Today I was poking around on Flickr looking at pictures of Yemenis and to my great surprise I found the following picture. It was taken by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com
This is Said Bin Isra’il Hala, or Saadia ben Yisrael Hala, and it is he who I stayed with when I visited Raida, the last surviving Jewish community in Yemen. He helped us get travel permits to the village, invited me and my two compadres into his home for Shabbat, we spent the weekend with him and his family and I will never forget his kindness and hospitality.
Since that trip, I’ve become mildly obsessed with Yemenite Jewry, and more specifically the silverwork trade they were known for.
These are the emails I sent home after returning from the village.
October 9 2007. Ramadan in Sana’a.
First of all I apologize for the group email. but this was cool:
So for the past three weeks my friends JB and Ezra and I have been playing human ping pong ball and bouncing to the interior ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Tourist Ministry, the American embassy, and various other bureaucracies in an an effort to get a travel permit outside Sana’a to a village in the north called Raida. In Raida is the last surviving Jewish community left in Yemen, about 400 people. It’s also one of the last surviving Jewish communities left in the Middle East, period. Basically its a bit of an anomaly. So finally after being passed off probably a dozen times to various ministries packed with bureaucrats grumpy from not eating all day, we found one guy at the tourist ministry who told us if we knew someone in the village who could drive us there and vouch for us, we could get permits. Ezra called his contact in the Jewish community here (there’re 7 families who used to live in a village called Sa’ada but were moved to Sana’a because there was a threat against them which the government took seriously enough to put them up in a nice hotel across from the American embassy indefinitely) and the guy said he would call the next day and we’d go and meet him. Ezra and JB pulled me out of class and we went to meet him at the hotel.
We walk in the lobby of this small hotel, and every chair in the place has a bona fide Yemenite Jew, complete with long thoub, kuffiya, and long tightly curled paot. All in all like 12 guys, the first Jews I’ve seen (other than JB and Ezra) for a long time. We went with Ezra’s friend Said (Saadia) and another guy, Faiz, both from Raida, to the ministry, got the permits, and then they were like ‘we’re going to get some food.” so we went with them and got some fish (easy way to get out of eating non-kosher meat) and then we were driving around Sana’a. i figured they’re taking us back to our place, and then suddenly we’re in the outskirts of the city, full of industrial buildings and car chop shops, and I said ‘um, guys? where are we going?”
oh shit. We only have the clothes on us, no toiletries, Ezra’s wearing barely more than his pyjamas, and we’re planning on staying a week.
So we get to his house in Raida after an hour and half, and this gaggle of paot-sporting kids greets us at the door, none older than 6. For the rest of the night guys came in, we ate food and chewed gat, all the while speaking an odd mix of mostly Hebrew and Arabic. None of them spoke English, and they didn’t ever learn classical Arabic so they only spoke the dialect, but they all spoke very decent Hebrew, so Ezra and I would talk to them in Hebrew and when we came to a word we didnt know we’d switch to Arabic.
Sometimes we’d conjugate Hebrew verbs like Arabic ones, or use only Arabic prepositions. Basically it was a linguistic adventure. Unfortunately JB doesn’t know Hebrew and scrapes by in classical Arabic. He had a tough time. One thing I found so odd was that they referred to the local Muslim population as goyim, which I guess makes sense but, growing up in the Christian world, only ever meant Christians to me. We went to a bunch of Jewish houses, and met about 20 or so families left there. We saw the synagogue, and the school, which was a trip. There were a dozen kids singing the Torah parsha for the week, with their paot swinging back and forth. It was a time capsule of Jewish learning in the Middle East for a thousand years or more.
The village is a crossroads and houses on a hill, all with the ubiquitous rebar extending from the roofs denoting the possibility of a second floor at some later date. The men here sit under the shade of buses or awnings, squatting and talking and thats about it. If it were not Ramadan they would be chewing gat. I will never cease to be shocked by the amount of time the average Yemeni can spend doing nothing but sit and chew a baseball size ball of pulped gat for hours upon hours. The non-Jewish men here all wear folding-stock Kalishnikovs over their shoulders like a fashion accessory.
The wind blows colored plastic bags out of the town and into the fields, where it forms a colorful mosaic caught on branches, a noxious wildflower field.
All the Jewish guys ride around on motorcycles, paot swinging in the wind, with thoubs on and traditional Yemeni kuffiyas wrapped around their heads.
They asked me if I wanted to get married, and I think they were serious.
