Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rabbi of Yemen’s Sana’a Jews loves Yemen and plans to stay

Observed by: Mr. Alaa Isam

The once large Jewish community of Yemen numbers a mere few hundred today. The Media Line’s Felice Friedson spoke with the rabbi of part of the split Jewish community in Sana’a.

SANA’A, Yemen – 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.

Friedson: How many Jews are there today in Yemen?
Rabbi: There are many Jews, around 400 people.

Friedson: What happened in the last few years? There used to be 50,000 and now the number has reached 400.
Rabbi: There are people who travelled away from Yemen; some live in America, the UK, 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.

Friedson: Why are you here?
Rabbi: 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.

Friedson: Do you feel that you have been treated well? Your community is gated. Is this protecting you or making you a target?
Rabbi: We live with Muslims as part of Yemeni society. Yemeni society is one, regardless of religion. Religion is for G-d, but the nation is for all. The President, may G-d save him, is interested in the entire population and assists everyone. And he protects us, definitely.

Friedson: How can you practise Judaism if you’re only 400 people? Where is it going to be in a decade as a community?
Rabbi: 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.

Friedson: You told me earlier that you believe thousands of Jews will return to Yemen. Were you serious? Do you really believe that?
Rabbi: Certainly. G-d willing, they will return. G-d decides everything.

Friedson: What kind of Judaism are you practising? Do you teach your children Arabic or Hebrew? What happens on a daily basis?
Rabbi: 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.

Friedson: What school is that, where you teach?
Rabbi: Al-Mustaqbal (future) School.

Friedson: Who attends the school?
Rabbi: There are about 26 Jewish students, from elementary to high school, out of a total of 900 students.

Friedson: How many synagogues are there?
Rabbi: There is no synagogue at the moment, so we pray at home in the living room.

Friedson: Are you restricted in your performance of religious practices?
Rabbi: We practise all our religious practices with full liberty. The president sees to this.

Friedson: Who is trained to circumcise the babies?
Rabbi: Yes, we have everything.

Friedson: As its rabbi, you are the focal point of the community. How are you going to pass on the traditions?
Rabbi: In Rayda 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 Rayda have communities. Every community practices separately.

Friedson: Do you have Arab friends?
Rabbi: Yes, all my friends are Arabs.

Friedson: Do you observe the laws of kashrut – kosher?
Rabbi: Yes, I do. We prepare the food and slaughter the animals ourselves. I slaughter the animals, and I also marry the people.

Friedson: What will happen when you can no longer do it?
Rabbi: There are now other people who are studying and preparing for that event.

Friedson: How many children do you have? And how many wives?
Rabbi: I have only one wife, but my father had two. Some have two.

Friedson: At what age do girls get married?
Rabbi: Now we don't marry girls before the age of 18.

Friedson: Do they go to university? Do they work?
Rabbi: Definitely. They will finish their university education.

Friedson: Will they then work?
Rabbi: Of course. The nation educated them, so they should return the favour. Without education we cannot fulfill the simplest needs.

Friedson: Israel spends millions of dollars to bring Jews from all over the world.
Rabbi: Of course, they trade in people the way men trade in livestock.

Friedson: Do foreign Jews come to visit you here?
Rabbi: We marry Jews from abroad, but no one will leave this country regardless of the circumstances.

Friedson: What do Jews work at?
Rabbi: Before, they used to work as silversmiths, in wood, in metal, and agriculture. But now we don't have the equipment to practise our profession. We ask American NGOs to help us financially to provide us with the equipment we need for our profession as silversmiths.

Friedson: Why didn’t you approach Jewish organizations?
Rabbi: 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 G-d and the president, we would have already died of hunger.

Friedson: I asked you earlier about living in a guarded area. Aren’t you and your neighbours more of a target living under those conditions: guarded and not free to come and go?
Rabbi: We believe in G-d and the protection of the Yemeni government.

Friedson: Are you a Yemeni, or a Jew, or both?
Rabbi: I am a Yemeni. The most ancient religion here was Judaism.

Friedson: How long has your family lived in Yemen?
Rabbi: Hundreds of years.
I would like to thank the president for allowing this interview.

© 2011. The Media Line Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 26 January 2011 )


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