A Memory of the Last Jews of Yemen

In the 1980s, photographer, painter and poet Myriam Tangi took three separate trips to Yemen in the hopes of photographing the last Jews living in the country.


Three young Jewish boys studying, Al Hajar, Haydan, Yemen, 1983. In the middle is Lewi Faez, who was around 6 years old at the time. He arrived in Israel in 1992 at the age of 16, with his 14 year-old wife and an infant. Photo by Myriam Tangi.

According to legend, Jewish history in Yemen dates back to the time of King Solomon and the request of the Queen of Sheba to see Hebrew craftsmen settle in her country. Indeed, some historians identify Sheba with the ancient Kingdom of Saba in the southern Arabian Peninsula. More recently, in 1949-50, about 49,000 Yemeni Jews were brought to the nascent State of Israel on secret flights during Operation Magic Carpet. As of 2017, it was believed that there remain approximately 50 Jews in the entirety of the country with most of them living in in a compound adjacent to the American Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen’s largest city and its capital.

As non-Muslims living in an Arabic country, the Jews of Yemen, one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the diaspora, were considered dhimmi, which literally means, “protected class.” As dhimmi, Jews had certain rights but also had to contend with a number of restrictions, including limits on their freedom of movement – For example, Jews were only permitted to travel within Yemen and could not venture beyond the borders of the country.

Visits to these regions by foreigners were extremely rare, meaning the villagers were just as curious as the tourists. The boy with the book in the foreground, who refused to stop reading for the sake of the picture, was an exception. Al-Hajar, near Haydan, Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi.
Visits to these regions by foreigners were extremely rare, meaning the villagers were just as curious as the tourists. The boy with the book in the foreground, who refused to stop reading for the sake of the picture, was an exception. Al-Hajar, near Haydan, Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi

The Jews of Yemen were also forbidden from carrying the djambiha, a dagger-like sword carried by all Yemenite Muslim men around the waist. This restriction clearly indicated who among the men was not Muslim. Jews were restricted to certain crafts: jewelry making, leather working, shoe repair and metal works. Jewish women were permitted to weave baskets to sell at market.

Yemenite Jews were not allowed to own land and were under the protection of the sheikh of the village or the city where they lived. This meant that the sheikh was responsible for their safety and was obligated by law to protect them. The relationship between the community and the sheikh was often warm and sometimes even friendly.

A Jewish woman working. Yemen, 1986, photo by Myriam Tangi.
A Jewish woman working. Yemen, 1986, photo by Myriam Tangi
Jewish men in Al-Hajar, Haydan, Yemen, 1984, photo by Myriam Tangi.
Jewish men in Al-Hajar, Haydan, Yemen, 1984, photo by Myriam Tangi

In the 1980s, we set out on a journey to photograph the last few remaining Yemenite Jewish communities that were scattered throughout the country. There were at the time, approximately 300 to 400 Jews left in Yemen and only a few foreigners had travelled through this remote country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

We made our way to different villages across the country including Beit Sinan in the Arhab district, about an hour north of Sana’a, the capital. The villages closer to Sana’a had stricter rules for code of dress. The Jewish women in the far off villages did not wear full niqabs, which covered the whole body, like the Muslim women did. Instead, they wore veils that covered only their heads. But as we drew nearer to the capital, the veils grew larger and women were expected to cover more. Muslims could enter Jewish homes at any moment, except on Shabbat.

Beit Sinan, Arhab, Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi.
Beit Sinan, Arhab, Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi
Al Hajar, Haydan, Yemen, 1983, Myriam Tangi.
Al Hajar, Haydan, Yemen, 1983, Myriam Tangi

We also travelled in a big truck through the steep roads of the mountainous regions to reach yet un-explored villages such as Al-Hajar, near Haydan and west of Sa’dah, a large city located in northern Yemen. The village of Wadi Amla was another destination; both are not far from the border of Saudi Arabia.

