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Travel There Are Few Creature Comforts, but Ethiopia Has Rich Jewish History

May 23, 2006
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The ferry ride across the river is brief, two or three minutes in a small wooden dinghy with a plastic awning that barely fends off the midday sun. With three foreigners, a rangy pilot and his youthful assistant, our craft is relatively empty — at least, compared to the adjacent boat that perches perilously low in the water under the weight of at least a dozen locals. The Blue Nile is gentle and slow-moving here. Along the riverbank, amid the reeds, young women kneel to fill their water jugs. The Blue Nile supplies most of the water that flows down into Egypt’s Nile Valley, and it’s not hard to imagine one such young woman, kneeling in the reeds miles further down this same stream, finding a basket holding a frightened infant, and taking the young Moses to safety and his destiny.

The Nile also was a natural migratory artery, and it’s likely that over the centuries Jews moved up the river from biblical communities in Egypt and fed into an existing Jewish community to form, over the centuries, the Beta Israel, known to their neighbors as “Falashas” — strangers.

The day before, we had seen the remnants of this Ethiopian Jewish community — the Falash Mura, Jews who converted to Christianity over the years but who now have returned to the faith.

Sustained by a compound in the city of Gondar run by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, or NACOEJ, they are learning Jewish rituals, basic Hebrew and some rudimentary job skills in anticipation of moving to Israel.

Shortly after daybreak, hundreds of Falash Mura crowd into the compound for Shacharit prayers. The men’s visages are hidden by their prayer shawls, and they sway and mumble as a knowledgeable handful of the community leads prayers onstage. The women ululate as the Torah is removed from the ark.

Next door, pregnant mothers and women with small children wolf down the meals provided — staples like eggs, grains and vegetables — while older children who attend school receive beans to bring home to their families. In another area students take Hebrew lessons, and in a third portion of the compound men beat slowly on pieces of iron, learning to make crude farming implements such as sickles and plows that, even in the 21st century, are the mainstay for Ethiopian farmers.

A day later and we’re hiking through fields toward the Blue Nile Falls, passing herds of lean cattle led by boys dressed in rags or by sinewy men with walking sticks balanced across their shoulders. On the other side of the river a crocodile suns itself on the bank; the timid beast slides slowly into the stream as we approach with our cameras drawn.

A hydroelectric dam has reduced the Blue Nile Falls to a shadow of its former self, but it remains an impressive sight, dropping nearly 150 feet over a broad shelf and dousing visitors with spray long before they reach the pool.

It was in search of the sources of the Nile, near Lake Tana, that Scottish explorer James Bruce came in 1769, bringing the existence of the Beta Israel to the attention of the wider world, including their Jewish brethren. Centuries of persecution and conversion, followed by the modern-day aliyah to Israel, have emptied the area between Gondar and Lake Tana of Jews, but historically this region was an arc of settlement for a Jewish community that has existed in Ethiopia since the First Temple period.

Ethiopia itself has only recently opened to the outside world, following the fall of the Communist government in 1991 and enervating border wars with Eritrea throughout the 1990s. Now this nation of 75 million in the Horn of Africa is hoping that its stunning nature, rich history and cultural complexity will attract tourists and help a country that exports little beyond coffee pull itself out of grinding poverty.

Combine that with a Jewish connection unparalleled in sub-Saharan African, the emergence of the Falash Mura as a hot-button issue for the American Jewish federation system and the presence of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and some tourism officials believe Ethiopia may be ripe for Jewish heritage tourism.

If Jews “want to really see what Ethiopia is, where Ethiopians Jews lived, where the Queen of Sheba walked, then going to Ethiopia and going to Kenya have different purposes,” said Mekonnen Abebe, Ethiopian Airlines’ American director. “Those who are interested in history should go to Ethiopia.”

Given the level of tourist services outside the capital of Addis Ababa, it may be too early to expect significant numbers of Jews to head for Ethiopia unless they’re prepared to sacrifice creature comforts.

