Towards the end of the 19th century, the colossal failure of Englishman Laurence Oliphant bore unexpected fruit. For centuries past, the Jews of Yemen had yearned for geulah so consistently that many of them fell prey to false messiahs over the centuries. The first of them began moving to Eretz Yisroel en masse in 1881, one year before the first large Zionist Aliyah from Europe that lasted from 1882 until 1903. But unlike the First aliyah from Europe that was prompted by Zionism, the Yemenite aliyah, known as the E’eleh Batamar (I Will Ascend the Palm, Shir Hashirim 7:9), was prompted by yearning for the moshiach and jumpstarted by garbled tidings of Oliphant’s failed venture.
Individual Yemenite Jews had been moving back to Eretz Yisroel for centuries. In the 15th century, Rav Ovadiah Yosef wrote of a caravan of Yemenite Jews that arrived in Eretz Yisroel via Eden. He also mentioned hearing from an old person of a similar caravan that arrived a generation earlier. The first Yemenite immigrant identified by name is Said ben David El Adani, who finished part of his commentary on the Rambam’s Yad Hachazakah in Tzefas in 1485.
Other famous immigrants to Eretz Yisroel were Rav Shlomo Adani, author of Meleches Shlomo on the Mishnayos, who came to Eretz Yisroelm 1571. In his introduction, he writes of the sufferings his family endured during their move and integration into Eretz Yisroel. His whole family perished by the time he was fifteen leaving him an impoverished orphan. In the mid 18th century, Rav Sholom Sharabi arrived in Eretz Yisroel. Known as the Rashash, his Siddur Hakavonos is the main siddur used today by kabalists for prayer and study.
The mass exodus of Yemenite Jews to Eretz Yisroel in the late 19th century was greatly facilitated by the Ottoman Empire’s recapture of Yemen in 1872. This politically united Yemen with Eretz Yisroel and made it far easier to move there. But the spark that ignited their hearts was some exciting news, which was not precisely correct. All this is recorded in the 1908 memoir of Rav Sholom Alshich who visited Eretz Yisroel in 1881, the year the aliyah began, moved there in 1891, and became elected as head of the Yemenite kehillah in Yerushalayim in 1893.
He writes that the aliyah started in 1881 with the setting out of two families for Eretz Yisroel after Shavuos. They were followed later by a group of five families and later by a group of fifteen families. As to what inspired them to go he writes, “The Turkish government announced with a notice placed outside the palace that the revered
Rothschild had bought many places in Eretz Yisroel and the king gave the Jews everywhere permission to come and settle in their land of Eretz Yisroel.’
This story is not precisely correct as Rothschild only became interested in buying land in Eretz Yisroel a year later in 1882. What seems to have started the aliyah were the recent antics of the nonJewish British author, politician, and mystic, Laurence Oliphant, who had been occupied with the dream of colonizing Palestine from the past few years. Oliphant’s primary dream was to get Europe involved in the Ottoman Empire and transform it from an old fashioned backwater into a modern mega-state. Of course, this could not be done at once. The best way to start, he thought, was by establishing a Jewish colony in Palestine.
As he explains in the introduction of his book describing his travels in Palestine:
“The establishment of a Jewish colony in Palestine, under the Imperial auspices, was not likely to excite the suspicion or arouse the hostility of the Powers of Europe, and much less of the Sultan himself. On the contrary, his Majesty, by affording an asylum for this people, so much oppressed by certain Christian Governments, had an opportunity of contrasting his clemency with their severity, of enlisting sympathy in behalf of Turkey in those countries which have espoused the Jewish cause.”
In 1879, Oliphant traveled to Constantinople to try to lease a huge part of present day Jordan and settle Jews there. He was convinced he would get adequate funding for the project from the myriads of English and American non-Jews anxious to jumpstart the prophecies of Jews returning to Zion and bring about the end of days. But he was wrong. Although the Ottoman government liked his plan, the sultan rightfully suspected it was part of a European plot to interfere in Turkey’s affairs and turned down the proposal.
In the end, the only result of Oliphant’s project was to spark the Yemenite aliyah. Although his efforts failed, the story was exaggerated by the Jewish press and seems to have reached Yemen in garbled form with Oliphant transformed into Rothschild. Yemenites regarded him as king of the Jewish people as testified by Siegfried Langer, a German Oriental researcher who traveled to Yemen in 1882.
“They [the Yemenite Jews] know nothing about Europe, but know of Yerushalayim and Rothschild, whom they consider a king. They think there is none to compare to him in greatness and Torah wisdom and consider him leader of the Jews in both spiritual and regular matters.”
