Yemenite steps – near Jerusalem

More than a jeweler, Shoham Simchi is preserving the tradition and culture of his ancestors through his shop, gallery and music.

Yemenite steps (photo credit: Yechezkel)
Yemenite steps
(photo credit: Yechezkel)
Yemenites in Israel greatly value their ancient tradition, with many documenting and preserving it,” says silversmith Shoham Simchi, the founder of the Yemenite Courtyard (Hahatzer Hateimanit), which opened in March in Kochav Ya’acov, 15 minutes north of Jerusalem. The courtyard’s entrance resembles the clay fortress-like buildings of the country on the southwestern end of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Yemenite Courtyard includes Simchi’s workshop and gallery, with a display of authentic Yemenite artifacts, Artisans’ Lane and a Friday market.
Simchi grew up in nearby Beit El. His maternal grandparents came to Israel from Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and his father’s parents came from a village near Sanaa.
Simchi, who lost his father at a young age, learned the skill of making jewelry and silver artifacts from Avraham Cohen, a silversmith from Djerba, Tunisia. After his IDF service, Simchi developed his expertise in jewelry making, focusing on Yemenite filigree, a “rare art form that is becoming extinct,” according to Simchi, characterized by its ornamental decorative work and delicate and intricate design.
In addition to his gallery, Simchi has a recording studio, where he produces his own compositions, piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems) and the weekly Torah reading in the Yemenite nusach (text) to help those prepare for the reading (the latter is on YouTube).
His wife, Elena, a teacher at the Djanogly High School in Jerusalem, and their eight children all take part in the Yemenite Courtyard, assisting with production of the items and hosting visitors.
“Yemenites excelled in welcoming guests, and this is passed on to the next generation,” Simchi explains.
According to one opinion, Jews settled in Yemen after the destruction of the First Temple. They suffered from harsh decrees from the local tribes and later from the Muslims. Yemenite Jews started coming to Israel in small waves in 1862. Between 1881 and 1882, Yemenite Jews came to Israel on their own aliya which was called Aaleh batamar, a phrase from the Song of Songs. Sages believed this verse alluded to the year of redemption with the Hebrew letters of batamar becoming Tarmab, the Jewish year 5642 (1881-82). They settled in the neighborhood of Shiloah, near the City of David in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The majority of Yemen’s remaining Jews, about 50,000, were airlifted in Operation Magic Carpet in 1948 and 1949.
In Yemen, Jews lived in separate quarters in large cities or were spread over 1,000 villages and towns. Despite their separation from a central community, they preserved their tradition. Working mainly in trade and as skilled artisans, some Jewish surnames highlight the importance of crafts like Hayat (tailor), Atari (dealing with perfumes) and Nagar (carpenter). Jewish craftsmen often designed the buildings in Yemen. Jews excelled in the art of silversmiths (the men) and embroidery (the women). “Being a silversmith was very popular, especially since Muslims were forbidden to do this work,” says Simchi.
The façade of the structure designed and built by Simchi has typical motifs of buildings in ancient Sanaa. The mashrabiya, or typical Arabic windows, have small slits to protect the modesty of the women looking out. The structure is decorated with designs of the myrtle leaf and wheat chaff. In Yemen, they were made of plaster due to the weather.
“The designs on the structure are used time after time – for Yemenite jewelry, embroidery, vessels and the rimonim for the Torah Scroll,” notes Simchi.
On display in Artisans’ Lane are authentic artifacts highlighting the professions of the Yemenite Jews. An Arab jambiya dagger, a characteristically short curved blade, with filigree, is about 150 years old. Simchi points out an embroidered material made in Israel by his grandmother, Rumiya Cohen, and explains how his grandparents came to Israel by boat from Aden in 1945.
Other displays in Artisans’ Lane have pottery, agricultural vessels and knives used for shechita (kosher slaughter) belonging to Simchi’s great-grandfather, Mori (rabbi) Shalom Buta from the village of Sir. “The skill of shechita, especially of chickens, was known by many Yemenite Jews, and wasn’t for income. Many knew how to slaughter from the age of 15.”
