Shlomo Sulayman, not just Israel’s oldest man, but also one of the oldest people in the world, passed away in Netanya yesterday at the age of 117. Born in Yemen, Sulayman witnessed the deterioration of that country’s once-vibrant Jewish community. With his passing, the circle of those who had firsthand experience of Jewish life in that world grows ever smaller.
As Ynet reported, Sulayman’s grandchildren have chalked up his long life to active living and eating small portions. He used to walk to synagogue everyday, until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was well known in his community as a religious scholar to whom neighbors would often turn for advice.
🇮🇱✡️ — BDE: Shlomo Sulayman, the oldest Israeli alive, passed away today at age 117. He is survived by his six children and dozens of grandkids, great and great-great grandkids. (Ynet) pic.twitter.com/igCKiJVuj2— Belaaz (@TheBelaaz) October 12, 2020
Born in Yemen in 1903, Sulayman emigrated to Israel in 1949, meaning he spent much of his adult life in the formerly thriving Jewish community that existed for millennia at the bottom tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
In Sulayman’s honor, here are five things to know about Yemenite Jewish history and culture:
Yemen was once home to a Jewish kingdom.
In the late fourth century C.E, the leadership of the kingdom of Himyar, which was centered around Sana’a, converted to Judaism. The Jewish monarchy period of the Himyarites lasted for nearly 200 years, until the rule of a Jewish king named Dhu Nawas, who was known for persecuting the country’s Christian minority. In retaliation, the Himyarite kingdom was crushed and turned into a tributary of the Christian kingdom of Aksum, which ruled an area across the Red Sea in what is now Ethiopia.
Some scholars believe Yemenite Hebrew to be the closest in pronunciation to Biblical Hebrew.
Yemenite Hebrew is known for containing vowels and consonants that do not exist in other Hebrew dialects, such as the Hebrew letter gimel, which in Yemenite Hebrew is pronounced as “jimel,” or dalet, which is pronounced more like “thalet.”
Yemenite cooking has had a big influence on Israeli cuisine.
Some of the most flavors most prominently associated with Israeli cooking come from Yemen, including the slow-cooked phyllo dough known as Jachnun, the flatbread malawach and the spicy dip, zhug.
Yemenite Jewry traditionally read the Torah not just in Hebrew, but also in Aramaic.
In the Yemenite tradition, Torah readings alternate between the original Hebrew text of the Torah and the Aramaic translation, known as a Targum. That practice likely began in the Second Temple era, when Aramaic was the common language of the Jewish community.
Much of the community was airlifted to Israel in 1949 by Alaska Airlines.
Sadly, the world of Sulayman’s youth and early adulthood has long since come to an end. The bulk of Yemenite Jewry fled the Arabian peninsula in the 1940s and 50s. Many of them were taken out of the country in 1949, as part of Israel’s Operation Magic Carpet, which contracted Alaska Airlines, which was at the time a small company mostly stocked with World War II surplus planes and more experienced flying through blizzards in the arctic Tundra than over sandstorms in the Arabian desert.
Of those few who remained, the last of Yemen’s Jews were evacuated to the United Arab Emirates earlier this year, after threats from the Iranian backed Houthi militia amid the country’s ongoing civil war. But Yemenite Jewish culture remains strong, both in Israel and wherever Yemeni Jews and their descendants now reside.