Child’s Death Spotlights Culture Shock Among Yemeni Jews
In 1994, Yahia and Lauza Jaradi left Yemen for a stab at life in America. As devout Jews in a Muslim land, they were eager to practice their religion freely. As poor teenagers with little education, they were grateful that their Hasidic sponsors, the ultra-Orthodox Satmars, had promised a nurturing environment.
Since then, however, their Yemeni dreams have crumbled into an American tragedy.
On a cold December day in 1998, in an unheated basement apartment here, their 1-year-old daughter, Hadiya, suffered head trauma and fell into a coma. The Jaradis insisted that Hadiya had fallen accidentally. But last year, a judge determined that she had been abused, and the Jaradis lost custody of Hadiya and their five other children.
Two weeks ago, Hadiya died at a hospital in Paterson, N.J. She was 4 years old. Preliminary autopsy results suggested that her death was a homicide consistent with shaken-baby syndrome, according to the Passaic County prosecutor’s office. The Rockland County district attorney, Michael E. Bongiorno, said he was investigating the death to see if criminal charges were warranted. But this week, friends of the Jaradi family said that Mrs. Jaradi, heartbroken over her daughter’s death, had left New York to take refuge in an undisclosed location.
”I can’t eat,” Mrs. Jaradi said in an interview a day before her reported departure. ”I can’t sleep. It’s very hard for me.”
Whether the Jaradis are child abusers or victims, their story provides a rare window into the plight of the 100 or so Yemeni Jews who have been brought to Jewish enclaves in New York in the past decade or so. Scrutinized and sometimes ostracized because of differences in language and culture, many Yemeni Jews have adjusted poorly to their new surroundings. And while their friends say that this does not excuse criminal behavior, it does place them in a sadder context.
”This is a thousand light years from what they know,” said a social worker in Rockland County who has assisted Yemeni families. ”They are overwhelmed. Most of them do not adapt, and they are living in very difficult circumstances, with a lot of psychological stress. It’s easy to blame, but I don’t know if anyone can be blamed for this tragedy.”
Throughout their 2,500-year history, Jews in Yemen have often been regarded as outsiders or outcasts. Most settled in villages, working as craftsmen and adhering to strict religious rituals that include, to this day, the reading of the Bible in Aramaic. But Jews were sometimes discriminated against and set apart by law. In the late 19th century in Yemen, Jews were typically forced to remove excrement from public toilets and to discard animal carcasses.
After Israel gained independence in 1948, roughly 90 percent of the 60,000 Jews in Yemen were airlifted there in an endeavor called ”Operation Magic Carpet.” But for some Yemeni Jews, Israel did not prove to be the paradise they expected. Some found the more secular orientation disquieting, and others felt as if they were treated like second-class citizens.
In the 1960’s, Yemen essentially closed its borders, cutting Jews off from the outside world. Two decades later, representatives of the Satmars, an ardently anti-Zionist Hasidic group based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a major outpost in Kiryas Joel, in Orange County, were allowed to send representatives to Yemen, where they encouraged Yemeni Jews to study in New York or London instead of in Israel. In 1991, diplomatic efforts led by a Yeshiva University professor, Hayim Tawil, resulted in the exodus of 1,000 or so Jews, with most settling in Israel or America. Today, only about 300 Jews remain in Yemen.
About 100 Yemeni Jews have settled in New York under the aegis of the Satmars, said Ephraim Isaac, president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America. Some express tremendous gratitude to the Satmars. But others criticize Satmar leaders for promoting a rigid, Yiddish-only orthodoxy and punishing nonconformists.
A few years ago in Brooklyn, the Satmars quarreled with a Yemeni family that, after sending a son to America to study the Torah, wanted him to return home. The Satmars resisted, and ”kept coming up with red herrings,” said Detective Allen Presser of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. ”I think they wanted to convert him to become more religious.” Ultimately, law enforcement officials defused the standoff, and the boy was happily reunited with his father, the detective said.
Yahia Jaradi, now 27, first traveled from Yemen to Kiryas Joel on a student visa in 1993, he said, after Satmar recruiters in Yemen told him they would pay for his religious studies in America, his housing and his food. A short while later, he said, he returned to Yemen to collect his wife, now 24, and their two daughters and bring them back to New York.
But this time, Mr. Jaradi said, he was told that there was no house for his family. Instead, they had to live with a Satmar family in Kiryas Joel. There wasn’t much time to study, either, he said, because he was required to spend many hours collecting donations for the Satmars. Mr. Jaradi said he was allowed to keep only a small part for living expenses.
”The Satmars, they say you have to collect money, collect money,” Mr. Jaradi said in an interview on Tuesday at a friend’s house here. ”It’s not easy. But what can you do? You have to listen.”
Mr. Jaradi said he soon realized that Yemeni Jews stood out within the Satmars’ insular world. Most have dark olive-toned skin and speak Arabic and a Yemeni-Hebrew dialect. Their traditional clothing is colorful, festooned with elaborate embroidery or jewelry. They favor foods more apt to be found in a Middle Eastern spice bazaar than in an Eastern European delicatessen.
Once, the Satmars demanded that Mrs. Jaradi shave her head as Satmar women do, Mr. Jaradi said. She did, but vowed never to do it again.
The Satmars also insisted that the couple’s children be educated according to Satmar custom. ”Only Yiddish, only Torah,” Mr. Jaradi said. ”No English.”
Concerned that their ethnic identity was being erased, he said, the family began to act more independently. Mr. Jaradi took a job as a taxi driver, against the wishes of his rabbinical teachers. Mrs. Jaradi cared for the children, but her husband said they had to fend off Satmars who offered to buy their children for as much as $20,000 apiece.
The family, he said, was always short on cash and always moving. In 1998, after a break-in at their apartment in which they lost jewelry and religious objects, the family, which now included five children, moved to Monsey, a large Jewish enclave but with fewer Satmars. But the $700-a-month apartment, he said, lacked running water, heat and phone service.
Then, on Dec. 22, 1998, Mrs. Jaradi said in an interview this week, she was washing her hands at the kitchen sink when she heard a thud. She turned to find Hadiya lying on her back, motionless. ”I didn’t see what happened,” Mrs. Jaradi said, through an interpreter. ”She looked like a dead person. Nothing. No movement.”
Her husband was at work. Petrified, Mrs. Jaradi said, she asked a neighbor to help. The neighbor shook the baby to revive her, said Mrs. Jaradi, but nothing happened. They called 911, but it was too late. Hadiya never regained consciousness.
The Jaradis insist that Hadiya’s death was an accident in which she fell off a chair or table and that if anyone is to blame it is the neighbor, whom they identified but who could not be reached for comment.
Still, Mr. Jaradi conceded that at the time Hadiya fell into the coma his wife had often been at wit’s end.
After Hadiya was hospitalized, Rockland County child welfare officials removed her two sisters and three brothers from their parents temporarily and sought to do so permanently. Medical experts testified that Hadiya had been shaken violently, pointing to bruises, in various stages of healing, all over her body. Barbara M. Wilmit, an assistant Rockland County attorney, said that some of the other children had similar bruises and other injuries, suggesting chronic abuse.
Late last year, a Rockland Family Court judge ruled that the Jaradis could not regain custody of their children, who were placed with several different Satmar families in New York State.
Throughout the Jaradis’ case, other Yemeni Jews in New York have blamed local Satmar leaders for making life miserable for the Yemenis.
Satmar supporters scoff at such accusations, saying they have done their sincere best to help the Yemeni Jews.
”We are very inclusive,” said Fred M. Zemel, a lawyer who represents two Satmar community leaders who have cared for two of the Jaradis’ children. ”We do recognize them as being human beings, and brotherly Jews. A Jewish child, a Jewish person, is warmly received.”
He declined to discuss whether he thought anyone was to blame for Hadiya’s death.
The Jaradis, meanwhile, say they can do nothing but await the results of the autopsy on their daughter and the outcome of the district attorney’s investigation. On Thursday, several friends of the couple said Mrs. Jaradi had left New York State, not to escape any charges that might be filed against her, but to make sure that she does not have to give up her seventh child, who is due to be born in the fall.