‘A time of hardship’

During Pessah in Ethiopia, Jews sought to relive the Exodus experience by denying themselves luxuries.

ethiopia matza 311 (photo credit: Eyal Peled)
ethiopia matza 311
(photo credit: Eyal Peled)
The Ethiopian aliya has not been easy. Unlike groups such as the Yemenites and Lithuanians, Ethiopian Jews were not privy to the mainstream religious and cultural traditions associated with many of the Jewish holidays.
Pessah was celebrated in Ethiopia in a special way that both parallels and diverges from customs in innumerable Jewish communities from Baghdad to Warsaw. Over the years, Ethiopian Jews have come to celebrate the holiday in much the same way as other Israelis, while retaining several elements that remind them of their past.
In Ethiopia, houses were cleaned and new dishes were made for the holiday. A type of matza known as kitta was baked.
A wonderful video from the mid-1970s, part of a series on Ethiopia called The Hidden Empire, shows Ethiopian Jews preparing for Pessah by cleaning the synagogue. It shows women mixing dough and baking kitta on a clay griddle. On 14 Lissan (Nisan) the Jewish religious leadership (Kesoch or Cahenat) would gather with male community members at the village synagogue and slaughter a lamb in remembrance of the Pessah sacrifice. Each man would receive a portion of the meat and kitta. The story of the Exodus was recounted at the synagogue, with prayers in Geez (the ancient Ethiopian language), and repeated at home with their families.
During Pessah in Ethiopia, Jews abstained from meat and many other foods. The week was supposed to reflect a time of hardship, like that experienced in Egypt, and was a time of a simplified diet. Ethiopian Jews sought to relive the experience by denying themselves luxuries. When the Pessah week was over a large celebration was held; meat was prepared with traditional Ethiopian spices and eaten heartily, washed down with tela, an alcoholic drink.
When Ethiopian Jews began coming to Israel in the late 1970s and 1980s they faced many hurdles in their integration into Israeli society. The shock of immigration itself, from a rural culture to a modern society, meant that efforts to preserve all of their traditions, such as how they celebrate Pessah, were not a top priority.
Many Ethiopian Jews celebrated their first Pessah at the absorption center where they were living. From the moment of arrival, Israeli rabbis encouraged them to observe the Jewish holidays in a manner consistent with mainstream religious practice. For example, religious authorities informed them that kitta was not strictly kosher for Pessah.  
As with many matters of religious observance, such as buying meat with kashrut certification rather than eating meat slaughtered by their own butchers, or praying in Hebrew rather than Geez, Ethiopian Jews adapted to the Jewish practices and customs prevailing in Israel.
Today most Ethiopian Jews in Israel read from a Hebrew Haggada,sometimes with Amharic translation beside the Hebrew and with drawingsof scenes from Ethiopia. Some families prepare kitta and others opt forregular matza. Ethiopian religious leaders (kesim) adhere to thetraditional Ethiopian Pessah celebration, as do elderly Ethiopians. 
Ethiopian Jews in Israel attempt to preserve a modicum of theiroriginal observance, while conforming to typical Israeli observance.For example, Ethiopian food relies heavily on cho, one of the mainspices in most Ethiopian cuisine. Since cho is not kosher for Pessah,Ethiopians traditionally prepared a spicy substitute to flavor foodduring the week of Pessah. Thus for most Ethiopians, at least a bit oftheir culture has remained with them as they sit down for Pessah in theLand of Israel.