JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review August 31 , 1998 / 9 Elul, 5758

To these Ethiopian refugess in Israel,
the author would become the 'Western Wall'

In Search of Ethiopian Jewry

By Yosef I. Abramowitz

ABOUT AN HOUR NORTH OF HAIFA on the main coastal highway, Rabbi Menachem Waldman, my host for the day, hangs a left at the old Turkish aqueduct. The sign, "Welcome to Hatzot Yassaf" does not betray or hint at the secrets, pains and prayers I was about to encounter.

The car slows as black children on bicycles appear. At the far corner several hundred adults have gathered under the shade of what looks like an oversized Israeli bus stop. Waldman stops the car and beckons one of the men on the corner to come over.

"Why are people gathered?"

The man greets the rabbi warmly, shakes his hand and then kisses his own in the way Sephardic Jews do to show respect.

Everyone here knows Waldman, who directs Israel’s return to Judaism program for new immigrants.

"I think Addisu or Avraham is coming," he says.

Adissu is Adissu Messele, the only Ethiopian member of Knesset, who just returned from Ethiopia with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the relief arm of the UJA/CJF partnership. Last night Adissu appeared on the Israeli news program, Mabat, to argue that the remaining family members in Ethiopia of those who live at Hatzot Yassaf are not Jewish, and that the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) is telling villagers in the northern Gondar region to stream into Addis Ababa and the now-closed Jewish compound.

Avraham is Avraham Neguse, the soft-spoken leader of South Wing to Zion, the main group advocating for the reunification of Ethiopian families. Avraham debated Addisu on Mabat and is a hero to many in the caravans. I’m about to leave for Ethiopia and wanted to meet a handful of families to tell me their stories. I was curious about the human dimension to a complex policy debate that pits the newly arrived Ethiopian families in Hatzot Yassaf and most of the Beta Yisrael community in Israel against the JDC, Jewish Agency and State of Israel. The key question is the religious status of the Falas Mura, an Ethiopian term that describes those of Jewish origin. I am also here to meet with Agaru Kassah, my translator for my trip to Addis Ababa and the Gondar region.

Journalists’ notebook in hand, I begin to take down the first story. A blue Israeli identity card is flashed. "Jewish," reads the critical line. And then a picture is shoved in my face. And then another. And twenty more. I look up and I am surrounded by the hundreds of people who were waiting in the shade.

The crowd tolls for me. Blue identity cards and pictures of their loved ones left behind. The crowd continues to swell and I am trapped. The force of the black sea separates me from Agaru. Without a translator, I try to acknowledge the eyes of each person. They speak little Hebrew or English. They only words that repeatedly come out of their mouths are the words of children. "Ima," (mother) "Abba," (father) "Ach" (brother), "Achot," (sister) and "Ishti" (my wife). I didn’t hear anyone ask for their husband, but that’s probably because most of the women had gathered farther off, on the margins of the crowd.

The dark eyes are so filled with pain, especially the older ones, which are also faded with cloudy cataracts. I am lost in a world of pleading eyes, black hands, blue Jewish identity cards and a waving, desperate photographic exhibit of abandoned family members.

I motion to everyone to step back to the shaded area and sit down. And make a terrible mistake of writing something down on my notebook. A couple of notes in Amharic are soon passed to me and I stuff them in my breast pocket. Later I am told that it is their names and the names and ages of their family in Ethiopia. A commotion breaks out as people scamper to find paper and something with which to write. Receipts, pages of calendars, announcements from school, they use anything.

Agaru manages to settle them down a bit and introduces me as a journalist about to leave for Ethiopia, who has some questions.

"How many have family in Addis?" All the hands shoot up to the sky. "How many have family in Gondar?" Again the hands go up. "In the past three months, how many of your families migrated from Gondar to Addis?" And about three quarters of those present raise their hands, confirming what I’ve been hearing --- that there are 8,000 or so newly arrived refugees in the Ethiopian capital.

"How many of your family’s huts were recently burned down?" And about two dozen raise their hands. “"as anybody’s family a victim of physical violence?" Again, two dozen or so.

I am curious about how Jewish they are, and how Jewish their families left behind are. "How many celebrated Passover in Ethiopia?" All the hands go up. "How about Shabbat?" All the hands again. I am a bit suspicious and decide to throw them a curve ball. “How many celebrated Purim?” Purim is a later Jewish holiday that was not historically celebrated by the Ethiopian Jews, who practiced a biblical Judaism. The crowd murmurs and no hands appear. Agaru explains to me that Ethiopian Jews observed the Fast of Esther prior to Purim, but did not celebrate Purim until they learned how in the Jewish compound in Addis.

The people gathered can sense I’m testing them. They are studying me, staring at me. I decided to push one more time. "How many have family that married Christians?" Agaru is reluctant to translate my query, but I nod encouragingly and he obliges. A louder murmur erupts and they are clearly offended. Agaru tells me that none of their family members married out. I ask him to ask if any of them at any point in their lives converted to Christianity. He tells me that it is impolite and time to go. I can ask individuals, but not the crowd.

I feel terrible as a fellow Jew to have show distrust, but needed to ask as a journalist. So I returned to being a Jew and told Agaru I wanted to teach them a song and give them a blessing. Agaru thinks I’m kidding, so I repeat my request.

Smilingly he relays my message, including that they should repeat after me. It’s an old Young Judaea camp favorite called ‘Henei, and they caught on pretty quickly and, more importantly, joyfully.

I try to exit to find Rabbi Waldman so I can tour the caravan city, but am stopped not by pictures, but by hands and pieces of paper. More names, ages, relationships. They fill my pockets. A bag materializes and it fills quickly.

A second and then third bag is stuffed with notes, pleas, and the names. "Ima," "Abba," continues. An old woman who looks remarkably like my Grandma Rose takes my hand and doesn’t want to let me go. She makes me look at her for several long seconds amid the human turbulence. For the next two hours, I am followed by more people with more notes.

After the tour, I welcomed the escape that Rabbi Waldman’s Mitsubishi offered from the pleas. On the drive back to Haifa, I start sorting through the piles of folded notes and take out the Hebrew and English ones. "Please help bring my three children and family from Gondar," reads one. "It is difficult for us here without our families," reads another. "My family is in Addis without food and shelter." Each of the hundreds of notes is a wish, a hope --- perhaps a hopeless hope. "You are their Western Wall," says the Rabbi, glancing at the piles of notes on my lap. I close my eyes hoping it will all go away.

New JWR contributor Yosef I. Abramowitz is editor of Jewish Family & Life, ( www.jewishfamily.com.)

9/01/98: Too much pain


©1998, Yosef I Abramowitz