Thursday, January 07, 2010

'As Jews we felt like criminals in Yemen' - students

Josh Berer and Rachael Strecher built this gingerbread house to remind them of the architecture of Sana'a

The Forward has the back-story on Rachael Strecher and Josh Berer, two college graduates obsessed with Yemen's Jews, and whose blog has featured on Point of No Return. At first determined to pose as Christians during their stint in Yemen, rampant antisemitism forced them to embrace their Jewish identities as never before :

"The couple spent two-and-a-half months this past fall living in Sana’a, the capital, and most of their time was devoted to getting to know the 67 Jews who were evacuated there by the government in January 2007, when the civil war raging in the south of the country reached their village. These last remnants, part of only 250 Jews left in the entire country, live in a compound called Tourist City, in a state of limbo, unable to have a normal existence.

"Berer collected folklore. Strecher shot photos. And the community, wary of them at first, eventually took them in, treating them warmly.

“They would tell us that anything we ever needed, they wanted to help us,” Strecher said. “They would get very offended if we left them for a few days. At the end of our stay, I got sick, so we had to leave more suddenly than expected. I was shocked when they insisted on driving us to the airport — 12 of them in the car with us. We were very close.”

"They also encountered the strange paradox of living in a place where, they found, the Yemenis as individuals were utterly hospitable and open — even “goofy,” Strecher said — but where antisemitism was rife; where Berer said he often felt “like a criminal, like a fugitive”; where they had to hide the fact that they were Jews.

"The experience was not dissimilar from how the Yemeni Jews themselves interacted with their society.

“People who knew them thought of them as the ‘good Jews’,” Strecher said. “But the idea of Jews was repulsive to the general public. I’m not exaggerating. Every week, you heard on the loudspeakers about how the Jews were the cause of all evil, the root of everybody’s problem.”

"Partly as a reaction — as a form of “defiance,” as they put it — the two found themselves embracing their Jewish identities as they never had before.

They also learned to embrace the ambiguity of the situation.

“This is something my dad could never do,” Berer said. “If he knew someone was an antisemite, that’s it, [that person] would be dead to him. But you have to interact with people, and you have to have friends. And you can’t just walk around all day feeling victimized and that everyone is your enemy. Even though if they knew we were Jews, they would make problems for us.”

Berer and Strecher even came to understand the hatred swirling around them as a matter of brainwashing, the result of a government looking to distract its citizens.

“Yes, they all in principle hate Jews,” Berer said. “They were brought up that way. But you can’t really blame them at this point, because they are just so indoctrinated on every side. They never had a choice in the matter.”

Read article in full

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