The Jews of Yemen
A startling news item appeared in the press last week to the effect that various Jewish groups in this country and in Europe are trying to "organize a discreet departure from Yemen of some 1,600 to 1,700 Yemenite Jews, the last of an ancient community that once numbered 50,000." It is therefore appropriate to consider the history of this marvelous Jewish community, probably the oldest—with the exception of the Jews on the fabled isle of Djerba off Tunisia-Diaspora community.
Anyone who has been privileged to meet a Yemenite Jew will have been impressed with the refinement, modesty and piety which are the Yemenite hallmarks. The roots of the Jews in Yemen—Teman in Hebrew—start at the dawn of our history. Besides being mentioned in the Tanach (Job's friend Elifaz came from Teman, and many of the Prophets speak of Teman), the Queen of Sheba is said to have heard about King Solomon from Jews in Yemen, located next to the kingdom of Sheba. Even in Islamic tradition it is reported that the contact between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba was established through the Jews in Yemen, and there are reports of Jews in Yemen during Roman times. In the old Jewish cemetery at Beth Shearim there are tombs of Jews whose remains were brought there from Yemen in the 2nd century C.E. Despite their isolation, the Yemenite Jews maintained contact with important Jewish centers, especially with Egypt and Babylonia. Their scholarship was of the highest standard throughout their history. Some important Midrashim, unknown elsewhere, were composed and preserved in Yemen, including the Midrash Hagadol, written in Aden in the 13th century, and Chemdat Ha-Yamim.
The Genizah in Cairo yielded many letters dated from the 11th century onward, exchanged between rabbis in Yemen with the heads of the Jewish community in Cairo. The Rambam, Maimonides, became their teacher "par excellence"—he taught them through special Epistles and sent them copies of his Code at an early date. No holy book, besides the Tanach, was copied so meticulously in Yemen as Rambam's Mishneh Torah. I own several manuscript volumes besides hundreds of fragments of medieval copies of the Rambam penned in Yemen, mostly written on parchment, going back to the 13th century, less than a century after the Rambam's death.
The Yemenite Jews also maintained contact with Jewish scholarship in Europe. The writings of the great rabbis of Germany and France were known to them, and this is how it happened: In one of my Yemenite manuscripts I found a description of how the Yemenite Jews would line up in their harbor whenever a ship arrived bringing Jewish merchants from Germany on their way to India to buy silk. They would ask the merchants for their sacred books, which they then would hand-copy before the ships continued on their way. Through one of those unusual exercises, the Jews in Yemen acquired a copy of Rashi's commentary on the Torah; I recently published a Yemenite copy of Rashi, handwritten many years before the printing press was invented, which contains several important variants from the known, printed text of Rashi. The Yemenites are till this day exceptionally skilled scribes. There never was a Hebrew printing press in Yemen, with the exception of Aden, and all the thousands of holy books used by the Jews there were handwritten.
The Jews in Yemen clearly had very early contact with the Jews in Moorish Spain, the medieval center of Jewish poetry, for they soon adopted the style of the Spanish-Jewish paytanim. This contact led to a flowering of poetic genius which outlived and almost surpassed their Spanish masters. A book containing Yemenite songs and poems is called a diwan. My own collection of such diwans is now being catalogued by a great Yemenite scholar, Professor Yehuda Ratzaby, and contains over 5000 poems, many hitherto unknown.
The Yemenite Jews were barely tolerated, treated as dhimmis (i.e. pariahs) by their Moslem rulers, as is legislated by Islam for all "infidels" under their rule. Their fortune fluctuated throughout the centuries depending on the benevolence or lack of it of the respective rulers. While the Moslems were mostly farmers, the Jews were in charge of crafts on which the Moslems often depended. This meant that even the most hateful Moslem ruler was loath to expel the Jews, unless they could teach their trades to their Moslem neighbors.
