Stefan Kirschner, a resident of New Jersey, has just returned from a trip to Yemen where he met with the few Jews who still remain there. An interview with him upon his return appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Kirschner has written the following article, with accompanying photos, serving as a recorded view of a vanishing portion of Jewish history.I became interested in Yemenite Jewry 10 years ago while living in Israel. There are not many Yemenite Jews in the US so that is where I was exposed to the Yemenite Jewish community for the first time. I soon came to feel that they represent one of the most authentic forms of Judaism today. My interest in the community’s roots grew and after much reading and researching, I decided to visit Yemen before the remnant of Jewry left there emigrated. I managed to arrange to have a Yemenite Jew pick me up at the airport in the Yemenite city of Sana’a and be my driver and translator throughout my visit.
Stefan Kirschner on ancient Yemenite backdrop
It is difficult to be a tourist in Yemen today. To travel outside of Sana’a, one needs a “tasrich” document from the Ministry of Tourism which outlines where and when you will leave for and arrive at each destination. This document is photocopied numerous times and is presented at the many military checkpoints leading in and out of Sana’a. This is due to the fact that there is an ongoing insurrection in the north of the country led by a group called the al-Houthi. The group’s leader has been killed but the insurgency goes on, despite government claims to the contrary. Although hundreds of soldiers and insurgents have been killed, the West barely knows about it due to the media blackout in Yemen.
The entire north, including Sad’a where my mother-in law was born, is off limits, as is the famous old stone bridge of Shihara. Also closed is the northeast, including Marib with its famous stone columns from the ancient Himyar civilization and the entire east including Wadi Hadramout and the former Jewish village of Habban. During my last day in Yemen, I met a Spanish tourist who said she had gone there as part of a convoy. The east is usually off limits due to general lawlessness and threats by tribesmen to kidnap tourists, as well as threats from the local Al-Qaeda group.
Yemenite guide in foreground. Hostile looks from passersby
Yemenite Jews have several features which make them unique. First, there is their pronunciation of Hebrew, thought to be the most authentic since it includes different sounds for each letter (except sin and samech). They differentiate between a dotted and undotted gimmel, dotted and undotted daled and without, and pronounce the vav as wav, and sof or taf as thaf.
The Yemenites are extremely strict in their reading of the Torah in making sure that all the proper vocalizations and intonations are done right. In Yemenite synagogues, when one is called up to the Torah one is expected to read the portion and not just recite a blessing. Every person is expected to know all the readings. In addition, the Yemenites read the Targum (Aramaic translation of the Torah by the convert Onkelos in the Talmudic period) after every sentence. A young boy known as the “metargaman” or translator stands near whoever is reading and chants the Aramaic translation.
The Yemenites have passed down the way to tell which locusts are kosher from generation to generation and they are not bound by the Ashkenazi Jews’ prohibition against polygamy. I could not find any kosher locusts during my visit as they reportedly come in waves and none are preserved. I did, however, come across one man visiting from Israel, who was looking for a third wife.
There are about 35-40 Jewish families remaining in Yemen today. Most of them reside in Raydah, a small town an hour north of Sana’a. The others are internally displaced refugees who were expelled from their homes in the north by the al-Houthi. They were airlifted to Sana’a and now reside in a hotel in the capital. Their homes in the north were subsequently demolished by the al-Houthi. We met them on our first night in Sana’a and they are very depressed.
Kirschner with Jews who were airlifted to Sana'a for their safety
Traveling around the country with my skull capped, bearded guide who sported long sidelocks and an Arab jalabiya (or in Yemenite-gamis) and gauging the reactions from the Arabs was interesting. We were never left alone and always attracted attention ranging from interest to antagonism. Although we were never physically assaulted, my guide was the victim of an attempt to spit at him.
The numerous photos of Saddam Hussein, Ahmed Yassin, and Hassan Nasrallah on display everywhere are unnerving. Oddly, pictures of Saddam Hussein nearly outnumber pictures of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. My guide translated some choice epithets for me. One man, a police officer no less, told my guide to cut off his sidelocks and become a Muslim.
Daggers are sold openly in the souk
Another old man asked my guide to provide him with a Jewish woman to marry. Once a carful of Arabs drove by and shouted “Yemach Shemo” (a curse) at us in Hebrew, which I found bewildering until my guide told me that he knows them and they are his neighbors. All I understood were the shouts of “Yahoodi, Yahoodi” (Jew, Jew) whenever we entered an area.
Jewish school kid who attends traditional religious school
A combination of traditional Islamic anti-Semitism, anti Zionism, and the paternalistic attitude that Moslems have for “djhimmis” are rampant in Yemen. Sometimes these attitudes overlap and it is difficult to tell which one is being encountered. Suffice it to say that it is not easy being a non-Muslim in Yemen.
Just weeks after my visit, one of my hosts, Moshe Nahari, whose picture accompanies this article, was murdered in the souk in Raydah by an Arab terrorist.
Jewish cemetery in Yemen filled with smashed headstones