OUT OF AFRICA: THE FALASH MURA

By Erica Brody

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.

As the reports of impending famine in Ethiopia become increasingly alarming, a photography exhibit opening this week focuses on the Falash Mura, a minute group among Ethiopia’s 67.5 million inhabitants. The Falash Mura comprise the descendants of Ethiopians who converted to Christianity from Judaism under duress, most of whom have returned to the faith of their forebears.

“Children of the Lost Tribe of Dan: Portraits of Ethiopian Jewry by Win Robins,” at Yeshiva University Museum, presents what curator Reba Wulkan described to the Forward as a series of 71 “beautiful photographs of beautiful people.”

Since 1980, some 60,000 of these Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel — particularly in 1984 and 1991, as part of Operation Moses and Operation Solomon — where they underwent conversions by a rabbinical court. In Israel, these immigrants’ families have continued to grow as they have assimilated, raising the total to 85,000.

But there are still more than 20,000 of these Jews in Ethiopia — mainly in the capital city of Addis Ababa and in Gondar. For them, starvation and disease are kept at bay through the intervention of relief organizations trying to help them as they await permission and funding to emigrate. Two groups, Robins said, have facilitated both their Jewish practice and their survival, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry, both sponsors of this exhibit.

On one of his frequent trips to Israel to visit his children and grandchildren in 2001, Robins, 68, a retired lawyer and corporate executive whose photographs have appeared at the Jewish Theological Seminary, began photographing the Falash Mura population there. Eventually, he told the Forward, he “decided to see what life was like in [Ethiopia], … the before [aliya], rather than after.” And so he began a series of trips to Ethiopia, where he was overwhelmed by the poverty that he documented so well. About 70% of the exhibit’s images were taken in Ethiopia. “The conditions in which they live are subhuman,” he said, “yet they are trying hard to learn and practice Judaism.”

The exhibit opens up with an image from Addis Ababa documenting the Nacoej-run Embroidery Project, which provides wages for Jews who embroider biblical themes onto pillow cases that are exported. Other photographs depict Hebrew classes and a synagogue in Gondar, as well as a family’s shanty — with a Star of David — in Addis Ababa. In Israel the images focus on assimilation and integration — two young buddies, one black, one white; a radiology student, a soldier wounded when tackling a suicide bomber, a priest, a teacher.

All in all, Robins said, he found the story of the Falash Mura to be “inspiring, as well as upsetting.”

Yeshiva University Museum, Exhibition Arcade, Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St.; through Aug. 3, Sun.-Thu. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., free, does not include admission to museum’s galleries. (212-294-8335 or www.yumuseum.org or www.cjh.org)



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