Bete-Avraham of Ethiopia, They Were Lost But Now They’re Found.

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Demeke, Bete-Avraham Cantor blowing the Schoffar

 

  Thank you in advance for reading. If you like the article and the project, we’d love to keep in touch and we are always happy for any and all help. 



I’m home, far from the weary roads of travels. But as I listen to the new CD by Damike and Bete-Avraham of Jerusalem and David, the beats transport me far away, far off to Africa more than a year ago..

   Sintayehu and I were walking in Bole, a nicer area of Addis-Ababa where there were a few less begging kids than usual when Sintayehu turned to me to say “When I found out that Tesfa is not Jewish I became really ashamed that I didn’t have you stay at my home. It’s my responsibility because you are Jewish.”

I thought about his words and responded: “Honestly, from everything I read, there were no Jews left in Ethiopia. I expected to learn about Ethiopian culture and not find any Jews here.”


The plane broke through the thick, gray blanket of clouds and a green carpet lay below. The houses and cars bellow the wings were like the cars I would imagine when I was a child, sitting in bed, driving them through the curves of the orange wool blanket covering my legs.
“It’s a lot greener than I expected.” I said to Claudia, intern to the Italian Embassy, who was on her way from Bologne to Nairobe. Her thin, straight features beneath the black frames fascinated me as much as the hemp pants and blue tank top covering an elegant form.



Bole area of Addis, Ababa.


Coming out of the plane into the main airport a large expansive window uncovered a view to a gray Addis-Ababa. The airport was white with marble yet with an air of a lack of refinement. There was no internet and I had no phone. A worker let me call my couch surfing host after I tipped him a few burr. I bought a glass of tea and as I waited for Tesfah. Suddenly a spasm gripped my stomach. I walked quickly back to the bar and asked for a shot of vodka. Bartender placed a hazy glass half filled with clear liquid. I gulped down glass and felt the heat of the alcohol go down my esophagus and extinguish the spasms like water on a fire.  

As relief came over me, an older British man came up to me to ask if I was alright. I must have looked odd being the only Westerner in the airport.  Peter  was an aid worker and had apparently missed the family he was supposed to pick up. His wife is a founder of schools in Addis and he was a travel writer for Lonely Planet. He waited with me until Tesfah got there with a paper and my name in big capital letters. I always wanted someone to pick me up from the airport with a sign. We got into Peter’s old Toyota pickup, worth a fortune here, and headed towards Bole where Tesfa lives.  We drove slowly through potholes, past women in colorful tunics and men herding goats, past self made sheds of Addis, around the Bob Marley roundabout where steel wires await their statue of the Rasta. Rastafari culture, Tesfa tells me, was invented in Ethiopia, and colonies of Rastas live in the south. Frank dropped us off near Tesfah’s house and we walked past people buying roosters for the New Year.

We arrived at the compound, a small home painted blue bordered by a fence with glass shards at the top and a crescent and star on the gate. “I rent from Muslims,” Tesfa told me.  Inside were women covered in colorful tunics, little girl of about two walking around in cute little dress. In his home, you had to walk down a corridor past the communal toilet and shower, a modernized version of an outhouse. Inside their one bedroom apartment walls were painted light blue  like my childhood room, in the living room was a nice flat screen TV in the corner, a portable electric stove by the entrance on a cupboard, a coffee table and two sofa chairs. The other room had one window, a bookshelf against one wall and a dresser against the other. Besides the books on the bookshelf, there was a picture of Barak Obama. The bed was against another wall and there was a mattress on the floor. On the wall in pink was a drawn outline of Tesfa’s girlfriend. Tesfa seemed proud and embarrassed about it at the same time. 

Tesfa and his roommate sitting with me for a
meal inside their apartment.

His roommate, an engineer and I sat down with Tesfa for a meal. The made ingera (a soft flatbread made out of a seed of a plant called Teff, used in place of utensils) and lentils and spoke about God and religion and then I took my rest.

I woke up from my nap and walked into the living room. Tesfa was reading on a sofa chair.  I dressed slowly and we took off on a long road, going from taxi bus to taxi bus across Addis to the Jewish ghetto, the village Kechene. As we drove, posters and pictures of the president were everywhere, as was the slogan “Yes We Can.” He died only a day or two before I arrived but the country did not seem to be in too much mourning. “He was a dictator.” Tesfa smirked.

We arrived into the village to throngs of crowds walking the streets, cars moving slower than people navigating the rough human waters. The village was a brown place beneath the haze of smog that envelops the hills of Addis. The brown huts were divided by wide brown paths. Kids were everywhere, they ran around and ran after me saying “Hello

Kids near synagogue

! What’s your name!?” One, about age eight, stood in front of me on one leg smiling in a Yoga stance.  We asked for a synagogue at an intersection and we were directed in two perpendicular directions. We took the straight path and I after a couple blocks, I saw it.

