Sunday, December 13, 2009

Precious record of Yemen Jews' vanishing lifestyle

Back in the US from two and a half months with the Jews of Yemen, Josh Berer is now free to post stories he was not free to publish while he was there. With pictures by Rachael Strecher, Josh has now compiled this fascinating blog. The 70-odd Jews of Sana'a he befriended are themselves refugees from persecution in Raida, in the north. As the remainder of the Jews flee for the US and Israel, those in Sana'a, sustained by government handouts, are likely to be the last Jews to remain in the country. (With thanks: Megan)

We arrived in Yemen the day before Eid al-Fitr, and left the day after Eid al-Adha. Our time there was bound on each side by the two most important holidays of the Islamic calendar.

In Yemen we spent the vast majority of our time with the last community of Yemenite Jews. I was working on a project of recording folklore, the stories of the last Jews of the oldest diaspora in the world. Over the coming months I will be translating those stories and slowly putting them online. However, I could not post anything on this blog about our experiences and the friendships we made, because the government keeps a very close watch on those who have contacts with the Jews, and we promised and swore that we were not journalists. Things could have been bad had I posted pictures and stories before we had actually left the country.

All photographs by Rachael Strecher

I would like, therefore, to publish the stories I would have published in Yemen, but could not. The following posts are all back-dated.

I would like to thank Mori Yahya Yusuf Marhabi, rabbi of the Sana’a community, who helped us countless times, and whose friendship I will not forget. Saying goodbye to him and his family was among the most emotionally difficult things I have done in recent memory.

These posts reflect not only my first experience doing fieldwork in folklore and linguistics, but also months spent in a community of people who became our close friends. Yemenite Jewry is a unique and ancient minority, and its survival in a war-torn and poverty-stricken corner of the map is of great importance to me. I feel that a piece of Jewish life dies whenever a community such as this is destroyed by emigration, and therefore the preservation of life there is crucial for the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Jewish people.

In January of 2007, war between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels reached the Jewish community of al-Salem, in the province of Saadah. The rebels, who adhere to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam, posted notices on the Jews homes threatening them with death if they did not leave the country, or convert to Islam. The government stepped in, and relocated the entire community, now numbering 67 individuals, to Sana’a. They were given homes in a protected compound across from the American embassy, known as Tourist City. The government provides them with monthly stipends and food supplies. Those stipends are designed to provide them with just enough to survive, but not enough to save anything, which could allow them to leave. Their situation is one of stagnation.

The leader and rabbi of the community is Yahya bin Yusuf Marhabi, and he was our first main contact, and became our close friend over the three months we spent in the community. He is the lynchpin of Jewish life here: he is the only one who knows the halacha of Kosher slaughter, circumcision, and many other basic services needed for a Jewish community to survive.

The majority of the community is from the Marhabi clan, but there are families from the Zindani and Habib clans as well. All have family in Israel, many have family in New York. I have a family tree, drawn for me by the rabbi’s brother Dawud, but I’m not posting it online, as it could be used for the wrong purposes. For those curious about the genealogy of the community, contact me and we can discuss it.

Despite being provided homes and food, the Jews here don’t work, as they cannot afford start up costs for the trades they know. Many of them are silversmiths, some are carpenters and mechanics. All of those trades require workshops and expensive equipment. This lack of employment breeds boredom, and thus contemplation of better options in Israel or America. They do very little day to day, except chew qat*.

Read posts in full

*plant chewed for its narcotic properties

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