Israel's History in Pictures: Yemenites, 1882

Pictorial story of the Yemenites in Jerusalem, as seen through the eyes of the American Colony. Part I.

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Lenny Ben-David,

Yemenite Rabbis
Yemenite Rabbis
INN: Harvard Collection

The American Colony photographers dedicated much film to the Yemenite Jews of Jerusalem. The picture at the right, however, is from the Central Zionist Archives, Harvard.

One of the key figures of the American Colony, Bertha Spafford Vester, daughter of the founders of the Colony, Anne and Horatio Spafford, took over the management of the American Colony enterprises after her parents' death.  She described her life in her fascinating book, An American Family in the Holy City, 1881-1949

She provided one chapter to the Colony's special relationship with a group of "Gadites" who arrived in 1882.  It was believed they were descendants of the tribe of Gad.


The Gadites entered our lives a few months after our arrival in Jerusalem, and until [the 1948] civil war divided Jerusalem into Arab and Jewish zones, with no intercourse between except bullets and bombs,  they continued to get help from the American Colony.


Yemenite school at Kfar Hashiloach. Yemenite village
 in Silwan (Central Zionist Archives, Harvard, circa 1910)

One afternoon in May 1882 several of the Group, including my parents, went for a walk, and were attracted by a strange-looking company of people camping in the fields. The weather was hot, and they had made shelters from the sun out of odds and ends of cloth, sacking, and bits of matting. Father made inquiries through the help of an interpreter and found that they were Yemenite Jews recently arrived from Arabia.


View of Kfar Shiloah in Jerusalem, outside of Jerusalem's
Old City. Note the caves, first homes for Gadite newcomers
 (Central Zionist Archives, Harvard, 1898)

They told Father about their immigration from Yemen and their arrival in Palestine. Suddenly, they said, without warning, a spirit seemed to fall on them and they began to speak about returning to the land of Israel. They were so convinced that this was the right and appointed time to return to Palestine that they sold their property and turned other convertible belongings into cash and started for the Promised Land. They said about five hundred had left Yena in Yemen. Most of them were uneducated in any way except the knowledge of their ancient Hebrew writings, and those, very likely, they recited by rote. As appears, they were simple folk, with little knowledge of the ways of the world outside of Yemen, and that is the same as saying "the days of Abraham."

When they landed in Hedida on the coast of the Red Sea, they were cautioned by Jews not to continue their trip to Jerusalem and that if they did so it would be at peril of their lives. Some of the party were discouraged and returned to Yena. Others were misdirected and were taken to India, The rest went to Aden, where they embarked on a steamer for Jaffa, and came to Jerusalem before the Feast of Passover.


"Arab (sic) Jew from Yemen" (circa 1900)

Library of Congress caption: "Photograph shows a
Yemenite Jewish man standing in front of Siloan village.
1901 (Source: L. Ben-David, Israel's History - A Picture
a Day website, Sept. 11, 2011)"

They told about the opposition and unfriendliness they had encountered from the Jerusalem Jews, who, they said, accused them of not being Jews but Arabs. One reason, they said, for their rejection by the Jerusalem Jews was because they feared that these poor immigrants would swell the number of recipients of halukkah, or prayer money.

Early in the seventeenth century, as a result of earthquakes, famine, and persecution, the economic position of the Jews in Palestine became critical, and the Jews of Venice came to their aid. They established a fund "to support the inhabitants of the Holy Land." Later on the Jews of Poland, Bohemia, and Germany offered similar aid. This was the origin of the halukkah.

The money was sent not so much for the purpose of charity as to enable Jewish scholars and students to study and interpret the Scriptures and Jewish holy books and to pray for the Jews in the Diaspora (Dispersion), at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and in other holy cities of Palestine. The halukkah, as one could imagine, was soon abused. It only stopped, however, when World War I began in 1914 and no more money came to Palestine for that purpose.

In 1882, when the Yemenites arrived, those who had benefited from the generosity of others were unwilling to pass it on.