A rich Jewish life

Ethiopian Jews may have lived by a different calendar, but the community had deep roots.

Yona Bogale family 370 (photo credit: Beit Hatfutsot/The Jerusalem Post Archieves)
Yona Bogale family 370
(photo credit: Beit Hatfutsot/The Jerusalem Post Archieves)
Last year the Israeli consulate in New York hosted an event at which I gave a presentation on Ethiopian-Jewish community life. After it finished I was approached by a man who asked how the Ethiopian Jews could be Jewish if they were not educated. In his view, part of being Jewish was being highly educated. This image of Jews as a highly educated group is not only a stereotype in the West; most Jews as a minority group are college graduates and are in a higher economic bracket.
I explained that his question was out of place. We were discussing how the Ethiopian Jewish community in Ethiopia was strong and closely structured and had deep Jewish roots. He was looking at being Jewish from a different point of view. These types of questions also exist in Israel and it illustrates a wider pattern of people not being familiar with Ethiopian Jewish culture and their lifestyle in Ethiopia.
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In Ethiopia people had a different Jewish culture. If we were living in Ethiopia today it would be Succot, because the calendar was slightly different. My mother remembers that synagogues did not exist in every village. Nevertheless there was a kes, or Jewish religious community leader, who was in charge of setting aside a place to pray. In Ambover, where my mother grew up before she was married, the Kes Adane and synagogue were a center of Jewish life and everyone took part in working to maintain the structure. For instance, if something needed to be fixed or built, people in the village would volunteer their time to do it.
I was born in Ambover but grew up in the village of Godgodit. When we look forward to Simhat Torah this was not actually a holiday the way we know it here. We did celebrate Succot with a succa that would be constructed next to the house.
Before the Ethiopian community was reconnected with the Jewish religious communities from Europe and the Arab world in the 19th century, the community didn’t celebrate the holidays of Simhat Torah, Shmini Atzeret, Hanukka, Purim, Lag Ba’omer, the Fast of Gedalia or Tu Bishvat. In place of some of these holidays, the major holiday of Ethiopian Jewry was Sigd, which is celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur.
In the synagogues that did exist we had a Torah scroll that was written in Gez, an ancient south Semitic language once prevalent in Ethiopia. This scroll would be read every Shabbat. Despite all the struggles Ethiopian Jews faced, including numerous attempts to missionize them and convert them to other faiths, they preserved their culture. The whole community kept the holidays together. As a small, close-knit community, there was no sense of being private and having the temptation, for instance, to not fast on Yom Kippur, or to eat non-kosher food. There were no choices between different sects of Judaism, such that one might be a Reform Jew or a Conservative Jew. Everyone was what one would today call an Orthodox Jew.
It is interesting to examine the development of the Ambover synagogue and its modernization over the years. One can see that the building, even up to the modern period, was a very simple construction of wood and that stone and modern construction was only added in the 1960s and 1970s. This would have been the last years that it served as a major center of Jewish life, before the emigration to Israel began. Many tourists, Jewish Agency officials and reporters who visited the Jews of Ethiopia, such as the late Louis Rapoport, a reporter and photographer for The Jerusalem Post, photographed this synagogue in Ambover as part of their itinerary. It still stands today and Jews who return to Ethiopia inevitably visit it.
Returning to Ethiopia on heritage trips is becoming more popular among the Jewish community in Israel. I see more and more groups of people who are organizing to go see where their parents were born. They go to see and feel the way life was there. They go to remember the past life of their ancestors. Some of those who have gone on these trips, both non-Ethiopian Israelis and Ethiopian Jews, talk about being struck by how different life was there. For instance, a person who lived in a small village in Ethiopia and whose skill was working with sheep, would be valued the way a lawyer might be valued in Israeli society. Such differences in skills and prestige in society are not always readily apparent when one imagines the Ethiopian Jewish community in Ethiopia as a one-dimensional object.
When I think of the question I was asked in New York I think how important it is to explain that these villages in Ethiopia had a rich Jewish life.
The writer made aliya from Ethiopia in 1984. She works for the government and has an MA in Management of Nonprofit and Community Organizations from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.