O, the simple life in Yemen!
The members of the 'lost generagion' of 1990s immigrants from Yemen are finding it difficult to adjust to modern life and ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel.
The afternoon stretches on endlessly, and during these hours of waiting for the heat to fade, not a single man can be seen on the streets of the Ushiyot neighborhood in Rehovot. On the bench in the shade of a housing project sit women in traditional garb: a long dress beneath which peek black trousers, with scarves of striped cloth on their heads. On the next bench sit Ethiopian women. An abyss of strangeness gapes between the two benches, but in the stairwell of the building, their children play ball together.
The bell of the ice-cream truck draws the kids outside. Among the Russian children and the Ethiopian children, boys with long, curly earlocks appear; they look as though they have emerged from old 1950s photographs of Yemenite immigrants.
Most of the Yemenites who have been trickling into the country since the early 1990s settled in this neighborhood of low buildings on the outskirts of Rehovot. A few of them are scattered in Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva, and a handful of families live in Kiryat Ekron and Kiryat Gat. Up until 1998, the long old building next to which the ice-cream line winds served as an immigrant absorption center. Initially it was intended for the absorption of immigrants from Ethiopia, but when the Yemenites began to arrive, they were lodged there. Today, after the absorption center closed, immigrant families are still living in it.
A girl of about 12 emerges from one of the low buildings across the way and joins the line. Then she crosses the street, carrying a bagful of ice-cream cones. Where are all the Yemenite men?
"They are chewing qat [the psycho-active fresh leaves of the catha edulis shrub] at our house," she answers and offers an ice-cream cone from the sack. "They're chewing and studying Torah," she adds.
At the entrance to her building stand two young men, Ezra Tsabari and Ya'ish Aqrash, green juice showing between their teeth. Tsabari, 28, who does not have earlocks and is wearing a small black skullcap on his head, is the son of one of the first families that immigrated to Israel from Yemen at the beginning of the 1990s. He is married and the father of three: His children are Harel, 4, Matanel, 2, and Nofer, a 6-month-old girl.
Aqrash, his 26-year-old friend, immigrated a few years after him. Aqrash's ultra-Orthodox appearance reveals that he identifies with the Satmar Hasidim. Adherents to this extreme group began to exert their influence on the Jews of Yemen to deter them from immigrating to Israel. The Satmars have succeeded in absorbing some of these Jews into their community. Aqrash wears a large fringed ritual garment over his white shirt, according to Hasidic custom.
The difference between these two young men does not end with their appearance. While Aqrash speaks Hebrew with a Yemenite accent that is hard to understand, Tsabari is fluent in his speech; he has almost no trace of an accent. Aqrash is not involved in what is happening in Israel, and does not vote in elections, whereas Tsabari has a clear political stance. Ever since Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, he says, he has been voting for the Likud. This is the preference of the majority here, it turns out, apart from a small minority that has connected to Shas. There is, for example, Ezra Tsabari's brother David, seven years younger than him, who was educated in Shas educational institutions and defines himself as a Shas man.
Tsabari and Aqrash both left Yemen at the age of 17, but Tsabari has made a conscientious effort to become part of this country: He believed with all his heart in integration into Israel and in Israeliness. Aqrash, however, gave up from the very outset. When Tsabari enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and served in the Armored Corps, his friend studied at a yeshiva. When Tsabari was going from job to job, barely supporting his large family, Aqrash was growing closer and closer to the Satmar Hasidim. Today, he says, he travels to the United States every few months and receives financial aid from them that is enough to live on for an entire year.
Chewing and viewing
It is astonishing, therefore, to discover that despite the contrast in their opening stances with regard to life here, the feeling of alienation and discrimination is common today to both of them - and to several dozen young men who arrived in their teens or their early twenties. The members of the "lost generation" of the 1990s immigration are torn between tradition and the charms of the Western way of life. They chew qat as they stare at large television screens, playing with the cellular phones in their hands and longing for the simple life back in Yemen.
In their youth they were sent to ultra-Orthodox boarding schools, but most of them have not remained ultra-Orthodox. Prof. Yehuda Nini, a researcher of Yemenite Jewry, says that the fact that most of the Yemenites did not become ultra-Orthodox has to do with their psychology, which is one of "extreme individualism that cannot accept the ultra-Orthodox way of life." When they abandoned ultra-Orthodox life, these young men find out that without a minimal education, they will not be able to integrate into society and find work. Along with the bitterness over the conditions of their absorption and the conditions of life in Israel, they express frustration over the education they received.
After the army, it appeared that Tsabari was on the right road. He married Sa'ada, a 19-year-old immigrant whose name the officials at the airport changed to Oshrit, as if it were still the 1950s. For a number of years he worked as a security man at the National Insurance Institute branch in Rehovot, until he was fired. Since then, he has been working at odd jobs. His wife, who is now on maternity leave, is employed part-time as a cook at a day center for the elderly in Rehovot.
