Dwindling in number but defiant: Yemeni Jews cling to their roots

jews of yemenSANAA: The two men are dressed in the same Yemeni fashion: a thawb (men’s garment), a British-style blazer, and sumata (shawls) wrapped around their heads. One of them has a pin of the Yemeni president on his lapel.

They’re introduced as members of the al-Salem tribe, but one is Muslim and the other Jewish. The Muslim man is the tribe’s sheikh and the Jewish man, the one with the president on his chest, is a rabbi. His earlocks tucked in out of sight under his sumata, one could easily have mistaken the rabbi for a Muslim Yemeni, something one takes for granted in this predominantly Muslim country.

Rabbi Yahya Yousef Salem is the rabbi of a Jewish community that has lived in the northern province of Saada for generations, possibly for millennia. He’s here to talk about a celebrated Yemeni rabbi from a past, difficult time for Jewish Yemenis. His name is Rabbi Salim al-Shabazi, from the town of Shabaz, south of the capital, who authored thousands of poems with mystical and metaphysical themes in the 17th century.

Shabazi’s renown is undimmed in the modern world. The late Ofra Haza, an Israeli of Yemeni Jewish descent, gained international acclaim over two decades ago for her song “Im nin’ alu,” inspired by a well-known Shabazi poem of the same name.


Haza once said that she learned Yemeni folk songs from her mother.

The same poem was picked up by Madonna a few years ago, introduced to her by fellow Kabbalah adherent and another Israeli singer with Yemeni Jewish roots, Isaac Sinwani, who performed the Shabazi lyrics on her hit “Isaac.”

“Shabazi was famed for his poetry, his faith and his knowledge,” says Rabbi Salem. “A spring runs underneath his grave in Taiz. And an elderly woman keeps watch over the spring under the rocks.

“People come from abroad and from Yemen, fill up on water and give her money for looking after the grave. She’s Muslim and she burns incense over the grave and the water underneath, because Shabazi was one of the biggest ahbar (rabbis).”

After his death, Shabazi’s tomb became a site of pilgrimage for both Jews and Muslims who came in search of miracles.

Shabazi lived at the height of Yemeni Jewish intellectualism, but also during very oppressive years when the Zaidi imam restricted laws governing the Jews. The rabbi’s popularity grew with his comforting religious poems and hymns, such as the poem “Im nin’ alu.”

“Even if the gates of the rich are closed,” the poem consoles, “the gates of heaven will never be closed.”

The majority of Shabazi’s poems were composed in the Yemeni dialect, while a number combined Hebrew and Arabic. Jewish Hungarian scholar Wilhelm Bacher attributed this bilingualism to the fact that “Jewish and Arabic were intimately connected in the cultural life of South Arabian Jews.”

With a heavy Saada dialect of Yemeni Arabic, the rabbi and his sheikh, sitting side by side, describe this long-standing relationship between Yemeni Muslims and Jews by pointing to their own ties.

“Our families have known each other for generations,” says Saad Bakhtan, the sheikh.

“From the time of my father’s father and grandfather. We sit together, and we chew qat together. Our traditions are the same, but each has his own religion,” he adds.

Jewish Yemenis have witnessed times of persecution as well as periods of prosperity as traders and artisans under successive imams. Known for their skillfully crafted jambiyas (traditional daggers) and intricate silver jewelry, Haza famously sported the jewelry in honor of her Yemeni roots.

Sellers in Yemen’s Old City sometimes announce that an antique was made by Jews, seemingly still a selling point.

Jews numbered in the tens of thousands in Yemen before “Operation Magic Carpet,” a secret operation organized by America, Britain and Israel which in 1949 airlifted to Israel around 49,000 Jews from the southern port city of Aden, then a British protectorate. It came at a time when tensions were running high in the Arab world following the declaration of the state of Israel.

In recent years, more Jews have left for Israel, America and Britain. Now, Rabbi Salem estimates that less than 350 remain in Yemen, clinging to their historical homeland.

The period of the initial settlement of Jews in Yemen is disputed, but according to one oral tradition, Jews arrived with the Queen of Sheba following her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem.

“From the time of the Queen of Sheba,” says Rabbi Salem, “when the temple of King Solomon was destroyed, Jews left Jerusalem and came with the queen to Yemen. We are of the oldest Jews in the world. Jews in Yemen are the original Jews, not like … the Jews in America; they are not originally from America. And in Israel, they are not originally from Israel.”

(Ethiopian Jews, known as falasha, also trace their lineage to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon through their son, Menelik, who is said to have returned to Ethiopia accompanied by Jewish tribes and the Ark of the Covenant.)

Jewish settlement in Saada could be as old as the Torah, where Saada and Sanaa, the rabbi says, are mentioned in their Judaic names, respectively “Diglo” and “Ozol,” or the Arabicized “Azal.”

Currently, only 70 Jews from Saada remain. All were driven from their homes in the northern province at gunpoint by Zaidi Houthi rebels and told never to return.

They sought refuge in the night with Sheikh Bakhtan – Jews have traditionally been protected by tribal sheikhs.

It was Sheikh Bakhtan who drove the rabbi’s family to the capital, where the community of 70 remains under the president’s protection.

“We can’t return to Saada at all,” says Rabbi Salem. “The Houthis looted and destroyed our houses completely. This is forbidden in all the religions. They stole my library; it was an invaluable library. I had historical books. I had a Torah that was the only Torah in Yemen. It was in our family for generations, because my father was the biggest rabbi in Yemen.

“But our origin is Yemeni,” he continues. “And we will never abandon our country.”

Mira Baz is a Lebanese writer based in Yemen. For more photos, videos, and articles, visit www.mirabaz.com

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