Ethiopia revisited

Two friends close circles in a more than 25-year relationship with Ethiopian Jews.

ethiopia family reunion 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ethiopia family reunion 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The same phrase said in almost the same place under different circumstances could have a very different meaning. We recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia where we visited the Adenite Jews of Addis Ababa and the remnants of the Beta Israel/Falash Mura community in Gondar. We had “been there, done that” before, but this trip, as each trip ends up being, was unique. The people we met and the activity we saw truly inspired us.
Malka Dessi also just returned from a trip to Ethiopia. She is originally from Ethiopia, has been living here for 17 years and this was her first trip back. Our paths had crossed in Ethiopia more than two decades ago and again on this trip, but we were all in very different circumstances this time around.
Our initial contact with Ethiopian Jews was in 1983 when, as college students, we received an urgent telephone call from a Jewish student organization that needed immediate help. We were told that a young Ethiopian Jewish couple had been smuggled out of Ethiopia via Sudan and were on a speaking tour of universities in the northeastern US. Their driver/escort had to leave suddenly and if they could not find a replacement to accompany them, the tour would have to be canceled.
At six the next morning, we were on a flight to Providence, Rhode Island. When we arrived at the motel, we did not immediately find them, but as we walked around the motel a young black couple approached and with our back turned to them, one of us sort of furtively muttered “shalom.” Their immediate response of “shalom aleichem” told us we had found our couple and ignited a relationship for us with the Jews of Ethiopia that continues until today.
PRIOR TO that whirlwind speaking tour, we knew relatively little about Ethiopia or its Jews. In facilitating their speaking tour, we had an on-the-job crash course in the subject, but realized that there was ever so much more to learn and do. We made contact with the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and its heroic director, Barbara Ribikove Gordon, and signed up for a mission to Ethiopia in 1987. Then we went on a second mission in 1988. The Israelis were then trying to get the people out. Others had trekked to Sudan, a trek that cost many lives.
In those days the dictatorial Mengistu government was oppressing the nation and our people in particular. The Jews were afraid of torture and imprisonment. We arrived in Bahar Dar, a city on the southern end of Lake Tana, having been briefed to try to find a certain Sheffero Dessi and inform him that the “bus stop in Sudan” – evidently a known collection point for the refugees by the Israelis – “was no longer active.” We went to a simple house with a dirt floor that we were told was his house, and it was definitely a house and not a tukul, traditional straw hut, like the Jews in the villages in Gondar lived in.
On the mostly bare wall was a poster of a scantily clad white woman, which, as was evident from the Hebrew writing, they had clearly hung up because it was from an Israeli newspaper. We knew we had reached our destination. Sheffero invited us to his house the next day, and we met part of his family and exchanged addresses. The oldest daughter had already made her way to Israel, but the other eight children were still with the parents. We parted ways with “lehitraot ba’aretz” – may we see each other in the Land of Israel. We knew we were headed straight to Israel, a land we knew well. For them, Israel was a distant dream, a religious aspiration, an unknown place that they had never seen and knew nothing about.
Ari Greenspan made aliya shortly thereafter; Sheffero and family came later, piecemeal. Four of the children escaped to Sudan and were airlifted out in 1990, while the parents and other children came as part of Operation Solomon in 1991, at which point Greenspan reconnected with them. Over the years, Greenspan, as a dentist, has treated Sheffaro’s son, and just two years ago, he helped an Ethiopian mother of two with some dental care and totally by chance she turned out to be Sheffero’s oldest daughter.

When Ari Zivotofsky came on aliya several years later, he moved to Beit Shemesh and Greenspan informed him that Sheffero Dessi and family lived there, and he visited them with his children.
WHEN WE decided to return to Ethiopia in July, we called Sheffero to see if he had any relatives still there. To our surprise, his youngest daughter Tziona answered the house phone and told us that her mother, Malka, was at that moment back in Ethiopia visiting a brother she had not seen in decades. We knew then that we had to meet her and close this circle of 25 years. What brought her back to Ethiopia? We were told that she had a brother who had “disappeared” in Sudan and had now been “found,” and it was he whom Malka had returned to visit.
Finding Malka would be much easier this time – we all had our cellphones with us in this more modern and free Ethiopia. The family reunion was taking place in Gondar, and we told her what day we were scheduled to arrive there. We called Malka from the Addis Ababa airport after our 6 a.m. flight was postponed to 10 a.m., and continued to update her as the Air Ethiopia flight was continually delayed until takeoff for the 45-minute flight finally occurred at 4 p.m.
Arriving in Gondar as it was getting dark, we dropped our bags at our hotel and headed immediately to the city center, excited to meet her and her long-lost brother in the hotel where they were staying. The hotel was not fancy and there was no electricity that evening due to a power outage, an almost nightly occurrence. The story we had heard was that her brother had disappeared 20 years ago in Sudan and had not been heard from since. Suddenly he appeared after being released from a Sudanese prison and she had gone to meet him. Yet when we arrived at the hotel, we saw her with a teenager whom she introduced as her brother.
We were temporarily confused until she clarified that she had come to see not one but two long-lost brothers. Her parents, who are no longer alive, had separated when she was young. Her mother had remarried, and it was this son who she had known and who had disappeared in Sudan. He had spent a year in a Sudanese jail, two years in an Egyptian jail and then many more years in Sudan. Finally, last year he had returned to Ethiopia, and they had now reunited. However, we missed that reunion which had taken place several days earlier in Addis Ababa.
Her father had also remarried, and had given Malka a brother – the teenager we saw her with and whom she had never previously met.
WE ASSUMED that for her this visit to Ethiopia must have been like coming home. She speaks the language, knows the customs and has family. We wondered whether she would be happy to be back. Might she have regrets about having left and moving to new challenges in Israel?
The answer was obvious from the moment we saw each other. She was thrilled to see us, but so homesick for Israel that it was painful. Her new 15-year-old brother sat by her side not wanting to let go of her. She, however, wanted nothing but to go home – to Beit Shemesh.
So there we were, closing an amazing circle of life. Having been there 21 years ago to try to help people escape the oppression of Ethiopia and get to the Holy Land, we now met by choice, both lucky tourists visiting a spectacular but sad place.
As we said good-bye in Gondar, we sadly left her to her obvious loneliness and despair. We asked her when she was going to Israel and she answered very sorrowfully that it was two more weeks. The two weeks she had left were going to be tough. When we asked her how it was for her, she responded that she loved Israel and that it was the best thing that had happened to her. Her family’s absorption has not been without its difficulties, but they are glad that they are in Israel.
Her brothers in Ethiopia have no connection with Judaism while her family in Israel is in close contact with the Ethiopian kesim (religious leaders) and although they are not religious in the Western sense, they feel a connection to Judaism.
Her trip was difficult in many regards: financially, leaving thefamily, having to meet and then leave her brothers, but she felt it wasimportant to go. The time in Ethiopia was even more difficult thatexpected, and she rescheduled and went home less than a week later.
When we parted it was with smiles and the wish of “lehitraot ba’aretz”– this time knowing that we all lived there and were all headed home ina short time. And indeed, several weeks after returning we met again,this time in Israel.