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Ethiopia: The Other Exodus

Few stories capture the dramatic flavor of the Exodus as well as that of the Ethiopian Jews. After millennia of being subject to the whims of an oppressive society, the bulk of Ethiopia’s Jews — some with a layover in the Sudanese desert — left the land of their birth for the Promised Land in two secret airlifts, Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991).

“There’s really no one who understands the Passover story better than we do,” Ethiopian-native Bizu “Riki” Mullu told the Forward. “Every day in Ethiopia was focused on trying to get to Israel.” Much like the slaves in Egypt, “We had to go on a moment’s notice,” she said. “We never felt at home.”

Because of suspicions of dual loyalty aroused by their use of Hebrew and their intense love of Israel, Jews were always forbidden to own land in Ethiopia, rendering them permanent transients innately aware of the ephemeral nature of home. And their work as craftsmen and as master blacksmiths — one of the few artisan professions in which they were permitted to train — left them vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, since the steel they forged was often appropriated for weaponry.

Mullu’s full first name, Bizuayo, which translates roughly in Amharic to “I’ve seen many things in my life,” could not be more apt. In 1977, after she reached bat mitzvah age, Mullu’s family arranged for her to travel to Israel on her own. Once there, she enrolled in school and began her integration into Israeli life. After years of behind-the-scenes intervention on Mullu’s part, her parents ultimately joined her in the ’80s, but she was to make a second exodus. A textile artist, she left Israel for New York six years ago to pursue her craft. Today she travels, sharing the story of Ethiopia’s Jews with the greater Jewish community and serving as a booster for a people she calls “Super-Zionists.”

“When I think about how the Jews lived in the desert on the way to Israel, it reminds me of how we lived in Ethiopia,” Mullu said while standing in my kitchen, cleaning a chicken in preparation for one of her favorite Ethiopian Passover recipes. “In the desert, though the Jews always had their goal of going somewhere, sometimes they had lots of time on their hands with nothing to do but wait.” In Ethiopia, Mullu’s mother would often spend an entire day with chickens — scouring them, singing to them and soaking them in lemon juice before finally cooking them. “One piece of hair, and you were fired,” she laughed, recalling the scrupulous standards she learned as a child.

“It was so festive getting ready for the holidays, especially Passover,” said Mullu, whose family lived among other Jews in the hills surrounding the northeastern city of Gonder. She remembers removing everything from her family’s one-room mud hut so that the women could scour every corner and thatch, effectively removing any crumb of chametz. On the day preceding the Seder, Mullu’s mother would smash her entire collection of earthenware dishes and cooking vessels and craft new ones, ensuring a kosher start to the holiday and heralding the many new beginnings and hopes for redemption that the Passover holiday signified.

To commemorate the unleavened bread hurriedly baked by the Jews on their way out of Egypt, matzo was made from wheat or from legume flour, water and salt, baked in very thin slices and eaten almost immediately, in order to avoid even the remotest possibility of leavening. “There was no ShopRite in Gunder, so everyone made their own matzo until the community moved to Israel,” said Ephraim Isaac, who is of Ethiopian and Yemenite descent. Isaac is director of the Princeton, N.J.-based Institute of Semitic Studies and has been active in working to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Since the Ethiopian Jewish community — believed to be either descendants of the Israelite tribe of Dan or the progeny of King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba — practiced a pre-Talmudic form of Judaism, the Ethiopian Seder was a less structured affair with an informal, festive air. “It was more like a big springtime celebration for the community,” Isaac said. The head of the household or, in the case of a larger gathering, the kes (rabbi) would focus on events found in the Torah itself — the slaughtering of the paschal lamb, the 10 plagues, the Exodus itself. To this day the Hagadda plays no significant role in the Ethiopian Seder. According to Isaac, even the drinking of the four cups — an addition to the Seder first introduced in the time of the Mishna — was only integrated into the proceedings after a group of Ethiopian Jews visited Europe in the 19th century.

In recent years, members of New York’s Ethiopian Jewish community — believed to be 200 strong — have been gathering more regularly; their organization, Chassida-Shmella (the name refers to the flock of storks that migrate from Jerusalem to Ethiopia each year), located in New York, is organizing an Ethiopian Seder that will be open to the public. Ethiopian delicacies will be served, and a casual Seder atmosphere will be interspersed with tales of Ethiopian Jewish life. Tickets are $65, and paid reservations must be received by Monday, April 18. For more information, call (212) 501-2708, or e-mail [email protected].

Doro Wat (Ethiopian Chicken Stew)

1/4 cup olive oil

2 large onions, diced (about 4 cups)

4 large cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek

1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 cup water, or as needed

One whole chicken, cut into 12 pieces

2 tablespoons flaxseed (available at health food stores)

2 small dried red chilies

5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and scored lightly with a knife

kosher salt

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or large skillet. Add onions and cook over low-medium heat until translucent, about eight to 10 minutes. Add garlic and chilies and continue to cook for two minutes. Add water as needed to prevent onions from burning. Add dried spices and flaxseed, and stir. Add chicken, and stir well. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until tender, adding water as needed. Add ginger and eggs, and continue to cook another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and serve chicken with sauce.

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