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The Long Road Home

Amy Cowen visits the forgotten Jews of Ethiopia

Amy Cowen  |  Spring 2006  -  Number 201

  
  
 

Despite their nebulous origins, Israel eventually recognized the Beta Israel of Ethiopia as an ancient Jewish community and assisted her brethren in the wake of severe poverty, discrimination and political upheaval. The famous massive covert airlifts - Operation Moses in 1984-5 and Operation Solomon in 1991 - rescued and took in over 22,000 Beta Israel. Today, approximately 60,000 have moved to Israel, and the entire Ethiopian-Israeli population is close to 100,000.

Left behind

Yet in spite of these huge assisted migrations, thousands of Ethiopian Jews, some with relatives in Israel, were left behind. According to the Jerusalem Post (8 June 2005), nearly 20,000 Beta Israel currently remain in Ethiopia awaiting emigration. Known as Falash Mura to some (although they consider the term derogatory), these Ethiopians of Jewish descent converted to Christianity under religious and social pressures several generations ago, many completely losing their Jewish identity and heritage thereby. Yet the confiscation of their homes and property by neighbours drove thousands to relocate to the cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa in the hope of emigrating to Israel.

Those still left behind are housed in and around compounds built by American Jewish aid organizations. There they are provided with food, medical care, housing, Jewish and elementary education, while preparing individuals for absorption into Israeli society. Religious ceremonies are held daily.

Ethiopian Jewish practices are reminiscent of the ancient Judaism of the Old Testament. In recent decades, however, the Beta Israel have begun to adhere to modern Judaism. Thus, in preparation for immigration, courses on Hebrew and traditional Jewish prayers are taught twice a day. Men wear kippahs and talits (during religious services or classes) while women don headscarves and use mikvehs to purify themselves during menstruation.

In spite of their present observance of Judaism, earlier conversions to Christianity by some Beta Israel caused Israel initially to deny them their ‘right of return’ as Jews. But with mounting pressure from advocates and relatives living in Israel in addition to worsening conditions, Israel finally conceded. In January 2005, the government declared that all remaining Beta Israel should be brought to Israel by the end of 2007. Slowly, this is now beginning to happen due to the monthly quota of 300-400.

Held captive

While nearly all Beta Israel have now been accepted and promised access to Israel, there is another Jewish community still hidden in Ethiopia’s highlands: the Beit Avraham or House of Abraham. The largest enclave - numbering roughly 50,000 - is located in an area known as Kachene extending from the northern Shewa region south to the capital city of Addis Ababa. Although their history is very similar to that of the Beta Israel, this community has been overlooked by Israel and the rest of the Jewish world. They have no known relatives in Israel and few have dared speak out. ‘My one desire is to make my people known to everyone around the world,’ said Aselef Teketel, an artist and advocate for his community. Yet the vast majority of the Beit Avraham remain silent, hidden and slowly losing their Jewish heritage.

Silenced beneath a veil

Silenced by fear, discrimination and persecution, the Beit Avahram’s ancient past has remained a mystery, sometimes even to younger community members. ‘I think they [Beit Avraham] were probably Beta Israel that were converted in some way or pretended to be converted,’ said Dr Richard Pankhurst, British historian and scholar of Ethiopian studies. Like the Falash Mura, the Beit Avraham hid their identity under a shroud of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity for centuries while continuing secretly to practise their forefathers’ faith. As writer and actor Feleka Abebe put it, ‘My grandmother used to always tell me: We’re Jewish; it’s who we are, our heritage.’ Others were kept in the dark. Community members shared stories of their parents attending church one minute and going off to the countryside the next to practise some secret religion. Haunted by the question ‘Who am I?’ many began to seek out their true identity - and discovered this ‘secret religion’ was Judaism.

Today, numerous traces of Jewish religious tradition can be found embedded within the Beit Avraham community, although they tend to keep them hidden. ‘The Beit Avraham practise Shabbat and purification secretly because most of the gentiles killed and punished our people,’ remarked local historian Aba Assefa. The community strictly adheres to the Jewish Sabbath, ending all work by sundown on Friday evening; marriage to outsiders (or gentiles) is forbidden; circumcision is carried out on the eighth day; lamb’s blood is smeared on doorposts during Passover; and menstruating women undergo ritual seclusion and purification as commanded in the Torah.

