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Yemenite Jewry: A Journey Into Time by Andrew Krakauer
Yemenite Jewry: A Journey Into Time by Andrew Krakauer

Volume 2 , Issue 1

The beautiful sound of prayer, chanted in unison and Middle-Eastern in flavor, meandered through the open air of the lowest point on earth, and woke me with a kiss. It was sunrise at Ein Gedi by the Dead Sea. I rolled on my bedding on the sand to see the Yemenite men begin their morning minyan. Their faces were both intent and happy.

With amazement and some envy. I noticed that many of these men were the same people who were up all night playing traditional music, singing, and dancing. Some had invited me into their tents, and I watched as they smoked the bark of some kind of tree in their giant hooka pipes. Now it was dawn, and these same men were reciting shacharit with a fresh look. Previous to this, my first trip to Israel, I had read a small amount about Yemenite Jewry, heard people talk about them in positive and sometimes fascinated tones, and even had the opportunity to meet a few. A young woman, appropriately named Yemini, attended a psychology workshop I led. During our discussions, she introduced me to basic concepts about their culture. I learned of their renown in both Yemen and Israel as artisans, especially as gold and silversmiths. I also learned about their history, minhagim (religious customs), and the many ways that they contributed to the development of Israeli culture and art.

It was, however, when I first heard, the Yemenite version of the religious song ?Dror Yikra?, that I began to be entranced, and a real subliminal understanding of this culture awoke in me. The sinuous rhythms, suggestive of serpentine body movement, coupled with harmonic scales and a high-pitched Oriental vibrato, had at once a timeless and hypnotic affect on me.

Once in Israel, unable at first to speak very much Hebrew, I viewed the Yemenites from a distance. Invited into their tents at Ein Gedi, I drew somewhat closer. It became obvious to me that the older people, the ones born in Yemen and not in Israel, were not only more religious than the younger generation, but also acted in a more refined manner. Considered ?primitive? (although somehow precious and special) by many, including in frequent cases their own children, they have been described by writers as having walked straight out of the Bible. Their everyday language is not only Torah-based, but the manner in which they impart blessings and salutations is often full-hearted and emotional, expressed with active hand and body motion and a clear, kindly look in the eyes. Having experienced so many religious people with a dour disposition and a fossilized spirit, I was inspired by the Yemenites in the spirit of Torah as ?living waters?.

One month later, in Jerusalem at Tisha B'Av, I again drew close. This, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, draws the most interesting multitude of people to the Western Wall. Many of the older people are dressed in their traditional Sephardic clothing. In this fascinating stew of Jews, Yemenites were sitting together on large rugs on the stone ground by the Wall chanting Lamentations. I was beckoned to come closer. To my great joy, I found it easy to pray with them. The intonation was rhythmic and determined, but each word was pronounced slowly and carefully, allowing me to participate both verbally and spiritually. A few weeks after Tisha B'Av, I met my future Yemenite wife on Mount Zion. Unable to converse except for my rudimentary Hebrew, Israela and I communicated by sign language, facial gestures, and ?vibes.?

I spent two Sabbaths with her family. In one respect, it is a typical Sephardic-Israeli family, with religious parents and ?enlightened? children, too Westernized and scientific to believe in the faith of their forefathers and mothers. Only Israela and her older sister were at all observant. The sons ranged from apathetic to hostile towards Torah. However, much to their credit, they accorded their parents respect, and did not desecrate the Sabbath inside the home. In fact, when neighborhood men visited Israela's house Friday night to read the weekly Bible portion, her brothers would participate.

Israela's father and I developed a close relationship from the first. He is soft and innocent like a child and prone to tears. Once, he walked the entire way home from Jerusalem to his city of Ramie because he had emptied the entire contents of his day's business profits into the hands of a distressed woman in the streets.

Once back in New York, I started to do some research. The home of the Queen of Sheba, the place of origin of tall buildings ;lid trigonometry, Yemen in Biblical times was a center of civilization.

Many historians date the Yemenite Jewish community's origins to the time of the First Temple, when Solomon reigned. The Queen of Sheba returned to Yemen from Israel accompanied by Jews. Their numbers were increased by subsequent commercial ties. The Yemenites themselves have a tradition that when the prophet Jeremiah foretold the destruction of the first Temple and Jerusalem, 75,000 Jews retraced the steps of Moses into the desert. When they reached Edom, they headed south and settled in Yemen. Included among them were 25 of the noblest families in Jerusalem whose names are still remembered. Until the last century or two, there were two families in the capital city of Sans who claimed they knew which of the 24 Temple guards they were descended from. The Jews jealously guarded their religion and language. (Modern scholars concur that Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew is closest to the ancient source.) They became the dominant force in Yemenite society, and lived for many generations as independent tribes, equal to their Arab neighbors.

