The Jews of Yemen trace their origins back to biblical times, and the first recorded reference to Yemenite Jews appears in the 3rd century c.e. The community probably arose from the settlement of Jewish traders and merchants and from the arrival of Jewish forces with the Roman troops just before the Common Era.
Restrictions continued to be enforced into the 19th century. These included laws forbidding Jews from riding animals, wearing bright colors, or building houses above a certain height.
On the social ladder, Jews occupied the lowest rung as the only non-Muslims in the country.
Due to worsening conditions, successive waves of Jews began fleeing Yemen in 1882, mainly to the Land of Israel. Despite the fact that the Yemenite ruler, Imam Yahya, forbade emigration to Palestine in 1929, one-third of the Jewish population, or approximately 16,000, made aliya between 1919 and 1948. In 1948 Yahya’s son and successor eased the ban on emigration and thus allowed for the massive airlift of Jews to Israel.
After intense rioting (100 Jews were killed in 1947) and continued persecution, most of the community of South Yemen also emigrated, many settling in Israel. The remaining members of the South Yemen community were evacuated to Israel and to Britain in June 1967, as a result of rioting that followed the Six-Day War.
The small community that remains in the northern area of Yemen is tolerated and is able to practice Judaism. Its members are still treated as second-class citizens and cannot own land, serve in the army, or be elected to political positions. Most work as artisans and small traders. During the past few years, about 400 Jews have also emigrated to Israel, despite the official ban on emigration.
The remaining community is concentrated in northern Yemen. It is comprised of the Yahood Al-Maghrib (Western Jews) and the Yahood Al-Mashrag (Eastern Jews). These Jews mostly live in villages in the vicinity of Saada, which is located in Sa’ata Province, close to the Saudi border. The community is extremely insular.
The Jews are scattered and a communal structure no longer exists. Yemenite Jews have little social interaction with their Muslim neighbors and are largely prevented from communicating with world Jewry. It is believed that there are two synagogues still functioning in Saiqaya and in Amlah.
Religious life has not changed much in the past few centuries. Jews continue to maintain strict observance of Jewish tradition. To ensure that they adhere to the laws of kashrut, Jews are not allowed to eat meals with Muslims. Also, marriage is absolutely forbidden outside of the religion.
Aliya: Since 1948, 52,000 Jews have emigrated to Israel from Yemen (including Aden), 48,315 of them between 1948 and 1951.
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