The Mawza Exile, a little-known chapter in the history of Yemenite Jewry, highlights the importance of Jews to the economy of Yemen.
“This story deserves more recognition,” states Simchi. “In 1676, the ruling leader [Al-Mahdi Ahmad] decreed that Jews should not live in Yemen, since its land is holy to Muslims. His initial ultimatum was that Jews should convert or die. He finally changed the death penalty to exile.
The Jews were expelled to Mawza in the Tihamah Desert near the Red Sea. Many died of disease, harsh weather conditions and a shortage of water. After a year of exile, the regional governors appealed to the leader demanding that the Jews return alive because they couldn’t manage without the skilled Jewish workers.”
On the first floor of the Yemenite Courtyard is a display of Simchi’s Judaica and jewelry sold in galleries abroad and in Israel – mainly to tourists – and through his website.
“The only Judaica created by Jewish artisans in Yemen were the rimonim for the Torah scroll, and the yad, the finger pointing to the scroll. There were no kiddush cups, Hanukka tops or mezuza cases. The parchment of the mezuza was placed in a niche in the stone doorpost.
Jews kept a low profile. They wouldn’t show off their wealth to avoid attacks from the Muslims. Jews would wear black and gray clothes. Only on Shabbat would they wear white, since they didn’t leave their neighborhood,” he explains.
Simchi creates Judaica items with Yemenite designs and modern elements, such as candlesticks, etrog boxes, charity boxes, kddush cups, Hanukka lamps and tops, mezuza and megila cases. Visitors can see short films produced by Simchi and his wife that show the complex process of creating filigree, starting with weaving the silver thread in a machine and through preparing a master mold model from which the jewelry and Judaica are made.
Other films show Yemenite customs.
On the second floor is a divan, a traditional sitting corner with low couches with colorful cushions and cloths on the wall. On display in the room are authentic items, some of which have panels with explanations. “[They are] on loan or donated by Israeli Yemenites who were very responsive when they heard about the Yemenite Courtyard,” says Simchi.
Jewelry makers in Yemen would melt silver coins from abroad for their products, and a Jewish seal on jewelry from Sanaa indicated the craftsman’s high status. On display at the Yemenite Courtyard are two mortar and pestles made in different ways.
A large grindstone in the corner reminds the visitors of how women in the late 19th century had a lot more on their plate on the eve of Passover than preparing a Seder.
“These were used mainly to grind the nuts and seeds used for the traditional halla served on Shabbat, holidays and festive occasions,” Simchi explains.
But the mortar and pestles also shed light on a different story. Many believe that the emigration to Israel in 1881–1882 was due to rumors that reached Yemen about the renewal of settlement by European Jews. This may not have been the case, according to the book The Storm of Yemen by Rabbi Amram Korach, as related by Simchi: “When the Turks came to Yemen in 1872, they relied on the Jews to grind their flour to avoid poisoning by the local population. In order to fill increasing quotas for the Turkish army, women would add the flour that they ground. It was grueling work. One year on the eve of Passover, after the backbreaking work of thoroughly cleaning and koshering the grindstone, the Turks forced the women to grind the flour for them again. The women had enough and said they wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael. They opposed the Turkish rule in Yemen and encouraged their husbands to make aliya.”
Books in Simchi’s collection date back about 200 years – most of them handwritten and copied by scribes who were also scholars. In his collection is a Haggada, a Slihot book, a book for Hoshana Raba and a Haftara book. The first printing press came to Yemen only at the end of 19th century, while Europe had them for hundreds of years.
“Books were rare objects. That’s why pupils learned from their mori as they sat in a group of 10 to 15 children around one book. That’s how Yemenite Jews learned to read from all directions at a distance of one to two meters,” he says.
Among the visitors to the Yemenite Courtyard are tourists and schoolchildren.
On Fridays, visitors can enjoy the Yemenite market, with food that can be eaten on the premises or purchased as take-away. Local youth from Kochav Ya’acov and nearby settlements operate the market.