For thousands of years, the Jewish story has been characterized, largely, by the yearning for our homeland. Now, for the third time in history, we have a sovereign Jewish state in our ancient land. But there remains wide variation in how even Jewish Israelis view ourselves as a people-with-a-state.
As Passover approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our narratives, our family and cultural histories, inform our Zionism.
My friend Danny Abebe, a journalist, came to Israel from Ethiopia by trekking through the Sudanese desert by foot with his family for months, fending off starvation, exposure and bandits to get here. My family and I flew 12 hours from New York to Ben Gurion Airport, where a hired van waited to drive us and our 14 suitcases to our new home on Kibbutz Ketura.
Danny’s story starts with something comparable to the Passover story of redemption from Egypt — life for Jews in Ethiopia was hard and oppressive; their longing for the Promised Land filled every breath.But I grew up in America where, as a Jew, even though I was a minority, I belonged. Making aliyah to Israel held meaning for me, but it was one of a number of worthy paths, not divine destiny.
Now we’re both raising our families in Jerusalem, but our lives and perspectives, especially about the paradigms and themes of Passover, resonate for us very differently. Egypt and redemption are on-going experiences for Danny, overlapping and emerging—even in the sovereign state of the Jewish people. To him, we are not yet safe, we are not yet out of the Sea of Reeds. The “Egyptians” are still at our back. Our priority, he says, is Jewish identity in our own, secure, state.
But I, a Reform rabbi with an American passport, feel I have emerged safely from the sea, and am now looking to bring a healthy combination of Jewish and democratic values to Israel, shaking timbrels, celebrating and dancing with Miriam the Prophetess—and Debbie Friedman.
As we prepare for the holiday, I invited Danny to exchange some thoughts with me about how we each came to be where we are, as Jews and Israelis.
Danny My village, like all Jewish villages in Ethiopia, was surrounded by Christian and Muslim villages. Those villages had an ecosystem between them, and we were not only excluded, but violently harassed. Like the midrash says about the void before creation, “only thorns grew in that nothingness.” We lived in thorns.
Our neighbors called us Falasha, which means “stranger” — people who have no land, no home, no right of belonging. Our neighbors would say, “Falasha, you don’t deserve land, you don’t have the right to a home, because you are not really Ethiopian.”
Their treatment of us was cruel, but their point was right. Every Ethiopian Independence Day was a day of darkness for me because I didn’t feel Ethiopian. My heart was Israeli. I wanted to leave for Jerusalem. I was a Jew. The Torah was our spiritual home and the goal of returning to our physical home, to Jerusalem, kept us going.
A young shepherd boy, taking whatever ragtag animals we had in the moment to graze, I felt like I was with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And every evening after I brought the animals home and tied them up, my father told me, “Adeno (that is my Amharic name), you must remember, whatever we have right now is temporary.”
It was a secret between us, the knowledge that this exile was transitional—part of a 2,000-year holding pattern. Every evening my father prayed to Jerusalem. The first word I spoke as a toddler was: “Yerusalem”. I would repeat it to the delight of my parents. When my younger brother was two or three years old he couldn’t say, “Yerusalem” — it was too long for him. But he would say, “Yeru, Yeru, Yeru…”
“Next year in Jerusalem.” We didn’t just say it at Pesach — we said it as part of weekly Shabbat prayers. And every Friday night when our rabbi said “Next Year in Jerusalem”, the people openly wept. Then, one year, after 2,000 years in exile, we spoke those words at our seder — and the next year we were in Jerusalem! Jews in Ethiopia we said this for 2,0000 years—and my generation actually did it!
Susan I grew up in Manchester, N.H.. We were also a minority, as Jews, and while my sisters and I felt differently from our Christian peers, we rarely encountered anti-Semitic behavior. We had friends and a content childhood in that way.
Most of our parents’ friends were Jewish, but we knew very very little about Jewish practice. I inferred that being Jewish meant a few things: we were Democrats while Christians were Republicans, believing in human rights and social opportunity for all, and we had Hanukkah and Passover instead of Christmas and Easter.
In my family, discussion revolved around social-justice struggles. My parents spoke a lot about the civil-rights movement, and I became obsessed with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and then sought out the biographies of as many African Americans I could find in the library.
A defining period in my life was the 1972 presidential campaign of Sen. George McGovern. There were campaign volunteers living in our house, many late nights of talk of civil rights, the war in Vietnam and the Equal Rights Amendment (our mom wore a pin that said “Keep Your Laws Off My Body”).
She was an artist, and drove a white convertible covered in flowers and peace signs with a “No WAR” license plate. My father, a retailer, had anti-war and civil-rights posters all over his store. So we were unafraid to be who we were, even if our stances were unpopular. I associated liberalism with being Jewish, but I didn’t place myself in the Jewish story. I was part of the American story.
