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Ethiopian Jews in New York Share Their Ancient Tradition

April 22, 2005
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For thousands of years, when storks flew overhead on their way back from Israel, Ethiopian Jews would turn their faces toward the sky and chant, “Shmella, shmella, agarachin Yerusalem behena” — Amharic for “Stork, stork, how is our country Jerusalem doing?” Today the stork is the symbol for Chassida-Shmella, an organization of Ethiopian Jews in New York eager to educate Americans about the heritage of this ancient Jewish community.

“It’s about time that we as Ethiopians organize ourselves, to talk about our culture and religion,” said Gary Zvadia, the group’s vice president. “Most of the Jewish community doesn’t know us as friends. They represent us without knowing who we are.”

As a result, he said, Ethiopian Jews are misunderstood throughout the world. Chassida-Shmella leaders seek to set the record straight — especially in New York, where some 250 Ethiopian Jews live.

Next up on the agenda is a Passover program that includes a recitation of the Haggadah in Gaez — the prayer language of Ethiopian Jews — and kosher-for-Passover Ethiopian food.

Chassida-Shmella hosted its kickoff program last November in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the airlift to Israel called Operation Moses. Through the leadership of New York City Council member Alan Gershom, the city co-sponsored the program, which included a theatrical production about the Ethiopian Jews’ journey through Sudan in 1984.

Several New York television stations covered the program, and there was standing room only at City Hall, which seats 500 people — reportedly making it the largest turnout to date at that location.

The group’s second event also broke a record.

An Ethiopian Shabbat dinner in late February drew 120 people. That was twice as large as the biggest previous dinner held at Makor, a Jewish community center in Manhattan that caters to young Jewish adults.

The crowd included Jews of many ethnic backgrounds.

“We’re constantly trying to expand the community of Makor, to open up and show there are lots of Jewish communities to explore and connect with in the city,” said Baht Weiss, Makor’s rabbinic intern, who was the event’s co-coordinator.

“It was a mixed crowd, which is exactly what I want,” agreed Chassida-Shmella’s president, Bizu Riki Mullu. “I don’t want it to just be Ethiopians or just American Jews. I want Ethiopian Jews connected to American Jews.”

Kosher Ethiopian food was served. For many of those at the dinner, it was their first exposure to the Kiddush and Hamotzi recited in Gaez.

Another highlight was a presentation by three young Ethiopian-Israeli lawyers, co-sponsored by Israel at Heart, which brought the three on an American speaking tour.

One of the tour’s goals, Israel at Heart founder Joey Low said, was to “let American Jewish audiences realize that the Ethiopians who have come to Israel have a lot to offer the country.

“If we put the investment that we should into the community, there are tremendous dividends. They can be a tremendous asset to the country, representing Israel,” he said.

“They have grown as a community; they are getting education; they are changing the way they are viewed as Ethiopians,” agreed Weiss. “It’s really nice for people to see that, not to have these negative stereotypes from the past about what it means to be an Ethiopian Jew.”

But not everyone felt comfortable with the presentation. Tedros Bicha, a founding member of Chassida-Shmella, felt the presentation overemphasized the lawyers’ professional status.

“It’s problematic to say that because there are Ethiopian lawyers, we suddenly have something to offer the Israeli and American Jewish communities — as if we had nothing to offer before,” he said. “That attitude demonstrates a lack of education about, an ignorance of, Ethiopian Jewish history and culture.”

Many Ethiopians at the Shabbat dinner seem to agree with Bicha.

“Israelis make no effort to know Ethiopians,” said Yossi Tagania, an Israeli Defense Forces officer visiting New York for two months. “They are prejudiced that Ethiopians came from villages and were farmers. They think Ethiopians came from undeveloped countries.”

The perception that the community comes from a primitive background blinds many Israelis to Ethiopian Jews’ 3,000-year heritage, Tagania said.

“I’m not blaming anyone for this situation,” Bicha said. “Non-Ethiopians need to make an effort to learn about our heritage, and we need to make an effort to teach about it in schools and other institutions.”

That, he said, was the impetus for starting Chassida-Shmella.

Chassida-Shmella leaders are looking forward to the Passover event, seeing it as another opportunity to teach about the community’s traditions.

“I find the Ethiopian heritage absolutely beautiful,” Mullu said. “We shouldn’t try to be who we are not, but we also should be part of other communities. We should accept everyone, and they should accept us. It doesn’t matter what color you are. There is only one God and one Torah.”

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