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Behind the Headlines Friends, Yet Strangers

February 8, 1983
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It was a meeting between Jews here in this town some 15 miles south of Haifa. But these Jews did not seem to have very much in common.

Here was Alfred Blum of Denver, Colorado, one of the 150 delegates from the United States on the 1983 United Jewish Appeal Winter President’s Mission, facing Baruch Yassu, a Falasha from Ethiopia. Of necessity, they confined their communication to frequent shy smiles and the repeated use of the word “shalom,” the only word in Hebrew both could use, confident that the other would understand.

There was a certain uneasiness on the occasion: the rich Jews from America flashing their cameras in the dark faces of the Falasha Jews, as if they were live objects at an exhibition. “It’s like going into an archaeological dig, encountering a rare finding,” said one of the delegates.

The Falashas did not know much about their guests. “We know they are from America, that’s all,” said Yassu, 29, in broken Hebrew. Somebody explained to them that they are the people with the money, who were largely responsible for the material absorption of Jews in the country. But the Falashas lacked the words to express gratitude.

The only element both groups — Americans and Falashas — had in common was the knowledge that they were Jews. “To me they are Africans who study the same religious philosophy,” said one delegate, who preferred to remain anonymous. “You do ask yourself how can they be Black and yet Jewish.”

But Blum, for one, did not see it this way. There are the Moroccan and Yemenite Jews who are also dark-skinned, he noted. Dennis Kessler of Rochester, N.Y. stated: “To me they are Jews. All Israelis are responsible for each other,” he said in Hebrew.


The UJA delegates were in Israel for a few days on one of the all too familiar hectic tours which include lunches and dinners with the political elite of the country, sightseeing, plus an extra quick tour of southern Lebanon. The meeting with the Falashas was a new dimension in the UJA tours, people the guests from America had never seen before.

It took the several thousand Falashas who now live in Israel some 2,000 years to get there. Although the distance between Ethiopia and Israel is only a matter of a few hours by air, some of them needed as long as two years to arrive because of the political barriers between the two countries.

Israel and Ethiopia were on friendly terms during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. But after he was deposed by the Soviet-backed regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, relations have been strained — and the condition of the Ethiopian Jews has worsened.

Those who came to Israel did it the hard way, leaving the country illegally, sometimes travelling for weeks on foot, often caught by the authorities and jailed.

Yassu is AWOL from the Ethiopian army. He left behind a wife and a young daughter.

He remarried in Israel and has a baby born here. “We could not be Jews in Ethiopia,” he said. “We could not observe the Sabbath, we could not wear a yarmulka, we could not own land.”


When they finally made it to Israel, the Falashas not only crossed a geographical barrier but also a cultural one. They were suddenly thrown from a primitive African society into the modern society of Israel, with its advantages and its disadvantages. Although the Jewish Agency provided them with considerable help–basic commodities, rental housing, vocational courses–they still found it very difficult to adjust to the new society.

The main barrier is the language. They speak various dialects of the ones used in Ethiopia. Their Torah is written in these dialects, therefore hardly any of them speak Hebrew, much less any other languages.

Their main tool in overcoming their difficulties was a tremendous will power. As Tamar Karmeli, an Israeli who worked with them, told the UJA delegates, “They just want to keep on learning.”


Nehama Srebrenik, a social worker added: “We had to teach them things from scratch, from using running water, to going to a doctor, bringing up children in a modern society.

“One of the problems was their understanding of religion. They stick to the letter of the Bible, with no additions, such as the halacha and the Talmud.

“They are very strict, for example, observing the purity of the woman. Back in Ethiopia a woman used to isolate herself completely from the society during her (menstrual) period. Likewise, she would do so 40 days after giving birth to a son, 80 days after giving birth to a daughter. It was very difficult for them to accept emotionally that this is not the way they can practice it in Israel.

“Their motivation for studies — I have never seen anything like it. They may sit with a book outside class, saying that breaks are a waste of time. The children in school did not want to study any handicraft, only Hebrew and mathematics.”

“Some of them arrived here completely illiterate. Today they are studying auto mechanics and other vocations, and they are more successful than Israelis who were born here.”


With all their will power, they have difficulties integrating into the society. Some of the difficulties are characteristic of all who were not born here. Some are due to the fact that they are Black — and different.

“I am afraid they will be treated here as the Blacks are in America,” said Kessler. They live in small communities throughout the country, mainly in development towns such as Afula, Nazareth and Karmiel. But some of them advanced economically, and purchased their own flats in the middle of the country, in cities such as Tel Aviv. Israelis are gradually learning to accept — and live with — those different looking Jews.

Undoubtedly, as time passes, they will integrate more into Israeli society and probably lose a lot of their heritage. Yitzhak Gunzan is one of their Cohanim — spiritual leaders, the equivalent of a rabbi although he was not called a rabbi in Ethiopia and is not recognized as such by the Chief Rabbinate here.

An elderly person, wearing a white robe and head ornament, he sat facing the American guests and blessed them in what sounded like a mixture of Hebrew and Ethiopian dialect. The guests politely uttered amen after the blessing, although they did not understand a word. An interpreter decoded: “We thank you for having come to visit us, just as the angels came to visit Abraham.”

In his hands Gunzan was holding a camel hide bag which contained a carefully wrapped Torah book, supposed to be 300 years old, now being studied by experts at Tel Aviv University. The book, which made the long journey from Ethiopia, is a silent testimony to the determination of those people to remain Jewish.

“They are a little more Jewish than we are,” said Tamar Carmeli. One of the guests added: “Those people are more religious than many of those high bred Jews of America.”

Elazar Tzifai, a 24-year-old Falasha, recited a long list of the difficulties he has been facing in Israel. “But if it got one thousand times worse, we would never want to go back to Ethiopia,” he said. In Israel in 1983 this is a rare kind of Zionism.

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