Upward bound

Meet Mulu Baruch, a man who walked all the way from Ethiopia at the age of 12 to fulfill his dream of Zion.

mulu baruch 88 298 (photo credit: )
mulu baruch 88 298
(photo credit: )
It's Tuesday morning and customers stand three deep at Tavlinei Achim Baruch - the Baruch Brothers Spice Shop. Nine months ago, Mulu Baruch opened the Ethiopian import storefront in the heart of Beersheba's Old City, and business has been steady. Two shoppers wait in line for Baruch's personal advice, while others ask about which commodities he'll stock regularly. An Israeli-born woman is curious about the Ethiopian music being piped into the street, so Baruch leads her to a large display of CDs featuring Ethiopian artists. In a momentary break between customers he restocks shelves, advising customers that upstairs, a new shipment of women's clothing - handmade in Ethiopia - has arrived. Opening any new business is challenging, but taking on the economic situation in Israel's south takes large doses of raw courage. The risks don't seem to faze Baruch. He's been through worse - far worse. Mulu Baruch made aliya 17 years ago from Ethiopia at age 12. He'd left his family behind and walked the entire 2,500 km to Israel. His only goal: to fulfill the dream of living here. In the midst of national hand-wringing and doom-and-gloom predictions about the fate of Israel's 100,000 Ethiopian immigrants, Baruch stands out as counterpoint: Some Ethiopian immigrants have done very well. Some communities - like that of the extended Baruch family - appear to be thriving. These Ethiopian immigrants have mastered not only Hebrew but the ways of modern Israel as well. They've learned how to deal with bureaucracy, created businesses, solidified their families, built a new synagogue and still have time to reach out to help newer immigrants. Life isn't perfect and problems remain, but as much as any other olim they've successfully absorbed into society. A fire in the belly quotient may have contributed to Baruch's success. "It was crazy," he says, referring to his decision to leave home to walk to Israel at 12. "But I had reached my manhood, and coming to Jerusalem was my one dream. I don't regret for one moment that I did it, but it was very difficult to be without my family. You should always make aliya with your family," he says. Baruch's inspiration came from his great-grandfather who, decades prior, was one of the first Ethiopians to reach Jerusalem and touch the Kotel. "My great-grandfather was a nasi, an ascetic hermit who purified himself in the desert for 40 years so he'd have the merit of bringing his people to the Holy Land. Because of him, my grandfather and father are kessim (Ethiopian rabbis), as are my two older brothers," Baruch says, noting that the position of kess follows the male family line, as did the priesthood in the Torah. Because he left his family at such a young age Baruch, now 29, will not assume rabbinical duties. Baruch set out on his walk in 1984, just months before Operation Moses, the airlift that brought 8,000 Ethiopians to Israel. Making the journey by foot seems almost unimaginable. "My family lived in a Jewish village near Gondar. My father was chief kess, the community's most respected leader and educator. When I left, I had no sense I would ever see my family again. For the month-long journey, we had a guide who knew where to walk, where food and safe water could be found. We walked north through the Sudan desert, then through Egypt, traveling by night and resting by day. We had very little water and there was a constant danger from marauders. At times I was frightened." Two of Baruch's female cousins were also among the dozen-strong group on the journey. "In Sudan, we were stopped by a soldier who tried to take my youngest cousin and rape her, but I ran at him and fought. He gave me a smack on the head and let go of my cousin, but then he went after the older one. I couldn't stop him - he beat her, raped her, then abandoned her. Eventually she was found. She made it to Israel, but another child was not so lucky. A helicopter hovered over us and then landed. We'd never seen anything like that before, and one little girl became so frightened that she ran off and was never found." Once in Israel, Baruch stayed at an absorption center in Ashkelon before enrolling in a residential school. Unlike many immigrants, Baruch knew Hebrew when he arrived. "My family was educated," he says. "We read biblical Hebrew as part of our religious duties, so having some knowledge of the language helped." After high school and his army service, Baruch worked for the Jewish Agency for several years, acting as intermediary between the agency and new Ethiopian immigrants. Eleven years ago, his father and the rest of his family arrived in Israel. "Most important was our Torah scroll. In Ethiopia, our most prized possession was our Torah, which was 12 generations old and written in Ge'ez [an ancient language developed in the Ethiopain highlands], transliterated from Aramaic. My father was worried about carrying it with him, so he had it sent on ahead. When he arrived in Addis Ababa, he sent a message asking if the scroll had arrived safely. Assured that it was safe, he said, 'Then it makes no difference if I make it or not.' The Torah is now in our new synagogue," he recounts. For the elder Baruch, the transition to life in Israel was not so easy. "My father had been the most respected person in the area. He was the chief educator, mediator of all disputes, the main leader. When he arrived here, he had no paperwork to prove anything, so the government didn't acknowledge his scholarship or influence. He assumed he'd be given a home and a synagogue, and they laughed at him. 'It doesn't work that way here,' the officials said, explaining that petitions, paperwork and requests for money would be required. My father was put into a high-rise apartment, where the neighbors complained about the noise his prayers made, so he'd go into the garden to pray - and they still complained. I told my father, 'I bless you to live to 120 because I will see that you have a synagogue to pray in.'" Today, the Kess Baruch synagogue, completed in 2001, stands on the highest point in Beersheba's Yud Aleph neighborhood. With tall twin pillars, a red-tiled roof and strong, clean lines, the building reflects the strength of the community. Inside, the Ten Commandments appear in Hebrew and Amharic. All 300 seats are filled on Shabbat, and on Yom Kippur hundreds more stand outside. A short distance away stand the distinctive twin-peaked tukal (the traditional round peak-roofed Ethiopian home) housing the community center, craft and education areas, social work offices and nearby, a mikve. Much of the adjustment to modern Israel has been made. "In Ethiopia we had no vehicles," says Baruch. "My father had to walk from place to place. Here, he's still chief kess and now travels around the whole country. Sometimes he's hard to reach - he says he knows his family will get along, but he's needed in the community." Of course, all is not perfect. "There are serious problems in our community," Baruch says. "We are plagued by problems we never had in Ethiopia - alcohol abuse, drugs, crime, divorce, even murder. Unemployment is a problem, and families with no breadwinner suffer in many ways. Our problems result from a communication problem with Israel at large. Because the leadership of the country makes decisions for us and doesn't communicate with us, strife and tension result. The worst thing is that we aren't permitted to solve our own problems in our own traditional ways. If the government would allow our leaders to lead the way they did in Ethiopia, we'd solve most of our own problems. In our tradition, our kessim were in charge so everyone understood what his rights and obligations were. Here, the government has taken away our social structure. Our leaders receive no respect or power. If the government would allow our leaders to lead, would support them instead of undermining them, there would be far fewer problems. It's so frustrating to see problems but not be permitted to solve them." On the whole, however, life in Israel is good for the Baruchs. "We have our business open now, and we're working hard," he says. "My father's goal was to build our synagogue, and that's done. My goal now is to preserve our culture and expand our community center so it can reach out even more. We want to pass our traditional Jewish culture along to future generations. That would be good for us - and even better for Israel. Ethiopians are the original Zionists. For thousands of years, we longed for Zion. Our love for this land was so powerful that many of us risked walking here. Our one goal was to fulfill that dream. Now we're here in Israel, the goal is to work just as hard to preserve our tradition and culture."