The Story of Ethiopian Jews

March 23, 2011                                                           Gondar, Ethiopia

The first Israeli I came face to face with when crossing the border from Jordan into Israel was an Ethiopian Jewish soldier. As he stood there quizzing me about the authenticity of my Jewish heritage, I wondered about his life:  How connected does he feel to his Jewish identity? What did he leave behind in Ethiopia, if he has ever even been there? What is it like for him living in Israel? Does he feel accepted? Like me, does he feel like he has to pick one aspect of his identity over the other?

As my time in Israel progressed, I often interacted with Ethiopian Jews yet knew very little about their culture. Although they clearly live in a lower socioeconomic bracket and hold menial paying jobs, people were very resistant to talking about their status in Israeli society. I would often ask Israelis, “Is it because of their skin color?” Most would be timid to respond, not sure what to attribute it to, only knowing that they come from a background of subsistence farming which has made it more difficult for them to acclimate to the new country compared to other ethnic groups.

After a few weeks in Ethiopia, my friend and I decided to take a trip up to the north of the country to visit the city of Gondar.  Along with an ancient castle and some local markets, I had heard that there is still a small community of Ethiopian Jews left in Gondar called the Falasha. Most Ethiopians Jews, or members of the Beta Israel community, immigrated to Israel in the late 80’s and early 90’s when civil war and wide spread famine struck Ethiopia. Several rescue operations, executed by the Israeli government, airlifted thousands out of the country yet little is known about the communities that still remain in Ethiopia today.

While traveling in Ethiopia I met several other Israelis who happened to be in Gondar at the same time as me all with different ethnic backgrounds: an Indian Jew, Moroccan Jew and Egyptian Jew. One day as we were sitting at lunch, a young Ethiopian man walked up to me and started speaking in Hebrew. Seeing the blank look on my face, my friends began to laugh and said, “She is the only one at this table who does not speak Hebrew.” He responded, “Well she is the only one I was sure was Israeli,” firmly cementing my belonging to the Jewish community.

He explained that he works for the Israeli Department of the Interior and has been sent on a mission to investigate the families from the Felasha that are intending to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which gives Jews and those with Jewish parents or grandparents the right to settle in Israel and obtain citizenship. He said that there are over 3000 families living in Ethiopia who still want to come to Israel for a variety of reasons but mostly to escape poverty and for a better life and future for their children. However, there is the belief that many of these families are simply ‘claiming’ to be Jewish and participating in the community and religion in order to emigrate. He went on to tell us that during the early 1900’s members of the Beta Israel Community (Ethiopian Jews) were mistreated and discriminated against by the Ethiopian government and many were coerced into converting to Christianity. It is believed that this current wave of immigrants, though may have Jewish ancestry, converted and have lived their lives’ as Christians for several generations. Though their return to Judaism is partly to reclaim a piece of themselves, the main motivation is the chance to leave Ethiopia.  Therefore, the Israeli government, represented by our new friend, is investigating their eligibility to come to Israel i.e. their heritage as Jews.

Seeing our interest, he invited us to come along to visit the community for a Friday night service. After two minibus rides packed in like sardines, we finally got off at a dark dirt road. We walked up a windy, muddy path and then in the distance I heard chanting. We approached the garage like door of the synagogue which read, “Welcome to Gondar Beta Israel Synagogue.” We entered at the front of the open-air room constructed of flimsy tin and wood and saw all the woman sitting on one side dressed in white with their heads bowed and the men on the other wearing their kippahs and talits with their prayer books in hand. Suddenly 500 sets of eyes locked directly on us; we quickly made our way to the back of the room and sat on the wooden planks used as pews. They were reading that week’s portion of the torah. As I listened to the service, half in Amharic the other half in Hebrew, there were times I would catch myself chanting along and realized these are the same prayers I had learned 20 years ago in Sunday school. I looked around at my 3 Israeli friends and noticed them singing along as well.  It was such an indescribable feeling to walk into a village in the middle of rural northern Ethiopia and have that deep of a connection with the people. That is the power of diasporas: though we have been spread all around the world the moment our world’s collided, we found ourselves sharing a common heritage, culture and experience.

That night before we left, the Felasha community insisted that we come back the next day for the Purim celebration the kids had been putting together. So the next morning we made the same trip up the dirt road, this time in the daylight which further revealed the poverty they lived in. As we approached the synagogue we saw the kids dressed in beautiful costumes preparing to act out the story of Queen Ester who ironically first hid her identity as a Jew and then revealed it to the king in order to save the Jewish people who were at risk of being executed.

I watched as the kids recounted the story of Purim incorporating their Ethiopian culture such as Amharic music, dancing, food, and dress, beautifully weaving their two ethnicities together as one. I saw how their heritage and practices were the same as any other Jew around the world yet it was infused with their unique cultural traditions, similar to mine as a Persian Jew and my friends as Moroccan, Egyptian and Indian Jews.  In that moment I got part of the answer to the question running through my head the first time I encountered the Israeli Jew at the border: The Ethiopian Jews did not have to choose one piece of themselves over the other because they didn’t see one as separate from the other.

I observed as the parents proudly watched their children and the community came together to rejoice in this holiday. There was a feeling of warmth and togetherness in that room. Even though it may have seemed that they had so little and were so poor (which they are) I couldn’t help but be envious of the richness of their lives and the connectedness they feel with one another.  I wondered if that would be ripped away from them once they left the country.

On the crammed minibus ride back, I thought about the diaspora, identity and what makes someone authentic. What is authenticity? 25%, 50%, 75%? How much you practice a religion?  The ethnic/religious background of your mother or father? Isn’t it all relative?

As a Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jew participating in a mostly Ashkenazi (European) Jewish community in the US, I related to the feeling of having my authenticity questioned: “You don’t come to synagogue, you’re not really Jewish.” “You eat rice on Passover, you are not really Jewish.”  “Your family speaks a different language, you are not really Jewish.”

However, I never felt like I had to prove my Jewish identity in the way that Ethiopians have had to do. Once I left the Felasha I did a little bit of research which revealed that throughout history, Ethiopian Jews, time and time again have had to struggle to be accepted by the Jewish community. Their genuineness has constantly been questioned and even attempted to be refuted (sometimes through DNA tests) regardless of the fact that since the 1900’s Rabbis have officially declared Ethiopian Jews’ belonging to the community. Why did they have to prove their authenticity more than any other Jew in the world? Why didn’t I or any of my three other friends from various countries around the world have to justify our heritage? I came back to the question: Is it because of their skin color? I couldn’t help but conclude that it is in fact a product of racism.

Realizing this I felt sad; Sad that the story of Ethiopian Jews has to end in this way. Always having to justify that they belong to a community they feel so closely tied to yet never accepted into. Not really having a choice in their immigration knowing that better economic conditions await them yet also not aware of the tradeoff: Leaving their community and the only home they have ever known to be a foreigner in a country they consider their ‘other’ homeland but where they will actually be seen as the ‘other.’ This is the same bitter sweet experience that all immigrants around the world share yet for some reason, people continue to leave their homes each and every day. I guess it’s the perpetual hope that things can be better, that life can be easier, and that a brighter tomorrow lies ahead.

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