Not long after the war in Yemen began, Moshe Shagdari, a Jewish singer, was forced to flee his home in the west of the country. He had lived in Hajjah for most of his 31 years and enjoyed performing with Muslim musicians, among them Fadl al-Hamami, who is known for his love of Jewish music and revered across the country.
“I used to sing at Muslim weddings and work with several Muslim artists,” Shagdari said from his new home in New York. It was a collaboration deeply relished by the Yemeni Jewish community, according to al-Hamami.
I really miss my homeland.”
Many contemporary songs emerged from such joint efforts, inspired by the writings of the 17th-century poet Salem al-Shabaazi, whose verses were often exchanged between Jews and Muslims in Yemen.
“I really miss my homeland,” said Shagdari, “and I know I’m not alone. Other Yemeni Jews who left for various reasons yearn to return. They want to preserve their artistic heritage.”
A Long Legacy
The presence of Jews in Yemen dates back millennia, according to a study by Camellia Abu Jabal, a history professor at Damascus University. Titled Yemen’s Jews: A Political, Economic and Social Study, it points to some accounts that link Jews in Yemen to descendants of the Queen of Sheba after returning from her legendary visit to King Solomon, who was born over three thousand years ago.
In the third century CE, the Jewish population in Yemen was around 3,000. By the time the Lebanese American writer Amin al-Rihani visited the country in 1924, their numbers were estimated at 20,000, with about a third in Sana’a. Jews lived all over Yemen, but Sana’a was home to the largest community, where they resided in at least 20 neighbourhoods.
Most Yemeni Jews have long since emigrated. Only four live in Yemen today, and mere traces of Jewish heritage in the country remain.
These include clothing styles, according to Naaman Alawi, who works in Sana’a’s fashion trade. Jewish apparel has largely disappeared, he said.
“The last Jewish garment I sold was to a Syrian woman interested in Yemeni culture,” he added. “She paid 250,000 Yemeni rials (about $400), and that was a long time ago.”
One example of an item no longer found in Sana’a is a traditional cone-shaped headdress worn by Jewish brides during the ten-day festivities of Yemeni Jewish weddings. There’s no more demand for the expensive raw materials required to produce it.
As explained in a photo essay on “Yemen Used to Be” on Instagram, an alqonbai’i, or gargush, is decorated with pearls, gold, silver, coral, flowers and rue leaves. With a weight of several kilograms, the headdress symbolises the burden of marriage and its responsibilities. The gargush is similar to the Sana’ai type, though the latter is lighter. Al-Alawi tried to reproduce Yemeni Jewish bridal attire at the request of a client, but said he felt the complexity of the needlework was too advanced for him to successfully complete the task.
Silverwork, which also has a long tradition among Yemeni Jews, was a trade they historically practised almost exclusively. Al-Budehi and al-Bawsani, Yemen’s most celebrated Jewish craftsmen in the 1900s, taught their silversmithing innovations to many who came after them.
Jews in Yemen were involved in a vast array of artisanal work. They mastered their crafts to such an extent, according to Camellia Abu Jabal, that they were called “the men of Yemeni industry” in virtually every profession. They minted coins or worked as butchers, gold and silver craftsmen, tailors, cleaners, doctors, whale hunters and tanners.
Common Social Ground
Jewish and Muslim traders’ activity in Yemen was closely intertwined and they spoke each other’s language. Still, Arabic was used principally for commerce and socialising, while Hebrew was largely confined to religious affairs. According to documents from Rabbi Salim Said al-Jamal, the leader of Sana’a’s Jewish community from 1935 until his emigration to Palestine in 1944, Yemeni Jews mastered the Arabic language in the oratory tradition of praise and discourse. They also wrote poetry in both Arabic and Hebrew.
Despite the absence of Yemeni Jews today, coexistence can still be a reality.”
One trace of Jewish life in Yemen, still visible in the streets of Sana’a, is the six-pointed Star of David. “You can see them on several old buildings in Sana’a, such as the facades and entrances of the main buildings, stained-glass windows, and even mosques,” said Khaled Eisa, director of the training department at the Public Authority for the Preservation of Historic Cities and Cultural Heritage Centre.
For many, this geometric form is fundamentally associated with Judaism, but after researching the origin and meaning of this star, Eisa found it appeared in most ancient civilisations that had preceded Judaism by hundreds of years. Throughout history, the Star of David has also served as a decoration in several Muslim-majority countries and their mosques, from Morocco and Tunisia to Iran and Malaysia. In Sana’a, the buildings remain adorned with them, silent signals that despite the absence of Yemeni Jews today, coexistence can still be a reality.