The Yemenite Jewish community has a unique history that distinguish them from Jews of other Arab world countries. The way they migrated to the country is different, the relationship they had to the Arab rulers and the Arab populous was different, and the Jewish culture and traditions that developed in Yemen are uniquely distinct. Today, the Jewish community of Yemen is teetering on the brink of extinction as most Yemenite Jews have left the country or been airlifted to Israel since the creation of the State.
We do not know exactly how Jews came to settle in Yemen. According to Yemenite tradition, a group of well-off Jews left Jerusalem after they heard Jeremiah predict the destruction of the Temple in 629 BCE, 42 years before the destruction of the city. Historians believe that King Solomon's trading and naval networks brought Jews to Yemen from Judea around 900 BCE. The first evidence of Jewish presence in Yemen can be traced to the third century CE.
In the early part of Jewish settlement in Yemen, the Jewish presence in the country was very strong. Many Himyaties, who ruled at the time, converted to Judaism. Sometime after the third century CE, the Himyarite ruling family converted to Judaism, making Judaism the ruling religion. Jewish rule lasted until 525 CE, when the Christians from Ethiopia took over.
Ethiopian rule ended in the 7th century with the Muslim conquest, which changed Jewry in this area forever. Jews went from being equal to dhimmis (second-class citizens). They were required to pay a poll tax, a standard tax for Jews, Christians and other protected peoples in the Muslim world. They did not have much contact with other Jewish communities. Over the years, they absorbed elements of Yemeni Arab culture. Little is known about this early part of Arab rule in Yemen, but we know from letters in the Cairo Genizah that the Yemeni Jewish community was in distress.
From the 1200s to the 1600s, the hardship of Yemenite Muslim rule was brought to a temporary halt by the Rasulides, a tribe from Africa. In 1547, the Turks took over the region from the Rasulides. This allowed the Jews a chance to have contact with the Kabbalists in Safed, which was a major Jewish center at that time. The Yemenite Jews were also able to connect with other Jewish communities under Ottoman rule.
In 1630, the Zaydis took over Yemen from the Turks. This brought about a dark period in Jewish history, when, in 1679, part of the Jewish community of central Yemen was expelled to Mawza, a city on the southern shore of the Red Sea. Many of the exiles died there from disease and starvation. About a year later, the surviving Jews were taken back to central Yemen, for economic reasons. The Jews were a vital asset the economy in Yemen because they made up a majority of the craftsmen and artisans. The exiles came back to a different country then the one they left. Most of their houses and religious articles had been destroyed They were forced to live in quarters outside cities and they were told that they could not build their houses higher than the Muslims houses in the area.
The 18th century brought about a brief resurgence of Jewish life in Yemen with the rule of the Imamics. Synagogues were rebuilt and some Jews achieved important positions. For example, Rabbi Shalom ben Aharon became responsible for minting and for the royal coffers. In the 19th century the Imamics lost power and the Jews were once again subject to harsh rule. They were humiliated by being forced to give up Jewish customs and by having Jewish orphans taken away from them and converted to Islam.
In 1872, the Turks took over Yemen again and the Jewish condition improved. Just like with the first Ottoman rule, Jews were allowed more contact with other Jewish comminutes. They were also allowed to practice their religion more freely.
In 1882, Jewish immigration to Palestine from Yemen began. In 1883, Jews were barred from leaving Yemen for this purpose, but they continued to emigrate anyway. Many left following attacks on Jews, as in 1912 and 1914.
In 1914, the Alliance Israelite Universelle was permitted to establish a school in Sanaa in which Arabic, Hebrew, and a foreign language could be taught.The number of Jews leaving the country had spikes in 1908, 1911, 1929 and 1943. The number peaked in 1948 when Israel was declared a state. By 1950, almost all Yemenite Jews had relocated to Israel.
The Yemenite Jews are sometimes classified as Sephardi Jews, Jews who lived under Muslim rule. It would be more accurate, however, to refer to Yemenite Jews as Mizrachi - Jews from the East. However, Yemen was different culturally from the rest of the Muslim world, as was the Jewish community. The rulers in Yemen tried to isolate their country from the rest of the world. This also isolated the Jews from other Jewish communities. Therefore, their culture went in a different direction from the rest of Sephardi Jewry. Their culture slowly came to be parallel to their Sunni Muslim rulers. Jewish Yemenite clothing and dwellings developed to be plainer versions of what their Muslim neighbors had.