In his father's home, Tsabari's deportment expresses the quiet manners of respect for his elders. He is Yehya Tsabari's fourth son. The father sits barefoot in his traditional light blue clothes on the sofa in the living room of his home, holding the water pipe in his hand and puffing at it from time to time. Around him are many guests who have come to greet Yemenite relatives who immigrated to the Satmar community in the U.S. and have returned for a visit. Looking back, the younger Tsabari regrets that he had not done what they did. In 1991 the entire family received an exit visa to the U.S. because of the father's illness. They spent about a year there.
"Everyone was running after us," relates Ezra Tsabari, "the Satmars, the Israelis from the Jewish Agency, Mossad people. Everyone. They said, `Your father promised that you would immigrate to Israel. We'll see to housing, a car and food for you.' I was 18 - what did I know about life? When I arrived here I waited to see the Jewish Agency people. To this day I haven't seen a single soul."
Now he lives in constant frustration from the fact that he left the U.S. "The truth is, I regret it. People of my age who live with the Satmars have already bought apartments."
According to Tsabari, his father, Yehya, tried to immigrate to Israel for 20 years and also spent time in prison when this became known to the authorities. His plans to immigrate were completely against the will of his own father, the grandfather of the clan - a kind of angry prophet who warned his son that his children would become nonbelievers if they immigrated to Israel. When the grandfather died and the gates opened, Yehya had no doubt that he would immigrate to Israel. Is he sorry today that he did? Heaven forfend, he says gaily. "This is our country, the land of Israel." And the Satmars? He waves his hand in a dismissive gesture.
Yehya Tsabari is the "elder" of the tribe, but everything is relative. In Western terms, he is not an old man; he is only 58. In contrast to other immigrants who sat there motionless and red-eyed, gradually sinking into a kind of apathy, Tsabari is laughing, in constant motion and full of vitality. He is the father of 16 children, or as he puts it, "11 children and five girls," who were born to him by four wives, and the grandfather of 10. He divorced three of his wives, and the fourth died. He arrived in Israel with a fifth wife, Sa'ada, who has borne him seven children. The youngest is three and a half.
In Yemen, Tsabari was a goldsmith. Here he lives off National Insurance Institute allotments and has to stay at home with nothing to do. His wife, like most of the women here, works in cleaning. According to his son, since the latest cuts in the child allotments. it is difficult for his father to buy more than basic food for his many children. In the late afternoon Tsabari goes to a kind of kollel (study house for married men) in the middle of the neighborhood where they study Torah and chew qat until evening. The place is intended for older men and activity there resembles that of the way of life to which they were accustomed in Yemen. It used to be that Ezra Tsabari was never seen there, but to day more and more young men in their 20s go there and chew qat. The Yemenites say that qat is soothing. Apparently the activity is intended mainly for distraction. They chew to forget their troubles.
The Jeep stayed in Yemen
Contrary to the common myth that the Jews lived in extreme poverty in Yemen, the immigrants relate that they lacked for nothing there. Ezra Tsabari and his friends describe with longing the good air in Yemen, their games as children, the landscapes, the size of the fruit. There was everything in Yemen, they say - bananas, tangerines, oranges and grapes, and so flavorful. A land of milk and honey in reverse. Aqrash's tranquillity is disturbed for a moment when he describes the Yemenite soup that they used to cook over a fire out of doors. "It didn't have the smell of gas like here," he says. "Everything was natural there. We would have weddings outdoors, not in a hall."
Prof. Yosef Tobi of the University of Haifa says, however, that the Jews' security situation was problematic in Yemen. "They were in distress because Arab nationalism was increasing and the religious party grew stronger in recent years. They were dependent on the rule of sheikhs, local political forces. There is no doubt that the desire to glorify their life there is in the context of the difficulty of their life in Israel."
According to Prof. Nini, who lives in Rehovot and is closely acquainted with this community, this immigration and the immigration of the 1950s are light-years apart. "In the past, the immigrations from Yemen were of entire communities, whole villages. Those who remained in Yemen were a few families who stayed behind in villages of northern Yemen, with no community center. There wasn't even a synagogue in all the villages. Sometimes they prayed and sometimes they didn't. The reason these immigrants [of the 1990s - T.R.] came here is that they did not have a Jewish future."
Nini says that he has no empathy for the complaints that they frequently express about the conditions of their absorption and discrimination. "I do not believe that they have any reason to complain. There has been no immigration that has had such generous material conditions. The fact is that those who were active there are also working here and there are families, though few of them, that are supporting themselves respectably. They had the option of studying but they didn't want to."
However, Nini adds, there is no exaggeration in their descriptions of life in Yemen. "Yemen is a beautiful country, fertile, and agriculture flourishes. And there is another thing: Life is simple."
