In 1987, equipped with a foreign passport, Israeli photographer Naftali Hilger visited Yemen for the first time. He wandered through the Old City of Sa’dah, in the country’s north, and got lost amid narrow alleys framed by picturesque clay buildings. He wasn’t looking for Jews, but for a way out of the Old City.
“Suddenly I found myself facing a young man with earlocks, ‘simunim’ [Yemenite pronunciation of the Hebrew word meaning ‘markers’], which set Yemen’s Jews apart from their Muslim neighbors,” Hilger relates in a text accompanying his photographs in the exhibition “Yemen: From Sheba to Jerusalem,” which opened this week at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. In addition to his images, the show, curated by Yigal Bloch, Yehuda Kaplan and Oree Meiri, also features objects from the ancient kingdoms of southern Arabia, as well as manuscripts that shed light on the heritage of Yemenite Jewry.
In his wanderings, Hilger says, he met someone named Yacob Zabari, who had remained in the country even after his daughters immigrated to Israel. Zabari was thrilled at the sight of the foreigner without earlocks who spoke the holy tongue. But mostly he was frightened, and told the photographer: “We Jews are prohibited from speaking to foreigners. If the Muslim neighbors see us, they’ll inform on us to the authorities and we will both be carrying on the conversation in prison. It will be better if you come inside the house.”
The photographs in the exhibition were taken in the 1980s and ‘90s. Yitzhak Naati was photographed with his grandson, Binyamin, in the town of al-Haifa, north of the administrative capital, Sanaa. The grandfather immigrated to Israel in 2014, while the grandson traveled to the United States and was educated under the auspices of the Satmar Hasidic community. There are also shots taken in Wadi Amlah, not far from the border with Saudi Arabia, including several pairs of siblings and a group of men in a stark desert setting.
After the mass immigration of some 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel in the state’s early years, it became extremely difficult for those who remained to leave Yemen. Beginning in 1991, however, the authorities revised the country’s immigration policy and allowed Jews to leave and be united with their relatives. Of 1,000 Jews there at the time, about 800 came to Israel. A small community remained; incited by the Satmar sect, they refused to go to Israel. At present, there are fewer than 40 Jews in Yemen, which has become immersed in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.