Sarah Ansbacher runs the Aden Jewish heritage museum in Tel Aviv. Sometimes the visitors to the museum she meets have such interesting stories to tell, they deserve to be shared with a wider audience. Thanks to Sarah for giving us permission to post this one:
the most ordinary-looking people are anything but. So it was with an
older gentleman in his eighties I met on Friday with an inspiring story
about success against all odds. (Grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea –
this is a good one.)
‘Ah, Adenim!’ he said when he entered, ‘We
always used to be against them.’ There was a twinkle in his eye and his
smile was good-natured. It was obvious he wasn’t being serious. ‘Why is
that?’ I asked.
‘I’m Temani. We were in school together. There was always this rivalry. They’d say, “You Temanim!” we’d say, “You Adenim!”’
A street in Keren Hateimanim, Tel Aviv
He gave an amused shrug. ‘I don’t know… we were children.’ He told me
he needed to sit down, he’d just returned from shopping in Shuk Carmel
(the market) and was a bit tired. Since it was quiet I joined him on the
bench and by then, it had somehow been established I was originally
from London. He switched to near-flawless English with a slight accent.
Perhaps I should have been surprised, but it didn’t occur to me yet. And
then, he told me his extraordinary story.
He was born to Temani
parents in Kerem Hateimanim, a neighbourhood in Tel Aviv close by, next
to Shuk Carmel. His great-grandparents had come here from Yemen in the
1880s and settled in Kfar Shiloach, a village in Jerusalem just outside
the Old City walls, also known as Silwan. His father didn’t speak much
Hebrew back then. Amongst themselves, they spoke Arabic. He was also
fluent in Yiddish and Ladino to converse with the Ashkenazim and
Sefardim. Nearly destitute, his parents moved to Tel Aviv shortly before
he was born as his father had found work there as a builder.
Hateimanim, the neighbourhood they moved to, was the poorest in Tel Aviv
and made up predominantly of Yemenite families. There was no paving
between their hovels, only sand.
Growing up in the thirties,
there was a friendly rivalry between the Temanim and Adenim, who lived
in Mahane Yosef (the adjoining neighbourhood – where the museum is
situated). Between the two neighbourhoods, besides the sea and
stretching to Yaffo was an Arab neighbourhood. It looked much like Kerem
Hateimanim, with low homes and sandy streets. In fact, the landlord of
his parents’ home at the time was Arab. The children of these three
neighbourhoods would play together in the streets. And apart from the
usual childhood arguments, they all got along.
The school he went
to was in Kalisher Street, not far from his home. It was a Talmud Torah
and all the boys were Temani or Adeni. In those days there was
segregation – the boys weren’t admitted to any of the Ashkenazi schools.
The school went up to kita chet (last year of primary school). He told me of all the boys he knew
during the time he was there, in the entire school, not a single one
went on to high school. Some didn’t even finish up to kita chet. They’d
go into manual jobs. Working in a garage or as builders etc. They were
given the most menial jobs. He gave me the example of a rabbi from Yemen
who, having recently arrived and needing to support his family, would
be forced to take a job sweeping the streets to survive.
November 1947, after the UN vote, everything changed. From north to
south the Arabs began to riot and murder Jews. From the minaret of the
Hassan Bek mosque (which still stands across the road from the David
Intercontinental Hotel) snipers were posted who would fire into Kerem
Hateimanim. They killed several people in the streets in this way, who
were just going about their business. He remembers how they would often
have drills in the school to teach them how to take cover from the
snipers who regularly took aim at the windows of their school and homes.
He told me that if you were in the street and heard a bullet whistle
past; you ran as fast as you can because that meant you had a few
seconds to take cover before he reloaded.
After several months of
this, his mother being terrified for the family, took him and his siblings
somewhere else for refuge. For a while, they lived in the back of a cafe
on Allenby Street, while his father remained in the home to make sure
no one stole it. There were many other families in the same situation.
They were known as the Yaffo (Jaffa) refugees and the government
eventually settled them in another area.
In this new area, there
was an opportunity to go to a different school. But he was religious and
felt out of place, so returned to his old school, cycling on his bike
several miles every day there and back. Like all the other boys, he
finished school at around thirteen years old and then went to work with
his father employed as a builder.
His best friend from school,
who was Adeni, also started off in manual labour. But he eventually
opened his own business and became a self-made millionaire and helped
others in the community by employing them.
As for him, the
question suddenly occurred to me about his excellent command of language
and I asked him where he had learnt such good English – in school? He
laughed. ‘No! not in that school,’ and then almost matter-of-fact he
said: ‘I learnt it when I went to University in England to do my PhD.’
I was astonished! ‘What?’ I asked, ‘How did you manage that?’
And then this unassuming man explained how his employer was very unkind
and didn’t treat his father, who was older, with respect. He decided to
leave and swore he’d never be employed by someone as a manual worker
again. He was just fifteen when he set up on his own renovating houses
and at the same time, he decided he wanted to go back to study for his
bagrut (high school diploma). He went to evening college to study for
his exams – the only one in his class who was a builder. During the day
he would spend two weeks out of every month studying in the library and
work for two weeks as a builder to help support himself and parents. He
got his bagrut at 18 and after mandatory army service (where he was
promoted to officer) he studied for a law degree. He moved to England
for a few years to do his PhD where he also met his wife and then
returned to Israel.
Having told me his story, he decided he had
to continue on preparing for Shabbat. He wished me a warm Shabbat Shalom
and went on his way. And I was left in awe over this amazing man,
thinking about him and his incredible story for much of the day.