Without divulging too much about my personal history, suffice it to say that Yemeni Jewry holds a very special place in my heart. Their traditions, when kept faithfully, have always provided me with great pleasure. The sound of Yemeni children chanting as their forefathers have taught them is the most wonderful music to my ears. Even their appearance, at least as it is most commonly found among them, represents the ultimate harmony of features. Because of their beauty and character, Yemeni women have often been sought as wives by Ashkenazi men. More recently, even Yemeni men have been sought as husbands by Ashkenazic women. As far as I could tell, Yemeni men make good husbands and rarely abuse their wives (obviously I am speaking of Jews here).
Aside from the aesthetic aspects of Yemeni Jewry, it is a fact that their set of traditions is the most faithful to our ancient roots. During the period of massive Jewish exodus from Spain, prior to and during the inquisition, Spanish Jews culturally dominated Oriental Jews wherever they settled. These Sephardic Jews were white, educated, haughty and very literate. They typically became the elite in Middle Eastern nations where they settled. This did not happen in Yemen. In Yemen, those Sephardic Jews who arrived assimilated to Yemeni culture and their children, aside from having European racial features, became Yemeni in every sense. Literary traditions were so strong in Yemen that even the Sephardic juggernaut was stopped in its tracks there. In later centuries, however, many Yemeni Jews did adopt Sephardic liturgy for their prayers. Spanish cultural pressure was not the only obstacle however. Yemeni Jewry was subject to various famines, persecutions and exiles as well. These sometimes entailed wholesale destruction of holy books and widespread death. Through it all, the ancient traditions held fast.
I will spare my readers the details of religious practice that set Yemeni Jews apart. To do so would only alienate most readers as an intimate familiarity with Jewish traditions would be necessary to understand them. Still, I shall gladly elaborate if anybody wishes me to do so. In general terms, however, some of the highlights are as follows:
1) Yemeni Hebrew is, along with some Iraqi dialects, the most conservative of all forms of Hebrew. The finest grammatical distinctions, long forgotten in other communities, are zealously guarded in Yemeni congregations. In modern Israel, unfortunately, there is degradation among the youth.
2) The parchment, upon which the Torah scrolls (and other holy scripts) are written, is tanned according to authentic ancient tradition. This in not the case with most other communities. Unfortunately, this tradition is only kept by a handful of congregations currently – as will be later elaborated upon.
3) Generally speaking, Yemeni Judaism places less emphasis on rabbinical authority insofar as qualifications for certain duties and functions. Any man was considered fit to bake his own unleavened bread for Passover. Each man would read the Torah scroll for himself in synagogue and (if memory serves me correctly) many people would slaughter their own animals for their meat.
4) Certain dubious traditions, which spread throughout the rest of Jewry, never caught on in Yemen. One example is the superstitious ritual of “kapparoth”, where a live chicken is waved over a person’s head before Yom Kippur in the voodoo-like belief that the chicken would absorb the person’s sins (or something to that effect).
5) There are actually textual differences between the Yemeni Torah and the Torah of other communities. To be sure, these differences are minor but we should bear in mind that, according to Jewish law, even a difference of one letter is enough to disqualify a Torah scroll. My guess would be that the Yemeni version is more accurate.
6) Until fairly recently, Yemeni Jewry used the “Babylonian” system of vocalization, where the vowels were placed above the letters (“niqud ‘elyon”) as opposed the the “Tiberian” system, used by all other Jews, where the vowels were placed (usually) beneath the letters. Note: there are no vowel letters in Semitic languages but special signs (“vocalizations”) were sometimes added to aid children and for religious liturgy. Even though it is unclear which system is older (in ancient times it is likely neither one was used), I wanted to list this distinction here to emphasis the uniqueness of Yemeni tradition.
Yemeni Jewry, as found in Yemen, could be divided into three major sects: Shami, Baladi and Darda’i.
“Shami” literally means “of the vicinity of Syria, including the land of Israel.” Syria is, in Arabic, called “Sham”. This sect had adopted the Sephardic liturgy in prayer and many of their customs but, to a large extent, still remained Yemeni in character. They retained many Yemeni customs and did not follow the Sephardic liturgy 100%. They tended to follow the “Code of Jewish Law” (Shulhan ‘Arukh), which was written by R. Yosef Karo (a Sephardic Jew) – but according to Yemeni interpretation.
Baladi means, in Arabic, “local” or “regional” to be more exact. This sect was more traditional and, though they adopted certain outside practices, remained by and large untainted. They did, however, accept the “Kabbalah” and they did have deference to outside rabbinical authorities. The most notable outside authority, and the most influential among them, was the Rambam (Maimonedes).
Darda’i is reportedly derived from a scriptural reference and started out as a derogatory term. Another interpretation is that it is a compound word: “Dor” + “Dea'” = generation of knowledge. Either way, this sect began in the early part of the 20th century under the leadership of a certain fearless man by the name of Mori Yihyeh al-Gafih . “Mori” is the Yemeni term, roughly speaking, for “rabbi”. Mori Yihyeh wrote a book exposing the Kabbalah, and its primary source, the Zohar, as both fraudulent and contrary to traditional Judaism. It is difficult for modern Westerners to appreciate the courage necessary to do such a thing but let it suffice to say that his audacity was on par with that of Galileo or Copernicus. His followers more or less follow the teachings of Maimonedes and they are, by far, the strictest adherents to the ancient traditions. In Israel today, they are forced to congregate secretly and to remain an underground movement. They number only a handful. Of this handful, only very few conscientiously keep the finer aspects of their tradition – including the ancient formula for tanning the leather to be used for Torah scrolls.
In Yemen, Arabic was considered a quasi-holy language and Yemeni Jews continued to write in Arabic (in Hebrew characters) until fairly recently.
There was a Yemeni Jewish presence in India and, from the 1880’s in the Land of Israel as well. Remnants of their presence bear their distinctive signature.
In the early days of the State of Israel, the vast majority of Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel, where they were forcibly stripped of their outward traditions. For all practical purposes, they were no longer allowed to dress traditionally and their children were educated in European “Hebrew”. Their traditional ear locks were shaven off – ostensibly to rid them of lice and their valuables were often stolen from them. Through all this, of all Oriental Jewish groups in Israel, the Yemenis have made the greatest effort to preserve their identity and to educate their children in the ways of their forefathers. Sentiments vary among Yemenis in Israel. Many became completely estranged from their roots as a result of military service (where overwhelming peer pressure was exerted to turn religious young people into hedonistic slaves of the Zionist state). Others, while retaining some vestiges of their heritage, loath the concept of Yemeni Jews trying to maintain a “people within a people”. They buy into the idea that Israel is a place where all Jews must shed the identities of exile and unify themselves into one people with one culture. Some value their continuity but take a fatalistic attitude. They seem to be at peace with the idea that they are the last guardians of their traditions, their children marrying outsiders and forgetting the old ways.
The long term prospects of Yemeni Jews in Israel are not promising. Too many forces are aligned against them. It will be a sad day when the only remnants of their rich traditions are to be found in museums.