July 10th 2019
A Selection of Stories from Tel Aviv's Adeni Museum
Just over two years ago, I began working at the Aden Jewish Heritage Museum. Situated in Tel Aviv, the museum tells the story of the Jewish community of the port city of Aden. The community has a unique history with roots that go back over a thousand years (at least).
From letters found in the Cairo Geniza, we know that it was a prestigious community in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but by 1839 the community had dwindled down to 250 people - out of a total population of approximately 550.
However, the city was revived with the arrival of the British who re-established the bustling port; and once more the Jewish community flourished with newcomers joining the existing community from places like Yemen, Iraq, India - and a few from Turkey and Persia too. Aden became a meeting place for trade and people from all over the world.
Sadly, there is no longer a Jewish community in existence there. After the horrific riots of 1947 in which 87 members of the community were killed, many left for Israel. A smaller community remained right until 1967 but just before the British pulled out, the remaining members of the community all left en masse. And today, the community continues both in Israel and London, with many traditions preserved and passed on to the next generation.
The spirit of the port of Aden lives on in the museum, a meeting point for people from all over the world. Here are just a few stories of some of the amazing people I get to meet every day.
1. The Eliyahu Hanavi Chair
He was looking at the Sefer Torah we have on display and became a little emotional. He told me he was born in Iraq and it brought back memories for him. Then he caught sight of the little Eliyahu Hanavi Chair and started singing me a song he remembered from his childhood that they’d sing at the brit (circumcision) of a baby in the shul in Iraq. And he cried.
His family had a good life there until the Farhud of 1941, a pogrom against the Jewish community, in part influenced by the Nazis. After that, everything changed, and because of the hardships that followed, his family moved to Basra, and a few years later to Abadan in Persia (Iran).
He’d heard stories of Israel and it captured his imagination. But his father, who was a merchant, was not interested in moving there. He’d rebuilt his life in Abadan and they had quite a comfortable life with a house in the city, and a little summer house by the sea. But the boy never settled or felt he belonged. He was still a Jewish refugee from Iraq.
In 1953, at the age of just twelve and a half, he decided to move to Israel. On his own. He ran away from home without telling his parents. He took a train across the country from Abadan in the south to Tehran in the north. Once there, he looked for signs of Jewish life. He found a shul where he spoke to one of the members and told him he was originally a refugee from Iraq and wanted to move to Israel. They hid him in the basement, together with several other children. After three days, a shaliach arrived. They were taken by truck on a long journey from Tehran to Alexandria in Egypt.
Three weeks after running away, he arrived by ship in Haifa, Israel and from there, he was taken to a kibbutz. The first thing he asked to do was send an express letter to his parents to let them know he was OK and where he was. They had been frantic with worry, not knowing what had happened to him and they feared he was dead.
His parents were relieved, but at first, also furious with him. In time, they forgave him and a few months later they packed up their lives and moved to Israel to join him. They were housed in a ma’abarah in Or Yehudah, first living in a tent and then a hut. It was hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. It was hard, but they rebuilt their lives again here.
I asked him if he ever regretted what he had done in coming here?
Not for a minute! he replied. He told me that not only had he fulfilled his army service, but he chose to do miluim for six years past the standard age, into his fifties. I asked him why? And he said: Because I love this country. It is the only one we have.
He was a tourist from Germany on his first ever visit to Israel. He came because he was curious. He wanted to see Jerusalem and some of the Christian sites. And because of his country’s history. He was a pensioner, born just a few years after the Holocaust. I suppose it weighed on him to some extent.
He was thoroughly enjoying his first trip and trying to see as much as possible during his stay.
I took him up to see the synagogue. I asked him if he'd ever visited one before. He told me he had. But not in the little village in Germany where he lived. There was no longer a synagogue there. Like so many others, it had been destroyed and the community that had once been there, no longer existed.
The only remnant that remained to prove the existence of this once community was a Jewish cemetery. Almost forgotten by everyone else.
‘I go there about once a year,’ he told me. ‘To check up on it, make sure everything is OK and tend to it.’
‘Do you have a connection to it, perhaps?’ I asked.
He shook his head. ‘No.’
‘Then, what makes you go there and do this?’
So, in a little village somewhere in Germany, there is a man with no Jewish ties whatsoever, who keeps a watchful eye, and tends to a Jewish cemetery. Just out of curiosity.
3. The Tourist from Spain
Many tourists who visit our museum have never heard of Aden before, which was why I was surprised to meet a man (who, it transpired was visiting from Madrid, Spain) and told me he'd visited there thirty years ago.
He explained to me that he'd visited as part of a month-long trip to Yemen, out of interest to see the country. But he'd never realised that there had once been a Jewish community there. He asked me if there had been a community in Yemen too? A very large one, I told him.