We were traveling as tourists. We made no mention of our Jewish identities for our own safety and for the safety of the local Jews. We were allowed to visit with the Jewish communities as we said we were looking to buy jewelry – a trade held by the local Jews. We also mentioned that we were vegetarians which gave us an opportunity to join a Jewish family for a meal. Not all of these small and dispersed Jewish communities had their own synagogues. We understood from our interactions with a particular community that one family owned a Torah scroll and that other Jews would gather in this family’s home for prayer services, as it was forbidden to visit the local synagogue.

Beit Sinan, Arhab, Yemen, 1986. In the mufredj (living room) the mori (teacher) prepares tzitziyot (ritual tassles) while the children study and a mother feeds her infant. The child on the right is supervising the others. In the foreground we see a hookah. A cooking pot can be seen in the middle of the room, meals are eaten while sitting around the pot on the floor. Photo by Myriam Tangi.
Beit Sinan, Arhab, Yemen, 1986. In the mufredj (living room) the mori (teacher) prepares tzitziyot (ritual tassels) while the children study and a mother feeds her infant. The child on the right is supervising the others. In the foreground we see a hookah. A cooking pot can be seen in the middle of the room, meals are eaten while sitting around the pot on the floor. Photo by Myriam Tangi
A Jewish girl (left) and a Muslim girl (right), Al Hajar, Haydan, Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi.
A Jewish girl (left) and a Muslim girl (right), Al Hajar, Haydan, Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi

These photos are a testament to the peaceful lives led by the Jews of Yemen at that time. The children would spend their days studying with their Mori, a teacher chosen by the community, or with their father who would multitask in maintaining control over the reading and studying while working. Since there was usually only one copy to read from, the local children often developed the ability to read a book from any angle.

A Jewish girl (left) and a Muslim girl (right), Al Hajar, Haydan, Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi.
A Jewish girl (left) and a Muslim girl (right), Al Hajar, Haydan, Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi
Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi.
Yemen, 1983, photo by Myriam Tangi


While the situation in Yemen has changed, just a few decades ago this same country, which was so detached from the modern, Western way of life, gave us the impression of traveling back to biblical times, and allowed us to experience a different rhythm of life, typified by laid-back afternoons spent chewing Khat leaves.

This series of photographs has been recognized by the IPA (International Photography Awards) organization.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.


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Immigration on Agenda as Top Figures Gather in Jerusalem

Third gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel to focus on immigration, borders and identity — in Jewish, Israeli and universal contexts

Arrival of the Exodus, 1947, Photo: Keren HaYesod, from the National Library of Israel Photograph Collections

Arrival of the Exodus, 1947, photo: Keren HaYesod, from the National Library of Israel Photograph Collections

On March 17-19, some 80 prominent figures from Israel and around the world will gather in Jerusalem for the third meeting of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel to discuss this year’s topic, “Migration-Borders-Identity.” Conversations will address universal cultural, sociopolitical and philosophical issues, as well as their specific Jewish, Israeli and Zionist dimensions. 

Participants include Thomas Friedman, Jamaica Kincaid, Natan Sharansky, Stanley Fischer, Jack Lew, Dan Kurtzer, David Makovsky, Abby Joseph Cohen, Mark Lilla, Mustafa Aykol, Anita Shapira and other leading figures from the worlds of literature, diplomacy, journalism, academia, economics, and more.

Though libraries are generally associated with enforced utter silence, this is not the case with the National Library in Jerusalem, which serves as the collective memory of the Jewish people worldwide and Israelis of all backgrounds and faiths. 

Now in the midst of a transformative renewal, the 125-year-old institution is opening access to the cultural treasures of Israel and the Jewish world as never before – in person and online – serving as a cutting-edge global center at the forefront of knowledge dissemination and cultural creativity. The stunning new National Library campus, now under construction between the Knesset and the Israel Museum, will serve as the clearest manifestation of this renewal. 

 “Traditionally Jews studied in noisy environments, as opposed to the traditional librarian demanding complete silence. We need to find the balance between the two,” says National Library of Israel chairman David Blumberg.

