Streetwise: Yemenite steps

Named after the year of Yemenite Jewry's arrival, the once central road has not changed with the times.

Yemenite road 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yemenite road 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Only the most determined of drivers will edge through the tight maze of one-way streets to reach this inconspicuous, rundown alley tucked away in the heart of one of the city's oldest and poorest neighborhoods; most people park elsewhere and enter on foot. When I first began to work at Ezrat Avot, I didn't pay much attention to the name. I assumed it was simply a Hebrew word that I was not acquainted with. After months of spelling out the street name while giving directions to the senior citizen organization, I realized that even sabras have no idea of what Tarmab is. My curiosity was aroused. Last Pessah, during a tour of the former Kfar Hatemanim in the Shiloah valley below the City of David, I finally learned about the origins and history of the name. Tarmab, it turns out, is neither a word nor a name; it is the Hebrew acronym of the Jewish year 1881-82. That year marks the first Yemenite aliya, more than half a century before most of Yemen's Jews were flown to the State of Israel during Operation Flying Carpet. In 1881, the Jews of Yemen heard that Jews had begun to return to Jerusalem and took this as a sign of the imminent arrival of the messiah. Their sages had interpreted the biblical verse "Let me climb the palm" (Song of Songs 7:9) as an allusion to the year of redemption, because the numerical value of the Hebrew word "the palm" - 642 - corresponded to the Hebrew year 5642 (1881/82). A few hundred of the poorest members of the community left Sana'a and several nearby villages. After an arduous journey by way of India, Iraq and Egypt to Jaffa, traveling by donkey, foot and boat, depleting all of their savings on the way, they arrived at Jerusalem. Although immigration from Yemen to Palestine continued almost without interruption until 1914, with 10 percent of the Yemenite Jews arriving during this period, these "foreign" Jews with their unfamiliar customs were met with distrust by both the established Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities of the Old Yishuv. After some miserable years within the protective walls of the Old City, destitute and scorned by their Ashkenazi neighbors, the Yemenites decided to establish their own community and began moving out to the hills facing the City of David, where they lived in caves, easy prey for attacks. Ironically, it was only when the Christian community began to focus its charitable work on this destitute group, that the Jewish establishment came to the support of their brethren. Philanthropists purchased land in the Silwan valley and built the small village of Kfar Hashiloah, popularly known as Kfar Hatemanim (the Yemenite village), in 1884. While the village attracted those who wished to return to the isolated, rural lifestyle they had lived in Yemen, the residents were still vulnerable to attack from nearby Arab villages and many preferred the safety of living close to the established Jewish community. And so we come to Rehov Tarmab. A number of tiny Yemenite neighborhoods were built on tracts of land scattered between Mea She'arim and what is today Mahaneh Yehuda. Tarmab is the main street of the Nahalat Zvi neighborhood, built in 1892 with funding from the French-based the Alliance Israélite Universelle and named in honor of one of its major donors, the Bavarian philanthropist Baron Maurice (Moses) de Hirsch (Hirsh in German is a deer, which translates to zvi in Hebrew). PROF. YOSEF TOBI of the University of Haifa, an expert on the history of Yemenite Jewry, describes the neighborhood as "the center of the Yemenite community in Jerusalem, particularly for the many synagogues... many of the rabbinical leaders of the community lived there." Reumia Zecharia, who has been cooking in Ezrat Avot for the past 30 years, remembers moving to Tarmab as a young wife and new immigrant from Yemen in the 1950s. Talking as she sprinkles a generous quantity of traditional hawayej Yemenite spice into the vast pot of chicken soup she is preparing for the seniors' lunch, she says, "I was married in Yemen and when we arrived in Israel, we first lived in Lifta. The conditions were horrible... the houses had no windows. They finally gave us a large room on the top floor of that house over there." Reumia takes a moment to walk to the front door and points across a small playground to a stone building. "There were 10 of us living in that room at one point - my husband and I and seven children and my mother-in-law too. It wasn't easy." Reumia abruptly switches topic, "I had another daughter first, but she was taken away from me." She is not the only member of Ezrat Avot who lost a baby during a period when a suspiciously large number of Yemenite babies disappeared. Her face turns wistful as she recalls, "I was only 15 years old and a young bride when I gave birth to my firstborn. She was only three weeks old when the nurse came and said she was sick and they took her to the hospital. They put me in a hotel nearby so I could nurse her. But then they brought me a note one day saying she had died. I walked all the way up Jaffa Road to the baby home searching for her, but they said she died. She was only three weeks old." The uncertainty rests in Reumia's eyes, as she half-heartedly trails off. "They gave me a note - they couldn't have done that if she hadn't died..." Bringing herself back to better times, she continues, "The following year, I gave birth to my son; we called him Siman Tov [a good sign] and he lives over there [she points to a small stone house across the street] in the home that my mother-in-law moved to when things became so crowded that the