In this fascinating and well-written study, Klorman explores the internal and external forces that molded the Yemeni Jewish population from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
The traditional Yemeni community was a rural one. Surrounded by Muslim tribesmen and culture, it relied heavily on livelihoods that were craft-based, particularly in the areas of metalwork and jewelry production. Regarded as dhimmis (a tolerated minority) for many centuries, Yemeni Jews were heavily influenced by the dominant Muslim ethos, and integrated much of that culture. Because of their isolation, they long avoided the Western influences that came with colonization in many of the Mizrahi communities of the Middle East and North Africa. Yemeni Jews’ aspiration for change found expression in traditional Messianic ideology rather than that of secularism and the Enlightenment.
By the end of the nineteenth century however, having witnessed at least three messianic eruptions, the Yemeni community was in a state of great instability. The spread of the Ottoman Empire through Yemen in the closing decades of the nineteenth century transformed an economy which had for centuries been based on craft production. Many of the Yemeni Jews were driven into commerce, peddling, or migrant labor — jobs from which they often found it difficult to extricate themselves. Klorman analyses the communal response to this and other changes which exposed the community to modernity.
Amidst this growing insecurity, groups with opposing ideologies emerged. The Iqshim (the stubborn ones) immersed themselves in Kabbalah, praying that Jewish mysticism would offer solutions to their problems. Another group, the Darda’im (Dor Dea—the generation of knowledge) hearkened back to the rationalism of Maimonides, finding expression in the enlightenment ideas then sweeping through the occidental world. Klorman asserts that in addition to strong opposition to the traditional study of kabbalah and kabbalistic customs the Darda’im also embraced ideas that paralleled the modernist Islamic thought of the time. The dispute between the Iqshim and the Darda’im caused a serious rift within the community and neither group was able to effect the changes they desired.
Emigration was another response to the upheavals in this traditional community. Beginning in 1881, most migration focused on Palestine. Klorman, however, also describes the experience of Yemeni Jews emigrating to East Africa and the complex relationships between them, the Jews from Aden already settled there, and the Italian colonial rulers. Klorman views this experience as paralleling immigration to Palestine. In both cases, the encounter with modern Western societies weakened traditional paradigms. Gradually, aspects of the societal structure began to change. The patriarchal order began to disintegrate and controversy and tension emerged over matters of inheritance and marriage. In the sphere of education Yemenites, who had for centuries insisted on their traditional education system for maintaining cohesion in their community, were faced with the necessity to adopt modern subjects into their curriculum.
In contrast with earlier studies, Klorman has placed emphasis on the transformations experienced by Jews from the rural areas of Yemen. He has explored their lives within the context of Yemenite Muslim society. With its abundant notes and extensive bibliography this is clearly a serious academic text, however Klorman writes with such eloquence that it is a joy to read.