“Going to Ethiopia isn’t something you do on a moment’s notice. The poverty is very, very, very distressing, you have to get a lot of shots in order to protect your health and you have to be extremely careful about what you eat, where you eat and what you drink,” said NACOEJ director Barbara Ribakove Gordon, who has been to the Gondar area some two dozen times. “But I think it’s a very worthwhile trip. Never having really been colonized, the Ethiopians have no resentment against white foreigners and in general are beautiful, friendly people.”

With the North American federation system trying to raise $100 million to expedite Falash Mura aliyah, the United Jewish Communities sponsored one mission to Ethiopia in February and was planning another one this spring.

Participants bring back word that Ethiopia that “is something to see, something to behold,” said Vicki Agron, UJC’s senior vice president for development. “It’s a place out of time and space. I felt we were walking through National Geographic.”

Eileen Hart, vice president of marketing for Isram, an operator of Jewish heritage tours, said Ethiopia is not on the radar yet — but it’s not far-fetched.

“If the possibility presented itself — and, more to the point, if the facilities reached a certain level — then certainly we would consider it,” she said.

Ethiopian officials recognize the challenges, and say they’re trying to spur private-sector investment to upgrade the tourist infrastructure. One proposal is for Ethiopian Airlines to assume management of the government-run Ghion chain, which generally offers the best hotels outside the capital but could hardly be called luxurious.

“If we want to improve tourism to the country, we know that the level of services is a hot issue that needs to be addressed,” said Habtamu Bekele, an adviser to the country’s tourism minister. But he added, “People are looking for off-the-beaten-track destinations, and we think it is time for Ethiopia.”

Our recent tour, sponsored by Ethiopian Airlines to court two disparate audiences — American Jews and Christian missionaries — took us from Addis Ababa on the circuit of major historical sites in the north. With a day or two for international travel — Ethiopian Airlines has no direct flights from the United States, so our 17-hour journey from Washington included a stop in Rome — our nine-day visit was just enough to take in the major northern sites, without much margin for leisure.

We began with a day in Addis, a pleasant city with a temperate climate and the kind of place where goats graze in the city’s main square when it’s not being used for national festivals. Since the closure last year of NACOEJ’s compound in Addis, the capital’s most compelling Jewish angle is the medical work carried out by Rick Hodes, a Jewish doctor from Long Island who provides health care for Falash Mura and is a volunteer medical adviser to Mother Teresa’s Mission for Sick and Dying Destitutes.

In addition, visitors of any faith can ponder their origins in the National Museum, which includes a replica of the skeleton of Lucy, the hominid ancestor whose discovery in 1974 rewrote the evolutionary record. A subsequent find in 1997 further strengthened Ethiopia’s claim as the birthplace of mankind — although, ironically, many people in this deeply religious country reject the theory of evolution.

Ethiopia’s Jewish history is concentrated in the north, a tourist circuit served by daily Ethiopian Airlines flights. We made the circuit flying short hops of 30 to 60 minutes each in propeller planes that deposited us in relatively modern airports at the edge of the bush.

First up after Addis was Axum, capital of one of the great kingdoms of the ancient world and today a small, sunbaked outpost with a vaguely Southwestern landscape and a sister-city tie to Denver. Ethiopian legend has it that the city was home to the Queen of Sheba, who went to Jerusalem to drink from King Solomon’s wisdom, enjoyed more than his hospitality and returned home pregnant with his son.

Their child, Menelik, is said to have returned to the holy city as a young man, learning about Judaism and eventually returning to Ethiopia with a retinue of priests and servants who helped establish Judaism there. He also is said to have taken the Ark of the Covenant — repository of the 10 Commandments — leaving just a replica in Jerusalem.

Jewish tradition doesn’t consider the story credible, but visitors can’t check the evidence for themselves, since access to Axum’s Maryam Tsion Church where the ark is said to be stored is restricted to a single priest, who is himself shielded from public view.

According to some accounts, Judaism was the state religion of the Axumite empire from the days of Menelik nearly a millennium before Jesus until the adoption of Christianity in the fourth century C.E. While other sources dispute that account, at the least Judaism persisted in the Axumite empire alongside idol worship, and throughout the centuries Ethiopian emperors who claimed descent from the Solomonic Dynasty — including the final emperor, Haile Selassie, the “Lion of Judah” who ruled until 1974 — came to Axum to be crowned.