Va'ad [the Yemenite council] took pity on us and gave her a small home to move to. "Up there on the second floor, right next to Ezrat Avot, was our synagogue, one of a few on the street. Underneath lived Zecharia... that's a sad story. He went to the mikve one morning and drowned." Naomi Sharabi, director of Ezrat Avot, has far happier memories. She is the granddaughter of Rabbi Shlomo Gamliel, a spiritual leader of the Yemenite community who founded Ezrat Avot at the advanced age of 106 with her assistance. Sharabi paints a picture of an unified, idyllic community. "We lived down the street but would visit my uncle here. I remember walking down Rehov Tarmab as a young child, and it was like walking into a celebration. The Yemenite community was mostly very poor, but everyone was always smiling. The air was rich with the scent of freshly baked pitot and hilbeh. There were only one-story homes then, with pretty red-tiled roofs, and the streets were paved with thin slats of stone, like in Yemin Moshe. They were so beautiful, but instead of renovating them, the municipality paved them over with asphalt some years ago; it's such a pity." Tarmab had its share of characters, recalls Sharabi. "Rabbi Abahel was a very dominant figure in my childhood, as was his wife, Rahel Levy. Rahel Levy took the place of a doctor for us - she had extraordinary healing powers. If someone had a child who was not well, she would instruct you to mix olive oil and various herbs and rub it into his forehead and the fever would go away. Before I traveled to study in England, I came to her for a blessing; she told me to recite a certain psalm three times a day and I would be successful. And I was!" Two wells were situated in the small public squares beside Tarmab, a short distance from one another. "I remember the wells as a small child," she says. "They were just like from the Bible, built of stone with a heavy cover over the top. When they finally brought in plumbing, they closed up the wells. "Ezrat Avot faces the playground that has replaced one of the wells. A magnificent fig tree grew over that well. I can still picture the masses of black crows that would perch on its branches. They cut down the tree around 1979. I cried and begged them to stop, not to take that tree that brought beauty to the neighborhood away, but they didn't listen." PERHAPS THE history of Rehov Tarmab has become romanticized with the passing of the years, but all the old-timers describe a cohesive community governed by the Va'ad Hatemanim. Says Sharabi, "Everyone knew everyone. The very first house, on the corner where Rehov Tarmab meets Rehov Habakuk, was the home of Hanaya Zar. He was a craftsman who made Yemenite shofarot. His was the first house to be sold to outsiders - it was knocked down and is now a supermarket." According to Sharabi, that event marked the beginning of the disintegration of the neighborhood's character. "Until that point, when the old people died they would leave their homes to the Va'ad. The Va'ad would then sell or give it to someone else in the community and use the money from the sale to support the needy of the community, the synagogues and yeshivot." Sharabi suddenly points to an older man who has been listening in to the conversation. "Today everything is falling apart. If the Va'ad were functioning properly, Shmuel here would not be living on a bench in the street but would have a roof over his head. His father was a great rabbi, who traveled around the country providing support to those in our community who needed help. He should not be in this situation." The subject of her outburst is a rugged man in his sixties with a huge, bushy beard and bare head who freely admits that he has been homeless for six years. "This was the jewel in the crown of the Yemenite community in Israel," he says. "People would come from the moshavim and villages all over the country to visit our synagogues and receive the advice and blessings of the rabbis. At the top of Tarmab, opposite the supermarket, is the Shabazi Synagogue, which contains the oldest books in Jerusalem and an ancient Torah scroll written by the sage Rav Shabazi. From the outside it doesn't look like much, but just step inside and see how large it is." Shmuel wants to add his own fond recollections of Rahel Levy, "She spoke so gently and slowly, like an angel. As children we would go to her and she would give us raisins to hear us recite the blessing on them. I have only good memories of the neighborhood as it was, but now I barely recognize it." Both Shmuel and Sharabi are in agreement that when the Va'ad stopped following its mandate of passing on the homes to others in the Yemenite community, but rather sold or rented them to others, the neighborhood began to lose its unique character. "There is a Va'ad today in name only," Shmuel says, his voice rising. Rehov Tarmab still retains a very strong air of the Yemenite community. There is a prominent building housing a yeshiva called "From Yemen They Will Come," the Shabazi Synagogue still functions and a majority of the local residents are Yemenite. Ezrat Avot, whose mission is to provide services to enable seniors across Jerusalem to age in their own homes in dignity and comfort, serves as a de-facto community center for the community, providing a beit midrash for the older men to learn Yemenite-style, offering volunteer after-school tutoring for their grandchildren and food distribution to those struggling to survive. They have been joined by American students from the Mir Yeshiva, who dorm in some of the apartments and occasionally play baseball in the street, and a hassidic presence appears to be growing, mostly marked by homemade signs advertising child care in Yiddish pasted to the lamp posts. The glory days of Tarmab appear to have gone, but the old-timers are confident they can return.