In Yemen, Jews dominated the professional fields of arts and crafts. Some Yemenites believed that jewelry made by Jews had healing powers or other magical powers. In 1679, the Jews were expelled from Yemen and let back in a year later because of the horrible effect on the economy without this professional field. Since the mass aliya in the mid-20th century of Yemenite Jewry, Yemen has not had the same quality of craftsmanship.
Several objects that were common in Yemenite culture, both for Jews and non-Jews, were made by Jewish craftsmen and artisans. Every house had rose water flacks that were used to store perfume. These were made with beautiful colors and have very modern looking designs. They had these in all Oriental countries. Almost all jewelry was made by Jews. Most jewelry was silver but there was also lots of gold available. Both Muslim and Jewish women wore a lot of jewelry. They would wear necklaces with several rows made with silver and beads. These were often part of a women’s dowry that a woman would take with her if a marriage ended. They wore earrings and bracelets that had very ornate designs. Just like with clothing, there were certain things Muslim women could wear that were not allowed for Jewish women. One example of this is amber. However, since Jews made the jewelry, the jewelry worn by Jewish women was more elaborate, especially jewelry worn by brides.
There were also crafts made by Jewish craftsmen that Jews could not have for themselves. In Yemen, Muslim men wore daggers with decorated handles, often made of silver. These daggers were a sign of prestige and the design of the dagger represented the man’s status in society. Jews also made seal rings for the Muslims. These rings were used instead of a signature. If a Jew was caught in possession either of these objects they could be put to death.
What is remarkable about the Yemenite Jewish community is that they made their own ritual objects. In most other Jewish communities, the raw materials were usually supplied by others and often other people made objects. In Yemen, the Jews did everything from mining materials to carving the finished product.
Like Yemenite Jewish homes, the synagogues in Yemen had to be lower in height then the lowest mosque in the area. The Jews took an extra precaution not to make their synagogues fancy to avoid jealously among the Muslims. To accommodate this, synagogues were built into the ground to give them more space without looking large from the outside. People also sat on the floor instead of chairs. They did this so that they could maximize the small space and because Muslims pray on the floor. Often, minyanim would just meet in homes of Jews instead of the community having a separate building for a synagogue. Beauty and artwork were saved for the ritual objects in the synagogue and in the home.
There are two main trends in Jewish artwork in Yemen. One type of art is painting, the other is carved stone. There is also some ritual work that involved cloth and silver. Most of these have been lost.
Painting was used to decorate ritual objects that were not made from stone. The most common examples are Torah scrolls and Ketubot (Jewish wedding contracts). The painting on both were done in designs that were geometric and symmetrical. They also used only primary colors, common to all Yemenite art. Flowers and animals were common designs, but it was rare to have images of people incorporated into ritual objects. The designs were probably influenced by Persian and Indian art, nations that the Yemen did a lot of trading with.
The most common ritual object for Yemenite Jews, were Shabbat lamps. However, Shabbat lamps were not always called this. Before electricity was widely available these lamps were used by all people in Yemen for the purpose of seeing, not for any ritual. Once electricity came into use, Jews still used these lamps on Shabbat. The Shabbat lamps were round shallow cups made of stone with ridges on the side. The cup was filled with oil, and wicks were put in the ridges. They then had a metal handle in the center of the cup for carrying the candle, and it also might have been used to hanging the candle. There is some evidence that these candles might have been used instead of the traditional Shabbat candle sticks that most Jews are used to.
Stone Hanukkah lamps were used during the eight-day festival of Hanukkah. The Hanukkiot (the nine-branched menorah) were the plainest of all Yemenite ritual objects, but they have the greatest historical significance. The Hanukkiot, were made of different types of stone and were usually not decorated. As with all Hanukkiot there were eight holes for the wicks and a hole in a separate place for the shammash. They would then put the menorah on the windowsill to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. The Hanukkiot were probably plain so that the Yemenite Jews could avoid displaying wealth to their Muslim neighbors. Some historians think that the design of the Yemenite Hanukkiot might be the same as the original Hanukkiot used by Jews in ancient Judea.
