From Yemen with love

Rosh Ha'ayin is flowering into a comfortable and desirable place with a unique cultural flavor.

yemen feat 88 298 (photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldocks)
yemen feat 88 298
(photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldocks)
In the last 15 years, Rosh Ha'ayin's population has nearly doubled. From a Yemenite bastion, the city has spread to encompass career army officers, Ethiopians, Indians, Russians and sabras. After years of being in deficit, the municipality has balanced its budget and launched a vigorous program of partnerships with cities overseas. From a transit camp for Yemenite immigrants brought here in Operation On the Wings of Eagles, to a small metropolis a short distance from every major city in the center of the country, Rosh Ha'ayin is on the cusp of flowering into a comfortable and desirable place with a unique cultural flavor. While Rosh Ha'ayin achieved formal status as a city in 1994, major changes actually began a few years earlier. At the beginning of the '90s, Rosh Ha'ayin began its first major expansion in 40 years. New neighborhoods were built on the surrounding hillsides. For the first time, large numbers of non-Yemenites began to move into the area. Two of the neighborhoods were built to house career army officers and their families, another for new Russian immigrants and one for those Israelis who wanted a quieter life in the center of the country. "There were some tensions in the beginning, before they [the Yemenites] got used to us," Omer, a store owner in Neveh Afek said. Omer, 23, moved into one of the neighborhoods set aside for IDF personnel from Petah Tikva with his family 12 years ago. His mother served in the army for many years. "Now, I have friends of all types," he said. In what seems to be nothing short of remarkable in a schism-ridden country, the newcomers and the old-timers have managed to forge a mutually respectful and beneficial relationship. A local educator said that schools have launched projects to explore the Yemenite history of the city, visiting with the older residents and photographing them. Today, Rosh Ha'ayin's 40,000 residents sprawl over 30,000 dunams (7,500 acres) of hills and plains four kilometers east of Petah Tikva. Only about half of the residents are of Yemenite descent. It is a city of quiet streets and mostly individual homes. The original neighborhoods lie in a bowl surrounded by the newer neighborhoods and the archeological sites that dot the area. The city has gradually spread east, with the newer neighborhoods built on top of the surrounding hills. They are pleasant streets lined with red-roofed private homes. Professionals of all stripes have come to a place with incredible natural resources and serene beauty a scant 15 minutes from the bustle of Tel Aviv. Rosh Ha'ayin's tallest building, 15 stories, is very new and sticks out like a sore thumb among the lower houses. The various neighborhoods are linked by roads that pass through open areas of green - pleasant passageways that both unite and divide the city's communities. "Givat Hasla'im is very much connected to the older, original neighborhoods because it borders them. I cannot speak for the other neighborhoods which are farther away," the local educator said. While many residents seem to agree that it is a good place to live with a high standard of living, one resident noted that there was nothing for the teenagers to do at night. "There are no movie theaters, no clubs - the kids get bored and so you have vandalism, graffiti; the kids sit around and drink and smoke," Omer said. Pointing to the tables outside his shop, he said, "There are 50 kids hanging out there every night." However, Mayor Moshe Sinai said crime had actually dropped by 60 percent over the last year and a half. "We have a thousand volunteers who assist the police - bikes and jeeps patrol every night. There are also cameras over 70 percent of the city. I can sit in my office and direct the cameras. The fact that the separation fence near Rosh Ha'ayin has been completed is also a factor," he said. There are tentative plans to build a new mall which will have a movie theater, the local educator said. At the moment, Rosh Ha'ayin boasts a Friday shouk that attracts thousands of residents and visitors from the surrounding area. In addition to food, shoppers can buy clothing, jewelry, pots and pans, books and much more. Commercial companies have also found a home in the technological park on the eastern edge of the city. Partner and Barak and 300 other companies have offices there. Another technological park on the other side of the city is in the planning stages. ON THE CORNER of Shabazi and Wolfson streets in the center of the original neighborhoods stands a barracks erected by the British during the Mandate. In a sign of the importance history has to the Yemenite community, the building has become the Yemenite Jewish Heritage House of Rosh Ha'ayin. Naftali Simhi, its chairman, has the swarthy skin common to Yemenites and a startlingly bright smile which he is not shy to unleash on visiting reporters. "I think everyone one has a little warm part of their soul which is Yemenite and I want to open it and develop it," he said while sitting in his office at the Heritage House. A building engineer by trade, he serves purely on a volunteer basis. Simhi is convinced that much of Israeli culture has derived from the traditions that the Yemenite community zealously protected throughout its exile. "The Yemenite community had the most cohesive tradition of any exiled community. You know the new Madonna song? It opens with a Yemenite tune. You cannot have an Israeli dance without a Yemenite step in it," he said cordially but emphatically. The former barracks houses a small exhibit of pictures, paintings and artifacts. Major donor Eli Dromi has dedicated