Paradise lost

The legacy of the Jews of Aden is preserved in Tel Aviv’s Lilienblum Street synagogue.

The synagogue on Tel Aviv’s Lilienblum Street houses the Aden exhibition (photo credit: URIEL MESSA)
The synagogue on Tel Aviv’s Lilienblum Street houses the Aden exhibition
(photo credit: URIEL MESSA)
Although they have never lived there, two Israelis are so fascinated – through stories told by their parents – by the lost Jewish community in the seaport city of Aden in Yemen that they have devoted years to researching it and collecting memories.
The result is a now permanent exhibition in Tel Aviv, where the public can finally get to know, as they did, the place once called the “Paris of the East.”
Dani Goldsmith is a historian and businessman whose grandfather left Aden for Palestine in 1924. Uriel Messa is a photographer whose father, a leader of the community, represented Aden at the World Jewish Congress in 1939. When members of their family wanted to throw out anything to do with Aden, Goldmsith and Messa, both individually and together, would stop them and say “Give it to me,” says Messa, “although we didn’t know what to do with it.” They kept accumulating stuff in their own homes.
Fifteen years ago these two relatives and good friends produced a small exhibition dedicated to their parents’ homeland in the women’s section of the Jews’s of Aden’s Kol Yehuda synagogue at 5 Lilienblum Street.
Built in 1938 , it was designed by one of the top architects of the day, Yehuda Magidovitch.
“They were rich and took only the best,” says Goldsmith, referring to his forebears’ choice of architect. However, “There were some members of the Aden community in Israel – numbering about 30,000 today – who objected to the idea of using the synagogue for an exhibition,” he says, and after several months it was dismantled.
However, when the tenant using the warehouse on the ground floor of the synagogue vacated a few years ago, Goldsmith and Messa decided to revive and expand their exhibition and make it permanent.
Both families had continued to collect a huge number of artifacts telling the story of their community and, when other former Adenites heard that a permanent exhibition was planned, many more were donated.
Today a visitor can enter the building and be transported to the lost world of Aden Jewry. Photos, Judaica, utensils, textiles and carpets, clothing and books – tangible memories of a world gone forever – are displayed around the room designated as the synagogue’s museum.
Aden. The name carries overtones of a gracious place – long gone – where the British ruled, the natives lived and thrived in peace and security and the Jews survived, unharassed, for centuries.
There are no longer any Jews in Aden, but it was once home to a community of 5,000, mostly traders, who made a comfortable living doing business in Egypt, India, Arabia and East Africa – and acquiring a Western culture and civilization thanks to the British protectorate, which began in 1839. All that ended abruptly in 1948.
“Without the British we would have been Yemenite,” says Messa. The rule of the British in Aden was good for the Jews, at least until 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel.
“In 1839 when the Brits took over, they found the Jews living all over Aden but without any civil rights according to Muslim laws. It was thanks to the protectorate that the Jews thrived and gained equal rights with the Muslims.
For that reason they were extremely loyal to the Crown,” says Goldsmith.
The visit of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) in 1921 was a mixed blessing for the Aden Jewish community.
On the one hand it was a great honor to receive the heir to the throne; on the other he came on Shabbat and received no official welcome. In the end he chose to visit the Jewish quarter and was welcomed.
A photograph and articles in a London newspaper of the time (The Graphic) record the event and are also on display. The leader of the community who greeted His Royal Highness was Benin Menachem Messa, a great-greatuncle of both Goldsmith and Messa.
The British had good reason to be helpful to the Jews of Aden. Some of the families were extremely rich, including those of Goldsmith and Messa. Menachem Messa built synagogues, schools and brought teachers from Palestine to run the schools and teach Hebrew. He also loaned money to the British war effort (1914-18). On display in the exhibition is the thank-you letter sent by the king (George V) through his representative in India.
The Jews of Aden were mostly traders and businessmen. They imported goods from Britain and on display are the documents related to their trading – a receipt for paints from Hull in northeast England dated October 1938; letters to fellow Jewish businessmen in Egypt written in Rashi script so that if intercepted they would not be understood.
There are British passports held by Aden Jews with stamps from Port Said and Suez; and exercise books with pictures of the king and queen for the Jews were nothing if not patriotic and loyal to the crown.
On display next to a photo of the present queen as a young woman is an MBE (Member of the British Empire award), an honor often bestowed on British subjects for various services. It was donated by an American of Aden origin who was visiting from New York. He told Goldsmith and Messa that his father had given it to him before he died, and he had not known what to do with it.
“I don’t know either, but when the time comes you will know,” his father had said. And sure enough, when the American tourist saw the exhibition he understood. Next to the medal is a Hebrew translation of “God Save the Queen.”
The Jews of Aden were keen Zionists, sending money to the Land of Israel and buying property there. Dani’s grandfather bought the land in Tel Aviv on which the Esther cinema (today a boutique hotel and UNESCO Heritage site) was built and named for his grandmother.
There are wedding invitations, ketubot and wedding pictures; clothing and household items; a photo of a Purim party.
There’s a small casserole with a lock because the Jewish Adeni housewife sent her husband off to work, which was often at the port, with a kosher meal and wanted to be sure only he would eat it.
There are mortars and pestles, narghilas, meat grinders. There are fans made from ostrich feathers, which the Jews traded in a big way.
And there are multiple examples of the Judaica they brought with them – Torah scrolls, kiddush cups, tefillin and hand-embroidered tallitot (prayer shawls) – and many prayer books.
Of course this golden existence could not last. After Israel’s declaration of independence, “The Arabs started a pogrom and 87 Jews were killed,” relates Goldsmith.
“The Jewish stores were looted, synagogues burnt. In fact, it was the only place in the Muslim world that this happened to the Jews.”
On display is a heartbreaking telegram sent from Aden to the outside world. “Please help us, we are desperate,” it says. Uriel’s father, Bentov Messa, who was in the United States at the time, appealed to the United Nations.
The British Colonial Office sent a commission of inquiry and its report can be inspected for all to see. It is titled “Disturbances in Aden, December 1947.” Also shown is a cutting from the Yediot newspaper in the same month reporting on the riots.
Two days later the British decided to step in and stop the slaughter.
“There were often demonstrations against the British and sometimes against the Jews too,” says Goldsmith.
“The Jews of Aden were an easy target, but until 1965 life was still comfortable enough and business was still good.”
The final 20 years of the protectorate were uneventful for the Jews, who had no further role to play in Aden’s evolution.
Bentov Messa, Uriel’s father, traveled to and from Aden until 1967, in some ways overseeing the end of the community.
When the British left in 1967 the Jews left too.
“My father was one of the last to leave,” says Messa.
He and Goldsmith and in fact the whole Adenite community are now concerned with how to preserve the 1,000-year-old Jewish cemetery in Aden.
“The big synagogue was demolished, but we have a model of it in our exhibition,” says Goldsmith. “Now we must do something to save the cemetery. It’s the last evidence that Jews lived, thrived and died there for centuries.”
That, and this exhibition.
Entrance is free of charge, daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Fridays 9 a.m. to 12 noon, it is an example of what can be accomplished when nostalgia and pride in one’s heritage come together to produce what is clearly a labor of love.