In September Seth Kaplan spent a week in Yemen, and Shabbat with the Jewish community. 'Point of no Return' thanks him for taking the trouble to reply to the following questions:
Where did you go? How long for?
Seth: I was on my way to Somaliland, the secessionist northeast part of Somalia for some research and flew Yemenia arilines. It offered me a free stopover and since I am curious about Yemen and its people, I stayed there for a week in early September.
Who did you stay with?
I stayed mainly in cheap hotels in Sana'a and elsewhere, but also spent Shabbas with the Jewish community -- or what is left from a far larger community -- in a relatively small town about 90 minutes north of Sana'a.
What was it like? How different from the usual?
It was a great experience. Yemen people are very hospitable and the country has some fascinating sights. I also had one of the better Shabbatot I have had because of how interesting and different it was. Conditions were pretty primitive compared to more advanced countries. Electricity would go out every day or so. Homes were very simple, bare of many of the electronic items we are so familiar with (though they did have refrigerators and TVs of course). People were poor by our standards and had trouble finding good paying work. Education levels were low (though Yemenite Jews knew the Torah by heart, it seemed). Everyone chewed khat
(a leafy plant with narcotic properties -ed).
How many Jews still in Yemen?
They say about 500, all in this one town.
Why were they still there?
They generally like Yemen, preferred it to other countries, and if it wasn't for financial difficulties would never contemplate leaving. Many children attended Satmar schools in Brooklyn, New York.
How do they live? What do they eat? How do they dress?
The women dress like most women in Yemen and cover themselves completely in a chador. The men earn money from simple jobs: repairing and selling second hand shoes; producing and selling milk and milk products from their own cows; running small retail shops; teaching in yeshiva.
Did they want to leave?
No. They only worried about the money. They dressed very religiously but faced no discrimination. As in most Moslem countries, the average person has nothing against Jews.
What were the conditions they lived in like?
Very simple. The homes were not large. Some people had cars and cell phones but nothing fancy. People were very close to each other and spent a lot of timing visiting community members and working together. On Shabbas, we visited six or seven homes, walking for over 30 minutes to reach some of them. Then we would talk and drink sweet Arab tea and partake in some fruit and cakes. As there is almost no furniture in Yemenite homes, we always sat on the floor, on carpets with a pillow as armrest.
How did your hosts receive you? What relations do the Jews have with the outside world?
They visit Israel and the Satmar in Brooklyn and they were very hospitable to me. I slept in someone's home and joined them for all Shabbas activities.
What were relations between the Jews and their Muslim neighbours like?
Generally, pretty friendly. After all, these 500 people lived in a town with many thousands of Moslems and they all stood out because of their dress and no one bothered them. My hosts often greeted Moslem neighbors as we walked down the street. Yemen has a secular government but is very socially conservative and therefore everyone is very religious and the women dress very conservatively. But this does not mean they have anything but good relations with Jews who have lived in their midst for millennia.