not integrated completely in all aspects of the public life such as the education system. True that they share the difficult living conditions with all Yemenis, yet their children are generally deprived of formal education in public schools. Yemeni Jewish children go to religious teaching sessions established by the elders of their community members. Recently a small school containing 25 students was constructed by the state for the Jews displaced from their homes because of war in Sa'ada north of Yemen.

Some Yemeni Jews visit their relatives in Israel via Jordan, and the Israeli authorities allow them to enter the state by granting them temporary residency documents, which is usually enclosed in their Yemeni passports.

A love affair

Because of the inadequate education provided for Yemeni Jews, the males are sent to either USA or Israel once they are 16 or 17 years old. There are approximately 20,000 Yemeni Jews in USA mainly concentrated in Brooklyn and New York, and around 400,000 in Israel. These men get used to the better life style and generally do not return home.

However, Yemeni Jews are very much influenced by conservative traditions and therefore, decline to send their daughters abroad. They fear their daughters would be changed by the modern liberal practices of the west. This lead to an increasing number of Jewish girls compared to males in Yemen. Because of this fact and because of the proximity to Muslim Yemenis families some Jewish girls fall in love with Muslim boys and elope with them.

Jewish families in Yemen do not approve of their children marrying into other religions in fear for the Judaism. However, since this religion is passed through the females some Yemeni Jews eventually accept their daughters' decision to marry a Muslim especially if the father is not very particular about religion. Some other families are not so tolerant and to them, these eloping girls are as dead.

Saturday Sabbath

Yemeni Jews like most Jews around the world still maintain the Sabbath, which is dedicating Saturday's for rest and worship.

Although many Jews around the world do not maintain this practice anymore, Yemeni Jews take their Sabbath very seriously. They stay in doors and do not communicate with the outside world. They even close their mobile phones and abstain from shopping or slaughtering or any other form of earthy activities. The ritual starts from Friday before sunset when the house lady lights up candles representing Sabbath light until the sunset of the following day. The families usually recite some verses of the holy book especially verses relating to creation. The man of the house blesses the wine and bread and then divides the bread among his family members before they start eating dinner.

One of the reasons why older Yemeni Jews do not appreciate living in modern Jewish societies around the world is that the latter do not respect such traditional religious rituals any more.

Reliving childhood memories

Yemeni Jewish immigrants who had become influential in their new homes frequently return to Yemen in order to help their community. Shlomo Grafi is the director of the Yemeni Heritage Foundation in USA concerned with Yemeni Jews welfare around the world. He had been to Yemen where he spent more than 45 days in Sana'a. Grafi's visit was mostly dedicated to addressing issues of Yemeni Jews, and investment opportunities in the country. All of his seven children are living in the U.S., while he spends most of the year traveling between the U.S. and Israel, and recently Yemen.

When he was barely nine years old, Grafi traveled with his family to Israel via Aden in November 1949. He had not been to Yemen since then, and was astonished by the development the country has seen in the last sixty years.

Grafi praised President Saleh's efforts in promoting development in Yemen.. He expressed his pride that Ali Abdullah Saleh is president of eh country and confirmed that in his opinion, Saleh is the best who can lead the country to progress and development, hoping that he can meet him one day.

He urged the president to allow Yemenis who had migrated out of the country, to visit their homes and villages. “At least to give permission to the older generations who were born in Yemen, if not to the new generations of over 70,000 Jews of Yemeni origin living in USA,” he urged.

During his visit Garfi toured Taiz, Ibb, Aden, and his hometown in Sa'ada.

“I found our home and even my grandfather's home still intact. I was very delighted to relive the memories from my childhood,” he commented. When his family migrated they left everything as is and just left. Muslims from the area moved into the houses and lived there for decades since then. When he introduced himself to the locals, he was received warmly with a hint of surprise as over sixty years had passed since he had been there.

He described living in Israel as joyful, particularly as Yemeni Jews never abandon their habits and traditions while living in Israel. They dance, sing and eat all the Yemeni popular foods, such as Saltah, Luhouh and Malouj (Yemeni bread).

He remembers a Yemeni Jew who had been in USA over 80 years of his life and still speaks old classical Hebrew and Arabic with Yemeni dialect. His main dish is Yemeni Saltah and has the Mada'ah (water pipe) and traditional Yemeni books in his house. He used to be nicknamed El-adwar in Yemen by his friends and when he reached American soil he named himself Edward. “You could never guess he had been in USA for 80 years, it's as he had just come from Yemen a few days ago,” said Grafi about his friend.

Yemeni Jews in Israel still chew Qat and grow Qat trees in their house gardens or farms. The Israeli authorities does not ban Qat plantation. Grafi bragged that the most admired Israeli dance is actually Yemeni and is performed while wearing traditional southern Yemeni clothes with distinctive Yemeni work and embroidery. Even the songs sung in Yemeni Jewish communities in Israel still maintain their Yemeni touch in lyrics and tune, although they had been modernized to an extent to suit the times.

“Yemenis preserved the handicrafts and traditional vocations they inherited from their ancestors. Many Yemenis in USA are still working in traditional trades such as goldsmith,” said Grafi.

Yemenis in Israel, according to Grafi have taken up many professions and have integrated with Jews from other origins, just like they have done in USA.

Many Yemeni Jews have become well off businessmen in USA and would like to contribute to the development of Yemen. Grafi believes tourism in Yemen has great potentials and will make Yemen one of the most attractive tourist destinations around the world.

He continued, “I was impressed with glass and marble industries and I urge Yemenis and non-Yemenis regardless of politics and religion, to invest in these sectors, as well as in tourism.”

Grafi thinks that creating a historic museum for old documents and scriptures would be a great idea. He encouraged the state to invest in a heritage house where Yemeni legacy pre and post Islam is documented. He commented that many Muslims in Yemen have inherited old texts that are very valuable and must be collected and preserved in such a museum.

Supporting the community

Morris Harari, is another Yemeni Jew who had migrated from Sana'a in the late fifties. He currently lives in Bir Sebe', south of Israel. However, Harari is a more frequent visitor to Yemen as he visits the country at least four times a year and creates activities in support of the Jewish community in Yemen.

He had been to Yemen recently during the opening of the Jewish school for Sa'ada Jews. Harari provided the students with books, clothes and educational materials. He also provided help to Jews who needed medical or financial assistance.

Harari is married and a father of one daughter. He dedicates his efforts to helping Yemeni Jews especially regarding education. He periodically facilitates the Jewish school in Raidah, North West Sana'a, and contributes some money to pay teachers their salaries.

Harari has kept close ties with his homeland and still remembers the narrow lanes of his neighborhood in Qa'a Al-Yahoud (Jewish Ground), and takes pride for being a Yemeni. “I don't feel like a stranger at all when landing at Sana'a airport or face any kind of discrimination when touring the country,” he said hinting at evidence of numerous Israeli stamps in his passport indicating his frequent travel to Israel.

He too praised President Saleh, thinking of him as the accomplisher of Yemeni unity, and wished for Saleh a long life.