The Yemeni Jewish Community speaks up
Jewish Arabs, seen as something of an anomaly in our media Hollywood spun world where Rabbis are more often of American or East European heritage, rather than 'oriental', notwithstanding the Sephardim community of modern day Israel. Jews that are Arab have always been a source of fascination for the world who sees only the schism between Jew and Arab in Israel and the OPT.
By most estimates, only several hundred Jews remain in Yemen today, split into two communities that have little to do with each other. An enclave numbering fewer than 100 Jews is located in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city. Its residents, the remainder of the community of Sa’ada, were forced to leave their homes by the Houthis, who in 2004, began a rebellion against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they claimed was “an ally of the Americans and the Jews.” Sana’a Jews, who claim their property was confiscated by the Houthis, live in a closed compound under the protection of the government. They are funded and influenced in religious observance by Satmar Hasidim.
The Media Line’s Felice Friedson interviewed Rabbi Yahe Yousif Mousa, the spiritual leader of the Sana’a community, in Yemen’s capital.
How many Jews are there today in Yemen?
There are many Jews, around 400 people.
What happened in the last few years? There used to be 50,000 and now the number has reached 400.
There are people who traveled away from Yemen, some live in America; the U.K.; Israel and around the world. There are people who emigrated in search of a livelihood just like Muslims who left the country for economic reasons.
Why are you here?
I am here, and will stay here, and will never give up on my nation, regardless of the circumstances. The nation is dear to me.
Do you feel that you have been treated well? Your community is gated. Is this protecting you or making you a target?
Definitely. We live with Muslims as part of Yemeni society. Yemeni society is one, regardless of religion. Religion is for God, but the nation is for all. The President, may God save him, is interested in the entire population and assists everyone. And he protects us, definitely.
How can you practice Judaism if you’re only 400 people? Where is it going to be in a decade as a community?
There are people in our community who marry (Jews) in the Rayda community. There are those who travel abroad to work and return. We can never leave our nation.
You told me earlier that you believe thousands of Jews will return to Yemen. Were you serious? Do you really believe that?
Certainly. God willing, they will return. God decides everything.
What kind of Judaism are you practicing? Do you teach your children Arabic or Hebrew? What happens on a daily basis?
Our children study in schools with Muslims under the order of the president. They study Arabic, English and Hebrew; and I, myself, am a certified teacher in Yemen and teach Hebrew. I teach in the Hebrew school.
What school is that, where you teach?
Al-Mustaqbal (future) School.
Who attends the school?
There are about 26 Jewish students, from elementary to high school, out of a total of 900 students.
Does everyone learn Hebrew?
Yes, there are Muslims who learn Hebrew too. Education is important for everyone; it is their right.
Where did you learn Hebrew?
I learned from my father here in Yemen, and also completed my studies in England and in the United States.
Where in the U.S.?
In New York, with the Satmar Hassidim. Also in London, in the Solsky community.
Are there other teachers in the Jewish community?
Yes, there are two teachers – a man and a woman.
How many synagogues are there?
There is not synagogue at the moment, so we pray at home in the living room.
We have a vacation, because god created all creatures in six days and rested on the seventh day. We worship god then. All men come and pray in the living room.
And the women?
They pray as well, but elsewhere.
Are you restricted in your performance of religious practices?
We practice all our religious practices with full liberty. The President sees to this.
Who is trained to circumcise the babies?
Yes, we have everything.
How many Rabbis are there in the community?
There’s me, here in Sana’a, and others in Rayda. My father is the great Rabbi, but he is partially paralyzed as a result of a stroke.
As its rabbi, you are the focal point of the community. How are you going to pass on the traditions?
In Reida there are more Jews than here. There are around 320 there, and some emigrated from the country, I hope they return. Only Sana’a and Reida have communities. Every community practices separately.
Do you have Arab friends?
Yes, all my friends are Arabs.
Do they visit you at home?
Yes, and I come to theirs. There is no difference or racism. We visit them on holidays and weddings, and they also share happy and sad events with us.
Do you observe the laws of kashrut – kosher?
Yes, I do. We prepare the food and slaughter the animals ourselves. I slaughter the animals, and I also marry the people.
What will happen when you can no longer do it?
There are now other people who are studying, and preparing for that event.
How many children do you have? And how many wives?
I have only one wife, but my father had two. I have five children: 3 girls and 2 boys. Shama’a, Maryam, Sa’id, Nabila and Mousa. The eldest girl is 14. An Arab proverb says that a woman is like fire, so one is enough.
Do others in the Jewish community have more than one wife?
Some have two.
At what age to girls get married?
Now we don’t marry girls before the age of 18.
Do they go to university? Do they work?
Definitely. They will finish their university education.
Will they then work?
Of course. The nation educated them, so they should return the favor. Without education we cannot fulfill the simplest needs.
Israel spends millions of dollars to bring Jews from all over the world.
Of course, they trade in people the way men trade in livestock.
Do you speak to family members in Israel and the United States?
I have friends all over the world.
Do foreign Jews come to visit you here?
We marry Jews from abroad, but no one will leave this country regardless the circumstances.
What do Jews work at?
Before, they used to work as silversmiths, in wood, in metal, and agriculture. But now we don’t have the equipment to practice our profession. We ask American NGOs to help us financially to provide us with the equipment we need for our profession as silversmiths.
Why didn’t you approach Jewish organizations?
I direct an appeal from here to all organizations, not necessarily Jewish. Many people promise to help, but we see nothing of this. Without the help of God and the president, we would have already died of hunger. No one supports us and we have no work. Earlier we had all this in Sana’a, before the Huthis came and stole our homes, cars, and belongings. We left with the clothes on our skin.
I asked you earlier about living in a guarded area. Aren’t you and your neighbors more of a target living under those conditions: guarded and not free to come and go?
We believe in God and the protection of the Yemeni government.
Are you a Yemeni, or a Jew, or both?
I am a Yemeni. The most ancient religion here was Judaism.
How long has your family lived in Yemen?
Hundreds of years.
I wish you continued growth and I hope you receive the help you need.
I would like to thank the president for allowing this interview.
By Felice Friedson