The Jews of Yemen

From mid-June to mid-July 1918, the British Army was actively recruiting in Jerusalem for “short service” (duration of war). Men were invited to enlist in the 40th Bn of the Royal Fusiliers. The new recruits were given army service numbers between J/4883 and J/5274 (and possibly a little either side of this regimental number range), suggesting that about 400 men enlisted in total. The great majority of these, and those recruited elsewhere by the 38th – 40th Battalions of the RF, were of course Jewish, giving rise to the jocular Army nickname of the Royal Jusiliers.

Among the newly enlisted men were numbers who stated that they had been born in “Teman” – in other words Yemenite Jews. British rule in Palestine had encouraged a first wave of Yemeni Jews to emigrate from Yemen in the 1890s and 1900s; mostly they settled in Jerusalem and Jaffa. The RF recruits of 1918 had an average age of 27 years and were working men – a labourer, builders, a mason, a butcher, two janitors at the Tachkemoni School, a cigarette maker, a couple of manuscript writers, and many silversmiths and filigree workers. The silversmiths were from the Bukharim quarter, from Sukkat Shalom, from Mishkanoth, from Nahalat Tzedek and especially from Nahalat Zvi. For example, on 24 June 1918, the silversmiths Abraham Levy, Abraham Gershi and Elijah Rachabi enlisted; on 27 June, silversmiths Joseph Arussi and Chaiyim Levy attested. All five came from the Nachlath Zwi neighbourhood (as it is usually spelt in army service records).

We have started a rudimentary Google Map of Jewish communities in Yemen. The German ethnographer Carl Rathjens, who visited Yemen between 1927 and 1938, had it on good authority – viz: the hakham bashi, or chief rabbi, in Yemen, who was responsible for community tax returns in the Kingdom of Yemen – that in the early 1930s there were no fewer than 371 Jewish communities (which makes the number identified and marked on our map seem paltry).  There are very few Jews left in Yemen – some in the capital Sanaa, and some in the northern town of Raydah and its satellite village of Bayt Harash (shown on the map). The rest have left, and their descendants populate and enrich the diversity of Israel and a few places in the diaspora.