When Ezra rebuilt the Temple and called upon all the people to return, the Jews of Yemen refused to go. They were comfortable in their exile, and claimed that as a reward for heeding Jeremiah's advice, a strip of the Holy Land was transferred to Sans. They also foresaw that the Second Temple, too, would be destroyed. Ezra, however, was not appeased, and according to tradition cursed the Yemenites to a life of suffering. In the early sixth century A.D., the King of Yemen himself became a true convert to Judaism. Because of his military actions on behalf of Jews threatened by Christians, he brought down the wrath of the Byzantine Roman Empire upon himself. Yemen lost its independence and wealth, a condition that was to last throughout history. In 628 A.D., Yemen came under the power of the caliph Ali, son-in-law of Mohammed.

News of developments in Jewish religious and communal life came to Yemen through visitors. They learned of Chanukah and Purim, the Mishnah and the Gemorrah, the Kabhalah. As Yemen became more isolated and backward, centuries passed without word penetrating into the interior mountains. The Yemenites developed a tradition which became increasingly unique. However, humble by nature and forever thirsty for learning, they excitedly welcomed whatever little new sand books reached them from Egypt, Morocco, Baghdad or Eretz Israel.

The twentieth century caught Yemen asleep. My father-in-law first saw a plane in the sky in 1947. The people ran for cover. One year later he was on a plane flying him ?home? to the land of Israel. Clearly the Messiah was coming. and they were flying in the sky, as Isaiah had predicted, on ?wings of eagles.?

They had heard of a new King David in Jerusalem. But, instead of Dovid Ben Yishei, the Messiah, they found Dovid Ben Gurion, the atheist. As they embarked off the plane to kiss the ground, they were shocked to see men without head covering. Certainly they could not be Jews! Perhaps this was not really Israel!

When my in-laws arrived at the airport, the government presented for their pleasure a dance troupe from a Kibbutz. Men and women danced together, and all were scantily dressed. My parents-in-law sat with their eyes downcast. The process of denuding an ancient, faithful people had begun.

What 2,800 years of exile could not do, less than one generation of anti-religious Zionists could. The Yemenites, the most innocent and naive of peoples, had no chance to preserve their traditions in the face of a modern society intent on changing them.

?In shock until this day?, as my wife's uncle, a Rabbi, told me, the Yemenites primarily chose to live together. As a result, some of the culture has been preserved in Israel. However, it cannot last without the religious allegiance of the youth.

Israela and I married in 1986. We had a traditional Yemenite wedding. It was obvious to me that the customs are accorded a passing respect by the new generation, as if it is nice to remember your ?roots.? As quickly as possible, it is then necessary to return to the pursuit of ?fun?.

Enough remains, though, to spark the soul. The Sabbath after we married, the entire synagogue escorted us home through the streets of the city, singing to us from the poems of Shalom Shabbazi, the renowned Yemenite mystic. The ?fun? pursued by the younger generation could never approach on any scale the spiritual pleasure this dignified custom afforded us.

Over the years, I have come to see that there are segments of my own Ashkenazi (European) background that are important to me. To grow as a person, there is much to be learned from all cultures and approaches to Orthodox Judaism. I have also come to realize that Yemen was, after all, an exile for its Jews, and life was in many ways harsh. Nonetheless, I mourn the eclipse of a society so attractive to me, which was so radically and carelessly mistreated and altered by its own co-religionists.

There was no holocaust in Yemen. The Jews left because they dreamed of Jerusalem and redemption. They voluntarily left the primitive mountains to fly in the big iron birds in order to join their brothers and sisters in an uplifted world.

I gaze at my photographs of Yemenite mountain villages in the sky, above the clouds, and I dream. All of life is Torah. There is no separation, nor doubt. Living outside all day in the mountain air, work is Torah, and Torah is work. As in the days of the Talmud, even scholars are workers.

I can envision it clearly. As the blacksmith raises his hammer, the men chant a verse from Kabbalah. Striking its target, the hammer is lifted again. Words of wisdom are uttered in rhythm.

Andrew Krakauer, Ph.D. lives in Brooklyn.



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