Hidden Jews of Ethiopia
NEWS | I.L. AUTHOR | JANUARY 2016
In the year 1910 a European scholar Mr. Faitlovitch wrote in his journal of an encounter he had with a group of Falashas residing in the highlands of North Shewa region of Ethiopia, an area between Gondar, where most Jews lived, and the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.
It took Faitlovitch some time to win the trust of these Falashas, to get any information from them. Finally, they revealed to him that they had come to North Shewa from the Dembiya region near Gondar, mostly at the time of Emperor Menelik II's rule.
In his account, Faitlovitch discussed the difficulties they faced, which pushed them to pretend to be Christians.
"These Falashas live in a relationship of dependence and a lack of freedom which almost borders with slavery and they are strictly forbidden to ever leave the boundaries of the Shewa. Only rarely some of them succeed to move away secretly from the Shewa and to return to their homeland, where they will live again in the Falasha community as Jews."
Faitlovitch expected this group to vanish in two generations, due to assimilation and persecution. More than two generations passed since that time.
The first historical account of Jewish presence in Ethiopia came from a 10th-century Jewish merchant and traveler Eldad Ha-Dani. He recounts that when the Northern Kingdom tribes of Israel went to war against the Southern Kingdom tribe of Judah, the Danites, who were renowned as skilled warriors, refused to fight against their kinsmen and left Israel for Egypt. They continued their journey until they reached the land of Cush where they finally settled.
According to their oral history, the Beta Israel of North Shewa settled in Kechene when Menelik II decided to build his new palace in Entoto, north of today's Addis Ababa. Menelik II needed them for their skills in crafts to build his palaces and produce weapons.
For years, the Jews of Kechene continued practicing Judaism in secret, following the instructions of the leaders who still remained in North Shewa. However, recently a group of young people of Kechene have decided to disclose their faith. They have opened a synagogue right in the heart of Kechene, creating serious tensions between the youth and the elders.
Kechene is the neighborhood of craftsmen, Bal Ej in Amharic. Men mainly work as weavers and blacksmiths and the women work as potters.
Similar to the Beta Israel community in Gondar, Bal Ej are slandered as buda, or evil eyed. Their neighbors believe that they are humans at day and hyenas by night. They believe that eye contact with Bal Ej can bring illness or even death. Suspicions remain even among those who are educated, like civil servants and university professors. They avoid approaching Kechene attach a clove of garlic to their arm to protect them from the evil eye if they have to visit the neighborhood.
Even though Bal Ej provide Addis Ababa and surrounding areas with clothes, utensils and blacksmith products, they cannot sell their products on their own at markets. Instead, they are forced to sell their items through Christian merchants, which causes them to lose as much as 80 percent of the product price. However the difficulties that people of Kechene are going through, cannot be compared to those experienced by craftsmen from the community who still live in towns and villages of North Shewa.
A singer named Irene Orleansky visited Morat, a small town of North Shewa, where the Beta Israel community first settled when they migrated from Gondar. Most of them are blacksmiths and potters. Almost every month, a member of the community is murdered or has property is destroyed since the Christian neighbors believe each time a person gets sick or dies, it is because of the curse of the "hyena people." They randomly choose a victim to avenge. Most of the crimes committed against Bal Ej of North Shewa remain unpunished. The police allows murderers to escape or simply fail to investigate the crimes.
Life in this town is a life of fear since nobody knows who will be the next victim. To reduce the danger to some degree, community members pretend to be Christians. They go to church on Sunday, but attend hidden synagogues on Saturday. The members of the secret synagogues practice pre-Talmudic Judaism, and therefore practice of animal sacrifice for Passover and other occasions.
Even though the community has strong historical evidence of their connection to the Beta Israel of Gondar as well as a remarkable resemblance to their traditions, the community remains unknown to the most of the world.