So we came back after one night, with the plan to go back on Thursday with supplies and stay till Sunday. I’ll report about Shabbat with the last of the Yemenite Jews later.
Mon, Oct 15, 2007
So as I mentioned in my first email we had decided to go back to Raida with supplies and stay the weekend, to spend Shabbat with them. So we did, and it was pretty eye-opening. We got in Friday afternoon without incident, and went to the synagogue around 5 to pray. The synagogue there is cool: no benches, just carpets on the floor and a hard rectangular pillow every few feet around the wall, to lean against. There was a table and a bench and a podium in the middle of the room. Many of the guys were chewing gat during the service, some were even smoking during the beginning, before Shabbat actually started.
The service was similar to other Mizrachi services i had been to in the past: more like a constant buzzing/murmuring of prayers with an occasional silence and intermittent collective AMEN!s thrown in than a ordered service with leadership. In other words, completely impossible to follow. so the three of us looked like morons sitting there with deer-in-headlights looks on our faces. after the service we talked with some of the guys (the women pray at home) and then walked home.
Saturday was pretty standard for religious families: wake up pray pray pray eat pray eat pray sleep. However the Torah reading was ridiculous and fed most of my thoughts for the rest of the trip. Basically it illustrated the vast differences in Jewish education here and in North America, and provoked a lot of thought. First of all, in America/Canada (at least the synagogues i’ve always gone to) the people called up to read from the Torah say two short blessings, once before the reading, once after. A person who is trained and has practiced the weekly portion actually does the reading. Then when the people who say the blessings come back to their seats everyone shakes their hands and says congratulations like they just accomplished some Herculean feat. Here, everyone who is called up reads, no practice, and no vowels. He just sight reads it. Then, the tradition is that the second to last person to read is under thirteen. I was told this, and thought, ok so a 12 year old a month from his Bar Mitzvah will do it. Wrong. In this case, it was a 6 year old and he did it like a champ. This is every week here, and people dont think this is particularly remarkable, it’s just how Jewish life and learning goes. And to think in America we piss and moan for 6 to 10 months prior to our Bar Mitzvahs to read one little portion, if that! In addition to this, for each person reading, a kid between 5 and 12 sat at the table next to the podium and after the reader finished each verse, the kid would read it again, but this time in Aramaic. Are you kidding me? I was floored.
These guys put our Judaism to shame, and made me feel like a stupid tourist. I guess in terms of the extent of Jewish education i have as compared to these guys, I am. I can say with certainty that the role Judaism and Torah plays in my life and the lives of my Jewish friends in North America, is but a shell of what it was for our ancestors. So I began to think. I thought about the causes and conditions that would allow this kind of commitment to learning Torah to exist. Some are sociological: the Jews here dont really exist within Yemeni society. Others are educational: they dont learn secular subjects, or even to read and write Arabic. Just Torah. The alphabet Jews here use is Hebrew, many of the kids dont learn Arabic script until theyre married and with kids. After a while I realized that this education and commitment came at a cost. The Jews here will always be their own community, and will never a) be permitted to or b) want to integrate into the general society. Each side views the other with mutual distrust and disdain, each believing the others religion to be deeply and irrevocable flawed. Yemen is a homogeneous society, and the Jewish community that exists inside it dimly flickers with equal homogeneity.
Sometimes I get frustrated here by the lack of scientific reasoning and lack of secular thinking. I realized this weekend I would probably get just as frustrated in time with the Jewish community for the same reason. Secular thinking and society has no place with them. They exist as they have for a thousand years or more; protecting the traditions and passing on the Torah and Talmud from generation to generation. It was all in all an amazing experience, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have seen this community while it exists, but made me really consider the place religion has in my life, and the life of my Jewish friends, and what the costs are. Ultimately, however, I concluded that its probably better, at least for me being a North American, to have a more solid foundation on secular thinking, as it is within that society that I plan to live.
An unexpected side-effect of this trip has been a guilty and reluctant resentment of Israel for what its creation meant for the Jewish community here. If I were studying here in 1930 there were 30 000 Jews in Sana’a alone. Nowhere in the Middle East can we see authentic Mizrachi Judaism exist, as a result of 1948.
Interesting side note of this whole thing: I noticed that the Tanakh used by the congregation was stamped “Neturai Karta, NYC.” For those unfamiliar with these guys, once so eloquently described by one Seattle Rabbi as “rats in suits,” besides being the most vociferous and vocal Jewish Anti-Zionists, they were also the Jewish delegation to Iran’s holocaust-denial conference.