Out of Africa: the story of a mod­ern ex­o­dus

Rabbi Me­nachem Wald­man on what lies be­hind his new Hag­gadah ded­i­cated to Ethiopian Jewry

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

THE NAR­RA­TIVES of the Jews from Ethiopia have been, un­til re­cently, an un­opened trea­sure chest of lore and tra­di­tion. Their unique her­itage has no par­al­lel in any other com­mu­nity, but is grad­u­ally fading as they as­sim­i­late into Is­raeli so­ci­ety. While there are few ini­tia­tives that have doc­u­mented Ethiopian Jewish her­itage, none of them have done so as com­pre­hen­sively as Theko­renethiopi­anhag­gada.

Un­til the Ethiopian Jewish com­mu­nity fled Ethiopia, their his­tory and her­itage were passed down orally, gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. The com­mu­nity have myr­iad Jewish tra­di­tions that are based pri­mar­ily on the writ­ten To­rah, ac­com­pa­nied by oral com­men­taries and holy texts and pray­ers, writ­ten in Ge’ez, an an­cient Ethiopian lan­guage. Iso­lated for gen­er­a­tions from other Jewish com­mu­ni­ties around the world, they de­vel­oped a re­li­gious prac­tice that lacked all con­nec­tion to rab­binic le­gal tra­di­tion. They pre­served the main prin­ci­ples of faith such as the be­lief in God, the one­ness of God and the cho­sen­ness of the peo­ple of Is­rael; how­ever, their re­li­gious prac­tices are unique.

The Hag­gadah beau­ti­fully de­tails the Passover hol­i­day or Pasika, as it was ob­served in Ethiopia. Fes­tiv­i­ties be­gan from the new moon of the month of Nisan, which tra­di­tion­ally marked the start of the cal­en­dar year (as writ­ten in the To­rah: “This month shall be to you the be­gin­ning of months”). At that time, the kessim (priests) blessed the con­gre­ga­tion and ad­dressed the com­mu­nity about the up­com­ing Passover hol­i­day and its nec­es­sary prepa­ra­tions.

As the hol­i­day ap­proached, the com­mu­nity un­der­took prepa­ra­tions in­clud­ing choos­ing a young, male lamb to serve as the Passover sac­ri­fice. Punc­til­ious steps were taken to cleanse the homes

and sur- round­ings from chametz, in­clud­ing cheeses, pro­cessed grains, al­co­holic bev­er­ages or any­thing left overnight. Cloth­ing was thor­oughly washed and peo­ple cleansed them­selves by rit­ual bath.

Matzah (known as kita) was pre­pared from wheat flour or ker­nels of tef (a type of grain used in tra­di­tional Ethiopian bread), rice or chick­peas. The mat­zot were pre­pared quickly and dili­gently, by mix­ing water with flour and salt, and poured on to a flat, clay pan which rested on fiery coals. The mat­zot were con­sumed soon af­ter they were baked so as to not leave any left­overs for the next day.

As for Seder night, the priests and el­ders gath­ered the con­gre­ga­tion and re­layed the Passover story with­out a pre­scribed text. Af­ter shar­ing sto­ries re­lated to the Ex­o­dus from Egypt, the women and chil­dren re­turned to their homes, as the adult men ac­com­pa­nied the priest to pray in the syn­a­gogue. Through­out the night, they would thank God for re­deem­ing His peo­ple from Egypt and of­fer spe­cial pray­ers.

The Korenethiopi­anhag­gada also de­tails the Ethiopian Jewry’s own ex­o­dus story. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Ethiopia was dire. The rul­ing regime pro­hib­ited prac­tis­ing Ju­daism and learn­ing He­brew, and im­pris­oned lead­ers of the Jewish com­mu­nity for be­ing “Zion­ist spies”. With forced army con­scrip­tion, famine, vi­o­lence, and hor­ren­dous health con­di­tions, the plight of the Jews of Ethiopia gained world­wide at­ten­tion and the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment be­gan to plan covert op­er­a­tions to res­cue them.

Thou­sands of Ethiopian Jews fled from Ethiopia on a painstak­ing desert trek through the Su­dan. Ap­prox­i­mately 4,000 peo­ple died along the way; souls de­parted in for­got­ten places with no sign or tes­ta­ment to their pass­ing ex­cept for the sto­ries told by the sur­vivors. Is­rael’s “Op­er­a­tion Moses”, which took place dur­ing a six-week pe­riod in 1984, air­lifted ap­prox­i­mately 7,000 Ethiopian Jews from the Su­dan to Is­rael. Once the me­dia broke the story, Arab coun­tries pres­sured Su­dan to halt the air­lift, which sep­a­rated many fam­i­lies. Seven years later, in 1991, Is­rael un­der­took Op­er­a­tion Solomon, which evac­u­ated an­other 14,000 Ethiopian Jews, bring­ing them to be­gin new lives in Is­rael.

Their ar­rival in Is­rael meant a new chap­ter in the story of Ethiopian Jewry, but chal­lenged the foun­da­tions of their cul­ture. The tran­si­tion from a prim­i­tive, ru­ral en­vi­ron­ment to mod­ern liv­ing was re­mark­ably dif­fer­ent and chal­lenged the com­mu­nity’s tra­di­tional life­style. Out of 130,000 Ethiopian Jews liv­ing in Is­rael to­day, al­most half were born in Is­rael and have adapted to Is­raeli so­ci­ety. Since lit­tle of the rich her­itage of Ethiopian Jewry was doc­u­mented, the cul­ture is fading, with few at­tempts at pre­serv­ing it, and now stands at high risk of be­ing lost.

The Ethiopian Jewish nar­ra­tive should be re­mem­bered and its cul­ture cel­e­brated. This Hag­gadah helps us to do so.

Rabbi Me­nachem Wald­man is a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Chief Rabbi of Is­rael’s Com­mit­tee on Ethiopian Jewry

Matzah-bak­ing in Ethiopia from The Koren Ethiopian Hag­gada: Jour­ney to Free­dom, edited Rabbi Me­nachem Wald­man and avail­able from Ku­per­ard, £19.99

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