(photo credit: Yaakov Shenkman)
In 1949 Ya'acov Seri sold his house, packed a few of his most precious possessions and left Yemen. He got on a plane with 150 other Yemenites, some of whom were told that their belongings would be sent in the next plane out. This, of course, never happened. The new winter jackets Seri had made of sheepskin, cooking vessels and holy books were all left behind.
But he wasn't upset. He was coming to the Holy Land.
All the travelers were taken to a transit camp in Aden for procedural matters, preparation and rest. For the three weeks just before Rosh Hashana they slept in tents. "We said slihot on the plane on the way to Israel," he reminisces 61 years later.
LIFE BEFORE ALIYA
In Yemen, Seri was the king's plasterer. One time, he recalls, he was assigned to finish the walls of a certain space before the Friday prayer. Seri and his Jewish coworkers worked all Thursday night. The king had ordered that the gate of the Jewish Quarter be opened especially for them before dawn so they could go home.
Back then, no Jew was allowed to enter the army or be a part of the government. But, Seri notes, the Yemenites trusted the Jews and certain jobs that needed special workmanship were designated only for them. Other trusted Jewish artisans were put in charge of manufacturing the governmental coins.
Even though Seri had a prestigious job, he married relatively late, at 24, because he had no money. He married his niece, who was the same age. (Most couples tied the knot around 18.) "When a boy went for a walk he would look at the young ladies standing by the windows that faced the main road. If a girl caught his eye he would tell his father to ask a common friend to act as go-between... If her family agreed to meet the boy's family, and later accepted the marriage offer, the groom-to-be would give the sum of about NIS 500 to the bride-to-be's parents," notes Seri. Meanwhile, no words were exchanged between the couple.
"The girl would not be asked, but told. If she cried, it was a sign she didn't want the match. If she gave no answer and went to the other room, it was a sign that she was interested," recalls Seri.
The punishment for intermarriage was death. "Only in a case where a Jewish child would become an orphan, he would be forced to become a Muslim and marry a non-Jew."
People usually lived on the second floor of a building. "The first floor was reserved for the storage of grain and housing animals." The reason: muddy ground.
In villages, some men would take as many as three wives, but this was less common in the capital city, where the cost of living was higher. "Of course if a man could afford it, this was allowed," he says.
Another aspect of life in Yemen that stands out in Seri's mind is living among Muslims. "If a Jew was running home from work on Friday afternoon and the Muslims knew that he wouldn't arrive in time for Shabbat, they would throw stones at him." Also, "When a Jew was hired by an Arab, the employer would prepare food in special pots for him."
Back then, some 100,000 Jews lived in Yemen, Seri says, noting that both Jews and Arabs had distinctive clothing. "People who broke this norm were considered swindlers."
LIFE AFTER ALIYA
When Seri was told that there were stone floors in Israel, he thought it was impossible. "When you went to buy maror for Pessah eve at the market, your legs would sink into the mud up to the knees... There were no roads or cars, only mud. People would either walk or ride a donkey."
Upon arrival, he was amazed at the beauty of Israel and its stone floors. Electricity was also a novelty for him, as he was used to heating the house and cooking using crude oil.
For the first few months his whole family lived in an absorption center in Atlit. To his surprise and delight, his nephew - who had moved here a few years before - found him work immediately. Slowly, he learned to do stained glass for synagogues by watching artisans. "No one ever taught me... I would come home from work at 10 at night, eat and continue working on the stained glass."
There was no National Insurance, and he supported his parents, as well as his wife and four children.
Ironically, he says, even though he had finally moved to the Holy Land, after dreaming about it for so long, one thing he missed about Yemen was being around religious Jews.
Before Seri moved here from Yemen, he thought he would come to Israel to study Torah. It took him a while to live this dream. Finally, at 96, he is absorbing Torah in large doses. "I wake up at 2:30 in the morning and learn Torah alone for an hour," followed by another two hours of learning at the synagogue with others. At 5:30 he prays, learns Halacha and says psalms before breakfast.
He also enjoys working in his garden and riding his bike around town. He recently added a tiny engine so he can ride uphill. After running his errands, he studies some more before making himself a very light lunch of vegetable soup with a single chicken wing, just for taste.
Asked what is his secret to a long, healthy life: "It is all in God's hand."
After lunch Seri usually has a glass of homemade wine and takes a short nap to refresh himself before the afternoon's prayer and study. Some evenings, he indulges in fruit or homemade smoked nuts. He goes to bed around 9:30.
When pressed, he has advice for everyone. To Jewish adversaries he advises, "Make peace with each other, otherwise both sides will die." He advises young men to let their wives stay home and "bring her everything she needs... I used to bring home enough wheat for two months. My wife used to grind this and make fresh flour and bread every day. When a woman stays home, she stays modest and there are fewer conflicts."
This ideal is hard to achieve in modern times, he admits. "Now, if a woman chooses to stay home, she is considered lazy; she is made to feel ashamed." Nowadays, Seri feels, women work for luxuries, but if they didn't, their husbands would still manage to provide the basic necessities.
Seri's mother gave birth to 17 children, six of whom lived to adulthood. He is the last one alive.
Maybe besides God's generosity, his optimism, Torah study, orderly living, and healthy diet and exercise, Seri has another secret for a long, healthy life: His daughter describes how on holidays he prepares fat envelopes for everyone. "I don't want them to pray for my death," he laughs; so he regularly advances their inheritance.