The bi-annual Global Forum gathering is one way this delicate balance is found, and a central element of the National Library’s renewal. The Forum serves as a singular platform for contemporary discussions inspired by the Jewish, Israeli and universal intellectual traditions embodied by the National Library’s collections, values, and vision.

The Global Forum of the National Library of Israel, photo: Hanan Cohen, the National Library of Israel
The Global Forum of the National Library of Israel, photo: Hanan Cohen, the National Library of Israel

In this context, the current gathering will address pressing questions relating to the challenges and opportunities posed by human migration: Which factors lead immigration to strengthen cultural development as opposed to eroding it? What justifies decisions about who is permitted and who is refused to cross borders? What are the implications of migration on international world order and the political stability of countries? How have personal experiences related to migration influenced the work of prominent authors? How have the Jewish people’s wanderings influenced and shaped their fate, identities, and values throughout the generations? How do Israeli elected officials view the dilemmas of refugees and infiltrators to which they must respond?

Discussions will be made available to audiences around the world on the Global Forum website. Select materials and related original content will also be featured on the National Library blog and Facebook page. The Times of Israel is the proud media partner of this year’s gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel.

The chairman of the Global Forum is Prof. Moshe Halbertal, renowned scholar and co-author of the Israel Defense Forces code of ethics. Ninth president of the State of Israel Shimon Peres served as the Global Forum’s founding honorary chairman. 

Rare Books That Kept Prayer Alive During the Jewish Migrations of the 19th Century

These miniature prayer books were designed to be small enough to fit in the traveler’s pocket so they could be taken along for journeys across the sea.


A century before the Holocaust would destroy large percentages of the Jewish communities of Europe, long before even the First World War, Jewish migration from Europe to the West was already underway. From the 1820s through the 1880s, approximately 150,000 Jews immigrated to the United States from European countries. In the 1840s, German Jews, in particular, began to leave their home country in waves in search of a better life in “The Goldene Medina” (“The Golden Country”) of America.



Jews in Germany at that time were facing many hardships including persecution, restrictive laws and economic struggle as industrialization and modern improvements eliminated the need for several standard Jewish professions. The Jewish community was forced to take a hard look at their social status and many recognized that, if they hoped for a better future, they would need to look for it in another country.

Join our group to learn more about Jewish life in Europe:


These German Jews took with them their culture and their heritage on their long and arduous journey across the ocean – including the traditional prayers, chanted by the Jewish people for centuries. In fact, the National Library of Israel holds several rare payer books from this time period of Jewish migration.



In the 1840s, the S. B. Gusdorfer and Zuerndorffer & Sommer publishing houses in Fürth, Germany, began printing new prayer books (siddurim) intended specifically for these immigrants. What made the books unique was their size, as the siddurim contained all the required prayers for every day of the year, but the books themselves were easy-to-carry miniature versions of the standard full-sized prayer books used in everyday prayer services.



Each of these books is smaller than a fist, intended to be carried in the pocket of a traveler who was heading out on a long journey. The cover page of the siddur reads, “Prayers for the entire year, for those on a journey and those crossing the sea and for those traveling to the country of America” in Yiddish. The books contained everyday prayer services as well as prayers for Shabbat, the various festivals, the High Holidays, and of course, the wayfarer’s prayer, a supplication read by travelers embarking on a long journey.



It seems that these miniature books were somewhat popular as the publishing houses printed multiple editions over the years. The National Library holds copies printed in 1842, 1854 and 1860. These books are considered to be very rare as many of them were either worn out from use by their owners on their journeys and in some cases they did not survive the trip at all.


A Student Admission Request to the Hebrew University on the Eve of the Destruction of European Jewry

"I will pay you with my blood for homeland and science.”


The third gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel will take place in Jerusalem on March 17-19, 2019, bringing together prominent figures to discuss this year’s topic: “Migration-Borders-Identity”.   The following article is presented in the context of this year’s theme, encouraging broader discussions of these topics.


