Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Yemenite Village

Previous related post: The Priestly Blessing

The Jews of Yemen, bordering the southern tip of Saudi Arabia, have always been considered the "originals" of the exile.

First dispatched by King Solomon to establish a southern trading outpost for the united Jewish kingdom, the Yemenite Jews arrived even before the building of the first temple in 2928 (832 BCE.) After the collapse of the Jewish monarchy, and continuing over the subsequent 3,000 years or so, they suffered the same persecutions and agonies as other Jews worldwide. However, unlike other Jewish communities which moved from exile to exile, the Yemenites stayed put for the entire period. Consequently, they preserved a great amount of Jewish knowledge lost elsewhere, including the meanings of obscure words and species names in the Tanach, proper Hebrew pronunciation as originally vocalized, and various customs and prayers in the original. Unlike the Ethiopian community across the Arabian Sea, however, they did not lose contact with the rest of world Jewry and were equally involved in the development of Halahcah (Jewish Law) and jurisprudence over the millenia.

A Yemenite Jew in Traditional Dress
Yemenites had a tradition that the exile would end in the year 5641 (1881 AD) based on a Tanachic reference, and so in that year a few faithful families packed their belongings and began the long march north. Eventually reaching Jerusalem, they sent word back that it was safe to move, and before long a stream of Yemenites began returning to the Land of Israel to begin the long process of rebuilding.

But when they reached Jerusalem, the Yemenites found that they were not welcome to stay. To the local Jews, they appeared, based on their language and dress, to be a bunch of confused Arabs who thought they were Jewish. To the Arabs, they were Jews. So they settled outside the city walls on the then-empty hills beneath the temple mount, outside the city walls in the Kidron Valley. At first living in caves, they eeked out an existence until they were finally able to build themselves true homes.

The beginnings of the Yemenite Village

Gradually the tiny group clinging to the hillside sunk deeper roots and prospered. After a few decades, the tiny settlement had grown to a village of over 2,000. The village served largely as an absorption center, receiving the steady stream of Yemenites returning home to the Land of Israel and giving them a place to stay and adjust until they could get settled. At its height, the village had its own makolet (corner market), hospital, schools, and synagogues.

A Yemenite nurse

The village was on friendly terms with the neighboring Arab village for many decades. However, as the political tide of violent anti-Zionism swept through the land, Haj Amin Al Husseini and his minions, including Izz Adin Al Kassam, stirred up riots and bloodshed throughout the land. Hearing the massacres at Hebron and other similarly isolated Jewish communities, everyone knew that it was only a matter of time until violence struck the Yemenite Village. In 1938, the same year as Krystalnacht in Germany, the riots came to Jerusalem. The Yemenite village was evacuated by the British on August 11th, with the promise that the Yemenites would be allowed to return to their homes after the violence subsided. It was another promise that would go unfulfilled.

A Yemenite Family

A street scene from everyday life in the Yemenite Village

After Israel's War of Independence in 1948, the Yemenite Village, along with the entire eastern half of Jerusalem, including the Kotel (the western wall,) was conquered by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and blocked with barbed wire and armed guards.

The Yemenite village was enveloped and devoured by East Jerusalem, and Jewish life therein was reduced to a memory.

Until now...

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