First Jew to Leave Yemen in Decades Has Tearful Family Reunion in Israel

Partially deaf and nearly blind, 87-year-old Yehya ibn Daoud Tsubayri, the first immigrant from Yemen in 38 years, arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday night for a tearful reunion with family members, including his three children whom he had not seen in almost four decades.

Tsubayri came here by way of New York, where he landed shortly before Rosh Hashanah. His departure from Yemen was facilitated by months of quiet diplomacy involving the International Coalition for the Revival of the Jews of Yemen, aided by several key members of Congress and the Republic of Yemen.

Dr. Hayim Tawil, chairman of the coalition, credited “the great hospitality and generosity of the Yemenite government” for “this great achievement.”

Tsubayri was once a wealthy man in his native village of Raida, near San’a, the Yemeni capital. In 1949, he sent his children to Israel by way of “Operation Flying Carpet,” the airlift in the early 1950s that brought nearly the entire Jewish population of Yemen to Israel.

Tsubayri had planned to join his family in a few months after selling off his property, but ill fortune intervened. Tsubayri sank into poverty, and was twice imprisoned by the Yemeni authorities on charges of spying for Israel.

On the first occasion, he was imprisoned for trying to preserve Jewish traditions among the young. The second time, he was arrested for receiving letters from his family in Israel by way of an American visitor.

Tsubayri went to the family home in Netanya, where his sons, Shalom and David, and his daughter, Shoshana, arranged a reception.

Shoshana, only a year old when she left Yemen, was raised by Ashkenazic foster parents in Israel. She found it hard to understand her father’s Yemenite Hebrew dialect.

The family hopes Tsubayri’s eyesight can be partially restored by surgery.

Yemenite Jewry is considered the oldest Jewish community in the world, dating back to the kingdom of Solomon and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. There are said to be about 1,500 Jews still left in Yemen, scattered among small villages where they are too few to organize a community.

The Coalition for the Revival of the Jews of Yemen has sent three missions to that country since September 1989 to distribute prayer books, religious objects and Torah scrolls. The group has been assisted by Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) and Mel Levine (D-Ca.).

(JTA intern Andrew Goldsmith in New York contributed to this report.)

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