And then he recalled how he'd bought jewellery there and the seller told him they had been made by the Jewish artisans who had once lived there. The pieces he'd bought were silver Maria Theresa thaler coins (an Austrian coin used as currency in the region over a hundred years ago and more) surrounded by exquisite filigree work. The same kind of jewellery making technique he'd also seen on a visit to Morocco by jewellers from the Jewish community in the mountainous region.
He told me that though he wasn't Jewish, he was very interested in Judaism and Jewish communities. I asked him where that interest had stemmed from? He told me he felt an affinity towards it. He explained, that once there had been a big Jewish community in Spain, that had been expelled. I nodded and told him I was familiar with that.
He then went on to tell me, though, that because of that, some people still had some character traits like those of the Jewish people. Including his mother.
“Are you able to tell me an example of that?” I had an idea where this might be heading.
“My mother always kept the meat and milk dishes separate.”
“Was there anything else?”
“When we cut nails, we were always told to put them in the earth. And when someone died in the family, we always covered the mirrors. I don't know why, but it was done by my mother, her mother, and her mother before, going back and back…”
And in that moment, as we stood together in a little museum in the modern city of Tel Aviv, in an ancient land, I felt something indescribably moving. For the links and rituals that bind us together across countries and centuries. For the things that are no more, but the things that yet endure and are rebuilt and renewed.
4. Shabbat Shira
We have a very special Sefer Torah scroll on display, it was written in Yemen and is at least 200 years old. It is on display open to the section of the Shira, which the Jewish people sang after being saved at the Red Sea and began their journey as a free people to become a nation in our own land.
The Friday before Shabbat Shira is read, a couple came to visit and admired the Sefer Torah. We stood there, beside it, and got speaking. It led to a discussion about how many Jews from Yemen set out to come to Israel in the mid-1940s but were prevented from doing so by the British and were then stuck in Aden for several years. Much in the same way that the Jews in Europe after the Holocaust were prevented from coming to Israel. We were comparing stories of different Jewish communities across the world and how there are so many similar experiences all over.
Then they told me something of their story. The wife was born in Israel to a Persian family and her husband told me was born in Tehran. He left on the very last El Al plane ever to fly out of Iran. He told me how he’d had such a good childhood growing up in Tehran and what a good life they had had. Which sadly is no more.
‘You know what?’ he said to me. ‘We’re all the same, wherever we come from. We all started out at the same place. And most of us were forced to wander from place to place due to circumstances, different rulers, exiles, war. And through that, we all ended up in different places all over the world. But we are still all one people whether we’re Yemenite, or Iranian or English or wherever else we came from because our original origins are all the same. And if we remember that, we are strong together.’
They thanked me for a lovely conversation. But it was I who was grateful. Erev Shabbat Shira, where an Olah from the UK whose family have wandered for generations, connected with a couple with Persian roots, in front of a Yemenite Sefer Torah, that was once used in a shul in Aden, in our shared Homeland.
5. The “Netta” Effect
One of my favourite questions to ask first-time visitors to Israel is whether they find the country to be different to how they imagined.
Yesterday, I got a fascinating response from a young German couple. They were very reserved and polite, but as I showed them around the museum and we got talking, they warmed up. They were in their early twenties, the third generation since the war (their grandparents were only babies when it ended) but they told me that even to this day, living in Germany, they felt some uneasiness about the history of their country. They'd never been into a synagogue in Germany because many had been destroyed and hadn't had much contact with Jewish people.
They told me that there was always this feeling in Germany that you had to be so careful what you said about Jewish people in case you said the wrong thing. (Don't mention the war, literally.) But they were surprised to find that wasn't the case here. Perhaps people here were more reconciled and able to talk to them without them feeling the stigma they had expected.
The young man told me that he found the friendliness here unexpected altogether. He said while in Germany people are friendly, there is often a lot of reservation. Whereas here, they found a genuine warmth and openness in people which they liked and hadn't experienced before.
They'd known Israel was a country of Jewish people but not having ever had contact with Jewish people, they didn't know what they would be like, and they hadn't been expecting this. And in what ways was Israel different to how they imagined? ‘From what we see and hear in the media, we pictured a country full of bombed-out houses and rockets going off all the time. But it looks nothing like that at all. And we feel really safe now we are here.’
‘So, were you scared before you came?’
‘Yes, we were. In fact, our parents said to us before we left that they hope we make it back alive.’
‘Yet, despite being scared and people worried about you coming, you still decided to come?’
‘Last year we watched Netta win the Eurovision and heard the contest would be hosted in Tel Aviv this year. So we figured it couldn't be that bad if it was being hosted there. And we were interested to see what the place was all about.’
I guess you could call that, the Netta effect!