Kobe, 9 February 1941

To: The Administration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


It is now ten days since I arrived in Japan after an arduous and perilous journey, and having risen at last from my sick bed on which I fell with my arrival here, I reach out to you now in high hopes.

My name is Tanchum Rabinowicz. When I was in Vilna as a refugee, I sent you all the requisite documents in order to obtain a student-certificate, that is, a notarized copy of my Hebrew high school diploma, the application, photographs and curriculum vitae, for all of which I received from you an official letter informing me that you are willing to accept me on condition that tuition and other fees will be paid in Palestine. The letter bearing the date 9 June 1940 is in my possession.

I do not as yet feel well enough to describe in detail all the events of the Polish refugees in Vilna after the arrival of the Russians, and my own ordeals. I will describe them only in brief so that you will understand how I arrived in Japan in my wanderings to Eretz Israel.

Just as the Russians entered and consulates began to close, a few hundred refugees managed to obtain visas on their Polish passports to Dutch-American Curaçao [one of the islands], and based on these – Japanese transit visas, though no one believed at the time that any of this had any practical purpose, but the psychosis that infected everyone was the same, to acquire any type of visa. I too was among those who bought such a visa, and I kept it with me, and on the basis of it, I presented a request for an exit visa from Soviet Russia. The matter dragged on for months, but there was no one to receive the exit requests, on the contrary—we were prepared for them to send us to the dark mountains, or the “white-bears” [Siberia] as we called it in Vilna. Suddenly the situation took a turn and they started giving out massive numbers of exit visas. Among the recipients was myself.

Who could imagine my joy, who can describe the happiness and my friends’ jealousy? And indeed, the first group numbering 67 persons received exit visas and I was among the first. But all this was mingled with mostly pain and suffering, the Intourist [the official Soviet travel agency] would not accept rubles in payment for travel expenses, only dollars, and I had none. Because the visa had an expiration date, I didn’t think too long, and I and three other friends set off on the journey on our own and without our accounts (without getting in touch with Intourist). Thus, I traveled across Russia, buying tickets from one stop to the next, until I reached Vladivostok. I would never again attempt such a journey and in such a manner. Even now it is difficult for me to describe the hardships and obstacles we faced along the way and how we boarded the Japanese ship. Enough said that the Japanese consul from Vladivostok who helped me tremendously, came himself before the boat sailed and parted with me in front of everyone, and said it was an amazing feat of human heroism to make such a journey as I had.

Dear friends! I am, to my sorrow, once again a refugee. From my escape from the Soviets in Vilna, I left everything at home, I took only my high school diploma in order to contact you and only in this have I placed my hope, today as I am twice naked and a refugee + the letter from you which I have kept. Here am I lonely and deserted, and to whom should I turn if not to you—for your help. My situation is that I am on the edge of an abyss. The government does not permit me to remain here long, and since I am here only in transit, and if in case in the near future I do not receive any help to immigrate, the government will send me to Shanghai, where the material plight of the refugees is awful, without any aid, dying of starvation, and as bread is the most important force in our lives, and when one feels its lack it can bring a person to the brink, such is the situation in Shanghai. Dear friends, I cannot imagine that, for a few dozen Pounds that I have to pay, you would forsake a man – I risked my life on the path to Zion, I was educated in the spirit of loyalty to the homeland like you, who take care of homeland matters, I do not write in detail here because my head is still spinning, but I ask please, find my curriculum vitae in my documentation and read it again, and this letter afterward, and certainly you will not turn me away empty-handed.

I am pleading with you, send me a student certificate because I am standing at the precipice, don’t be so formal, I will pay you with my blood for homeland and science, but do not let me fall, I am already tired, and only just 23 years old, I send this letter to you without knowing if it will reach you, like a drowning man casting a message in a bottle into the ocean. I find myself now in a place foreign to my spirit and my soul, among people traveling to America with unused certificates in their possession, and they look at me, someone who is trying to reach and talking about Eretz Israel, with derision. Oh, that I may be able to find the time to describe everything, about Jewish psychology, about the awful collapse of ethics among the wealthy Jews in times of catastrophe and hardship. My telegraph address is Kobe Jewcom for Tanchum.