Jews appear to have been instrumental in Axum’s downfall as well. Yudit, a reviled queen who overthrew Axum’s king in the 10th century C.E. and then went on a rampage, burning churches and slaughtering clergy, is often described as a pagan, but — based on her name and birth region — most likely was Jewish.

The Solomonic Dynasty was replaced by the Zagwe Dynasty, which according to some accounts was led by Jewish descendants of Yudit who converted to Christianity; at the least, the Jews in the Zagwe period were a powerful and influential group.

This dynasty reached its pinnacle of creativity in the capital of Roha, the next stop on the historical circuit. This striking hill town is today known as Lalibela, after a Zagwe king who was prevented by political strife from making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and who resolved instead to make a “New Jerusalem” of his mountain redoubt. During a remarkably industrious 23-year period, Gebra Maskal Lalibela oversaw the construction of a dozen churches, carved whole out of the hard basalt.

Visitors can spend several days scrambling up and down the mountain paths from church to church, each of which has its own distinctive cross, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant and impressive religious murals. Ethiopian Christianity has retained vestiges of ancient Judaism, preserving rituals such as circumcision, a form of Sabbath observance and — a relief for “kosher-style” travelers — a prohibition on eating pork.

After the Zagwes’ overthrow in the 13th century by the reconstituted Solomonic Dynasty, several centuries of strife ensued, during which the Jews gave as good as they got in tribal wars. Their influence was finally broken in the 17th century as the Solomonic dynasty consolidated power in Gondar.

From this time the Falashas became a hated and persecuted group, hounded by their neighbors and ascribed all sorts of malignant powers in classic anti-Semitic fashion.

Many Falashas converted to Christianity under duress. By the time the modern exodus to Israel began in the mid-1980s, the community had dwindled from hundreds of thousands to an estimated 30,000 — although, as the continuing saga of the Falash Mura shows, there were thousands more with at least some connection to the faith.

The only place for visitors to see Ethiopian Jews today is Gondar, where the Falash Mura wait while Israeli officials assess their claims of Jewishness. That’s not an easy task in a country where the memories of village elders often substitute for official records, and where a claim of Jewishness can be a ticket from the Third World to the First. American Jews who want to visit the Gondar compound can do so by prior arrangement with the New York-based NACOEJ.

A visit to the compound may not be every tourist’s idea of a vacation, but it’s undeniably powerful and it can be inspiring — and at least it offers the prospect of meeting actual Ethiopian Jews. That’s more than can be said for the nearby village of Waleka, which is trying desperately to wring a living from the memory of its former Jewish residents. Tourists are greeted by girls selling figurines of vaguely Jewish figures, the Ethiopian equivalent of “Fiddler on the Roof”-style kitsch. A sign on the side of a hut reads “Welcome to Felasha Village,” above cartoonish figures of smiling Jews.

Still, one can see both the hut that formerly served as Waleka’s synagogue and, a short walk from the village itself, a cemetery where Ethiopian Israelis come to erect gravestones for fallen relatives.

Another hop, skip and a jump via propeller plane brings you to Bahir Dar, a lovely town perched on the southern shore of Lake Tana, where the Blue Nile exits. Whatever the veracity of the Queen of Sheba legend, it’s likely that various influxes of Jews fed into the Beta Israel community, including some who migrated up the Nile during biblical times and settled around Lake Tana.

According to material from NACOEJ, some believe the Beta Israel are descended largely from members of the Tribe of Dan who left the Promised Land during the schism between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and kept going until they reached the biblical land of Cush, in present-day Sudan and Ethiopia. Indeed, that connection was the basis for the landmark 1973 decision by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, accepting the Beta Israel’s claim of Jewish origin and paving the way for the Ethiopian aliyah.

From Bahir Dar our group returned to Addis to catch the long flight home. While conditions in Ethiopia make a vacation there less relaxing than in places closer to the beaten track, visitors who are willing to rough it a bit will find Ethiopia a warm, welcoming, even dazzling country, with a unique Jewish tie.

“You have to be prepared for an experience, an adventure, even if you’ve already been to Third World countries before,” NACOEJ’s Gordon said. “But it’s a place people fall in love with.”

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