    The Synagogue was on a windy and narrow cobblestone road.  On the side of the road were deep trenches and front doors of every home had a mini draw bridge. Behind a metal fence, the synagogue was just a small building marked by a spire with a three-dimensional star of David composed of two pyramids in front of the building. Tesfah and I went inside. It was a small room, maybe 5 by 10 meters with a large carpet  on the floor and dark red upholstered seats set up in a U-shape facing the wood-paneled Arc. In front of it was a small short table with food, candles and a glass of wine.  Four men wearing jackets in varying shades of brown sat in front of me. “Hi, I am from California. Can I take pictures?”
 “It’s Shabbat.” One of the men answered.
 “What time does it start?” 
 “Eight” He replies
“So can I take pictures?” 
“Candles are lit.” Said the man in a red jacket and a white eye. I took that as a no. Another man walked in; curly haired wearing dark rimmed glasses, it was Samuel or Sintayehu. I told him about my project. He smiled and said “May Hasehm guide you and your project.” He told me that this is the first official Synagogue, earlier they rented space for Shabbat. They have one school for the entire ghetto. There are 80,000 people living there and for all intense and purposes, abandoned by the government, even more than usual for Ethiopians.


    It was time to start. They read the siddur in Ahmric, the language of the region. After prayers from the siddur, one by one they read from the Torah in Hebrew and what seemed to be Ahmharic as well, or maybe it was just their accent. When they sang in Ahmharic, the poetic rhythm seemed to match the rhythm of Hebrew. They finished Shabat prayers with an Ethiopian song of Shabat and a song for Jerusalem. The singer or Kantor was Demeke. His voice took on inflections of Ahmharic, coloring old Jewish songs. After song

Challah cover on the coffee table near the ark.

s, they brought out the Ethiopian Challah and we each ripped off a piece. It was a thick pita-like bread the size of a large pizza, covered in olive oil and sesame seeds. As we ate and I talked about my project, a black woman with a French accent came in. She was a Togan, living in France and her had converted to Judaism. Her name was Rachel and her sister had been to the community before and asked Rachel to bring an Israeli flag

 that she got in Israel for  the Schul. The young men unrolled the flag and held it beneath their chin looking down, their faces beamed with smiles. The woman was a UN Political analyst here in Addis. As we left, Rachel offered us a ride home. As we drove, I learned of her work as well as a bit more about Samuel, the engineer and community activist a ride home.

 
 
  Two days later, we came back to the Synagogue, this time with Peter, the aid worker. At the synagogue we met with Sintayehu again. We sat and quietly listened to the story of the Ethiopian Jews.
 

The inhabitants of Kechene are the Bete-Avraham, they are the original Jewish community of Addis-Ababa, having been in Addis since the end of the Jewish Kingdom in north Ethiopia. The kingdom began when Jewish traders made their way from Yemen. They slowly captured more and more land and as they multiplied and converted their slaves, they soon had a large kingdom in the North. For nearly a thousand years they lived with the Christians until the 1400’s when Arab Muslim armies began to invade. They joined the invaders in a battle against their Christian neighbors, but the gamble did not pay off and they lost. Angered by their switch of allegiance, Christians destroyed the Jewish empire, dispersing the Jews as they were dispersed from Israel.

 

Some Jews stayed in the mountains of the north, while the Jews of Bete-Avraham escaped heading south, rather than remain living in an area where they would face constant war, they instead chose the capital where for hundreds of years, they would be forced to pretend to be Christian. Like Moranos of Spain, they practiced mostly in secret, inside clandestine synagogues. They worked in crafts and blacksmithing. Sintayehu told us that in the community, there are no beggars, and the elderly and orphans are cared for by the community through a fund. According to him, there are two messianic and two pre-talmudic synag

A woman in Gondar where Jewish Kingdom used to be.

ogues in the area. The main synagogue is the only one which practices in open, but for that reason, they have a small following. Others, too afraid, choose to practice in secret in the fifteen secret synagogues.  This fear comes from the governments repression, loss of jobs, loss of schooling and sometimes, even loss of burial rights.  There are very few synagogues today due to the high conversion rates. As Israel focused on the North, the south faced increasing numbers of

evangelists. As a sign of their dwindling numbers, twenty years ago there were 44 synagogues and today, there are non, all shut down by the Church.
However, Synagogue or not, on Saturdays, the entire village rests, just as they have for thousands of years. These are not the Falash Mura the converts, what I felt was that these Jews are the Bet Israel, the forgotten ones.

Today, as they struggle for their independence, they fight not with sticks and stones, but with music. They just released an album that is truly something. You can feel their hope, their sorrow and their fight as well as the mix of Hebrew and the Ethiopian rhythms. It is things like these that remind me what a special global community of people I am part of. 

You can purchase the CD on iTunes for $9.99.

CD Cover of the Bete-Avraham produced CD. The photo is of the community inside their synagogue.
You can see Sintayehu on the far left and the Kantor  Demeke on the right.



For more information about Bete-Avraham and Kechene village as well as how you can support the people there, go to http://www.enszo.org/ or follow them on their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/infoenszo/

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  1. Pingback: Breaking News: Addis-Ababa’s Last of The Traditional Synagogues Shut Down | Sam the Jewish Guy

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