"We Were Prisoners in Yemen": Meet Israel's Most Recent Arrivals

Seventeen Yemenite Jews recently made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) to reunite with their families, and just in time for Purim. Read their stories of life in Yemen.

More than 200 Yemenite Jews have made Aliyah in recent years through a series of complex operations after the country drifted into civil war and experienced an increase of anti-Semitic harassment against the Jews. Jewish Agency for Israel Hebrew site editor Nathan Roi speaks with the Yemenite immigrants who came to Israel this week, and brings us a glimpse into the lives of the Jewish community in Yemen in the 21st century.

Yechiya Aharon Zindani, with a gentle face and weary smile, arrived at the new lounge area of the “Nurit” absorption center in Be'ersheva, accompanied by a few other men who made Aliyah earlier in the week from Yemen. When he spoke about his father he became overtaken by sadness. His story reveals the reason for his Aliyah, and that of many others from Yemen.

His father, Aharon Zindani, was killed in Yemen's capital city, Sana'a, three years ago, when he went to buy groceries. He was 46 when he died, and one of the leaders of the small Jewish community in Sana'a.

In fluent Hebrew Yechiya Aharon Zindani said, "I went with my father from the Jewish compound where we lived to the market in Sana'a to buy groceries. My face was turned to one side, while my father, on the other side, bent down to pick fruit and vegetables. Then a man approached him from behind and began to cut and stab him throughout his body. All of my father's blood flowed out of his body within a moment. The killer stabbed him even when he was on the floor and truly slaughtered him.

"The police chased the murderer and caught him, and he said that he was sent by god and that he believed he would receive paradise in Heaven for murdering of Jews. We had thought we were safe after Yemen's president smuggled us out of the Sa'ada district into a closed compound for Jews in Sana'a. But then the Arab killer came and killed my father."

According to foreign reports, Jews were smuggled to Sana'a from the Sa'ada province by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh after al-Houthi tribesmen (associated with al-Qaeda) threatened to kill them. The same sources then said that the rest of the Yemenite Jews lived in the city Riida in the Omran province.

But all that didn't help, as it turned out, according to Yechiya, Aharon's son, and the rest of Yechiya's family.

Aharon Zindani's body was flown to Israel, at the same time that his widow and five children immigrated to Israel in June 2012, so that he could be buried in the Israeli city of Rechovot. It was a difficult operation managed by The Jewish Agency.

This week Yechiya, the son who witnessed Aharon's murder, was reunited with his family members living in Israel, including his mother, brothers and sisters.

The Reuniting of the Dahari Family

The Zindani's reunion was not the only one that occurred this week.

The Jewish Agency for Israel's operation brought 19 people, including men, women and children. They came with an ancient Torah scroll borne by Rabbi Shlomo Dahari, who arrived in Israel with his wife to reunite with their children already living in the “Ya'alim” absorption center in Be'ersheva. His four young children, ages 10 to 17, were smuggled by The Jewish Agency out of Yemen four months earlier out of fear of the possibility of kidnappings or attacks, and the couple had been left alone there.

Rabbi Shlomo's father, Yechiya Ya'akov Dahari, also made Aliyah with his wife and was brought to live at the “Nurit” absorption center.

Yechiya Ya'akov Dahari, old and well-schooled in pain, told a sad story about his life in a village near the city Riida.

"I was a metal worker who worked with hot iron so you can still see my eyes tearing," he said. "For many years I supported my nine children and experienced very difficult circumstances. Awhile ago, an Arab came to our house while I was away at synagogue and stole all of my belongings, money and jewelry, and I came here penniless after a surgery I went through a year ago and I still get dizzy a lot and have trouble walking."

I asked him about his feelings of being reunited with his family to which he answered quietly, suppressing his pain, "great joy.”

There were 5 to 6 Jewish families in their village, and all of their apartments and houses were transferred, without any form of payment, to the local Muslims who had awaited the departure of the Jews.

"We had a hard life," said his son, Rabbi Moshe Yechiya Dahari.

Yechiya Ya'akov Dahari's elder son, Rabbi Shlomo Yechiya Dahari, also made Aliyah this week and brought with him an ancient, centuries-old Torah scroll.

"Before the war I was also a teacher and taught 35 children, and my daughter taught 30 girls," Rabbi Shlomo told me. "We had a synagogue where we prayed and if a child's mind was good at the age of three and a half I brought him to our “cheder" or school. Now most of them are here."

He reads from the Torah in a Yemenite melody reminiscent of his ancestors.

I asked his father, Rabbi Yechiya which melodies they use for prayer.

"In Riida," he answered, "we prayed a version of Shamai and one of Baladi (according to the text of the Rambam)."

And how would you do Mikveh (a Jewish ritual of immersing in flowing water)? I asked.

He answered that the Mikveh was in his house and all his family members would come to immerse themselves in the evening hours.

A lot of people converged on the immigrants when they arrived at the absorption center, including family, several reporters and, surprisingly, a group of children from Chabad, who brought mishloach manot (a gift basket of food traditionally handed out to friends and family during Purim) to hand out to the children of the immigrants.

Speaking of Purim...

“Would you dress up? Would you celebrate Purim in Yemen?” I asked Rabbi Moshe Yechiya Dahari, Rabbi Shlomo's younger brother.

“Just a little bit,” he responds, “because we were prisoners there.”

Zion, Rabbi Moshe's son, originally immigrated alone to Israel four years ago and has been living at the “Nurit” absorption center where his father recently arrived and the family was reunited. He's dressed like an Israeli teenager and not in traditional garb like the rest of his family. Zion is now making strides toward learning a trade. He said he hopes that his parents and family members will be integrated into Israeli society.

"I wanted to come to Israel and learn because I was bored after my friends left for Israel," Zion said. 

Rabbi Moshe, was also reunited Zion's brothers and married sister, Zohara, who had all immigrated over the last few years.

"My life was very hard and I hope I can build a house and a family," Zohara said of life in Israel.

Building Their Lives in Israel

Rabbi Shlomo Yechiya Dahari, the one of who brought the ancient Torah scroll with him, served as both the rabbi and shochet (ritual slaughterer of animals for the purpose of eating) for the Jews of Riida. He said that now, when he speaks with his family, things are very clear.

"We left everything - homes and property - and we ask that the state will help us find a residence, not rented, but one where we can live," he said.

His brother, Rabbi Moshe, added that the economic situation in Yemen is very bad and event those who brought over Yemeni money are in a difficult situation since Yemeni money is worth very little against the dollar.

What is your dream? I asked Israel's newest arrivals.

"For the children to get along, that we will make it, and we can build our lives so that everything is behind us," answered Rabbi Shlomo. "That we will keep our Torah and tradition and live in a dignified manner."

His wife, Mazal, and mother of their nine children nods and added, beautifully in Hebrew, “with god's help.”

Three times a day, the men read the tenth of the 18 traditional blessings in the silent prayer that calls for the ingathering of exiles: Blow the great shofar for our freedom and bring about the miracle of the ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth. Blessed is the lord who gathers the exiled tribes of Israel.

About 50 Jews chose to stay in Yemen, of which 40 live in Sanaa, where they live in a closed compound near the US embassy and enjoy the protection of the Yemeni authorities. The Jewish Agency will continue to help every Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel and build their future there.

23 Mar 2016 / 13 Adar II 5776 0
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