An intense longing for the Moshiach and for a return to Eretz Yisrael and to Jerusalem was kept alive throughout the countless centuries of exile in Yemen. With the end of the First World War, a sudden desire for mass emigration to the Holy Land arose. Some Yemenite Jews had already begun to emigrate to the Land from 1882 on, and they had informed their brethren by a steady flow of letters of the situation there. The opening up of the doors to emigration, even in a very limited sense, brought electrifying results in Yemen. I quote from a very moving and historic letter which I own, written by a Yemenite Jew in Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz, 1925, to his relatives back home:
"Oh my beloved relatives, let me tell you about the situation in Eretz Yisrael. The Land is improving and growing from month to month and is becoming doubly beautiful and glorious, much more so than when we came here in 1912. Behold, every year Jews are taking over areas of land, and every area they take over they build up, thank G-d, whether in Judea or in the Galil. And now Jews can even take part in the British Government and can fulfil their every wish. Each year more and more Jews are arriving here from all countries, and soon G-d will grant you, too, the right to come here. This is so, because the Zionist leadership is casting lots, and the lot of the Yemenite Jews has now won. It also happens with the permission of the British Government and with permission of the Jewish ruler, the High Commissioner Herbert Samuel, which is his goyish name, but his Hebrew name is Menachem Ben-Uziel, may his glory be uplifted. And you, my relatives, choose the good that is offered you, and remember, I can only give you hints, but the wise among you will understand what I mean.
"P.S. Please send my regards to Menashe Djabani and tell him on behalf of his brother, Salaam Djabani, that he lives among the Yemenites in Rehovot and has found himself a Yemenite wife from the Shamsaan family."
During this time many Yemenite Jews started to move. They gave up their belongings and moved to Aden, a part of Yemen under British Colonial rule since 1839. There they camped for years-until the fabled "Operation on Wings of Eagles" or "Magic Carpet" fulfilled their dream to come to Eretz Yisrael. The Jews of Aden itself stayed on a little longer. The last ones left in 1967, and so I had the opportunity—perhaps I was one of the last travelers to witness Jewish Yemenite life "intact"—to spend Tisha B'Av in Aden, Southern Yemen, in 1960. Here is the entry from my diary reporting on that memorable visit. As we have just commemorated Tisha B'Av last Sunday, my report is especially timely:
"Aden in Southern Yemen is situated in the southwestern-most corner of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering in Hadramaut—akin to Biblical Chatzar-Mavet. Of course, the heat and the barren landscape of the area are among the most extreme in the world. Aden in itself covers a narrow strip of land, along some of the most rugged and steep mountains I've ever seen. One of the first sights on coming from the airport was a large Jewish cemetery along one of the mountainsides. Row after row of raised stone sarcophagi can be seen, facing north. A narrow gorge has been cut through one of the mountains, making a narrow, zigzagging road leading into neighboring Qrater, the old city. I hired a taxi to take me to the Jewish Quarter. My Arab driver, Ibrahim, said, 'Oh, you want to go to Afd el-Yabud,' saying that this was the Arabic name for the Jewish ghetto. He went on to tell me sadly how that region had been completely inhabited by thousands of Jews until 12 years ago, but since then, most of them had gone to 'Falastin' (Israel). Ibrahim took me to the largest synagogue in Aden, a spaciously built stone structure easily capable of holding hundreds of worshippers. The central section has only a marble tevah in its midst, with no benches or seats around it at all. Two parallel rows of high pillars are on either side of the tevah, and in the eastern and western wings are row upon row of very low wooden benches. In the front of the northern wall a wide aron kodesh houses the Torah scrolls, each encased in round wooden boxes in the Yemenite fashion. As is the custom in Oriental synagogues, scores of elaborate silver lamps, donations of individuals, are suspended from the ceilings, right in front of the Ark. A special room bordering the eastern wing and separated from it by a high iron fence is the room reserved for women. I first met the shamash, an unbelievably thin Yemenite, wearing white clothes and a black skull cap. His black beard and side curls make his white face seem even paler, and his deep-set black eyes even more penetrating. We conversed in Hebrew, the only language spoken by most of the Jews in Aden besides Arabic. Two young boys standing next to him were introduced to me as Shmuel and Hanan, who spoke fair Hebrew. Their younger sister whispered excitedly to them, 'Yehudi?' pointing to me.
