Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Nisan 5759 - March 24, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Olei Teiman: What Has Changed About the Transition Between the Two Countries in the Last Fifty Years?

By A. Mor

Enduring Traditions

The first time I encountered Yisrael, I had no idea that he was the man whom Rav Yaakov Oved, mori of the Yemenite community in Rechovot, had suggested I interview. At the time, I was searching for the beis haknesses of the Yemenite immigrants, while Yisrael was on his way there. His first words to me were, "How are you?" This, despite the fact that he had never met me before and never expected to. It was only afterwards that I found out who he was.

Yisrael Faiz was born in Khaidan, a town on the outskirts of the city of Saada, in North Yemen. With his wife and four sons, he arrived in Eretz Yisroel at the beginning of Nisan 5753 (1993), just six years ago. One of the resemblances between yetzias Mitzrayim and the Faiz family's journey is that the flour that had already been prepared in Yemen for baking matzos, travelled with them and was later used for that purpose in Eretz Yisroel.

Yisrael and I sat in his living room. All the windows in the apartment are kept open during the daytime, as was customary among the Jews in Yemen. Towards evening, they are closed. Other local habits that Yisrael keeps up are chewing ga'at and smoking a nargilah, in which he is able to engage while he plies his trade as a silversmith.

The house is quiet during the day. To describe it as being empty of belongings would be inaccurate. The sparsity that is in evidence stems from sufficiency with a minimum and utter disinterest in acquisition for its own sake. Such emptiness does not affect the home's atmosphere of contentment and tranquility in the slightest. The sounds of the household are pleasant and are absorbed by the almost bare walls.

Yisrael's home is in Ashiyat, a quiet suburb of south Rechovot. Most of the inhabitants of the two story homes with red tiled roofs are Yemenite families. At dinner time, smells of frying fill the air, a sign that the traditional Yemenite way of life is still being followed by many families, to one degree or another. Only the names of the streets, such as Dov Hus and Hahistadrut, remain as reminders of the area's original secular Israeli ambience.

With the neighborhood and the house providing suitable background, I returned with Yisrael to Yemen, to hear about their Pesochim and how they held their sedorim, about their aliya and about the challenges and the differences they have found in raising a family in Yemen and in Rechovot.

All by Hand

In a world where mechanization has taken over the provision of many of man's needs, Yemen is one of the places where things are still done by hand. Preparation of the matzos involved the manual execution of every step in the gemora's account of baking bread, which is mentioned in connection with the mishkan.

All the wheat used to be ground by hand. With the advent of our affluent modern times, some families kept a special mill with their sets of Pesach utensils. Although grinding machines also became available, there were those who still preferred to use the hand mills, especially for the matzos that were to be used for the sedorim.

The slaughter of a kid goat for the meal at the seder was routine. The Yemenite Jews were careful to say that the meat was being prepared in honor of Yom Tov, rather than Pesach, to avoid any resemblance to a korbon. Wine was also produced at home, because of the halachic problems of gentile involvement in its production.

The Festival of Strictness

In Yemen, the gentiles were very familiar with the customs of the Jews: more so in fact, than entire Jewish populations in some parts of the western world. The Yemenite Arabs have their own name for every Jewish festival, a name that captures the unique atmosphere of each chag.

They call Pesach, Id al Katze, meaning, the Festival of Strictness. They knew that everything connected to Pesach was carried out with even greater stringency then usual. They accepted this with equanimity and lent their cooperation.

The grinding machine is a case in point. Usually, the machine used for Pesach was owned by a gentile and the Jews would rent it for several days. For two or three days, it was cleaned, scrubbed and prepared for grinding, under the careful supervision of the town's rabbonim.

According to Yisrael, a large sum had to be paid for the rental. Although the owners did lose a certain amount of business while the Jews were using the machine, they also took advantage of the great care that had to be taken and the time that had to be spent in its preparation, in order to demand an exorbitant fee.

Nonetheless, the general attitude of the Yemenite gentiles towards the Jews who lived among them was one of courtesy and consideration. The Arabs knew that when Jews lived among them, they experienced success with their livelihoods. In Yemen, the gentiles used to say that, "The Jews are the heart of every place [where they are]," and they would actually have preferred the Jews to have stayed on in their country.

Sedorim in Yemen

One of the most striking features of the Yemenite seder is the way the requirement to lean is fulfilled - - basically in the same way it was done in the time of the gemora.

The seder would be held in a particularly large room, known in Arabic as a divan (living room). Carpets were spread over the floor and pillows and cushions were placed upon them. Several families would usually come and hold the seder together. Although Yisrael still continues to lean in this way at the seder, he concedes that it is getting harder to keep it up.

The seder plate held much the same as our own. However for carpas, the leaves at the top of the radish were used, rather than the root, as we do. When I asked Yisrael what vegetable was used for maror, he did not understand the question. "Maror, that's all," he said. (His Hebrew is not yet completely fluent and his accent is still heavy. From time to time, he asks his twelve year old son for help.)

"It's green and bitter," he tried to explain to me again. Eventually, I caught on and understand that they had a bitter vegetable that was known simply as maror, a name that even the Arabs used for it. Yisrael said that he had seen the vegetable on sale in Eretz Yisrael but had passed it up. "It's better to eat lettuce. You can rely on it; there is a kosher kind, without any bugs," he said.

Although the gentile authorities introduced no physical bitterness to life in Yemen, they had ways of apprehending Jewish troublemakers and punishing them severely. While they did not start up with the Jews without reason, there was no shortage of trifling pretexts for bringing wayward Jews to account. "They chased Jews harder than gentiles," Yisrael says. "People who conducted themselves in a straight manner, were not touched. However, if someone didn't . . . "

As is customary, nuts were distributed to the children at the seder. While today, many of the things that are done at the seder fail to elicit spontaneous questions from our children -- perhaps on account of their relative satiation with different things and exciting experiences which render the ordinary rarer than the extraordinary -- this was not the case in Yemen.

"I asked my father [the questions], just like it is written in the Haggadah: Why is this night different from all other nights?" Yisrael recalled. He stressed that it was no mere recital of Mah Nishtanah but the real, honest questions of a child. And his father used to answer him and tell him about yetzias Mitzrayim, just as the Haggadah says.

Next Year . . .

Two versions of the Haggadah are current among Yemenite Jews, the Shami and the Baladi. The Faiz family followed the Shami version. Despite several differences in text, the sensations that accompanied the recital of the Haggadah were identical.

It is hard for Yisrael to describe the families' feelings as they said Avadim hayinu, living as they were under the rule of a despotic, albeit benign, foreign power. "We felt that we were in exile. We felt that we needed Hashem's salvation, feelings that perhaps are not there today. We lived each day with the desire to be oleh to Eretz Yisroel, and on Pesach, more than ever."

"Did the Yemenite Jews really believe that a year later they would be free?" I ask Yisrael.

"We prayed to Hashem that what we were saying would be correct and true, and that in a year's time we really would be free." They were also under the impression that when they finally got to Eretz Yisroel, they would be truly free.

Tension rose towards the end of the seder. Yisrael remembers that there was great hope and great excitement at this stage. Then he sighs. "We sang Leshanah haba biYerushalayim, but it was hard to imagine. The Yemenites had closed the borders and were not allowing anyone to leave. We weren't at all sure that one year later we would really be treading upon the ground of Yerushalayim but we hoped so, we very much hoped so."

It was Like Olom Haboh!

The journey to Eretz Yisrael was by no means straightforward. It was almost like getting out of Mitzrayim. While the Yemenite authorities did not permit Jews to travel to Eretz Yisroel, they did at one point let them go elsewhere, for example to England, Germany or the United States. It was through those countries that the gateway to freedom passed.

Together with a number of other Jewish families, the Faiz family set off for London, taking off for Eretz Yisroel a few days later on the last leg of their journey. They were met at the airport by relatives and friends who had preceded them, as well as by representatives of the Jewish Agency.

The Faiz family arrived very shortly before Pesach. They spent the seder night with their relatives, and experienced a seder which in certain respects was dramatically different from what they were used to. On the one hand, they had never seen such freedom from Yom Tov preparations. Almost everything was bought ready made. On the other hand, the excitement was far greater than before. Their dream had come true. They were treading upon the ground of Yerushalayim. "It really was a great joy," Yisrael tells me, using his relatively small Hebrew vocabulary.

