In October of 2007 I had the opportunity to visit Raida, the last village in Yemen with an indigenous Jewish population. There were at the time roughly 280 Jews living there, 2 synagogues, a Jewish school, and a Jewish quarter in the village. Many of the tall metal gates that surround the courtyards of houses had Hebrew Bruchim ha-Bayim, Welcome, inscribed upon them, instead of the usual Arabic Ahlan wa-Sahlan. Raida is an incredible time capsule of Jewish life in the Middle East, a way of life that has almost completely vanished in the wake of Israel’s creation. I wrote about my experiences in the village here.
I stayed with Said Bin Israil (Saadia Ben Yisrael) and his family while there. He was one of the leaders of the Raida community and a teacher in the school, his sincerity and hospitality made my visits to Raida the most memorable and incredible experiences of my life to date.
In early December, events began in Raida that will eventually mean the end of the community there. I wrote about this several posts back, stating that these acts of violence will finally break the camel’s back, and force the emigration of the last Jews of Yemen.
Sure enough, the first family to leave Yemen arrived in Israel 4 days ago, in a secret operation carried out by the Jewish Agency. And sure enough, that family is the very same Ben Yisraels I stayed with while in Raida. As if that coincidence was not enough, it turns out that they are living, at least temporarily, in the apartment building I live in. Right down the hall from me.
So a couple nights ago Rachael and I paid them a visit. It was really amazing to see him again, and wearing a suit and pants, as opposed to a thoub! Right away I started asking about his trip, did he go through Jordan, was it direct, etc, and he gave me this embarassed smile and said he couldn’t say, he was sworn to secrecy.
I brought with me Saadia Gaon’s Siddur, which has large sections of Judeo-Arabic commentary; I thought he might like to have a look. He did, and we spent a while pouring over it, checking out the different sections. Jewish books are hard to come by in Yemen, and they depend on whatever books they can get from New York or Jerusalem from time to time, and those books rarely have Judeo-Arabic, Saadia’s native language, written in them.
His kids are about the cutest thing in the world.
He told me that in the weeks before they left Yemen, there were representatives of the Jewish Agency in Raida, trying to help them to come to Israel, and representatives of the Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist Hasidic sect, trying to get them to stay in Yemen or come to New York. It was as though a covert war of words and ideologies was raging over the last Jews of the Arab diaspora, in a tiny village in a forsaken corner of the Middle East.
All photos by Rachael Strecher, except this one, courtesy Reuters: