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Jews of Yemen

Jews of Yemen

ETHNONYMS: Teymanim, Yehudei Teyman


Orientation

Identification and Location. Jews have lived in Yemen, a large and rugged country in the southwest part of the Arabian Peninsula, for at least 1,500 years. They identify themselves and are identified by others, as part of the widespread Jewish people. They maintained their specifically Jewish culture, based on the books, practices, beliefs, worship, and lore of Judaism. This is what distinguished them as a separate people from their Muslim Arab neighbors for so many centuries.

Demography. At the end of the nineteenth century, there may have been 60,000 Jews living in Yemen, but as of 1881 a movement began among them to emigrate to Palestine (which they called the "Holy Land" and the "Land of Israel" or the "Land of Zion"). In 1949-1950 almost all the remaining Jews of Yemen, about 49,000, left Yemen for Israel, leaving only a few hundred. Today there may be more than 2,000 Jews in Yemen, but over 165,000 in Israel trace their roots to Yemen.

Linguistic Affiliation. In Yemen, Jews spoke Arabic, but Jewish men knew how to read and write Hebrew and used it primarily as a language for religious worship and study. Today, in Israel, they speak only Hebrew. (Both Arabic and Hebrew belong to the Semitic Group of languages, of the larger Afro-Asian Language Family.)


History and Cultural Relations

It is not clear when the Jews first settled in southwestern Arabia, but they were certainly there by the sixth century of the Christian era. They comprise part of the Jewish dispersion (diaspora) from ancient Palestine (the Land of Israel) after the Roman conquest and may have been settlers derived directly from there or more indirectly from Babylonia (Iraq) and Egypt. Local converts may have augmented their numbers. Although geographically and socially remote from most of the rest of the Jewish world, they managed to maintain some links, through letters and occasional travelers, with other Jewish communities, especially those of North Africa and the Middle East. Their religious life remained virtually identical, in its major elements, to that of Jews in the rest of the world. On the other hand, although they lived in close proximity to their Muslim Arab neighbors and shared many aspects of daily life, economy, and material culture with them, they remained quite distinct from them. This was particularly the case with their religious beliefs, practices, and organization, as well as their arts and expressive culture. The Jews were categorized under Muslim law as dhimmi, a group tolerated and permitted to practice its own religion, but liable to special taxes, without political or legal rights, under the control of Muslim "patrons," and subject to special laws keeping them in a clearly inferior position to Muslims. Their history within Yemen is largely the story of better or worse times, depending upon their treatment by various indigenous Shiite Muslim rulers or the Ottoman Turkish powers that fought with the former for control. In their great exodus of 1949-1950, Jews virtually disappeared from Yemen.

Settlements and Economy

The Jews of Yemen are said to have lived in about a thousand different localities, some in cities such as Sanʿa (the capital), Dhamar, and Amran, but mostly in small villages throughout the land. Whether in small rural settlements or the cities, most Yemenite Jews were artisans, producing the goods needed by the Arab farmers and nobles. They engaged in a wide range of manual trades, including blacksmithing, silver-smithing, tailoring, pottery, charcoal making, soap making, masonry, stonecutting, carpentry, building, milling, baking, and candy making. Certain skilled men acted as scribes, producing the scrolls containing the Five Books of Moses (Torah), as well as other religious works and amulets. Some Jews worked as porters, donkey drivers, peddlers, shopkeepers, and traders. Although Yemen was an agrarian society, few Jews actually farmed. Some did own land, which they leased to Arab farmers, and some owned livestock in partnership with their Muslim neighbors. The Jews might be treated as a pariah group and were sometimes forced to do work considered degrading to Muslims, such as cleaning latrines and sewers, removing carrion and manure from the streets, or burying non-Muslim travelers who died in Yemen.


Community Organization and Religious Life

Although the Jews had no political or legal rights and were under the protection and control of local notables as well as the ruling imam, they had a degree of autonomy in their own community. Aside from local "headmen," who represented their communities before the authorities, most leadership came from religious leaders. In Sanʿa, the largest population and political center, there were some learned rabbis and wealthy men with political influence, but everywhere there were men with Jewish learning and the ability to teach, organize Jewish community life, build synagogues, and lead congregations. Above all, the life of the Jews centered around their religiously mandated practices (mitsvot, in Hebrew), which included religious instruction for boys; public worship daily, on the Sabbath, and on holy days; the maintenance of a ritual bath; provision of properly slaughtered and butchered kosher meat; and arrangements for properly administered life-cycle rites (ritual circumcision, marriage, funerals, and mourning). Most leaders and teachers were volunteers, devoting their time, learning, and expertise to these purposesusually without payas their religious duty, and for the esteem and honor that fulfilling these needs brought. Conflicts within the Jewish community usually arose from disagreement about practices or from rivalry among aspiring leaders.


Women

Whereas men were expected to read and write Hebrew, participate in public worship, and be very knowledgeable about the Torah, women were not. According to Jewish law, they could not participate in synagogues; therefore most were not taught. They were, however, expected to know Jewish law relating to what was considered their own realm: personal purity, the dietary laws, and maintaining the proper conditions for celebrating the Sabbath and festivals at home. From all accounts, the women were fully supportive of these arrangements and of their own role in the Jewish community.