The excitement climaxed when they sang Leshanah haba biYerushalayim. Yisrael had virtually no words to describe it. "It was like Olam Haboh . . . " he says, "Like Olom Haboh it was . . . "

Shock and Dismay

Although the newly arrived Yemenite Jews were aware of the existence of their irreligious brethren, it was hard for them to imagine that such a thing could really exist until they witnessed the phenomenon with their own eyes. The sensation was terribly strange. Their ambition had finally been realized. They were living among Jews in Eretz Yisroel, yet it was difficult to adjust to living alongside Jews who did not observe Torah and mitzvos.

"Wherever he is, a Jew has to watch himself," Yisrael says. "There were also Jews in Teiman who did not watch themselves but there, they drifted even further away. They simply became Moslems. And besides, here the reward for remaining steadfast is greater, because it's harder to do so."

Why is it harder?

"While it's true that here one has certain freedoms in daily life, one has to watch oneself more, and the children especially . . . " Yisrael goes on to explain that his family has already become accustomed to the comforts of life in a modern country and says, "Now it would be difficult to return to Teiman. However, you have to get used to the local conditions wherever you are. We mustn't forget that we are in exile."

The Faiz family did not know exactly what awaited them in Eretz Yisroel. Although the Jewish Agency bombarded the Yemenite Jews with a deluge of wonderful promises, it was their tremendous desire for Eretz Yisroel that pulled them here. "The truth is that it didn't matter to us whether or not they were going to deliver the things they promised. The main thing was to come to Eretz Yisroel . . . "

The Four Sons

Yisrael has four sons. Ya'ish aged 14, Binyamin aged 12, Moshe aged 9 and Yaakov aged 6. All the boys learn in talmudei Torah in Rechovot. Any resemblance to the four sons of the Haggadah stops at their number. Yisrael's sons are the sort which any father would want to be blessed with. I didn't have to ask any questions about how Yemenite Jews raise their children. The sight of the children was enough.

The three younger boys took their places around the small table in the living room right at the beginning of the interview. The oldest one was not at home. "He is studying for entrance tests for yeshivos ketanos," explained Benny, the second son.

A special calmness enveloped the boys as they listened to my questions and their father's answers. At one point, the two younger ones began to murmur a little to each other. Yisrael cast a sharp look in their direction and clapped his hands.

While all the boys were born in Teiman, they basically all grew up here in Eretz Yisroel. "Where is it harder to raise children," I asked. "In Teiman, or over here?"

Yisrael didn't hesitate. "It's harder to raise children here. Actually physically, it's easier here because one doesn't have to teach one's children by oneself; one sends them instead to talmud Torah. In Teiman I was responsible for my children from morning to night. However, from a spiritual point of view, which is the important one, the difficulties are much greater here. There is utter abandon in the public domain. Wherever your eyes alight, they see things that are forbidden to see, things that are not in the Jewish spirit. You hear things that it's forbidden to hear. You have to be on your guard everywhere. In Teiman, even the Moslems walked around modestly."

Ya'ish was ten years old when the family made aliya. He took his encounter with secular culture very hard. "We were almost as shaken [as we were excited]," Yisrael says. "Our shock was total. We were astonished at how such a thing could be, how Jews could not keep mitzvos."

Ya'ish asked his father about that and for the first time, Yisrael had to explain something to his son that he himself was finding hard to come to terms with.

It Depends How Much "Pain"

I asked Yisrael where children were better disciplined, here, or in Teiman? "It depends on how much `pain' you give, on how much you educate them," he said. I understood that he was referring to corporal or other forms of punishment. He was not ashamed to give such an answer, even in a country where the [secular] law forbids beating children.

As noted, the results of a Yemenite upbringing speak for themselves. Yisrael's children are very well bred. There are things which Yisrael would prefer his sons not to see, to hear or to know and he does everything he can to monitor what they are absorbing. When Yisrael hears any words or ideas from his children that he would rather not hear, he investigates who, or what, their source is. Then he simply forbids his son to be in the company of that child or to approach that source. "In Teiman we also had to keep our children from mixing with the children of the gentiles but to keep one's distance from other Jews is harder," Yisrael explains. "It's harder but sometimes one has to."


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