JCC exhibit shows sunset of Yemeni Jewish community

Rachael Strecher has captured images of those affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Russian invasion of Georgia and other war-torn areas.

The photojournalist, who once worked for the Associated Press in Jerusalem and the Chicago Tribune, didn’t know where to go next. She sought advice from a mentor.

“He said, ‘Go where most people aren’t willing to go,’ ” said Strecher, a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan. “Why go somewhere that’s really saturated? I knew Yemen would be a good place to go. We wanted to work on this story.”

Compelled by the chance to document one of the last indigenous Jewish communities of the Middle East, Strecher and her boyfriend, 25-year-old Josh Berer, spent nearly three months at the end of 2009 living in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.

Young girls in the community study at home. Most of the Yemenite Jews grow up speaking Arabic, but their first alphabet is always Hebrew. Many of the older generation are only able to read Hebrew letters. photos/rachael strecher

The Jewish pair gradually bonded with the 67 Yemeni Jews living there through photography, writing and their grasp of the Arabic language. (Berer, who had been to Yemen once before, is nearly fluent.)

What resulted was an array of vibrant images and detailed journal entries documenting this ancient Jewish community on the brink of exodus because of anti-Semitism, cultural isolation and civil war.

“The Last Jews of Yemen” is on display at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael through March 18. In addition, the work of Yehuda Tassa, a Yemenite silver filigree artist in Palo Alto, accompanies the collection.    

JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), whose mission is to raise awareness of the religious persecution and displacement of nearly 1 million Jews, spearheaded the exhibit’s formation.

“Since the 1940s, this is a story that has played itself out repeatedly throughout the Middle East and North Africa, yet it has received very little attention,” said Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA. “It has never been documented quite like this. The colorful photographs and rich journal entries bring to life a historic current event that few people are aware of.”

Josh Berer and Rachael Strecher wearing traditional Yemenite garb in Yemen. 

Capturing images of the Yemeni Jews in their everyday lives was Strecher’s top priority. Guarded after being evacuated to Sana’a by the government in January 2007, the Yemeni Jews transitioned from cautious to inviting as the days progressed. To quell suspicion, Strecher left her camera at home during the first month. 

“We had these little milestones to get over to feel welcomed,” Strecher said. “The first time we went to [the rabbi’s house] for Shabbat, Josh had to read from the Torah. He ‘passed.’ Luckily, I didn’t have to.”

The home of Rabbi Yahya Yusuf Marhabi doubles as the synagogue for the small Jewish population. Many holidays are celebrated there.

The homes in Sana’a have cushions on the floor and hard square pillows to lean against. At night, children pull mattresses from a large stack and sleep in the family’s living room. The parents retire to their room. Some residences are equipped with satellite TV and a version of TiVo. 

The children learn Jewish studies in school, where they are taught Judeo-Arabic (classical Arabic written in Hebrew script). Some attend private school with Yemeni Muslims and learn to read and write Arabic as well. They also read from the Torah at an early age.

Berer happened to overhear a child reciting the week’s parshah. When the child made a mistake, a man standing nearby immediately corrected him from memory.

“My mind was blown in the sense of how little Jewish upbringing I received in America,” Berer said.

But their trip was not without peril.

The Yemeni government controls access to the compound, especially with regard to journalists. They have to register and pay for a government representative to follow them around, according to Berer. To be safe, he and Strecher didn’t post any photos or personal blogs while in Sana’a.

To avoid an official escort, the couple explained that they were Jewish and wanted to pray with others. The Ministry of the Interior granted them permission to have contact with the Yemeni Jews, but that didn’t guarantee against on-the-spot interrogation.

A celebration during Simchat Torah was abruptly interrupted when government officials noticed Strecher, dressed in traditional Yemeni garb, with her camera. The rabbi quickly came to her defense, but they wanted to know more.

“[The officials] insisted upon coming back to our house to see where we lived,” Berer said. “They asked us a lot of questions, like whether we had been to Israel and if we knew anyone there. We handled it diplomatically. I anticipated this might happen and I had a whole spiel ready in case they asked these questions.”

Having been back in the U.S. now for more than a year, the couple has had ample time to reflect on the experience. They agreed that the trip changed their view of Judaism, having been immersed in a society that emphasizes the necessity for Jewish learning.

It was hard to believe that the Yemeni Jews, with such a strong identity, could one day cease to exist.

“This was a time-sensitive project,” Berer said. “At some point, the community is going to leave. Once they’re gone, that’s it. They’re not coming back.”

“The Last Jews of Yemen” is on display through March 18 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Information: (415) 444-8000.