Exodus and Emigration to Israel

The Jews of Yemen always maintained the idea that they were living in exile (galut ) from their true home, the Land of Israel (or Zion). When the new Jewish state of Israel was established in 1948, it became possible for them to put their ideology into practice. Almost all the Jews of southern Arabia left for Israel, walking or riding to a point near Aden, where they met Israelis who arranged to transport them to the Holy Land in airplanes. (The airlift was called "On Wings of Eagles," after prophecies in the Bible.)


The Yemenite Jews in Israel

Identification. Today the Yemenite Jews in Israel have three basic identities: as Jews, as Israelis, and as Jews from Yemen. Any one of the three may take precedence in a given situation, but all are important to them.

Settlements and Economy. The Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel with little preparation for life in an industrial state. None had a modern education or technical training. They had a very strong work ethic, however, and willingness to take on jobs others might consider demeaning. About 28 percent went to settle in more than fifty newly created cooperative villages (moshavim ) and learned to become farmers. (Most of these families still have homes and farms in the villages, although many of their children have been well educated and have moved to urban occupations.) The other immigrants went to live in towns and cities. Many men went to work in the building trades or in industry, often learning skilled trades within a few years. Some worked in sanitation. Women, who had not usually worked outside of their homes in Yemen, were often employed as housekeepers in private homes, offices, and institutions. The younger the immigrants were when they arrived, the more likely they were to get some schooling, perhaps enough to become teachers or clerks. Today Yemenite Jews in Israel can be found in many occupations, especially as teachers, bureaucrats and organizers, skilled workers in industry, engineers and technologists, artists and musicians, and members of the military forces. There are growing numbers of professionals among them.

Sociopolitical Life. Yemenite Jews are integrated into Israeli society and participate in all the institutions of the state. Although there have been Yemenite political parties contesting national elections, these have usually not fared very well. Nevertheless, Yemenites are increasingly gaining political office, especially on municipal and regional councils and workers' councils, not on the basis of ethnic appeals but as members of the established parties. They tend to split their loyalties between the Labor party, the Likud, and the National Religious party.

Community Life. An outstanding aspect of Yemenite life in Israel is their tendency to form their own neighborhoods. This is particularly important because they generally remain devoted to the practice of the Jewish religion, in the form that they knew it in Yemen. They maintain their own synagogues, employing their distinctive melodies and pronunciation of liturgical Hebrew, which they prize. Because an observant Jew is strictly forbidden to ride on the Sabbath and most holy days, a religious Yemenite family must be within walking distance of a Yemenite synagogue. Because there must be a congregation to support such a synagogue, there must be a sufficiently large population in the area. The Sabbath and other holy days are spent visiting family and friends, often participating in distinctive Yemenite social and ritual gatherings to eat and drink. They continue to celebrate the life-cycle rituals very much as they did in Yemen, and this, too, requires a group of like-minded neighbors. In Israel as in Yemen, community life centers on the family, the synagogue, and the observance of the cycles of religiously mandated activities.


Religion and Expressive Culture. The importance of Judaism for most Yemenites can not be overstressed. Their distinctive expressive culture is based largely on their Judaism. Yemenite men tend to be extremely knowledgeable about religious practice, and most can direct synagogue services themselves. Their synagogues do not depend on the services of rabbis; members of the congregation take turns leading public worship. As in Yemen, this often results in rivalries and conflict. Yemenite communities usually contain a number of small synagogues competing for worshipers and honors. Religion is taken very seriously, the synagogue being the locus of much of the social life of the men. In addition to weekly and annual occasions for worship and celebration, men and women are frequently called upon to participate in birth, marriage, and death rituals. These are celebrated with the participation of kin, friends, neighbors, and more distant fellow Yemenites. Food, ritual, poetry, music, and sometimes dance and costuming, may be accompaniments to these rituals. They pride themselves upon their abilities and their loyalty to these traditions. Marriages, in particular, are celebrated with a number of events, often lasting over several weeks. The h'inna celebration preceding marriage is basically a women's party, during which the bride-to-be is dressed in extraordinary costumes and jewelry, and women drum and sing special songs and dance. (These days men usually join in as well.) From Yemen they brought a corpus of poetry (based on religious themes), musical style and melodies, and distinctive dance traditions and costumes. All of these are maintained in Israel today. While almost anyone may dance or sing, there are organized amateur dance groups and many professional performers and composers. New works are always being created on the base of the old forms. Professional musicians often achieve considerable prominence for their Yemenite works, as well as for their performance of other genres. Even before Israel became a state, in the 1920s and 1930s, Yemenite traditions and performers contributed much to the development of Jewish music, dance, and decorative arts.

Bibliography

Ahroni, Reuben (1986). Yemenite Jewry: Origins, Culture, and Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lewis, Herbert S. (1989). After the Eagles Landed: The Yemenites of Israel. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.


"Yemen." (1972). In Encyclopaedia Judaica. Jerusalem: Keter.


HERBERT S. LEWIS

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