Tra­di­tion­al Soci­ety in Tran­si­tion: The Yemeni Jew­ish Experience

Bat-Zion Eraqi Klorman

  • Review
By – June 1, 2015

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.

Ran­dall Belin­fante has served as the Librar­i­an of the Amer­i­can Sephar­di Fed­er­a­tion for more than 13 years. He has tak­en a tiny col­lec­tion of 200 books and built an assem­blage of over 10,000 items. Mr. Belin­fante holds degrees in var­i­ous aspects of Jew­ish stud­ies, and dur­ing his tenure at ASF, he has inves­ti­gat­ed a vari­ety of top­ics, pre­sent­ing papers on such diverse top­ics as the Mizrahi Jews dri­ven from their homes in Islam­ic coun­tries and the cryp­to-Jew­ish Mash­hadis of Iran. He has also writ­ten many book reviews on books of Sephar­di / Mizrahi interest.

Discussion Questions