Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Is the end of Yemenite Jewry something to celebrate?

Back in my lithe teenage years, I used to Israeli dance with the best of them – that is, whenever I wasn’t nursing a sprained ankle caused by my congenital flat-footedness.  OK, I admit it; while I thought I was pretty good, I reminded people less of Rudolph Nureyev than those dancing hippopotami in “Fantasia.”  In fact, it was my stirring rendition of a gushing water sprinkler in Hora Mamtera that convinced the Israeli government to go all-in for drip irrigation.  But I loved Israeli dance nonetheless.

One of my favorite moves was the Yemenite step, imported to Israel by those immigrants of the fabled Operation Magic Carpet, which in 1949 brought 45,000 of 46,000 Yemenite Jews to a place that they had only dared to dream about before, a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.  Whenever I heard the dance leader shout, “Yemenite left,” I know it was time to shuffle my feet leftward in three short, zigzagging steps, preferably with my head bobbing and a no-care-in-the-world Sallah Shabbati smile. I loved that step because it reinforced the exotic diversity of my Jewish family – even as it may also have reinforced dangerous stereotypes, much as the shuffling dances of African Americans were used to reinforce negative stereotypes in the U.S.

This week, while the world was preoccupied with terrorism and all things Trump, the last of Yemen’s Jews arrived in Israel and my Jewish family became a little less exotic and a little less diverse.   According to the Jewish Agency, 200 Yemenite Jews have made aliyah since civil war begin to ravage their country, resulting in an increase in antisemitism. And in a covert operation run by the Jewish Agency with State Department assistance, the last 17 arrived in Israel just before Purim.  “Yemenite left,” indeed.  Only about 50 Jews have chosen to remain behind.

The Yemenite step was choreographed to be danced quickly on the hot sand, a perfect metaphor for Jews and the Diaspora.  While Hindus, who have never faced exile from their homeland, have mastered the art of walking serenely on a bed of scalding coals, Jews, who have continent-hopped for millennia, recoil erratically in our dance steps, like Woody Allen eluding a lobster or Natan Sharansky zigzagging to freedom across the bridge.  Wherever we’ve been, we’ve developed new moves, new survival strategies to help us sidestep disaster.

Theodore Herzl saw the inherent flaws of the exilic two-step and Jews have been dancing their way back home to Israel ever since.  But now, one wonders, if all that’s left of Yemen’s Jews is just a caricature of what once was, that shaky dance step and the carefree head bob, what have we lost?

The earth faces a biodiversity crisis of unprecedented proportions, with climate change threatening one quarter or more of all land species with extinction by 2100.  Diaspora Jewish communities are also facing a rapid rate of extinction. Jewish communities across the globe are rapidly vanishing, from Ethiopia to India, from South America to parts of the American South.  Now, given the upsurge of terrorism and antisemitism, European aliyah is sure to intensify and more Jewish communities will subsequently vanish.  This is not a phenomenon to be cheered.

Doubtless there are demographic advantages for Israel to be absorbing more Jews, though no one should consider aliyah to be a panacea that can preserve Israel as a Jewish democracy.  Remember when a million Jews from the former Soviet Union were supposed to ensure demographic domination?   Didn’t happen.

Last year in Paris, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Bark-de-Triomphe that French Jewry should abandon their patrie and make aliyah en masse was as mistaken as it was ill-timed.  The trade-off – a majestic, age-old Diaspora community ends… but patisseries proliferate in Netanya  – is not worth it.  Israel could always use more Jews, but what the Jewish world needs is more Jewrys: more diversity, more richness, more cultural connections, more interaction with other cultures and yes, more assimilation, not less.

We need to develop more Yemenite steps to navigate the scalding stone paths of an increasingly dangerous and integrated world, so that we can teach others how to stay in step with us: how to remain hopeful amidst the hurt, how to love among the haters and how to smile, sway and keep head-bobbing no matter what.

And for that, we need a thriving Diaspora.

The Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv has recently been redefining its mission.  Previously, the indelible message of the permanent exhibit was that the Diaspora was a failed though once glorious enterprise and that Jewish identity could survive only on Israeli soil.  According to the museum’s website, the new core exhibit, set to open in 2018, “will celebrate the multiculturalism of Jewish diversity and adopt an inclusive, pluralistic approach,” with the goal of telling “the ongoing and extraordinary story of the Jewish people.”  The key word there is “ongoing.”

For that to happen, the Diaspora can’t become a dinosaur.  This week, a Jewish community that has existed since Solomon met Sheba, is no more.  Though we are happy that our Yemenite brothers and sisters were rescued and are safe, there should be little joy at this turn of events.

Rather than celebrating the end of Jewish Yemen, we should be looking for ways to strengthen other Jewish communities, in France, in Belgium and beyond.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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