The Last Jews of Ethiopia

A Community Vanishes as a Final Group Leaves for Israel

Geography Class: Ethiopian Jewish students locate cities on a map of Israel at the Jewish Agency school.
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Geography Class: Ethiopian Jewish students locate cities on a map of Israel at the Jewish Agency school.

By Miriam Berger

Published August 09, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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About 25 women sit in front, most of them dressed in white and wrapped in white shawls, common prayer attire for Christian, Muslim and Jewish women in Ethiopia. The men at this service wear the more distinctively Jewish talitot.

On the synagogue’s walls are posters chronicling the waves of aliyah. Over the years, Israelis have helped thousands of Falasha escape the hardships of Ethiopia to move to Israel.

The children around me have known only Gondar, and they told me that they want to go to Israel, too. They asked for my name in Hebrew, and they told me their respective names. They study the language at Gondar’s only Jewish day school. My American-accented Hebrew confused them.

One little girl, 10 years old and with an overbite and wide eyes, squeezed in beside me on the bench. She began to count in Hebrew, concentrating hard. She counted higher and higher, her recitation mixing with the murmurs of men on the other side of the mechitzah.

Near the service’s end, she grew impatient.

“I want a present,” she said to me in Hebrew. Then she repeated over and over, “Ani yafa [I am beautiful].” She persisted, her voice more deflated: “I am beautiful. Why no present?”

At the service’s conclusion, the children squealed. Then quiet wishes of “Shabbat Shalom” were shared. The Kiddush was recited, and baskets of torn Ethiopian sourdough bread were passed around. A few moments later, the community dispersed into the streets, blending into the crowds of brightly dressed Ethiopians.

The modern history of the Beta Israel is not one to romanticize. It is a complicated and oft-disputed story of competing political, religious and humanitarian interests — a portion of Jewish and world history often overlooked.

In 1975, the Israeli Rabbinate officially extended the Law of Return to the Beta Israel. This meant that the Falasha, like all Jews according to Israeli law, now had the right to Israeli citizenship. While some Israelis supported Ethiopian aliyah for humanitarian reasons, others simply wanted more Jews to populate the country.

Jewish Ethiopians were eager to leave their home country. For years Ethiopians suffered under the infamous despot Haile Selassie. Famine devastated the north, while fighting raged along the country’s borders with Eritrea, Somalia and the Sudan. During these troubling times, communities grew insular and hostile toward outsiders. The Falasha, for years largely unable to possess their own land, often became a target of Christian ill will.


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