a mori (traditional Yemenite religious teacher) classroom and an exhibit depicting children studying with a mori in memory of his father. The works of a Yemenite artist, Itamar Sayani, which depict the myths and stories of the Yemenite Jews in bright colors, hang on the walls of one of the galleries. During the Festival Teimaniyada which was held for three days over Succot, the museum was transformed into a diwan, the center of life for a family in Yemen, a place where singing, dancing and Torah are taught. Alongside it, a traditional Yemenite kitchen was recreated. With a lot of room for expansion, Simhi plans to create an "active museum" around the concept of the diwan. The museum should be as much about life now as about our past, Simhi said. He plans to redecorate the outside of the museum with the exquisite plaster work that adorns houses in Yemen. There, skilled craftsmen layered white plaster around windows in simple yet stunning designs. He also wants to build a Yemenite street next to the museum. "I want visitors to be able to come and be exposed to the folklore. To experience the cooking, the tabun, the malawah, the dance, the Yemenite choir," he explained, "I want visitors to come and experience four or five hours of Yemenite hospitality, including traditional clothing." Along with the Heritage House, Simhi also has grand plans for his city. "I want to turn Rosh Ha'ayin into the center of Yemenite Jewish heritage," he exuberantly declared. That may not be such an unreachable goal. Yemenite traditions are well kept in Rosh Ha'ayin. Simhi's children attended classes with a mori in the afternoon just like he did. Today, the mori continues to teach the boys from a very early age until around the time of their bar mitzva. "The mori is the academy of Yemenite tradition from the very earliest ages, even before you can comprehend," said Simhi. The children learn the specific Yemenite pronunciation and religious melodies from the mori. More than that, they learn much of the Torah and sacred texts by heart. In a small classroom in an older neighborhood, a group of boys ranging from five to eight years old compete among themselves to repeat the memorized verses as loudly as possible as an indulgent Mori Tuviya attempts to maintain some semblance of order. These students are visible proof that the tradition is being passed on, to grow and flourish amongst another generation. ROSH HA'AYIN'S relatively new mayor (he was elected in 2003), Moshe Sinai, although the city's first non-Yemenite mayor, is also anxious to preserve the unique nature of his city. "I am very proud of the Yemenite heritage. One of the challenges for me as mayor is to preserve that heritage. They preserved the tradition [in Yemen]. It is my job to protect them, to provide a supportive foundation," he said. Sinai is a former career IDF officer who served in the Intelligence Corps, the Planning Branch, was involved in the negotiations with Syria in 1996 and represented the IDF to the Foreign Ministry. His military career has helped guide his notion of what a mayor should do. Sinai took over a city with NIS 100 million in debts. All of the municipal institutions were in receivership and employees weren't being paid. A year after assuming office, he balanced the budget and has maintained it every year since. "I completely balanced the budget, which is the prerequisite for governing a city," he said in a telephone interview. "We are on our way to being an independent city... banks now run after us for investment." Sinai has a succinct governing philosophy, "What we cannot do ourselves, no one will do for us... We have to take up tasks the government used to do, combat traffic accidents, develop foreign relations and encourage industry and new residents." Utilizing his diplomatic experience, Sinai has created a number of joint projects with foreign cities. "I wanted to change the image of Rosh Ha'ayin," he said. One of the biggest things that he did was to develop foreign relations with other municipalities. "We have a sister city in Prague. There was a kindergarten named after Rosh Ha'ayin there recently," he said. Rosh Ha'ayin's children also helped raise money for the children of New Orleans, after that city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. "The Children-to-Children Project raised $4,000 and sent it through the San Francisco federation... I then told this story to 100 of Rosh Ha'ayin's elderly who were in Tiberias for a weekend. Three or four of them came up to me afterward and gave me an NIS 100 bill each to add to the donation," Sinai recounted. He has also established ties with students in San Francisco. Middle school kids from Rosh Ha'ayin partner with a parallel class and correspond with them. Sinai is also proud of Project Orange (not connected to the cellphone company of the same name). Two hundred children bring laptops, given to them by the municipality, instead of schoolbooks to school. A joint project of the Weizmann Institute, Machon Davidson and the Education Ministry, the students become computer literate, using them for research and writing. Each year, another 100 students receive free laptops. Sinai has worked to improve the status of women in Rosh Ha'ayin as well. A 600-strong women's forum gives classes to educate and strengthen women. It has also launched a dialogue project with women in Kafr Kasim, the nearby Arab village. "There will also be a women's marathon here on November 3. Four kilometers and eight kilometers. While there are joint marathons in Israel, this will be the first women's only one," Sinai boasted. Looking toward the future, plans are being formulated to build new neighborhoods, the mayor said. "They are not at the stage where we are seeking tenders yet," he added. Presumably, the new neighborhoods will continue to add to the diversity of Rosh Ha'ayin. In other