I am done, I know not whether there is any point to my letter, because as I said my head is still spinning. But know this, you will be saving a man for science and for Zionism.

I am awaiting your help via telegraph, and nevertheless keeping the faith!

Tanchum Rabinowicz

The Telegraph regarding my issue was sent to you by the Committee for Refugees!

(Letter from Tanchum Rabinowicz to the Hebrew University, 9 February 1941, Hebrew University Archive, box 138, file 2100-r-I)


The letter written by Tanchum Rabinowicz was recently discovered in the archive of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was presented for the first time in the exhibition Uprooted: The German-Jewish Scholars of the Hebrew University, now on view at the National Library in Jerusalem. This is one document from Rabinowicz’s file for admission to study at the University which includes his application form and photograph, a copy of his high school diploma and curriculum vitae written in the first-person. The file also includes the correspondence he conducted with the university between May 1940 and March 1941 and uncovers a life trajectory that began in Poland before the war and ended with an escape to Japan four months before the onset of the destruction of European Jewry. Rabinovitch’s request is one of many such requests sent to the university in the 1930s by young Jewish men and women who hoped that studying at the university would grant them a certificate to enter Palestine. As expected, most were unsuccessful in this hope, and what remains is this record documenting their lives, desires, fears, and lives as refugees while trying to extricate themselves from Europe.

The letter of Tanchum Rabinowicz stands out among the nine requests for admission presented in the exhibition’s display case devoted to students, while as a group they reflect the cultural and geographic variation of the Jewish communities on the eve of the Holocaust. Rabinowicz, who was born in Stołpce in Poland (now Stowbtsy, Belarus), to a well-to-do Zionist family, was a revisionist and active in the Beitar movement in his hometown and completed his studies in the Hebrew high school “Tushia” in Vilna. With the outbreak of World War II, like many among the Jewish intelligentsia, he fled to Vilna, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union as part of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact but after a few months was transferred to the Provisional Government of Lithuania. As Rabinowicz describes, during his flight eastward in the hope of one-day reaching Eretz Israel, he carried with him all of his possessions— “my high school diploma, […] the only possession remaining to me on my way toward Zion.” While a refugee in Vilna, he filed an admission request to study at the university in Jerusalem to which he added a notarized copy of the diploma he had with him.

This document was sent from Kobe in Japan after Rabinowicz had succeeded, with great difficulty, in crossing the Soviet Union with the help of a visa he was given by the vice consul of Japan in Kaunas (Kovno), Chiune Sugihara.  Against orders, Sugihara issued visas to thousands of Jews looking to escape from Europe, in the aftermath of the re-annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940. In light of the Soviet’s intention to close the foreign consulates in Kaunas and the prohibition against traveling across the Soviet Union without a valid visa, Sugihara, who would one day be awarded the title Righteous among the Nations, gave out 2,139 transit visas to Japan with the final destination being the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean, which was then a Dutch colony and did not require entry visas.

The secretariat of the university was not indifferent to the cry of Rabinowicz’s letter and replied: “We do not have a single permit at our disposal […] but we want to help him and will do what we can to save him. […] We will try to find the means for this purpose from the national institutions, but it will not be easy, because the number of needy is great and the means minimal.”

It is unknown if the certificate from the university is what helped Rabinowicz to complete his journey to Palestine via India in 1941, the year the letter was written, at least according to the newspapers from that period. Upon arrival in Palestine, he enlisted in the British army and the Irgun and later joined the Jewish Brigade and was sent to the Italian front. In March 1945, while returning from a patrol, he was accidentally shot and he died a few days later. As he promised, Rabinowicz paid with his blood for his homeland but had not yet paid for science. At the age of 26, he was buried in Italian soil.