Vol. 14No. 1speciﬁc time, and locality, they also resemble each other. In this article,I will discuss the phenomenon of conversion in the Jewish community of Yemen (North Yemen, before uniﬁcation with South Yemen in 1990)and its uniqueness, focusing on the period from the nineteenth cen-tury until the middle of the twentieth century (at which time most Ye-meni Jews left Yemen and immigrated to Israel).In Yemen, religious conversion ran largely in one direction: from Judaism to Islam. The conversion of a Muslim was unimaginable, not only because of its social and political disadvantages but mainly be-cause it was forbidden by the shari‘a, which remained the legal foun-dation of the state until the middle of the twentieth century. (Theshari‘a calls for the death penalty for any
, or Muslim convert.)
In contrast, Jewish law regards a Jew who converts to another religionas a Jew who has gone astray but who may return to the right path.This article’s methodology is based on data that, for the most part,have not yet been analyzed. It relies on oral history—personal inter- views with Yemeni Jews now living in Israel—and on written sourcessuch as letters, archival documents, memoirs of Jews who emigratedfrom Yemen during the twentieth century, itinerary books, and legal writings concerning issues (mainly in family law) resulting from con- version. In general, Yemeni Jewish writings discuss the forced conver-sion of Jewish orphans explicitly
but are reluctant to mention voluntary conversions.
Thus, rabbinic ﬁgures who wrote an “ofﬁcialnarrative” of Jewish life in Yemen report almost exclusively on Islam-ization in times of crisis or on the dramatic conversion of a distin-guished personality.
Writers of memoirs usually describe the convertsas being tempted by Muslims,
and Yemeni Jewish scholarly historiog-raphy presents Jewish Islamization as a rare phenomenon and mainly as the result of a deliberate policy by the government to put pressureon the Jews to convert.
The following discussion offers another per-spective for understanding Jewish conversion and will present it as afamiliar and tempting phenomenon in Jewish life in Yemen.
The Legal and Socioeconomic Status of the Jews
During the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century, the Yemeni population was estimated at between 3.5 and 4 million. The number of Yemeni Jews was estimated at 60 to 70 thousand, and they represented the larg-est religious minority. (Another minority was composed of a smallnumber of urban Hindi merchants.) Yemeni society is tribal in charac-ter.
The tribes are sedentary, making their living from agriculture, and