For uprooted Yemeni Jews, a new Passover perspective

Posted on Thu, Mar 18, 2010 at 14:18 pm

The below article by Nicole Neroulias appeared in yesterday's Religion News Service.



MONSEY, N.Y. (RNS) Three thousand years after their enslaved ancestors escaped Egypt, a small band of Jews who fled Yemen last summer have a new perspective on the Passover story, along with everything else in their uprooted lives.

Aided by the State Department and a mix of faith-based and social service agencies, 62 refugees — more than half of them children — have safely resettled in this thriving Jewish enclave about 30 miles north of New York City.

Daily struggles range from learning to read — something most could not do in their native Arabic, let alone English — to bundling up in donated jackets and boots against the winter cold. Constant concerns about friends and family left behind make them hesitant to share last names and other personal information.

This Passover, a weeklong holiday that starts at sunset on March 29 this year, they will sit down to their Seder meals on chairs instead of cushions, drinking bottled kosher wine instead of homemade concoctions, and munching on square matzo from boxes rather than the flatbread they ground and baked at home.

''Everything is different here," said Hanae, a young woman who struggles to stay upright on the icy walk outside the women's English class, held four days a week in a synagogue basement. "This year, we'll go to the store."

Yemen's Jews, a Diaspora group dating back to the reign of King Solomon, numbered about 50,000 at the turn of the 20th century. The establishment of Israel and the ensuing wave of anti-Semitism that swept through the Middle East prompted most to emigrate 60 years ago.

The impoverished Arab nation's government has tried to protect its dwindling Jewish minority, but in recent years, civil unrest and radical Islam have fueled violence at home and terrorism abroad.

After the murder of a Yemeni rabbi in December 2008, the State Department granted the Yemenite Jews priority immigration status. With this latest migration, along with about 60 people who chose to evacuate to Israel instead, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society estimates fewer than 300 Jews remain in Yemen, reluctant to abandon their homes and displace their families.

''It's difficult for them to get fair prices, because everyone knows they want to leave," said Gideon Aronoff, HIAS president. Some also fear changing their centuries-old way of life, he added.

Those who braved the journey last year have been sheltered by Monsey's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, but some changes were quickly embraced. The women, who arrived wearing veils that revealed only their eyes, now show their whole faces beneath headscarves; the men's traditional side-curls, once tucked into turbans to avoid attracting attention, fall freely.

For the foreseeable future, they rely on government assistance and social services, including medical care, language classes and vocational training.

''They have their prayer books and their clothes, and that's what they had," said Joe Berkofsky, spokesman for The Jewish Federations of North America, which helped settle the refugees. "These people had remained and stuck it out, but finally they had to leave everything behind."

Despite the parallels to the Passover exodus, the Yemenite Jews brush off comparisons to the trials their predecessors endured.

''It was much harder in Egypt, because everyone had to make 400 bricks a day," said Haroun, 44, a father of 10 who drove a school bus back home but hasn't gotten behind the wheel in America yet.

Laboriously learning to sound out words like "cat" and "sat" in a synagogue classroom, he and the other men agreed that, for their children's safety and the educational opportunities America can provide, they have grown accustomed to their strange new circumstances.

Even snow, which thrills their children and annoys their wives, is no big deal, insists Shakar, 60, who had supported his family of 11 by making window frames.

''It snowed once in Yemen, perhaps 50 years ago," he recalled. "Some people were able to save some of it and use it to water their crops later."

But they've braced themselves for a barely recognizable Al Fasah, the Arabic word for Passover. Kosher meat is widely sold in suburban New York, so they won't have to buy live animals and track down a ritual slaughterer; the bitter herb representing the hardship of slavery will be horseradish, rather than a wild plant they picked back home. Having left their heavy, ornamental Seder platters in Yemen, they will arrange the symbolic foods on relatively plain, donated dishes this year.

Some traditions survive, however. The children will still scramble to find the afikoman, the piece of matzo hidden by their parents that leads to a prize; the men will handle the singing and story-telling. For the women, the annual process of ridding their homes of unleavened products and preparing for the influx of guests will, as usual, wear them out, even with modern conveniences improving on their old brooms and hearths.

''It's a month of cleaning, from right after Purim," said Haroun's wife Dhabya, 45, throwing up her hands as a dozen women around her nodded emphatically. "And, there's so much cooking. Every year, it's always very tiring."
 

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