Unfortunately, the community’s constant struggle for survival often drives them to silence. Even today, they are a marginalized people as they continue to face discrimination and persecution due to their place in society. Like the Beta Israel, the Beit Avraham are skilled artisans and craftspeople. Although Ethiopia’s economy relies heavily on the community’s textiles and other commodities, craftsmanship is considered servile and dishonourable, causing artisans to be viewed with contempt. Moreover, due to the Beit Avraham’s use of fire for blacksmithing and pottery, they are stigmatized as buda - those who possess an ‘evil eye’.

A buda is believed to have special powers that enable him or her to turn into a hyena, eat human flesh, drink others’ blood and cause illnesses, death and the like. This superstition fuels hatred and fear of the Beit Avraham and encourages further discrimination and persecution of the community.

Embracing the past

In response to the erosion of the Beit Avraham’s Jewish heritage, some are speaking out and publicly professing their faith. In addition to frequently writing about his community, Feleke Abebe attempts to teach the younger generations to hold onto their roots and remember where they come from. ‘I want to be a symbol; I want to create evidence for the younger generation,’ he exclaimed. ‘I tell young people that we are Jews. You are a Jew!’

Others turn to more radical means. Grabbing my hand as the evening sun’s rays quickly faded away, Aselef Teketel briskly pulled me through the dark stone corridors between the houses. We proceeded through a narrow metal doorway and entered another set of doors. As we approached the last wooden door, it opened to reveal 20 or so seated young men wearing kippot inside the small one-room structure. Immediately, each of them stood and greeted us. Smiles spread across their faces as they quickly made room for Aselef and me. This was my introduction to the Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization, a small but passionate group formed to publicly reclaim their identity, preserve their history, and restore their people to their forefathers’ faith.

According to Mesfin Assefa, a leader of the organization, the group practises modern Judaism in order to unify themselves with other Jews. They desire to gain recognition from the rest of the Jewish world - and ultimately to immigrate and obtain citizenship rights in Israel. ‘My prayer and dream is for God to gather all of us Jews in the world to Israel - to worship in the Golan Mountains,’ said Girma, one Beit Avraham member.

Finding out more about Ethiopian Jews

Books

Kaplan, Steven, The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press, 1992, 1995)

Kessler, David, The Falashas: A Short History of the Ethiopian Jews (London: Frank Cass, 1996)

Pankhurst, Richard, ‘The Balle Ejj [Beit Avraham] community of Shewa’, in S. Kaplan, T. Parfitt and E. T. Semi (editors), Between Africa and Zion: Proceedings of the First International Congress of the Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry (Jerusalem, 1995)

Spector, Stephen, Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Yayeh, Qes Asres, Traditions of the Ethiopian Jews (Ontario: Kibur Asres, 1995)

Websites

United Jewish Communities (UJC): Operation Promise

http://www.ujc.org/section_display.html?ID=123

An initiative of the UJC and the Jewish Federations of North America to help bring remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel and gain mainstream recognition for the entire Ethiopian-Israeli community

Ethiopian National Project

http://www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=130766

To facilitate the successful absorption of Ethiopian olim in all spheres of Israeli society

Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews

http://www.iaej.co.il/index.htm

A non-profit organization working to further the cause of equal access to educational and employment opportunities for all Ethiopian Israelis

North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry

http://www.nacoej.org/mission.htm

A grass-roots, non-profit organization founded in 1982 with four mandates: to help Ethiopian Jews survive in Ethiopia, assist them in reaching Israel, help their absorption into Israeli society, and preserve their unique and ancient culture.

Amy Cowen is an award-winning photographer who has sought to understand and capture the lives of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, Israel and the United States through documentary photography and ethnographic research. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Anthropology from Elon University in the USA and is in the process of making aliyah and relocating to Israel. She plans to continue working among the Ethiopian Jews and advocating on their behalf.

I would like to thank Elon University for providing financial support for my research in Ethiopia and Israel. Many heartfelt thanks to the Beit Avraham and Beta Israel who welcomed me into their communities and generously gave of their time to participate in my research and photography. Thank you to Professor Ken Hassell for being such an inspiration. His oversight, guidance and encouragement were integral to the entire study. And thank you to Dr Heidi G. Frontani for her mentorship and feedback on earlier versions of this article.

  
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