Cloth was used mostly to decorate Torah scrolls and to make dolls for children. Torah scroll cases were usually made from wood and sometimes were painted and sometimes had a cloth covering over it. Many cloth Torah scrolls have survived and are now in use in Israel. Dolls in Yemen were made for two different purposes. One purposed was to be a toy for children. These dolls were usually made with old cloth and beads and were made up to look like brides and grooms. The idea was to get children excited for marriage. The other purpose was for Purim. Around the holiday of Purim, children would make dolls that resembled Haman and Zeresh, the arch-villains in the Book of Esther. On Purim children would carry their dolls with them, play with them and eventually burn or destroy them. This custom stopped once the Yemenite Jews immigrated to Israel.
Jews designed their houses to give an impression of poverty. This was partly because of Yemenite law, and partly because the Jews did not want to make their Muslim neighbors jealous of their riches. The outside of the houses was very pain, usually one color. The mezuzah was usually put into a hole in the door post and covered so that there were not any extra decorations outside the house. The Pact of Omar in 637 stated that Jewish houses in the Arab world could not be taller than Muslim houses. In 1761, Imam al-Mahdi al-Abbas determined that this meant Jewish houses could not be any taller than 9 meters. In a culture where extended families lived together, this made life very difficult.
To accommodate the height restriction, Jews in Yemen made modifications to their houses that were not imposed by their rulers. Jewish houses had a basement which Muslim houses did not. This basement was used for storage that would have otherwise been done in another part of the house. Muslims had a courtyard on top of their houses as a meeting place for families. Jews built a courtyard in the middle of the second floor instead, so they could maximize the height of 9 meters that the house had to be.
The basic structure of the Jewish houses was set up very similar to Arab houses. The ground floor was used for storing animals and for the kitchen. Steep staircases led to the floors above that were for dwelling. These floors contained the sleeping rooms, the ceremony rooms, and the dining rooms.
As in all Muslim countries, distinctive dress was imposed on the Yemenite Jews. Jews were not allowed to wear bright colors, except on their wedding day. They were also not allowed to carry daggers or wear belts that were fancier then what the Muslims wore. Both belts and daggers were considered signs of one’s prestige in Muslim countries. From this the Yemenite Jewish style of plain colors accented by a little brightness with nice jewelry evolved.
Jewish women wore dresses that were long and covered their arms. They also wore a hood that fastened under their chin. They had several different outfits for various occasions. They had clothing for leisure, for special occasions, for going out in public and their wedding day.
Women had two different everyday outfits for work and leisure. For work they wore a very plain black dress and plain head gear. For leisure Jewish women wore dark colored dresses with silver embroidery around the edges and the collar. The headgear they wore was usually a dark color to match the dress they were wearing with silver embroidery on the inside. In southern Yemen Jewish women wore net head coverings and wore white, a custom reserved for Shabbat in Northern Yemen. Under their dresses, women wore trousers and leggings. The leggings were made of stretchy fabric that slipped over the ankles that one could see at the bottom of the dress. Jewish women usually had dark color with stitching in bright colors on the bottom that could be seen from far away.
In public Jewish women had to conform more to Muslim mores. They had to wear black in public and hide their face whenever they were in the presence of a man. Muslim women had their face covered all the time. To respect Muslim standards of modesty and dress differently, Jewish women would wear a scarf over the lower half of their face in public. Whenever they saw a man come, they would cover their face, crouch down and let the man pass.
For special occasions women could change their basic dress. After childbirth women were honored with special clothing. They wore a bright colored dress and a long headgear decorated with gold thread and gold ornamentation. This hood is similar to what a bride wore. The new mother also wore very fancy jewelry. She wore a very big necklace and many rings on her fingers.
Jewish brides stood out among all other women. All Muslim restrictions on Jewish dress were lifted which resulted in Jewish brides dressing very similarly to Muslim brides. Brides wore a white undergarment with a red dress over it, that symbolized fertility. The bride wore a lot of gold jewelry and a very heavy headdress. This head dress formed a triangle on her head that was decorated with flowers and ornaments. Her hands were decorated with henna and she held rue branches in her hand to ward off the evil eye.
