"The Guardian Angel of Yemenite Jewish Culture"
By: Gad Nahshon
Ovadia Ben-Shalom is an institution in Israel. His head-quarters is located at 11 Haatz-maut square in the city of Netania. He belongs to the Israeli generation of "Founding Fathers". he is still a dynamo of activity.
He is an engine of a huge unique organization, namely The Association for Society and Culture : Documentation and Research in Israel. Ben-Shalom is the founding father and president of this 30,000 member organization. This organization as well as Mr. Ben Shalom himself can be defined as "the guardian angel of the Yemenite-Jewish cultural tradition and legacy.
Ben-Shalom who came to Israel from Yemen as a child, decided as early as 1950 to establish this ethnic organ-ization. It is a cultural, edu-cational, and a political organ-ization. Ben-Shalom has dedica-ted his life to the preservation of the ancient Yemenite-Jewish culture. In 1970 he managed to established this lively non-stop society.
Recently the society, for ex-ample, launched its 4th inter-national conference on Yemenite culture at Kibbutz Ramut Rachel. Many scholars from Israel, the U.S.A and Russia participated in this event. One can learn about the activities of this association from its various publications such as Tehuda (Editor : Prof. Avshalom Niz-rahi) or Tema (Editor : prof. Yoseph Tobi).
In his address in the last International conference Ben Shalom said : "Beside social activities the association is deeply involved in a wide spectrum of activities in documentation and searching the Yemenite-Jewish culture." Ben-Shalom pointed out the fact that the Association's new goal is to publish the Encyclopedia of the Yemenite-Jewish culture. Many famous scholars and Rabbi's such as Rabbi Yoseph Kapach and even Generals, such as David Maimon (Ret.) were mobilized in order to accomplish this new academic mission. Ben-Shalom is never tired. His dedication to his cause in unique.
Therefore he has been admired by Israelis and gentiles as well. His association is a model to other Israeli ethnic groups which are looking to preserve their own heritage. From a guide which was edited by Prof. Avshalom Mizrahi we can learn about the huge scope of this association's activities:
The main center and Yemenite Museum (Netania).
The center of research (Jerusalem)
Meshi Institute (which in Hebrew means to preserve the heritage of the Israeli tribe)
Regional centers of activities. (They are all located in places which have a density of Yemenite-Israeli's)
Organizing of ethnic events : parties, festivals, sym-posiums, happenings, entertain-ment and many other cultural activities.
The association promotes the publishing of books and documents. The association published many books about Yemenite-Jewish history or about the literature of the Yemenite Jews.
But the major function of the association is to preserve cultural landmarks and folklore. In the past the famous Yemenite dancing group, 'Inbal', was known all over the world. It preserved the Jewish dancing tradition and the best of the Yemenite folklore. But the association wants to preserve, research and expose the beauty of the Yemenite culture. "Do not forget that the Yemenite Jews were pioneers in Palestine. They are very ancient Jews because they lived in Yemen from the age of the first temple. They are ancient Hebrews. It is a unique kind of Jewry"
Ben-Shalom told me in his office in Natania. Why did he decide to name this association for society and culture? Where are the Yemenites? "Many Yemenite Israelis have non-Yemenite families or wives. I did not want to close the gates. I would like to integrate them. My concept of ethnicity is broad, not narrow. The association promotes an ethnic identity and an ethnic pride but we should not isolate ourselves from the entire general Israeli society. That's my philosophy as the founder and the president of this ethnic organization," said Ben-Shalom whose family has mixed with polish Jews in Israel." I would like to also point out that I was a pioneer in the field of Israeli ethnic pride. Many other groups (or in Hebrew E dot) just have followed my example.
While we talked Ben-Shalom introduced me to Ms Rachel Cohen who made aliyah from Yemen in 1928. She came to the office to participate in the Association's ongoing Oral History Project. Ben-Shalom invited many Yemenite women in order to record their life story. And each story is a unique testimony and a potential best selling book. Sad to say, some of these stories exposed the well known era of discrimination of those Yemenite Jews who came to Palestine. But Ben-Shalom is looking for the positive-educational values of ethnicity. Why did he decide to establish the Association in 1970? "In 1930 I immigrated to Palestine. I went to a Yeshiva. But I decided to work. Sad to say I was a victim of discrim-ination. Later I joined the party of Ben-Gurion and I decided to work in the absorption of new Yemenite Olim. I did everything to fight for their rights and against discrimination. This was a background for my idea to preserve the roots and heritage of the Yemenite Jews in Israel."
Ben-Shalom believes that the young Israeli generation will also be active in the preservation of their roots. He hopes that the young ones also will develop some kind of ethnic pride and always go back to their grandparents legacy.
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