places, that might be cause for concern, but Rosh Ha'ayin's proven record of accommodating and building cultural connections will likely make the next expansion a smooth process. The Bible says... Rosh Ha'ayin has been a strategic crossroads since biblical times. While not mentioned by name in the Bible - the name Rosh Ha'ayin is a modern development - the area of Afek is mentioned both in Joshua and Judges. Joshua defeated the king of Afek during his campaign to conquer the land of Israel. In the time of the judges, it was most likely the site where the Ark of the Covenant temporarily fell into Philistine hands. Excavations between 1976 and 1978 in preparation for the city's expansion also uncovered what is believed to be an early settlement of one of the 12 tribes, perhaps Ephraim or Menashe. A young volunteer made a major archeological find when he discovered an ostracon, a pottery shard with an inscription, on which the entire alphabet of a proto-Canaanite language was written. It is one of the few such pieces ever discovered. The archeological sites which ring the city testify to its continuing importance over the last 2,000 years. Tel Afek or Antipatris was built by Herod in 20 BCE and named after his father, Antipater. After Herod, the Romans used it as a staging base to launch their attack on Jerusalem in 70 CE. Remains from Roman, Byzantine and early Arab periods have been unearthed at Migdal Tzedek. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders built a fortress there and during the Ottoman period, the Turks built another fortress and a hostel on the first one's foundations. When steady Jewish immigration resumed, Jews settled in the area. In the 1920s, with the help of the Baron Rothschild, a Rosh Ha'ayin stop was added to the train line between Petah Tikva and Jaffa. Meanwhile, the British also built a large army camp, remains of which dot the city to this day. After the British left and the War of Independence broke out, the Hagana captured the area from Iraqi soldiers, after which water was brought from springs which give the city its name to besieged Jerusalem. The modern history of Rosh Ha'ayin begins in late 1949. While Yemenite Jewish immigration had begun in the 1880s with a steady trickle, the new state launched a massive operation, called "On the Wings of Eagles" or "Magic Carpet," to end the exile of Yemenite Jewry and bring them to Zion. Since the British had built an army base and then left it intact when they departed Palestine, the Jewish Agency decided to house the new immigrants in the barracks and tents. Between 20,000 and 35,000 were relocated in what was meant to be temporary accommodations. However, "when the state sent trucks to take the immigrants to their new homes in other parts of the country, some of the people got organized and said 'No thank you, we are staying here.' Five thousand stayed and Rosh Ha'ayin was born," local historian Moshe Oved explained. According to the Yemenite Jewish Heritage House, 5,880 wanted to stay. In a letter from the Camp "C" Committee to president Chaim Weizmann on April 29, 1950, the immigrants explained that they wished to stay in order to preserve their religion and customs, "without trouble or disgrace." The state acquiesced, and at the end of 1951 it became a permanent settlement. The settlement was apparently called Rosh Ha'ayin (head of the spring) because of the many springs in the area which feed the Yarkon River. However, others say its name was borrowed from the name of an Arab village nearby which was called Ras al-Ayin. Over the next few years, the settlement developed schools and elected a local government. On May 2, 1950 the "religious school for the children of immigrants in Rosh Ha'ayin" was opened. Seven hundred boys studied in the morning and 600 girls in the afternoon. Saadia Kovshi, a leader of Yemenite Jewry and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the principal. Shortly thereafter, two more schools were opened. However, the formal schools were not the only ones responsible for educating the residents' children. In Yemen, teachers of Jewish texts and the distinct Yemenite pronunciation and melodies, called morim, had been the main educators. Once the Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel, however, they were incorporated into the school systems. Yet they continued to send their children for a few hours each week to the mori's one-room schoolhouse, something which continues to this day. While one resident said that when he was growing up the morim did not "spare the rod," Mori Tuviya now rewards good behavior with grape soda rather than physically punishing bad behavior. A few years after the foundation of the settlement, the first elections for local council were held. In a reflection of the composition of the population, every local council head from 1955 to 2003 was of Yemenite descent. New residents were initially given a dunam and a half of land and a small house by the government. However, the grant was reduced to three quarters of a dunam when the planners "realized they had underestimated the number of Yemenites and land was rapidly running out," Naftali Simhi, chairman of the Yemenite Jewish Heritage House, told The Jerusalem Post with a twinkle in his eye and a faint smile curving his mouth. "The land grants and houses were seen as prizes for loyalty to Israel throughout the years of exile," Simhi explained. That pattern of grants shaped the character of the older neighborhoods. The initial houses were all on one floor and fairly far apart from one another. When residents expanded to accommodate their growing families, they rarely built more than a second floor. Lately, children have taken advantage of the space to build larger houses next to their parents' original houses. Modern villas now stand side-by-side with run-down houses built nearly 50 years ago.