"At night, a scene right out of the Arabian Nights meets me in the synagogue for the Tisha B'Av services. The men wear red fezzes, are dressed in white, flowing robes, and are followed by their sons and grandsons. Clusters of these families place themselves comfortably in various spots of the synagogue. The grandfather, patriarchally placed in the middle, sits on a carpet, sometimes barefoot, resting against a high cushion or box; next to him his son, also a little on the heavy side, but without the elder's flowing white beard and side curls. Around the group are children, usually barefoot, of all ages, of whom the youngest will soon fall asleep while the older ones compete with the grownups in chanting the Kinot. With the synagogue built for a community of thousands, only a few hundred are left; the enormous spaciousness of the basilica-type synagogue leaves room for approximately fifty adults and an equal number of children to disappear into their respective corners.
"For the youngsters, it is like Purim or Simchat Torah. Happy groups of boys in holiday dress, barefoot, with Israeli-made skullcaps on their heads, run back and forth. Then a stern looking young man with a red fez and black beard lets his rod out through the air with a whistling sound, but miraculously misses the children each time he charges into the groups. For a while he gets them to congregate at the foot of the Ark and even gets them to chant a few lines, but soon they are dispersed again in mirth, to the charging of the melamed.
"Behind the bars along the east wing, women are following the services in a darkened hall. I noticed that their faces are uncovered, although their heads are covered by kerchiefs. Surrounded by Moslems whose married women are literally mummified from head to toe, it must have required enormous strength of character on the part of the Jews not to force their women into adopting similar garb.
"As the reading of the Lamentations proceeds, I am struck by the peculiar Yemenite pronunciation applied. Each komatz is pronounced as an 'o' and each cholem is pronounced—similar to the Lithuanian manner—as an 'ay.' (A typical Oriental differentiation between the aleph and ayin, between kof and qof, between the 'hard' and 'soft' sounds, is observed. This mixture of Oriental consonants and 'Lithuanian' vowels creates a rather weird-sounding Hebrew.)
"After the services, as a group of worshippers gathers around me for conversation, I query them about this. They reply that their forefathers have lived in Aden for over two thousand years and that they have no other pronunciation. When I asked them why their cemetery as well as their synagogue faces north and not east, they shake their heads in wonderment, since they have never heard of another direction other than north for praying and burying their dead. After all, Aden is practically due south of Israel. I am informed about their institutions, their yeshivot for boys up to the age of fifteen, their shechitah. I meet their rabbi, Rav Zecharyahu, a venerable sage with a long white beard and wise, knowing eyes. I hear complaints about the unhappy lot of the approximately one thousand Jews still living in neighboring Yemen, whose king refuses them the right to emigrate.
"Practically all Jews in Aden are Orthodox and every Jewish shop is closed on Shabbos. The shadow of the tragic events of 1948 still lingers here: Twelve years ago mobs of murderous Arabs swooped down and set fire to Afd el-Yahud while the Colonial British troops looked on idly for a few days. Comparing the Jews I met with the Arabs, whom one can see lounging lazily in the bazaars or working in the harbor, it is obvious that the Jews are cleaner, better educated and better mannered than their Arab neighbors. What untold tension and strife must have charged the two thousand years of history of this proud community.
"A curious experience illustrates the impact of Jewish culture on the Arabs. In the course of my taxi trip, I returned to the car from the synagogue after one of my stops, and found 180 shillings missing from my jacket. Challenged, my Arab driver exclaimed heatedly in English, 'Torah Temimah! Nobody was near the taxi while you were away!' In my surprise over this Hebrew expression I completely forgot my monetary loss. Ibrahim explained to me that this is a common oath used by Arabs, which they had heard from their former Jewish neighbors.
"It was, of course, a rewarding experience to visit the birthplace of so many Aden Jews who are now scattered around the world."
If the present effort to bring out the remaining Jews from Yemen succeeds, a long and glorious chapter in Jewish history will be closed, and a true kibbutz goliyot will have been accomplished. We can all benefit from the rich religious and cultural legacy which the Yemenite Jews have brought to us and which is a true blessing for us all.
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