The Ethiopian exodus

Editor Rabbi Menachem Waldman has created a Haggada that shows the way in which the modern-day plight of Ethiopian Jewry is parallel to the exodus of from Egypt.

By DAVID GEFFEN
March 29, 2012 15:04
PASSOVER IN the Ethiopian village of Woleka, 1984

PASSOVER IN the Ethiopian village of Woleka, 1984. (photo credit: Courtesy Koren Publishers)

The Passover Haggada is the monumental retelling of the saga of the Exodus from Egypt, enhanced by many commentaries and images added through the centuries. The Koren Hebrew typeface is one that has come to be respected because of the clear readable manner in which the letters of the alphabet have been crafted. When the Haggada and this typeface are combined, the reader is able to explore the text at the Seder in an illuminating fashion. The new Koren Ethiopian Haggada: Journey to Freedom includes the story of Ethiopian Jewry in modern times when significant numbers made aliya – an Exodus of a most heroic nature.

“On the night of Passover the Ethiopian Jewish priests and elders would tell the congregation the history of the Exodus from Egypt though there was not a set text to be recited like the standard Passover Haggadah.”

The new Haggada’s editor, Rabbi Menachem Waldman, focuses on the difference between Ethiopian Jewry and world Jewry in terms of our Passover story: one oral, one written.

“After reciting various stories relating to the Exodus from Egypt,” Waldman emphasizes, “the women and children would return to their homes and the adult men would accompany the priest to pray in the synagogue.”

“Throughout the night” just as the text of the Haggada describes, “they [Ethiopians] would thank the Lord for redeeming his people from Egypt and splitting the Red Sea and they would offer special prayers related to the Passover holiday.”

For 30 years Waldman has worked closely with the Ethiopian Jews and has become a wellspring of knowledge about their approach to Judaism. Hence, from his description of their holiday rituals, it sounds as though the Ethiopian Jews, without a fixed text, were pioneers in the Passover observance. Without formal training, they captured that critical essence that gives meaning to the holiday today.

Waldman places the traditional Seder text of the Haggada side-by-side with historical material, photos, prayers and images of Ethiopian Jewry. His inclusions document their observance of Passover but also delineate the trials and tribulations they have endured over the last 130 years, demonstrating how parallel the modern-day plight of Ethiopian Jewry is to the Egyptian Exodus.

Waldman accomplishes his goal with poignant photographs, with documents reaching back to the Middle Ages and with wonderful images of colorful tapestries focusing on the themes of the Exodus story. This art, commissioned by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, was created at its compound in Addis Ababa between 1991 and 2005. Conference director Andy Goldman worked with an Ethiopian artist in preparing the sketches utilized in the embroidery work.

According to Waldman, “the embroidery pieces were fashioned into wall hangings, halla covers, matza covers and pillow covers. They were sold in the USA in order to provide work, ‘parnasa,’ for those who were planning to make aliyah from Addis Ababa.”

Images of these pieces, coordinated with the appropriate sections of the text, express the story of the Exodus from Ethiopian Jewry’s perspective with a beauty all their own.

Since the familiar Seder text is so interwoven with the pictorial and artistic material focusing on Ethiopian Jewry, it is advisable for the reader to familiarize himself or herself with the Haggada’s structure before the Seder. The translations of the prayers and poems provided, with the Hebrew text and English translation face to face, can enrich the home observance of Passover this year.

Every person who purchases this Haggada honors Ethiopian Jewry who have maintained our traditions in spite of the isolation and persecution of their people. Even negativity toward this population during the early history of Israel is expressed in a 1950 letter from Addis Ababa sent by Yona Bogale to Jerusalem.

“We thought,” he writes with anticipation, “that with the establishment of the State of Israel our lot would also improve. We thought,” he stresses, “that we too would make ‘aliya’ along with the other communities of the nation to live a life of freedom in our land. Shall we too have the great distinction of being among those who build up the state,” he wonders, “or shall we be neglected and abandoned because of the color of our skin?”

Incredibly, nothing deterred them and now thousands are Israeli citizens. It is remarkable to witness how deeply their Jewishness was planted in them.

Dr. Patrick Graham, director of the Pitts Library of the Theological School at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who was presented with a copy of this work to add to the library’s collection of more than 650 Haggadot, writes: “In reviewing this Haggada, I learned much about Ethiopian Jewry which I never knew previously. The power of the photos and the seminal meaning in the art make this Haggada one to be cherished for it opens many doors to the history of a ‘remarkable tribe’ of the Jewish people. I found the readings and poetry of Ethiopian Jewry relating to Passover touching because the Exodus from Egypt was woven into the exodus from Ethiopia to Israel. Our students in the theological school from all divisions of Emory University now can study this spiritually informative work.”

Waldman includes a wide variety of Ethiopian Passover prayers and poetry translated into English. One beautiful poem is “Journey to the Land of Israel” by Haim Idisis, a community leader. It was made popular as a song by Israeli musician Shlomo Gronich. These poignant lines capture the meaning, in contemporary fashion, of the Ethiopian journey to the Promised Land.

In the poem, they are urged on by the the spirit of their mother, even as she is tragically murdered by a band of thieves. The final verse reads:

By the light of the moon I see my mother’s figure/ Staring at me./ Dear Mother, do not disappear;/ If she were by my side, she could/ Convince them that I too am a Jew.

Just a little more, just a little bit,/ Lift up your eyes my children,/ One last push before we reach Jerusalem.

At the end of the Seder we say: “Leshana haba’a biyerushalayim habenuya” “Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem.”

The Ethiopian Jews have come home en masse. Now with this Haggada, their history of striving to be Jewish can be more intensively explored. Clearly, part of the manner in which they survived was through their devotion to the Passover tale of freedom and their yearning to return to Jerusalem.


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