Inspired by the stories and history of Yemeni and other Arab Jews, referred to as Mizrachi Jews, I created this “I am Yemenite” series of glass mosaics. These works share the untold stories of Jews of color from the Middle East and North Africa while simultaneously allowing me to explore my heritage. These highly detailed glass mosaic portraits are meant to challenge perceptions of immigrants and in particular share the story of Jews of Arab descent.
My goal with this series is to spark conversations about the experiences of immigrants, and religious minorities, the balance between assimilation and maintaining one’s identity, and sharing untold stories from Yemen.
Introduction to Exhibit
Michelle Sider’s deeply researched “I am Yemenite” series celebrates the beauty of the Yemenite Jewish culture and reinforces themes relevant today. It’s a story of the struggles of a minority population, emigration, enduring faith, and holding strong to one’s identity in the face of struggles and prejudice. These ideas resonate now, just as they have for thousands of years.
This series of 10 compelling glass mosaics. shares the little-known stories of Jews of color from the Middle East and North Africa, known as Mizrachi Jews. Each mosaic tells a different narrative about the Jewish Yemenite experience. The details of this series emanate from interviews with the artist’s family and others with personal experiences as well as four years of research. These highly detailed glass mosaic portraits are meant to challenge perceptions of immigrants and in particular share the story of Jews of Arab descent.
The artist’s goal for this series is to spark conversations about the experiences of immigrants, and religious minorities, the balance between assimilation and maintaining one’s identity, and sharing untold stories from Yemen.
A bit about Michelle Sider’s unique technique:
Each highly detailed mosaic contains hundreds of pieces of glass along with gold, silver, metal, beads, hand-made jewelry, and ancient pottery. As the light bounces off of these surfaces, Sider's mosaics undergo a display of different hues throughout the day.
The artist begins each piece by photographing, studying historical images, and rendering a drawing. She then creates a reference painting that lies beneath each mosaic. Next, Sider chooses from an array of materials to incorporate into the mosaic. These materials include glass, stone, beads, clay, metal, ancient pottery, and hand-made jewelry that Sider has created. She then adheres each small piece onto the surface, being mindful of the contrasts in the reflective qualities, the flow of the pieces, and the textures, colors, and sizes to add interest and dimension to the mosaics. This process is a time-consuming yet gratifying way to share her experiences while creating something unique and beautiful.
These pieces represent one portion of Michelle Sider’s work which spans from portraits to landscapes, abstracts, and still lives.
A Brief History of Jews in Yemen
For over 2000 years Yemen was home to a vibrant Jewish community. This diverse community succeeded in preserving their unique scholarship, traditions, and customs until the mass emigration in 1949. Archaeological records referring to Judaism in Yemen started to appear in 110 BCE. There are numerous accounts and traditions concerning their arrival from Jerusalem and Babylonia.
Some believe that Jews arrived in Yemen in the 900s BCE after King Solomon sent Jewish merchants in search of gold and silver to use in the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem. According to Yemenite tradition, Jews migrated to Yemen when they heard of the impending destruction of the First Temple. The majority of the Jews migrated from Jerusalem to Yemen in the 200s BCE.
From 380-525, the Yemenite Jewish community was ruled by the Jewish Himyarite tribe. They enjoyed prosperity until the kingdom was overthrown and rulers began placing harsh and discriminatory laws and restrictions on the minority population. Pressure to assimilate beginning in the seventh century after the conquest of Christian Yemen by the Muslims also affected their way of life.
The Yemenite Jews’ culture, practices, and customs were influenced not only by the laws and restrictions placed upon them as a minority culture, which varied greatly depending upon the region, individual ruler, and other circumstances but also by the fervent maintenance of their religion, culture and ethnic identity.
Living in thousands of areas inside Yemen, including both isolated villages and larger cities and trade routes, the Jews of different regions developed unique customs, architecture, and designs in clothing, jewelry, and crafts. Despite their geographic diversity, their devout adherence to their faith and religious practice remained remarkably constant.
Currently, only a handful of Jews live in Yemen. The majority of the population lives in Israel, a smaller number live in the United States and the rest are scattered around the world. The story of these remarkably resilient people is a little-known gem of the larger history of the Jews from Africa and the Middle East, known as Mizrachi Jews.