I learned about the Holocaust, and thought, guiltily, that I was grateful it happened when it did because now the world learned not to hate and kill Jews and I was safe. We had two heavy, brass candlesticks that my great-grandmother, Ida Trapsky, brought when she and her daughters fled pogroms in Poland. They mostly collected dust in the cabinet above the refrigerator, but once in a (very great) while my mother would bring them down on a Friday night, we would place napkins on our heads, and my mother would say the shabbat candle-blessings. I loved it.
But those candlesticks represented a past, not the present and certainly not the future. I was on the other side of the sea. To me, Jewish history was European and American; I had no idea about anti-Jewish riots, lynchings, kidnappings and expulsions in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries or the oppression of Jews in Ethiopia. I didn’t even know about Jewish populations in those places. To me, Europe saw the error of their ways so now the world was safe for Jews.
Danny Throughout our suffering, my father always told us that God would not forsake us, that He would bring us to Jerusalem. I don’t know about God, but the Mossad did not forsake us. I was seven when we began the long, grievous journey from Ethiopia to Sudan — with starvation, exposure and local bandits chasing us instead of Pharaoh’s men. Once in Sudan, there was all the tension and drama of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds. We saw no way forward and the enemy was at our back.
The first time I saw my father cry was in Sudan. We had walked 800 kilometers, barefoot, sacrificing so much for Jerusalem, and now we were in a refugee camp surrounded by Muslims and Christians. Maybe God wouldn’t save us after all. We kept your mitzvot for 2,000 years in exile, against all odds, we risked and lost lives on the harsh desert path to the Promised Land, and this is where we end up?
It was in that refugee camp that I first saw a white person — and I thought he must be sick. Or maybe it was mashiach—surely the messiah would look like no other man. It turned out he was a Mossad agent. He came to our tent pretending to be a doctor, to check on my father, who was apparently “sick”. He came into our tent and said, “Shalom”.
My father stayed silent as the man asked questions. After a little while, he left. I remember my father said: “Boys, don’t worry. God is with us. Definitely one day we are going to Jerusalem.”
I was confused that the man pretended to be a doctor, and that we had to keep it a secret that the man was from Israel. I didn’t understand why we were pretending not to be Jewish, that this man was pretending not to be Israeli. I didn’t know that the conflicts we experienced in Ethiopia from the surrounding Muslim and Christian villages had a global context.
I didn’t know that this rescue, called “Operation Moses,” had been delayed because the story broke in the media. I didn’t know that Arab countries pressured Sudan to stop the airlift. I just knew that many children died and that, when we finally arrived in Israel, bereaved parents carried their babies’ bodies down from the aircraft to be buried in the Promised Land.
Susan With our aliyah, my moment at the Sea of Reeds, Israel was before me—but a life that I loved was behind me. Moving to Israel was leaving a dream as much as living one. It took time, on the kibbutz, to feel fully part of the unfolding story of the Jewish people.
A turning point came when we went to a ceremony for our son’s second-grade class in which the children each got a Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. The ceremony was at Timna, an area not far from our kibbutz that was on the route of the original Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land. We sat on the ancient stones of a place recorded in the same holy text our children received.
There is a midrash in which the towering sea walls were like shining mirrors. That was what it was like: For the first time I really could see myself as part of the Jewish people — I looked to my right and my left, and saw my reflection among the people on our shared journey.
Into the Land
Danny The haggadah doesn’t end with us in The Land of Israel. And that is an apt metaphor for Israelis today. We are not really out of the woods — or, rather, out of the desert. We have come home, but we are not yet am chofshi b’artzeinu, a free people in our own land.
Like in our Jewish village in Ethiopia, the State of Israel is surrounded by states that, at best, exclude us from their political ecosystem and at worst aim to destroy us. The difference is that this is my land, I am rooted here in my body and soul. My destiny is here and I will always defend it.
Susan I am not a nationalistic person—my dream would be a world without need of borders. But I am deeply stirred on Shabbat and holidays when, in the sovereign state of the Jewish people, my family — my Great-Grandma Ida’s descendants — light and bless the candles in the heavy, brass candlesticks she carried with her to America when she fled Poland’s pogroms.
Danny Our journey to Israel was the same journey that Moses took. So when we Ethiopian Jews tell the Pesach story of yitziat mitzrayim, it is not aggadah —lore. It’s our story. We were there.
Jews all over the world tell their children at the Seder that they must always remember and retell the story of Egyptian oppression, in every generation. But my father also says: “You must remember what happened on the journey from Ethiopia, through Sudan, to Jerusalem. In every generation we must tell the story.”
Danny Abebe is a journalist and the author of a memoir, The Journey is Not Over Yet. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, a nurse at Hadassah Hospital, and their four children.
Rabbi Susan Silverman is Executive Director of Second Nurture, a nonprofit that helps synagogues prepare members for foster care and adoption; a co-founder of Miklat Israel, a sanctuary movement to help stop the deportation of African Asylum Seekers; and author of Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World.
Perspective is key when it comes to Passover in Israel