The State of Israel continues to absorb immigrants from all over the world. In this fascinating cultural mix, we are offered a glimpse into diverse cultures and history, including the story of the Yemenite Jews.
When we look out from the top of Old Jaffa over the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, we are reminded of the impressive history of this ancient port city where Cedars of Lebanon trees were brought to the Land of Israel to build the First and Second Temples and where the Prophet Jonah was swallowed by a big fish as he fled from the word of God. Its also awe-inspiring to see the view of modern Tel Aviv along the coast, which looks as if it miraculously emerged from the sand, from its modest beginnings as a small town of 66 families in 1909 to today’s population of over 400,000 in the city and close to four million in the entire Dan Region area.
If we look even further (with some imagination), we can see all the way to Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, which is facing this ancient port city.
Looking inward, into the Artist Quarter of Old Jaffa, we can also get a glimpse into some of the stories of the people of Israel. Among the galleries is a Yemenite Jewish jewelry workshop, established by eighth-generation Yemenite jeweler Ben-Zion David. “My filigree jewelry is made using a very old technique that is disappearing from our world,” David explains. “Creating a masterpiece requires attention to fine details, great imagination, and of course, patience.”
In Yemen, when someone wanted a piece of jewelry, he or she would bring five coins to the jeweler,” he added. “Three coins would be melted and shaped into silver threads and smaller domes, which would then be shaped into fine metal pieces. The other two would be payment for the work.
Visitors to David’s workshop can enjoy the taste of traditional Yemenite coffee and tea, a short film about the early days of the return of Yemenite Jews to the Land of Israel, and an explanation of the traditional Yemenite Jewish customs (such as special traditions for weddings) and crafts, including basket weaving. Torah learning (Jewish studies) was always of central importance to the Yemenite community, and the museum has some wonderful old photos of children studying.
Yemenite Jews began to return to the Land of Israel in 1882, having been inspired by news of the developing Jewish community there, and expectation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah based on their understanding of a verse from Song of Songs. Many more arrived as refugees, who were airlifted by the newly established State of Israel in “Operation Magic Carpet,” saving them from anti-Semitic attacks.
Today, there are approximately 350,000 Yemenite Jews in Israel, living throughout the country. The first immigrants eventually established, with the help of some influential Jerusalemites, a thriving Yemenite community on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, called Kfar HaShiloach (named after the Siloam pool in the valley below). Tragically, they were forced to abandon their homes and synagogues due to the riots of 1929 and the 1930s. By 1938, the remaining Yemenites were evacuated by the British, who were in control of the Land of Israel at the time and who promised the Yemenites would soon return home. They did return home, but it was a long process. Slowly, Jews are returning to the original Yemenite homes since 2004, and the synagogue, Ohel Shlomo (Solomon’s Tent), was recently returned and renovated into an active Jewish Synagogue once again.