Metallurgy and the Jews

Article/book #: 9463
Title: Metallurgy and the Jews
By: Samuel Kurinsky  
Date of issue: Sunday, 4 January 2004
Topic(s) addressed: People/entities mentioned in this item:


In 1679, the Jews of San'a and of central Yemen in general were expelled from the country in which they had been living for centuries - an occurrence very common in Christian Europe but absolutely unheard of in Arab Islam. To be sure, after a year or so they were recalled, mainly because they were indispensable as artisans and craftsmen Jewish artisans were virtually the exclusive workers of precious metals throughout the 2500 year history of their sojourn in Yemen.

The life of the Jews in Yemen was thereafter a miserable one under a succession of Muslim rulers, leading to the mass exodus of 46,000 Jews flown to Israel "on the wings of eagles."

Earlier, in 1943, one of the Yemenites who had already made Aliyah to Israel was Rabbi Yosef Kapach, renowned for his scholarship and vast publishing undertakings. "His most monumental undertaking was reissuing Maimonides Mishnah Torah, consisting of 24 volumes. In 1969 he received the Israel Prize for this work, the third prize he had won in recognition of two of his other important works.

"As a young man he was imprisoned on false charges by the Igashim, and almost forced to convert to Islam. Immediately after his release at the age of 19 he married, and shortly thereafter emigrated to Israel."

In Yemen, the young scholar, following an age-old tradition, became a silversmith. Once he arrived in Israel he continued his trade until he became the rabbi of a Tel Aviv synagogue.

We learn much about the ancient Jewish smithing tradition of Yemen from a photographic exhibition by a Yemenite Jew, Zion Ozeri. Ozeri was a child of Yemenite Jews rescued during the 1949-1950 "Operation Magic Carpet." He became a photographer, and returned to his birthplace to record the life of the remaining Jews of Yemen. In doing so he documented the remnants of the metallurgical activities of the Yemenite Jews.

Ozeri was among the Jews flown to Israel "on the wings of eagles." Jonathan Mark, in a report in Jewish Week, February 10, 1995, notes that "having migrated from ancient Israel with the warnings of Jeremiah still ringing in their ears," the promise of a return on eagle's wings was fulfilled.

Not all the Jews left Yemen. Some were reluctant to abandon a 2500 year-old legacy, and others who could not precipitously abandon their workshops, family enterprises handed down through the centuries.

Jews continued to trickle out of Yemen until 1954. The Yemenite hierarchy came to the distressing realization that the country's economy was hemorrhaging with the drain of basic industries and irreplaceable artisans. The government slammed shut the emigration doors so tightly that even sending a letter out of the country could land a Jew in Jail.

Yemen launched a campaign of taking over Jewish enterprises and the replacement of Jewish artisans. Some success in this effort, plus delicate diplomatic maneuvering, created an opening for the removal of more Jews. Jonathan Mark noted in his article that in 1992, "Operation Magic Carpet II" began selectively shepherding several hundred more Jews to Israel.

But 800 Yemenite Jews remained, locked into a country which held them hostage. Significantly, most reside in the industrial sectors of Raida and Sa'ada.

Zion Ozeri became an international photographer whose work has made a notable mark. In 1992 he returned to Yemen to document the life of the remaining Jews.

An exhibition of Ozeri's photographs, "The Last Jews of Yemen," depict such poignant scenes as that of a silversmith in Haidan Asham, taken before the Jews of that village made Aliya to Israel. Ozeri visited the village of his parents. In the small villages, now devoid of Jews, the workshops were left to other hands.

Jonathan Mark quotes Ozeri: "I easily located the village where my parents lived. An old man, who remembered my father took me into the blacksmith shop that my father owned." Looking at the men making plows, tools, and utensils, "I could not help but think that had my parents stayed, this could have been me."

Today Yemenite smiths carry on their ancient tradition, enriching the shops of Israel with their marvelously wrought artifacts.

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