Rav Alshich describes in his memoir how the Jews became so excited that many began selling their homes and belongings.
“The Jews of Yemen rejoiced greatly [at the news that there was permission to go to Eretz Yisroel],” he writes. “They were absolutely certain that the future redemption had arrived and that they would be redeemed that year or the year after, and that this was the beginning of the redemption. All the Jews of Yemen were aroused with great excitement to the extent that every man and family, even orphans and widows, wanted to sell their homes, furniture, clothes, seforim, and all they had and move from Yemen to Yerushalayim. A new spirit entered the heart of each Jew, unrivaled since the day they were exiled.”
After the first Yemenite Jews reached Eretz Yisroel, the Jews back home were relieved to hear that the first immigrants were well received, for, Rav Alshich writes, “before that, they had a tradition that whoever traveled to Eretz Yisroel would not reach there and die on the way and have no success, and if he miraculously reached there, it would take a year or more and Jews there would experience great poverty and exile.”
Rav Yosef Halevi, brother of Rav Yichya Yitzchok Halevi who served as Chief Rabbi of Yemen from 1906 to 1932 and was eight- years-old when the aliyah began in 1881, writes in his memoirs that the Yemenite aliyah was inspired by a woman’s dream.
“In 1879, a learned G-d fearing man died, leaving a widow, Turkiya bas Hashash and a son name Immanuel Nakash,” he writes. “After his passing he appeared to his wife in a dream and told her, ‘Rise up and go to Yerushalayim!’ This happened a number of times.”
After local rabbonim helped the woman and her son move to Eretz Yisroel, the Yemenites Jews became filled with enthusiasm and a general aliyah began.
Rav Alshich and Rav Yosef Halevi give different figures for the first large caravan to go to Eretz Yisroelm 1882. The former says it was comprised of about 150 people, while Rav Yosef Halevi writes it included about 300 Jews. Rav Alshich and Rav Yosef Halevi also seem to disagree on what kind of reception the Jews received when they got to Yerushalayim. Rav Alshich writes that the local Jews were originally unsure whether they were Jews or not due to their unusual dress, language, and customs.
“They did not believe that they were sons of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, even though their faces and signs of Judaism showed they were of the blessed seed,” he writes. “For the Jews of Yemen have long peyos and not one of them is clean shaven. Their clothes too are not like non-Jewish garments, and they wear nothing modern… Nonetheless, they would not include them for a minyan for Kaddish or Kedushah.”
According to him, it took a while for the local Jews to overcome their suspicions and have mercy on the strangers. On the other hand, Rav Yosef Halevi writes that the city’s Chief Rabbi immediately gave a friendly welcome to the first large group of Yemenite newcomers.
Because the Yemenite newcomers did not belong to any of the chalukah organizations that helped Jews survive in Eretz Yisroel, they suffered from poverty more than anyone else. Due to lack of housing in the Old City, many of them lived in caves on Har Hazeisim. Eventually, a local askan, Yisroel Dov Frumkin, had mercy on them and built a Jewish neighborhood in Kfar Hashilo’ach next to the Shiloach Spring. This eventually boasted a shul, 65 houses belonging to a hekdesh (tzeddokoh organization), and about 45-65 private Jewish homes. Today, the shul and buildings are under Arab control and not one Jew lives in the area.
No One to Work
In his memoir, Rav Alshich writes that as more Jews left Yemen, the local non-Jews took measures to stop their departure.
“The non-Jews ofYemen, and more so the Moslems of the San’a district, bribed ministers to prevent the Jews going to their land, for the whole livelihood of the non-Jews depended on the Jews,” he writes. “For Jews did all kinds of crafts, while the non-Jews were lazy and only dealt with trade.”
Although the Jews gained temporary permission to leave, it was periodically withdrawn. The possibility of leaving for Eretz Yisroel waxed and waned. This factor, together with the difficult journey to Eretz Yisroel and the difficulty many Yemenites experienced in Eretz Yisroel slowed down, but did not stop, the Yemenite aliyah to Eretz Yisroel. Rav Alshich mentions in his memoir that he wrote in 1908 that by his time there were about 2,500 Jews in Yerushalayim and about 200 in Yafo. By World War I, thanks to Oliphant’s failure, ten percent of Yemen’s Jews had moved to Eretz Yisroel.
Sources: Rav Alshich’s memoir was printed in Masa’ot Eretz Yisroel, Avraham Yaari, Achdut, Tel Aviv 1947. Rav Yosef Halevi’s memoir was printed in the Katedra magazine, October 1980