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Aden’s Jews and a museum coming to life – book review

CM 26/08/2021

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The word “museum” derives from the Greek “mouseion,” which means “seat of the Muses.” In ancient Greek mythology, the Muses were the nine goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences. The word “muse” can also mean someone who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. In Passage from Aden – Stories from a Little Museum in Tel Aviv, author Sarah Ansbacher, a guide at the Aden Jewish Museum in Tel Aviv, relates the remarkable history of the little-known Jewish community of Aden and shares the fascinating stories from the visitors she has met during her tenure as a guide at the museum. In effect, the museum has become the author’s muse.
Ansbacher opens the book with a brief history of the Jews of Aden. The port city of Aden is located at the convergence of the Arabian and Red Seas, and its Jewish community dates back over 1,000 years, according to documents found in the Cairo Geniza. In 1839, the British conquered Aden, and it remained under their control as a colony until 1967. The Jewish community thrived under British rule, and by the early 1940s, it numbered almost 7,000. Jews were active in trading, dealt in fabric and spices, and had shops near the port at Steamer Point. 
In November 1947, after the passage of the UN resolution on partition, which recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states, the Arabs in Aden rioted, murdering 87 members of the Jewish community. Most of the members of the Jewish community moved to Israel in the wake of the violence. Some 20 years later, in 1967, before the British departed from Aden, the British forced the remaining Jews to leave for their own safety, with the majority of the remaining Jews settling in Israel and the United Kingdom. Today, Aden is the capital of Yemen. In 2012, descendants of the Adeni community opened the Aden Jewish Heritage Museum, located underneath the Kol Yehuda Synagogue, which had been built in 1938 by former Adeni residents in Tel Aviv.

ANSBACHER, WHO has been working at the museum for four years, offers a selection of some 82 short vignettes, most not more than two pages in length, telling of her experiences working at the museum, meeting visitors from Israel and around the world. Some are Jews who lived in Aden and later moved to Israel. Others came from other countries and grew up together in Israel with the refugees from Aden. Many visitors are non-Jewish tourists from different countries who made their way to the small museum and were inspired by what they saw. Some of Ansbacher’s essays are quirky and humorous; others have a more serious tone. All are interesting and enjoyable, and Ansbacher wields a deft pen, artfully relating the humorous, the mundane and the sad.
In “Morning at the Museum,” the author writes of two unusual experiences. One morning, an 80-year-old museum visitor identified herself in a photo on display that had been taken in Aden when she was a young woman. A few minutes later, a second, much younger visitor arrived. While studying a famous photo of Prince Edward’s 1921 visit to the Jewish community, he identified his great-grandfather, who bore a remarkable resemblance to his great-grandson visiting that day. “That morning at the museum, the exhibits didn’t quite come to life,” writes Ansbacher, “but it was almost as if they had just walked out of their photographs.”
In “The Unexpected Dancer,” Ansbacher tells of an elderly couple who visited the museum. The wife, born in Aden, described the riots of 1947 when her father’s business was destroyed. Her family made aliyah in 1949 and never returned to Aden. The husband related that his family, which came from Yemen, had moved to Israel in the 1930s, and mentioned in passing that he had been a Yemenite dancer in his youth and had played a minor role in the epic film The Ten Commandments. 
“I was a dancer in the scene with the Golden Calf. It was because of me that Moses broke the Ten Commandments,” he quipped.
SOME OF Ansbacher’s stories are not connected to the Jews of Aden but reflect her often fascinating conversations with visitors. In “The Red Sea Diving Resort Slip-Up,” she tells of a conversation she had with an Israeli visitor who was born in England, made aliyah in the 1940s, served in the IDF, and was involved in the operation to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Ansbacher mentioned the film The Red Sea Diving Resort to her visitor, which told the story of the diving resort set up as a front by Israeli agents to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. She writes that the visitor, who had not worked at the resort, mentioned that the agents nearly revealed their identity because the guests noticed that the hotel “staff” chopped their salads into small, neat cubes, Israeli-style. 
One of Ansbacher’s most touching stories is “Unexpected Reunion,” in which a retired British couple visiting the museum mentioned that their daughter had married a Yemenite boy. The husband related that when his son-in-law’s father arrived in Israel from Yemen many years earlier, he was sent to a secular kibbutz, and the children of the kibbutz mocked his long, curly sidelocks. Years later, he was walking in the street by a man in hassidic garb, wearing a black coat, hat and sporting sidelocks. The hassid recognized him, but the now-adult Yemenite could not place him. Ansbacher writes, “‘You don’t recognize me, do you?’ the hassid smiled. ‘It’s been a while. I’m not surprised you don’t remember.’” The hassid mentioned the name of the kibbutz where they had grown up and said, ‘I want to apologize. I used to be one of those boys on the kibbutz who made fun of you.’”
A cast of colorful characters and visitors abound, including Ma Kun, the legendary Chinese leader born as Morris Cohen, who became aide-de-camp to Chinese president Sun Yat-sen; the Ritchie Boys, an elite US Army World War II intelligence unit, many of whom were German Jews; an Estonian street cleaner in Tel Aviv who encourages the author to continue writing; and an Israeli visitor who ran away from Persia at the age of 12 to move to Israel without notifying his parents.
Passage from Aden – Stories from a Little Museum in Tel Aviv is an enjoyable book that one can pick up, browse and read in any order that one wishes. It provides an authentic flavor, not only of the lives of the Jews of Aden but also of the visitors drawn to the museum in Tel Aviv. The museum may be “little,” but its impact is far more significant. 
By Sarah Ansbacher
Casa Mocha Books
232 pages; $11.99

Source: Jerusalem Post

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