Tales from the old neighborhood

Jaffa's Yemenite Quarter is a spicy blend of local lore and gradual gentrification.

In the year 1902, cholera spread like wildfire through the crowded city of Jaffa. Anxious to bury their dead as far away from the city as possible, bereaved members of the Jewish community chose a spot that today is known as the Trumpeldor Cemetery. It was over an hour's trek to the burial ground, north past Neveh Tzedek and the village of Manshiya, to the sand dunes on the other side of a large, empty plot. According to legend, relatives carried the departed on their backs, buried them in the dunes, and quickly left for home. But the journey was dangerous, and the Jews were afraid of bandits and wild animals. So the Jewish community hired a Yemenite guard to sit in a little booth halfway to and from the burial ground. Being an enterprising young man, he began offering drinks to people in the funeral parties. But he was lonely out there in the wilderness, and he asked his family to join him. Soon, other Yemenites from Jaffa moved there, too. Legend has it that this is how the Yemenite Quarter, or the Yemenite Vineyard (Kerem Hatemanim in Hebrew) was born. Over the past few years, all kinds of changes have taken place in the quarter. New houses have replaced the old ones and tarred streets are now paved with cobblestones. Wonderful smells that until recently wafted through neighborhood windows early in the morning from the local bakery are no more. Yet many of the dwellings remain, corrugated iron roofs and all. And quite a few buildings in the quarter boast unusual, and sometimes charming, facades. BEGIN A tour of Kerem Hatemanim, called the 'Kerem' by locals, on the corner of Hakovshim and Nachmiya Streets. You will be next to a Chinese restaurant and the Carmelit Bus Station. Look southwest to see the Hassan Beck mosque. At one time it stood in the neighborhood called Manshiya, built by the Turks in 1892 to house Egyptian laborers working on the new railroad. In 1948, the Arabs of Manshiya terrorized the Jews in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, using their minaret to snipe at the Jews in every direction. As soon as possible, Manshiya was taken by IZL and the Hagana, which conquered Jaffa together during the War of Independence. Afterwards, Manshiya was demolished. Cross the road and walk north along Hakovshim Street, the western border of the quarter, to the corner of Tarmav Street. Turn right. Tarmav, numerically, means 1882, the year of the first organized Yemenite immigration to Israel. Jews had lived in Yemen for nearly two millennia. No one knows, for sure, how they got there. Possibly, a group of Hebrews, following the exodus from Egypt, made a wrong turn and ended up in Yemen. Perhaps the Queen of Sheba took some of Solomon's Jews back home with her to Arabia - assuming that's where she came from. One theory contends that Jews settled in Yemen in the third century BCE, when trade routes ran from India and Arabia through the Land of Israel to the port at Gaza. According to another, Herod conscripted men from Judea into the Roman Army in 25 BCE and sent them off to conquer Southern Arabia. Maybe the Jewish soldiers decided not to return. Yemen's Jews were completely cut off from the outside world; as late as the 19th century, each community studied from only one Torah, copied from earlier scrolls that had made their way to Yemen over the millennia. It was customary for those studying the Torah to stand around it in a circle. To this day, many older Yemenites continue to read upside down. In 1882, members of the Jewish Yemenite community began the long trek back to the Promised Land, trudging through thousands of miles of endless desert. Most of them settled in Jerusalem - making their homes in burial caves across from the City of David and turning the largest cave into a synagogue. Unfortunately, the only people who made them welcome in Jerusalem were righteous Christians from the American Colony. Unwanted by their fellow Jews, some of them made their way to Jaffa. WHEN YOU reach the second corner, turn left into Kehilat Aden Street. In the beginning, all of the houses in the Kerem were one-story high, like the building at #9. Most were made of tin or corrugated iron, and the neighborhood became known as Tin Town. Several built a second story, for a family or community synagogue. One day, on Yom Kippur, a well-dressed Ashkenazi man walked through the Kerem. He stopped at #12 to listen to the singing coming from the synagogue on the second floor. Someone peeked out of the window and beckoned him to come upstairs, where he stayed until the end of the service. That man was the famous composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who was visiting Israel and had been eager to hear traditional Yemenite music. A very gracious lady, recently passed away, used to live at #11. Quite often, a taxi would stop at her door and she would get in, encumbered with all kinds of suitcases. Turns out she was the wedding finery lady: she dressed the neighborhood brides whenever they got married. The suitcases contained the very lavish, ornamental wedding costumes worn by Yemenite brides. There is a new building at the corner where Kehilat Aden meets Yishkon. Long ago, this was the home of a carriage driver known by his last name, Dabani. It seems that when Theodor Herzl came to the Land of Israel in 1898 he couldn't get a carriage: they had all been taken by German Emperor Wilhelm II, who was visiting at the time. Someone remembered Dabani, who put himself and his carriage at Herzl's disposal. Turn into Yishkon and look left to see Yitzik Vasdi upholstering some chairs. Vasdi was only two years old when he left Sanaa and began traveling towards the Promised Land. The truck he was in, filled with seven large families, bumped and swayed as it maneuvered its way over mountains and rocky fields. At