Yemenite Jews arrived in 1881, preceding ‘First Aliya’

Shortly before what is known as “The First Aliyah”, a group of Jews from Yemen arrived in the Land of Israel. Several dozen Yemenite families had embarked on a long and arduous journey to settle in Jerusalem. How did they overcome hostility and who came to their aid? Amit Naor for The Israel National Library charts the remarkable story of Silwan (Shiloah) outside the Jerusalem city walls.(With thanks: Michelle)

Yemenite Jews settled outside the city walls (photoi: National Library of Israel)

When did “The First Aliyah” – the first major wave of Zionist immigration to the Land of Israel – begin? If you answer by recounting the pogroms in Russia in 1881 and the pioneers of the Bilu movement, you may be mistaken. There were various reasons that led historians to label this wave of immigrants from Europe as “The First Aliyah”, when in fact Jews had been immigrating to the region in a steady trickle before then, from different parts of the globe. Several months before the Eastern European Jews landed in the port of Jaffa to expand and revitalize the local Jewish community, another group of Jews had arrived, but to much less historical fanfare. These were Yemenite Jews, most of them from the city of Sana’a, who had set out on an arduous journey to the Land of Israel shortly after the festival of Shavuot, in May 1881.

What led them to take this step? The reasons are not entirely clear, but apparently, a contributing factor was the Ottoman governor of Yemen’s issuing of an immigration permit. The first few arrived in August 1881. In the following months, and throughout 1882, more immigrants arrived from Yemen, about 200 people in all. In comparison, the Bilu pioneers that landed a few months later numbered only a few dozen. The Hebrew name given to this wave of Yemenite immigrants, E’eleh BeTamar, means, “I will climb up into the palm tree”. It is taken from a verse in the Song of Songs (7:9), and also derives from an anagram of the Hebrew year 5642 – תרמ”ב (corresponding to 1881-1882 and pronounced tarmab in Hebrew).

The Jewish community in the Land of Israel at the time, the Yishuv, consisted of both new arrivals and long-time residents who had been around for generations. Immigrant newcomers had just established the farming community of Petah Tikva, another at Rosh Pina had recently been abandoned, to be re-established the following year, and studies were underway in the Jewish agricultural school at Mikveh Israel.  Yet the majority of Jews in the Land of Israel resided in the four holy cities: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed. These people were known collectively as the “Old Yishuv.”

Homes in Shiloah (Photo: National Library of Israel)

The new immigrants from Yemen had their sights set on only one place – Zion, Jerusalem. Their journey had been long and difficult, with few friendly and welcoming faces along the way. They had to pass through rough terrain, traveling through Egypt and India, until they finally reached the Holy Land. Even those who had left Yemen with means arrived in the Land of Israel with their pockets empty.

Once in the Land of Israel, they made their way to Jerusalem. But when they reached the city, these Jews from a distant land, dressed in their unique garb, or what was left of it, were met with hostility. The Yemenite Jews not only looked very different from the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews already living there, they followed different traditions, which made it difficult for them to integrate into the Jewish population. What’s more, some of the locals even called into question the new immigrants’ Judaism. This was somewhat ironic, considering Jews were living in Yemen well before Europe’s Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities even coalesced into existence.

The suspicion and doubt also had practical implications. The Old Yishuv in Jerusalem was organized according to community networks, called kollels, which facilitated financial support for the city’s Jewish residents. The Yemenite Jews’ incompatibility with the familiar ethnic patterns caused the community’s administrators to refuse to accept them into the existing kollels and, as a result, they did not receive their share of the charity funds that supported the city’s Jews during this period. In practical terms, this also meant that the recent Jewish arrivals from Yemen were forbidden from settling within the walls of the Old City.

Destitute and looked upon as foreigners, the Yemenite Jewish immigrants had no choice but to seek housing elsewhere. Still, they did not relinquish their dream of settling in Jerusalem. As a first step, they built simple huts outside the Old City’s walls and slept outdoors, under the open sky. Some Yemenite immigrants even slept in caves, barns, and other makeshift shelters in the vicinity of the walled city.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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