It is for this simplicity that Ezra is longing more than anything else. "Everything you earn goes into your pocket," he says. "There are no taxes, no bureaucracy and no democracy."
The first to make a connection with the immigrants back in Yemen were the Satmars. In Israel, caring for them was placed in the hands of MK Rabbi Arieh Gamliel of Shas. In 1994, there was a political ruckus around the statement by MK Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party to the effect that the state was abandoning the Yemenites and letting Shas get control of them. And indeed, according to Nini, "the institutions involved in absorption became afraid that if they sent the children to secular educational institutions, there would be a reprise of the story about cutting off the side curls in the 1950s." Into this vacuum came the ultra-Orthodox.
"Every week a different rabbi came here and took the children to yeshivas," relates Shimon Jamil, Yehya's 23-year-old son, in his room that is decorated with posters of his favorite singer, Eyal Golan. "They convinced our parents that if we went to regular schools, their daughters would become prostitutes and we would abandon religion." The ultra-Orthodox succeeded in enlisting students for their educational institutions, but they did not succeed in preventing the loss of religion.
Although he studied at Rabbi David Grossman's Migdal Or institutions in Migdal Ha'emek, which are intended for immigrants, Jamil's hair is cut in a fashionable style and dyed in light tints. "The ultra-Orthodox treated us well, but we missed home and to this day I can't explain to myself why I studied there. I passed the time. I simply wasted it."
Nini explains that the Yemenites could have sent their children to regular schools, "but with the ultra-Orthodox, education doesn't cost them anything."
Ezra Tsabari was active in registering people for Shas and went from house to house. He says that he signed up a total of 60 immigrant children for ultra-Orthodox institutions. Why, then, did he not become a part of Shas? "Their style of suits and mobile phones wasn't for me," he says. "I'm a man of action. I wanted to work."
According to Tsuriel Krispel of Shas, the outgoing head of the Elad council and Rabbi Gamliel's aide in those days, the principle was to register children for ultra-Orthodox boarding schools, not necessarily Shas institutions. "This was a Jewish action," he says.
Shimon Jamil's curly earlocks were cut off at the age of 10 in the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. He remembers that the other ultra-Orthodox children teased him about them. According to Tsabari, only few of the young people remain in the ultra-Orthodox system, marry young and study in a kollel. Most of the young people begin to move away from religion. This is evident in the way they dress, the small skullcaps they wear and their haircuts.
Dr. Aharon Ben David, a Yemenite by origin, is a researcher of the community who was an inspector at the Education Ministry and dealt with absorbing the immigrants. He says that "in the meantime, no one is really secular, but there is no doubt that they are not ultra-Orthodox." According to him, the older immigrants have adapted in the end to the change that has taken place in their children.
"In Yemen, if a child would move away from religion they would weep and wail over him because this was exceptional. Here they see others like them," says Ben David.
Shimon Jamil relates that he once said to this father: "You brought me here from Yemen, it's not my fault. I was a child. What do you expect? Now I want to be an Israeli."
Jamil is among the few young immigrants from 1990s who enlisted in the army. Apparently he had exaggerated expectations of the benefits or the opportunities he would receive there, which ended up in a huge disappointment. "In the army they didn't understand the background of economic distress I come from," he says. He deserted, spent time in prison and was finally discharged.
Compared to him, his friend Efraim Kattabi, 19, is considered a success among the immigrants because he succeeded in getting accepted into the Border Police. The reason for this is simple: He dropped out of Migdal Or, signed up for a national-religious boarding school and even passed matriculation examinations. He aspires to getting into the officer track and pins his success in life on his that in the army. His father looks ultra-Orthodox in every respect. The son wears a small skullcap on his head.
Today, fewer of the immigrants' children are sent to boarding schools. Shimon Jamil says that the parents have realized that nothing good will come of the yeshivas and today they prefer to send their children to schools close to home. Thus, this year his brothers transferred to the mixed state religious Takhkemoni School.
The only hope that remains to Ezra Tsabari is that "my children will learn something. That they will learn a profession in which they will be able to work and earn their living. This is what is important to me. It's not important to me whether they turn out religious or secular. The main thing is that they should study."
More than 600 immigrants
Between 1990 and 2004, more than 600 immigrants have arrived in Israel from Yemen. Most of them have settled in the Ushiyot neighborhood of Rehovot because of its proximity to Sha'arayim, which is identified with the veteran Yemenite community. The other concentration of immigrants is in Ashkelon. A minority have also settled in Bnei Brak, Kiryat Ekron, Be'er Sheva and Gedera.
This is a young immigration - about one-quarter of the immigrants are between the ages of 19 and 35, and most of the families have many children. Since 2000, only a small number of immigrants has arrived in the country. It is estimated that there are only 50 more Jewish families remaining in Yemen.
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