a certain point, they couldn't continue in a vehicle any longer, and rode donkeys instead. Finally, they reached Aden, crossed into Egypt and continued by train to Atlit. Today, Vasdi lives in Rehovot, but he followed in his father's footsteps and has an upholstery business in the Yemenite Quarter. When the owners of this house wanted to rebuild, he refused to move out. In the end, they had to agree to leave room for his workshop. ON ONE corner of Yishkon and Kerem Hatemanim, you will see a house with an open yard. This is where Avraham Wahb lives with his grown daughter. It is hard to imagine Wahb, well over 90 years old, as a little boy. But when he was just 13 years old, his father became very ill. The family lived in Yemen and, according to local law, when a Jewish child's father died, the government would take the mother away and force the youngster to accept Islam. Therefore, on his deathbed, Avraham's father instructed his son to take his mother and his sister and start out for the Promised Land. As soon as his father passed away, Avraham got a donkey, put food and drink in one saddlebag and his little sister in the other. His mother refused to come, so the two children began the long walk to the Land of Israel on their own. It took two years for them to cross Yemen, stopping for rest at Jewish communities along the way. Finally, they made it to Egypt, where they remained for many years. In 1935, they received permission to come to the Land of Israel. Avraham had come here several times to check things out. Now he bought property, and brought his mother and other relatives over as well. Continue straight up Kerem Hatemanim Street. On Succot, you can't drive through the streets here: there is a succa outside each door. Cross Malan Street, named for Moshe Levi Nahum. An orphan, he attached himself to the Yemenites who left their homes in 1882 and walked with them to the Land of Israel. Continue up the street, and cross over what looks like a little footbridge. It isn't, however. There was once a little hill here, with tin houses on each side. Instead of removing the hill (or the houses), the local authorities built the road right on top. When it rains, the water goes directly down into the homes. Turn right at the end of Kerem Hatemanim Street onto Rabbi Meir to rest in the park. THE FIRST wave of Yemenite aliya was followed by two more. Arthur Ruppin contributed greatly to the second aliya. Ruppin was an ardent Zionist who is often called the Father of Zionist Settlement. In 1911, he sent a bearded Russian farmer named Shmuel Yavnieli to Yemen to meet with the Jews. In order not to make the government suspicious, he was dressed up as a Yemenite Jew. The chief rabbi of Jaffa, Rabbi Kook, equipped him with 26 questions to test whether or not the Yemenites were really Jewish. Satisfied with the answers, Yavnieli brought a group of Yemenites back with him - part of the Yemenite aliya that took place from 1908 to 1914. After the State of Israel came into being, there was yet a third immigration. American Jews, who helped fly 50,000 Yemenite Jews into Israel, called it Operation Flying Carpet. But the Yemenites, who had never heard of airplanes, declared that they had come 'on eagles' wings,' as the Bible predicted: 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself' (Exodus 19:4). You walked on Kehilat Aden Street, then on Rabbi Meir Street and now again are on Kehilat Aden. Get a good look at #32, where local families once gathered to pluck chicken feathers. Slaughtered chickens from the nearby market were brought to this house and placed in hot water to make them easier for parents and children to pluck. While they were working, a man would come from Petah Tikva with huge, empty sacks and fill them up with feathers for down quilts. Turn left onto Eliashiv Street to view an unusually large number of synagogues for such a small neighborhood. Turn slightly back on Rabbi Meir Street to reach Alsheich Street and the white house on the corner off Gamliel Street. Until a few years ago, this family had a little workshop here, where they fixed cars and worked with wrought iron. Every Pessah, they cleared out the workshop and turned it into a traditional matza bakery - baking fresh batches every day. Continue up Alscheich Street, looking back to see the chimney. Past the former workshop there is a little plaza. The Yemenites who lived here didn't have money for a second set of dishes for Pessah, and it was at this spot that their everyday dishes were made kosher for the holiday. Go right onto Rabbi Akiva and right again onto Ben Yosef Street. The decrepit building at #6 once belonged to Raphael Halperin, known as 'muscle man,' and today the haredi entrepreneur who founded the Halperin Optics chain. A weight-lifter and wrestler, with a Star of David embroidered on his shorts, this is where Halperin had his own gym, where he used tires as weights. He used to promote himself and his studio by walking down to the beach, muscles glistening, with his tires in hand. Turning left back into Rabbi Meir Street, you reach the well-known Maganda restaurant. When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, the owner was one of the first people to deliver packages to the soldiers. You can end your walk with a stroll through the Carmel Market, the Kerem's eastern border. Our favorite of the colorful streets is Yom Tov - aka, Spice Lane. When you finish, head west to return to Yishkon. When you reach Nahliel, look for a building with covered windows. This is the Kerem's second heder, and behind the covers are iron bars. Children arrived at 7 in the morning and stayed inside until 4 in the afternoon. Their teacher stood over them with a stick, and no one was allowed to leave. Mothers handed their boys food through the bars! Continue on Yishkon to Hakovshim, and you will reach the parking lot and Chinese restaurant where you started out.