The clothing Jewish men wore was much simpler than what the Jewish women wore. They did not have as many variations in what they wore for special days and they had much less ornamentation.
The basic outfit for Jewish men was a knee length shirt with a longer dress over it. On the side there was a pocket that was embroidered with gold thread. The embroidery was left incomplete as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. A long coat with one button was worn for going outside and for special occasions. On their heads men wore a plain felt cap, for halachic reasons and for stylistic reasons.
Most Jewish men in Yemen wore tzitzit in some form. In most parts of Yemen, men wore a tallit katan over their clothing. In some parts of Yemen, men wore a tallit only when they prayed. The garments that men wore their tzitzit with were like the ones one in Europe. The look of the tallit was one of the few cultural things that was able to penetrate Yemen from another Jewish community The Yemenite Jews had more variety and color in their tallitot.
The Yemenite Jewish men wore payot that distinguished them from Muslim men. In 1667, the wearing of payot was made mandatary by the rulers at that time. The Yemenite Jews considered this part of their identity, and still wear their payot proudly to this day.
The most decorative outfit a man ever wore was on his wedding day. The groom wore a white gown, covered by a coat with metal buttons. On his head he wore a silk handkerchief. Around his neck he wore a triangle amulet to ward off the evil eye. Like the bride, he also carried a rue branch in his hands to keep the evil eye away.
In recent years, Jewish community leaders in Yemen have stressed the importance of immigration, primarily to Israel or the United States, due to safety concerns because of the Muslim extremist presence in the country - particularly Al-Qaeda. On May 22, 2012, Aaron Zindani was stabbed to death in the capital city of Saana, his friend believes Al-Qaeda may have been behind the attack. In 2009, Yemeni authorities moved 70 Jews from northern Yemen to a compound in Sanaa, openly admitting they could not protect them elsewhere.
In 2009, the Jewish population of Yemen numbered around 400. Today, however, there remains only approximately 90 Jewish people in Yemen, the majority of whom live in the Sanaa compound. Like the rest of the country, they have adopted Western styles in dress and crafts. The only time you see truly traditional clothing and jewelry is at weddings. The Yemenite community in Israel, however, has held on to many of the community’s historical traditions - women sometimes wear headdresses and jewelry or use artifacts that were made in Yemen and there are also many Yemenite synagogues throughout the country. The Yemenites also introduced their arts and crafts styles into modern Israeli culture.
Since 2009, 151 Jews have been airlifted to Israel through the support of the Jewish Agency and various Israeli government ministries. Many others have been smuggled out of the country to Argentina or the United States.
In October 2015, the Yemeni government handed down an ultimatum to the tiny Jewish community: convert to Islam or leave. Yemen’s Jews sought out asylum in Israel and the United States due to the country’s ongoing war with Houthi rebel tribes. The government ultimatum stated that they would not be able to protect the Yemeni Jews if they remained in the country as Jews.
Nineteen of the last remaining Jews in Yemen were airlifted to Israel on March 21, 2016, by the Jewish Agency. The secret operation, which rescued all but approximately 50 Yemeni Jews, had been in planning for more than a year and included coordination with the U.S. State Department. The remaining Jews refused to leave.
There are currently fewer than 50 Jews living in Yemen, with some estimates claiming more others fewer. The remaining Jews reportedly plan to immigrate to Abu Dhabi following the announcement on August 13, 2020, that Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize diplomatic ties. A Yemeni rabbi said 100 Jews remained and they all planned to move to the UAE, which agreed to accept them at the request of the United States.
In 2022, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is fighting power in Yemen, has joined an effort to restore a 160-year-old Jewish cemetery in Aden. A Yemeni official said the renovation is a “message to all Aden residents that Aden is a city of peace and that we will not accept any harm to any holy site.”
Sources: Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, The Jews of Yemen. Highlights of the Israel Museum Collection, Jerusalem 1994.
Picture of Sana’a courtesy of Ferdinand Reus.