Children of Moses and Solomon

The Ethiopian community draws on its tradition and culture as it struggles for total acceptance in Israel.

Yonatan Fareda   248 (photo credit: Lea Golda Holterman)
Yonatan Fareda 248
(photo credit: Lea Golda Holterman)
The following appeared in d"ash - The Israeli magazine for English speaking young people around the world. Blue-and-white national flags flap languorously on the Hass Promenade, occasionally masking the view across the Kidron Valley in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City. For a moment, the golden dome of the Mosque of Omar shining in the uplifting autumn sun seems to disappear. They have flocked in the thousands from all over the country to the spectacular promenade that overlooks the Old City walls: elders, youngsters, children, religious and secular Ethiopian Israelis. They are all eager to observe the Sigd, the annual holiday of their community, a centuries-old tradition that has in contemporary Israel been transformed into a national Jewish holiday. "Finally, the tradition that represents our community is recognized by the State! We are reconnecting to our community tradition, to our Jewish roots, to our State!" rejoices Geshe Tafhan, 18, who lives in Arad, in the northern Negev. The Sigd ¬ "devotion," in Ge'ez, the sacred language of Ethiopia ¬ is an ancient Jewish Ethiopian tradition. Set seven weeks after Yom Kippur, the festival used to mark the acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the age-old yearning for the Holy City. The prayer, "Next Year in Jerusalem," was partly answered when, in 1984, under the codename Operation Moses, thousands of Jewish families secretly left their homes and, literally marching across the great eastern Ethiopian wasteland toward Sudan, were airlifted to Israel via Europe. Then in 1991, during the mayhem that occurred toward the end of the decades-long civil war that devastated Ethiopia, thousands more were rescued, under the covert Operation Solomon. Such are the contemporary milestones of the 120,000 Ethiopian Israelis. Eighty percent of the whole community now live in Israel, the Sigd thus transformed into both a celebration of national belonging and a time for personal introspection. Holding bright ceremonial umbrellas, the Kesim, the rabbis of the community, recite ancient incantations. They bless the elder men and women in white turbans and embroidered gowns who have assembled in half-circles, focused on the tradition, on the fulfilled faith ¬ this year, next year, forever Jerusalem. At the back of the crowd, the ceremony has more of the air of an informal get-together. Young people ¬ some in Rasta and Afro hairdo, others in army uniform ¬ recap the time since they last met, engaging in here-and-now chitchat. They do not long for Ethiopia as their parents do. Most were born here or came as infants. They feel Israeli. They speak "Israeli Hebrew." Still, their absorption into the country has hardly been all milk-and-honey. Their Jewish roots and their identity have been under scrutiny. Questions still hover ¬ over their opportunities to contribute to a society that ostensibly wanted them in its midst, and over a seeming reluctance to fully accept their otherness. Stereotypes are still rife: the color of their skin, AIDS. Many still feel rejected. In some schools they are isolated. Jobs aren't easy to get. Bouncers at clubs don't always let them in. But Geshe, like many of his peer group awaiting their army draft, is resolute: "I refuse to be related to as a victim of racism and discrimination. I am not a victim. I can connect with everyone." This day is a statement of their affiliation to their community, a pronouncement of their belonging to their people, like it or not. Alongside Geshe, a banner billows in the hilltop wind, appealing to the youngsters to refrain from alcohol, drugs and violence to which some have inevitably succumbed. Yonatan Fareda, 25, a high-tech company mechanical engineer who lives in a small town near Rehovot in the center of the country, spends his spare time volunteering as a youth counselor at the local community center. He instills would-be street kids with a sense of purpose and self-belief. "I tell them, nothing can stop you from attaining what you want to achieve.' " But it's not easy. Some teachers are extra-tough on them. At home, they feel alienated from their parents who have no experience of what their children are going through. Parental authority is often non-existent. "Their parents feel they've become a burden to their kids," says Yonatan, "and they have no tools with which to overcome their predicament." A friend of his ex-girlfriend, Lomi Atanao, 21, has just finished her national service as a hospital nurse. She now works in a boutique in Rishon Lezion south of Tel Aviv where she lives with her unemployed parents. With her four older siblings, she helps them financially. She also helps with their paperwork, representing her parents at welfare offices: "All their lives, our parents dreamed of coming on aliya. We, for our part, are immersed in the language, in the mentality, in the land. Now what remains to be achieved is the dream of becoming personally independent. I'm ready to give a lot for that. I'd like to study social work, not just to serve my community, but also to help solve the problems of others." It's the coming-of-age of a generation born here. Caught between their parents and their younger siblings, they've taken it upon themselves to reinforce the family bond. Tradition and culture inspire these sons and daughters of "Moses and Solomon" to fulfill their mission. Says Geshe: "If you know where you come from, you'll know where you're heading." Sacred tongue Ge'ez (also sometimes referred to as Ethiopic) is an ancient South Semitic language that developed in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia and became the official language of the Ethiopian imperial court. Today it is the main language used in the liturgy of Ethiopian Jews as well as of several churches in Ethiopia and Eritrea.