In late 19th-century Yemen, Suleiman Habshush built a prosperous trading empire and harnessed its success to help needy members of the local Jewish community. Later, when his grandson inherited the firm, the family helped to bring the community to Israel
Suleiman Habshush was born to a Jewish family in Sana’a, Yemen, in 1856, the youngest of five sons. When he was eight years old, his father passed away. Suleiman worked as a coppersmith in his youth, like his brothers and father before him. Yet he struggled to make a living in this field and soon switched to commerce. Suleiman left Sana’a and began building the great mercantile network that would one day become a household name in Yemen.
Suleiman, who knew poverty and deprivation in his early years, decided it would not be right for his family alone to enjoy the fruits of his success. In his travels throughout the country, he was exposed to the difficulties suffered by Jews across Yemen – neglect, persecution by the Muslim authorities and unemployment. “Upon realizing that there was a need to represent the community, he secretly took it upon himself,” wrote Suleiman’s grandson, Yechiel Habshush.
Suleiman gradually expanded his trading network, which alongside its business activity, also served as a relief network for Yemen’s Jews. During the horrific siege of Sana’a in 1905, Suleiman came to the community’s assistance. He described this terrible period in his book Eshkolot Merurot, noting that “about two-thirds of the residents perished in this siege.”
The bustling atmosphere and the generosity practiced in Suleiman’s home in Sana’a were well known and became instilled in his grandson Yechiel, who was born a few years after the siege. In the preface to the book that Yechiel wrote in his adulthood, he described the family home during his childhood as filled with visitors at all hours of the day and night.
“There was hardly any private life in any sense of the word. The doors to our home were open almost all day until late into the night, with the houses functioning as residences where the family ate and slept, as well as a center for trade in Yemen and abroad, on-site warehouses for the goods, and business offices. From the early morning hours, the street of the Habshush family, which was closed on one side, was filled with visitors. The street was lined with horses, mules and donkeys belonging to the visitors, telegram messengers and mail carriers, government officials, brokers, traders, buyers and sellers from Sana’a and across Yemen, troublemakers, businessmen, people asking for aid, people waiting for the distribution of bread at noon, and guests from Yemen and abroad. A council house for sages and businessmen, weddings and Brit Milah ceremonies, and also, unfortunately, mourning rituals and the like. The whole house was busy constantly.”
Suleiman died in 1922 and the trading network he founded passed to his sons and grandsons, who re-named it “Suleiman Habshush & Sons” and expanded it to other countries. As history would have it, the trading company came to prominence during the period that some called “the Second Return to Zion”—the era of the great waves of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel and the establishment of the State of Israel.
Over the course of his own life, Yechiel Habshush maintained the family legacy of generosity and philanthropy. Yechiel was a businessman and public activist as well as a writer, poet and researcher of Yemenite Jewry. He eventually donated the family’s vast archive to the National Library of Israel which has enabled us to trace the Habshush family’s broad humanitarian activities. It was here that we learned that Yechiel immigrated to Mandatory Palestine from the port of Aden in 1930. He had arrived in Aden three years earlier from Sana’a, and worked to develop contacts with the Jewish Agency office in the city, helping many Jewish families immigrate to the Land of Israel.
Upon his arrival in Palestine, he immediately joined the local branch of the family’s trading company in Tel Aviv opened by his uncle David Tov. At the Tel Aviv branch, the Yemenite Jews living in the Land of Israel could send money back to their families in Aden or Sana’a. With no banks in Yemen at the time, the fastest, and perhaps only way to transfer money was through trading companies. How did it work? A person would deposit a sum of money at the Tel Aviv branch, and the branch manager in Sana’a or Aden would then transfer the deposit to their relatives in Yemen.
The Habshush family company kept detailed records of these donations, and in the archive, there are hundreds of hand-written receipts for the funds received in Yemen. On the margins of these receipts, Yechiel added notes to his brothers in Yemen to “give so-and-so the liras that his relative donated to him.”
And what of those who were not so fortunate? What of the refugees and the needy who did not have family abroad who could send such funds? In order to help, Yechiel and his cousin Meir Levi joined the Ezrat Ahim organization in Tel Aviv dedicated to the affairs of the Yemenite immigrant community in the Land of Israel. As for the work in Yemen itself, Yechiel mobilized a group of young men he knew from his days in Aden. These connections would play a crucial role in bringing Jews who still remained in Yemen to Israel.
An entire file in the Habshush family archive offers evidence of a critical part of Ezrat Ahim’s activity, which was dedicated to the care of Jewish orphans in Yemen. According to local Islamic law, children orphaned of both parents were obliged to be placed in the custody of a Muslim family that would raise them according to the religion of Muhammad. To preempt such an eventuality, a smuggling network was organized to rescue the orphans—first by transferring them to other Jewish communities, and then onwards to the Land of Israel, as quickly as possible.
Thanks to Ezrat Ahim’s activity and the help of the Youth Aliyah movement under the leadership of Henrietta Szold, hundreds of orphans were brought from Yemen to Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel.
The Habshush Family’s Efforts to Promote Zionism in Yemen
Apart from providing real aid to refugees and the needy within the Yemenite communities, Yechiel and his family members urgently believed in their cause because they no longer saw Yemen as a place suitable for Jews. Before and after the establishment of the State of Israel, Yechiel worked to convince rabbis and Jewish leaders in Yemen to support the Zionist movement. In the archive we found a vivid example of this in a letter written by Yechiel to Rabbi Yosef Shemen, one of the last leaders of the Sana’a Jewish community, in which he explained to the rabbi about the Jewish national movement that was calling on Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel.
The Habshush family attached great importance to education of the community’s children. In the 1940s, a Hebrew school for boys was established in Sana’a alongside a school for girls. This was an extraordinary development, as the education of girls in the Yemenite Jewish community had largely been overlooked beforehand. The students studied both religious and general studies, as well as Hebrew—perhaps in preparation for their immigration. The schools for boys and girls were managed by the leaders and rabbis of Sana’a, with donations by the Habshush family funding its establishment and operations.
Soon rumors spread throughout all the Yemeni Jewish communities about the possibility of travelling to Mandatory Palestine through the British-controlled port city of Aden. Crowds flocked to the city. The approval certificates were slow to arrive and the infrastructure could not support the influx of so many people. Many died of hunger and disease. Once again, Ezrat Ahim mobilized to help in these tragic circumstances.
Aside from the activity in Yemen itself, Yechiel saw importance in outreach to the rest of the Hebrew settlement, and with his sharp business sense he initiated a number of welcome initiatives. Among other things, he suggested to the mayor of Tel Aviv to organize a day devoted entirely to collecting donations for Aden’s refugees.
The materials in the Habshush family archive reflect the enormous scope of Ezrat Ahim’s activities. It seems that on every occasion one of the community’s members needed assistance, the organization rushed to help, to the best of its ability. The assistance included – requests from the Broadcasting Authority to resume performances by “the beloved announcer and singer Mr. Yechiel Adaki,” help with housing and rent for immigrant families, an appeal to the Mandate authorities on behalf of Jewish prisoners, and much more. Ezrat Ahim did not hesitate to involve itself in the life of the community in Yemen: it informed the members about the organization’s activities, and even called upon them to cease any bickering within the local community and unite behind the common cause to rescue the community.
In 1985–1986 Yechiel published a two-volume book about the Habshush family and included many documents from the archive to tell the story of his family. Yechiel remained active right up until the last remaining Jews in Yemen were brought to Israel in the 1990s. He passed away in 2002, at the age of ninety-one.
Thanks to Amitai Aricha and Dr. Menashe Anzi from the Department of Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University.
The Yechiel Habshush Archive has been made accessible with the courtesy of his descendants. It is dedicated to the memory of David Tov, son of Hanina and Amy Habshush. The archive was initially cataloged as part of the research project of Dr. Menashe Anzi, supported by the Israel Science Foundation, and later thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.
Dr. Anzi is currently conducting extensive research on the Habshush family trading company.