‘Magic Carpet’ brings Yemen to Englewood
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‘Magic Carpet’ brings Yemen to Englewood

ENGLEWOOD – Cong. Ahavath Israel will take community members on a "magic carpet" next week with a Shabbaton that delves into the Jewish Yemenite experience.

According to biblical and other stories passed down family lines, in 586 BCE, 4′ years before the destruction of the First Temple, approximately 75,000 Jews settled in Yemen. Between 1949 and 1950, after the passage of laws that made life all but impossible for Jews, almost all of Yemen’s 50,000 Jews left the county in what was called "Operation Magic Carpet." Many went to Israel, while others came to the United States.

To share the Yemenite experience and culture, Ahavath Torah and the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America will hold the first Yemenite Shabbaton in this city on June 9 and 10. Cosponsored with the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, it will include the three meals of Shabbat with special Yemenite dishes, lectures on Yemenite culture and history, Yemenite zemirot and dancing, and the display and sale — after Shabbat — of Yemenite crafts.

Yemenite Jews make up less than 3 percent of the world Jewry, and this city’s Yemenite community numbers between six and 30, depending on whether non-Yemenite spouses are considered Yemenites (and whether their children are, as well), according to Shlomo Tzadok, leader of Ahavath Torah’s Sephardic minyan and one of the Shabbaton’s organizers. Tzadok views the Shabbaton as an opportunity to bring a piece of the Yemenite culture to the greater community that isn’t aware of the history of Yemen’s Jews.

"We want to show all aspects — or at least as much as we can — of the Yemenite way of life," Tzadok said. "I want them [participants] to take away an appreciation of a culture that is very different from theirs but still has the same basic common denominator as theirs — we’re all Jews."

One discussion will address a recent dark chapter of the Yemenite experience: the kidnapping of Yemenite children by members of the Satmar chasidic community, a topic Tzadok described as "haunting many families to this day."

One particular case made headlines in ‘004 when the Nahari family finally made it to Israel after the Jewish Agency helped smuggle them out of the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel in New York. According to the Jewish Agency, the family had been convinced to come to America, rather than Israel, six years earlier by the Satmars. They had been promised that they would be given financial and other help, but soon found themselves unable to leave Kiryas Joel. The story is similar for at least 60 other Yemenite families, according to the Jewish Agency.

"We should all be ashamed," Tzadok said. "When somebody is allegedly being held hostage, his brothers should be standing up in arms."

But the Shabbaton will also emphasize positive aspects of the Yemenite culture, like a fashion show of the special clothing worn by a Yemenite bride and groom, which singer-dancer Miriam Zafri will present.

Although hosted in Englewood, organizers hope the Shabbaton will attract people from all over northern New Jersey. Yossi Khen, the main organizer at Ahavath Torah and a member of its religious committee, expects ’00 people to show up from Teaneck to Monsey for the dinner and lunch. Synagogue members will provide housing for out-of-town Shabbaton guests.

"We welcome everyone to stay with us, the community [has] opened their house," Khen said.

The meals will feature traditional Yemenite flavors like hilbeh, a dip made of peppercorns and other seeds, and Yemenite chicken soup. The event will also include zemirot, led by the singer Chaim Zadok.

Ephraim Isaac, a Princeton professor and president of the Yemenite Federation, hopes the Shabbaton will help people "understand that Yemenites had a primary impact on modern Israeli, art, music, crafts, but more importantly on Judaism — religion, literature, and practices."

Steven Eidman, chair of Ahavath Torah’s adult education committee, loved the idea of the Shabbaton when Khen first suggested it to him, especially the idea of including Yemenite nusach (order and melodies) in the Shabbat services.

"The Yemenite tradition is a very old one. Some people feel that some of their traditions are closest to the source of our traditions in terms of their pronunciation of words," he said. "It’s something our shul has never been exposed to."

Members of the education committee felt it especially important to honor the Yemenite traditions because they have survived for so long in an isolated community in very difficult circumstances, Eidman said.

Khen wants the Shabbaton to also be a give-and-take with the community. As much as he wants them to learn about the Yemenite culture, he also wants participants to share their own cultures.

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