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For the Yemenites, It’s all about Emunah

Avi Friedman, with Yael Meyer

While every ethnic community grapples with the influences and temptations of modern-day materialism, push-button technology and innovation, the thousands of Yemenites in the Rechovot suburb of Sha’arayim have gone back in time. As the children run to their afternoon Mori, the setting could easily have beenAden,Sana’a, or one of the other ancient traditional centers of Yemenite Jewish life. Here, they’ve managed to preserve it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

boys learning To the uninitiated, the scene outside one of the dozens of synagogues in Sha’arayim, an ethnic Yemenite enclave in southern Rechovot, would appear entirely routine. It was 4:30 p.m. on a regular Tuesday afternoon, and a group of pre-bar mitzvah boys was wrapping up a heated game of soccer before heading for Minchah.

But the minute they stepped into the shul, the cluster of Israeli kids suddenly morphed into a group of Yemenites. One by one, each carefully washed netilas yadayim, in keeping with the Rambam’s ruling that one must wash hands before praying. Then, as they started to pray, the tone and rhythm of their modern Israeli Hebrew changed to the traditional Yemenite inflection. With eyes closed, the year could easily have been 1800, and the setting could easily have been Aden, Sana’a, Dhamar, or one of the other traditional centers of Yemenite Jewish life.

In many ways, the cognitive jump from modern-dayIsraelto traditional Jewish life inYemenis an improbable journey. While all immigrant communities made sacrifices when moving to Eretz Yisrael, the Yemenite experience here was profoundly different. Whereas Sephardic Jews who made aliyah from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Morocco in the 1940s and 50s certainly experienced a large dose of culture shock, the experience was somewhat limited: Each of those countries had developed industry and economic sectors, and the Jewish communities in each of those locations had played a large part in the cultural and social milieus for many centuries. Those communities may have maintained traditional standards of Jewish education, Shabbos observance, and Jewish continuity, but they were also familiar with the workings of the modern world.

Not so in Yemen, an isolated country at the south-western corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The country is far from both overland and sea trade routes to Indiaand the Far East, meaning the Jewish community that was established there following the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash was not exposed to many of the modern technologies and philosophies that swept the West and East during the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet the Yemenite Jews weren’t totally cut off. There were always merchants from around the world coming to theYemenport ofAden, a major trading post. And throughout the centuries Jews traveled betweenYemen and Eretz Yisrael. Still, when Yemenite Jews came toIsrael in 1949-50 they made a centuries-long leap, from a culture that had little contact with other Jewish communities or with modernity into the heart of the developed world. As a result, Yemenite Jewry maintained a sense of authenticity unmatched by any other Jewish community.

That’s why Rav Yaakov Mualem, spiritual leader of the Sha’arayim community, is as authentic a Yemenite as the elders, even though he was born in Rechovot in 1960. Both his parents came from Yemenand settled in Sha’arayim in the 1950s. Rav Mualem, an expert on kriyah Teimani and minhagei Teiman, learned the nuances of the Yemenite tradition from his parents, his savta [“she was a ba’alat mussar — she taught me mussar, tzniyut, and derech eretz”], and the zkeinim in the community. And that’s literal. The oldest of these “elders” is the mekubal Mori [rebbi or teacher] Chamri Yichye, who is 103. 

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