Under African Skies


“This is the story of how we begin to remember

“This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein…”

— “Under African Skies,”
Paul Simon

“The flames were big,” says Bizu Riki Mullu, “but I was little so everything looked big.” In the Ethiopian village, her father, a blacksmith, forged farm instruments in the flames, plows to comb the soil, and then he made jewelry in the flames, beauty to grace women. “He would melt metals. I would watch that.” Bizu was small. In the province of Gondar, north of Tana Lake, she lived with her mother and father and nine brothers and sisters in a hut: wooden walls, a sheet metal roof topped by a thatch of grass.

Outside, she looked up. A stork was flying across the blue sky and grown-ups were singing in Amharic, the language of Beta Yisrael [Ethiopian Jews]: “Shmella, shmella (stork, stork), agerachin Yerushalayim deh nah (how is our beloved Jerusalem)?”

The stork, they told the little girl, is the essence of kindness — similar to the stork’s Hebrew name, chassida. The chassida shmella has so much love that she takes care of not only her own children but the orphans of other storks, too. The stork flies south from Jerusalem, over the Ethiopian skies, always remembering this orphaned tribe, Beta Yisrael.

“My name is Bizu Ayil Riki (Rivka) Mullu,” she says, now a grown woman in New York “Bizu Ayil means, ‘I Saw Many Things In My Life.’ It means, ‘My Glass Is Full.’ She has seen many things. She left Ethiopia for Israel as a 10-year-old in 1978 with 150 others, mostly children, as part of Israel’s covert “Operation Begin.” “I thought my parents would come soon but it took them many, many years.” There was no way to communicate with her village. Mullu was placed with a white Ashkenaz Israeli family who knew nothing of her culture, “but were wonderful and tried to learn from me. I missed my family, my village, my brothers and sisters. I was alone. I didn’t know to complain, just to keep going. I’d cry, but just lived my life.”

Once the birds in the sky reminded her of Israel. Now when they flew south, the birds reminded her of Ethiopia.

She was 21 when she was sent to New York as an emissary of the Jewish Agency, and other than a year’s return to her Ethiopian village to help facilitate her parents’ emigration to Jerusalem, she’s lived in New York ever since.

Mullu finds meaning in remembering and honoring her culture. Like her father, she makes jewelry. In 2005, she created a social group named Chassida Shmella, to offer community for some of the 500 Ethiopian-Israelis living in New York. They live scattered across the city, from Harlem to Queens. There is no Beta Yisrael Beit Knesset (synagogue) for them to go to and meet, “just to be together. We are Ethiopian. We are Israeli. We love Israel. But we are here. Chassida Shmella is not about [grievances] or complaining. We just want to be a community. We want to connect to other communities. The Israeli consulate is very supportive,” and she credits the JCC of Manhattan and Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. “We hope someday that others might join with us, too. We feel we are part of the larger Jewish community and we have something beautiful to contribute.”

“Israel At Heart,” founded by Joey Low, a New Yorker, has been a significant contributor to Chassida Shmella. Low’s group, for more than a decade has been bringing diverse groups of young Israelis, mostly college students, to the United States to meet young Americans. Several groups featured Ethiopian-Israelis, including one delegation of nine Ethiopian-Israeli lawyers and law students.

On the first weekend of November, Chassida Shmella is organizing a Sigd festival on the Upper West Side, with an Ethiopian Shabbat dinner (no chicken or kugel at an Ethiopian Shabbat) at the JCC of Manhattan (Nov. 1), and a Sigd celebration at B’nai Jeshurun (Nov. 3). Sigd is like Shavuot, celebrating Moses receiving the Torah on Sinai, but on 29 Cheshvan, 50 days after Yom Kippur (Shavuot falls 50 days after Pesach). In Ethiopia, after a day of fasting, the entire village would go up to the highest mountain, carrying the Orit (the Ethiopian Jews’ scroll of Torah and other books of the Bible), reading from the Book of Nehemiah, and singing of Jerusalem, followed by feasting and dancing.

“In Ethiopia,” she remembers, “it was a day [to keep in mind the promise of] coming home to Israel.” In 2008, Israel declared Sigd an official state holiday.

“One year,” says Mullu, “I spoke to the kess (a Beta Yisrael spiritual leader) who was coming from Israel to New York for the Sigd. “He said, ‘Oh, you have a mountain in New York?’ I laughed and said, ‘Yes, we have Central Park.’”

Directing Chassida Shmella, like any organization, can sometimes be frustrating, says Mullu, but she says that she is never frustrated “when I’m going to the synagogue and singing, having fun on Jewish holidays. It’s so nice being Jewish! I don’t want to be anything else.”

Mullu recently married an Israeli, a drummer of European background. “For me,” she says, “it was very important to marry Jewish.”

“Maybe someday he’ll become Ethiopian,” a friend joked. Mullu laughed. “A kess in Israel said that every non-Ethiopian man who marries an Ethiopian woman, becomes Ethiopian! They eat Ethiopian food, they become part of the community.”

Mullu has been to Europe. She saw storks in Poland. “I was told that when it gets cold they fly to warm places.” n

A Shabbat dinner (Nov. 1, at 7 p.m.) with kosher Ethiopian-Israeli food, will be held at the JCC of Manhattan, 76th St. and Amsterdam Ave., with kessoch (Ethiopian rabbis). Questions and answers to follow. Chassida Shmella will celebrate Sigd (Nov. 3, at 3:30 p.m.) at B’nai Jeshurun, 257 W. 88th St., with Ethiopian spiritual leaders, Judaica and basketry sales, and the Debo band—Addis Ababa Bete & Dancers. For cost and information, call (212) 284-6532 or chassidashmella.org.