Last year the Israeli consulate in New York hosted an event at which I gave a
presentation on Ethiopian-Jewish community life. After it finished I was
approached by a man who asked how the Ethiopian Jews could be Jewish if they
were not educated. In his view, part of being Jewish was being highly
educated. This image of Jews as a highly educated group is not only a
stereotype in the West; most Jews as a minority group are college graduates and
are in a higher economic bracket.
I explained that his question was out
of place. We were discussing how the Ethiopian Jewish community in Ethiopia was
strong and closely structured and had deep Jewish roots. He was looking at being
Jewish from a different point of view. These types of questions also exist in
Israel and it illustrates a wider pattern of people not being familiar with
Ethiopian Jewish culture and their lifestyle in Ethiopia.
people had a different Jewish culture. If we were living in Ethiopia today it
would be Succot, because the calendar was slightly different. My mother
remembers that synagogues did not exist in every village. Nevertheless there was
a kes, or Jewish religious community leader, who was in charge of setting aside
a place to pray. In Ambover, where my mother grew up before she was married, the
Kes Adane and synagogue were a center of Jewish life and everyone took part in
working to maintain the structure. For instance, if something needed to be fixed
or built, people in the village would volunteer their time to do it.
was born in Ambover but grew up in the village of Godgodit. When we look forward
to Simhat Torah this was not actually a holiday the way we know it here. We did
celebrate Succot with a succa that would be constructed next to the
Before the Ethiopian community was reconnected with the Jewish
religious communities from Europe and the Arab world in the 19th century, the
community didn’t celebrate the holidays of Simhat Torah, Shmini Atzeret,
Hanukka, Purim, Lag Ba’omer, the Fast of Gedalia or Tu Bishvat. In place of some
of these holidays, the major holiday of Ethiopian Jewry was Sigd, which is
celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur.
In the synagogues that did exist we
had a Torah scroll that was written in Gez, an ancient south Semitic language
once prevalent in Ethiopia. This scroll would be read every Shabbat. Despite all
the struggles Ethiopian Jews faced, including numerous attempts to missionize
them and convert them to other faiths, they preserved their culture. The
whole community kept the holidays together. As a small, close-knit community,
there was no sense of being private and having the temptation, for instance, to
not fast on Yom Kippur, or to eat non-kosher food. There were no choices between
different sects of Judaism, such that one might be a Reform Jew or a
Conservative Jew. Everyone was what one would today call an Orthodox
It is interesting to examine the development of the Ambover
synagogue and its modernization over the years. One can see that the building,
even up to the modern period, was a very simple construction of wood and that
stone and modern construction was only added in the 1960s and 1970s. This would
have been the last years that it served as a major center of Jewish life, before
the emigration to Israel began. Many tourists, Jewish Agency officials and
reporters who visited the Jews of Ethiopia, such as the late Louis Rapoport, a
reporter and photographer for The Jerusalem Post, photographed this synagogue in
Ambover as part of their itinerary. It still stands today and Jews who return to
Ethiopia inevitably visit it.
Returning to Ethiopia on heritage trips is
becoming more popular among the Jewish community in Israel. I see more and more
groups of people who are organizing to go see where their parents were born.
They go to see and feel the way life was there. They go to remember the past
life of their ancestors. Some of those who have gone on these trips, both
non-Ethiopian Israelis and Ethiopian Jews, talk about being struck by how
different life was there. For instance, a person who lived in a small village in
Ethiopia and whose skill was working with sheep, would be valued the way a
lawyer might be valued in Israeli society. Such differences in skills and
prestige in society are not always readily apparent when one imagines the
Ethiopian Jewish community in Ethiopia as a one-dimensional object.
I think of the question I was asked in New York I think how important it is to
explain that these villages in Ethiopia had a rich Jewish life.
writer made aliya from Ethiopia in 1984. She works for the government and has an
MA in Management of Nonprofit and Community Organizations from the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem.