Jews of Yemen - The Yemenite Jews in Israel

Identification. Today the Yemenite Jews in Israel have three basic identities: as Jews, as Israelis, and as Jews from Yemen. Any one of the three may take precedence in a given situation, but all are important to them.

Settlements and Economy. The Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel with little preparation for life in an industrial state. None had a modern education or technical training. They had a very strong work ethic, however, and willingness to take on jobs others might consider demeaning. About 28 percent went to settle in more than fifty newly created cooperative villages ( moshavim ) and learned to become farmers. (Most of these families still have homes and farms in the villages, although many of their children have been well educated and have moved to urban occupations.) The other immigrants went to live in towns and cities. Many men went to work in the building trades or in industry, often learning skilled trades within a few years. Some worked in sanitation. Women, who had not usually worked outside of their homes in Yemen, were often employed as housekeepers in private homes, offices, and institutions. The younger the immigrants were when they arrived, the more likely they were to get some schooling, perhaps enough to become teachers or clerks. Today Yemenite Jews in Israel can be found in many occupations, especially as teachers, bureaucrats and organizers, skilled workers in industry, engineers and technologists, artists and musicians, and members of the military forces. There are growing numbers of professionals among them.

Sociopolitical Life. Yemenite Jews are integrated into Israeli society and participate in all the institutions of the state. Although there have been Yemenite political parties contesting national elections, these have usually not fared very well. Nevertheless, Yemenites are increasingly gaining political office, especially on municipal and regional councils and workers' councils, not on the basis of ethnic appeals but as members of the established parties. They tend to split their loyalties between the Labor party, the Likud, and the National Religious party.

Community Life. An outstanding aspect of Yemenite life in Israel is their tendency to form their own neighborhoods. This is particularly important because they generally remain devoted to the practice of the Jewish religion, in the form that they knew it in Yemen. They maintain their own synagogues, employing their distinctive melodies and pronunciation of liturgical Hebrew, which they prize. Because an observant Jew is strictly forbidden to ride on the Sabbath and most holy days, a religious Yemenite family must be within walking distance of a Yemenite synagogue. Because there must be a congregation to support such a synagogue, there must be a sufficiently large population in the area. The Sabbath and other holy days are spent visiting family and friends, often participating in distinctive Yemenite social and ritual gatherings to eat and drink. They continue to celebrate the life-cycle rituals very much as they did in Yemen, and this, too, requires a group of like-minded neighbors. In Israel as in Yemen, community life centers on the family, the synagogue, and the observance of the cycles of religiously mandated activities.

Religion and Expressive Culture. The importance of Judaism for most Yemenites can not be overstressed. Their distinctive expressive culture is based largely on their Judaism. Yemenite men tend to be extremely knowledgeable about religious practice, and most can direct synagogue services themselves. Their synagogues do not depend on the services of rabbis; members of the congregation take turns leading public worship. As in Yemen, this often results in rivalries and conflict. Yemenite communities usually contain a number of small synagogues competing for worshipers and honors. Religion is taken very seriously, the synagogue being the locus of much of the social life of the men. In addition to weekly and annual occasions for worship and celebration, men and women are frequently called upon to participate in birth, marriage, and death rituals. These are celebrated with the participation of kin, friends, neighbors, and more distant fellow Yemenites. Food, ritual, poetry, music, and sometimes dance and costuming, may be accompaniments to these rituals. They pride themselves upon their abilities and their loyalty to these traditions. Marriages, in particular, are celebrated with a number of events, often lasting over several weeks. The h'inna celebration preceding marriage is basically a women's party, during which the bride-to-be is dressed in extraordinary costumes and jewelry, and women drum and sing special songs and dance. (These days men usually join in as well.) From Yemen they brought a corpus of poetry (based on religious themes), musical style and melodies, and distinctive dance traditions and costumes. All of these are maintained in Israel today. While almost anyone may dance or sing, there are organized amateur dance groups and many professional performers and composers. New works are always being created on the base of the old forms. Professional musicians often achieve considerable prominence for their Yemenite works, as well as for their performance of other genres. Even before Israel became a state, in the 1920s and 1930s, Yemenite traditions and performers contributed much to the development of Jewish music, dance, and decorative arts.

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Feb 28, 2017 @ 8:20 pm
Did the Jews of Yemen face any discrimination when they settled in Israel?
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May 22, 2017 @ 5:05 am
I am interested to know more about Yemenites in Israel. When I first heard the fantastic voice and songs sung by Ofra Haza I wanted to learn more about the Yemeni Jews. I under stand that many are re-settling in the Old City of Yerushalayim. It would be lovely to get to know their stories and how they are doing.

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