History of Yemenite Jews
Yemenite Jewry goes back nearly 3,000 years. Some say the Queen of Sheba had her nation in ancient Yemen and converted to Judaism after meeting King Solomon. Historians also believe that King Solomon's trading and naval networks could have brought Jews to Yemen from Judea around 900 BCE. Ethiopian rule of Yemen ended in the 7th century with the Muslim conquest, which changed Jewry in this area forever. Jews went from being equal to dhimmis (second-class citizens). They were required to pay a poll tax, a standard tax for Jews, Christians, and other protected peoples in the Muslim world. They did not have much contact with other Jewish communities and had many restrictions that affected their everyday life. Some of these laws included: not being allowed to build houses higher than their Muslim neighbors, ride on horses, drink wine in public, defend themselves against attacks, or even touch a Muslim because Jews were considered "impure".
In 1882, Jewish immigration to Palestine from Yemen began. In 1883, Jews were barred from leaving Yemen for this purpose, but they continued to emigrate anyway. Many left following attacks on Jews, as in 1912 and 1914. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, however, the flight of tens of thousands of emigrants ensued, culminating in Operation Magic Carpet. This massive airlift brought 55,000 new Yemenite immigrants to Israel for re-settlement.
In 2021 Yemen's millennia-old Jewish population has come down to only four elderly men after the last few Jewish families remaining were expelled this year by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Read more about Yemenite Jewish history here.
Yemenite Jewish Music
Yemeni Jewish music is extremely distinct and differs from it's Muslim neighbors. Some say the Yemenite Jews maintained strict adherence to Talmudic halakha (laws), which prohibited playing
musical instruments. Another reason for their unique circumstances and sounds is that Jews had to request permission from the Sheikh in order to observe all religious celebrations, and even when permission was granted, they were not allowed to make noise. Musical expression was severely limited at all times and during the reign of the strict Shi'a sect, a ban was imposed on all musical instruments. These restrictions led the Yemenite Jews to develop a musical style that relied solely on the voice and percussive instrumentation limited primarily to hand clapping or striking copper trays, tin cans, and other household items that could be played in secret.
The songs of Yemenite Jews are divided into men's songs and women's songs. Men's songs are usually in Hebrew and the women's in Arabic. Men's songs come from the Diwan (book of religious poetry and songs) written mostly by the renowned Rabbi Shalom Shabazi in the seventeenth century. Women's songs focused on everyday life.
Listen to Yemenite audio recordings here.
Yemenite Jewish Dance
Male devotional dances: For Yemenite Jewish men, their dances were highly structured and meaningful. The men 's dance is built upon the three sequences of the Diwan (book of religious poetry by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi). The three parts of the dance were nashid, shira, and hallel. The first part is slow (nashid) and makes use of elegant hand gestures that respond to the accompaniment of call and response singing. The second part (shira) builds on rhythmic singing that is progressively faster, and elicits bouncy, almost convulsive movements. The third part (hallel), is sometimes singing-only or danced to the singing of Hale'lu Ya, bringing closure to the ecstatic experience.
Women's secular dances: Unlike the men's dances, women's dances are secular in nature. The texts of the songs are usually sung in Arabic (instead of Hebrew), this probably reflecting the contact between Jewish and Arab women in common areas, such as the marketplace and wells. Movement characteristics were more demure and reserved. Women danced in pairs or in a line with multiple dancers. Similar to the male dances, they used a variety of intricate foot patterns and were able to dance within small spaces.
Today, Yemenite Jewish dance has played a major role in the creation of Israeli Folk Dance. It is also very popular at family celebrations such as henna parties and weddings.