FEATUREMay 2023

The Hidden Jews of Ethiopia

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By Jana Mazurkiewicz

Perhaps you remember the story of the Falasha, now known to be a pejorative term from the 1970s. They were the Ethiopian Jews rescued from life-threatening danger, and after trekking from Ethiopia through Sudan, were airlifted to Israel. We have just learned about another group of Jews in Ethiopia who, up to now, have been forgotten. They are called the Beta Israel and are in hiding. They are in grave danger of being killed because they are Jewish. The Beta Israel community desperately wants to be rescued.

A local to San Diego non-profit organization, the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America, and its cultural center based in La Jolla called Yiddishland California, hosted a program titled “The Hidden Jews of Ethiopia” with Israeli anthropologist Malka Shabtay and the president of the Beta Israel community, Belayneh Tazebku. The dynamic Dr. Shabtay is also a talented filmmaker. Together with softly spoken Belayneh, they presented the movie “Nafkot, Yearning” and shared the book, “The Hidden Jews of Ethiopia.” The evening entailed not only a screening of an extremely informative documentary movie and discussion, but also an authentic Ethiopian dinner during the intermediate days of Passover. SAJAC cosponsored the program.

“After 5 years of intensive work in Ethiopia and Israel with and for the Beta Israel community in Kechene and North Shewa, we decided to come to the USA to share the story and call for support for the great challenges of this special community,” said Dr. Shabtay.

In the Beta Israel community, there are 15 secret synagogues where they continue to practice their ancient Jewish traditions such as the red cow ceremony, menstruation huts, and strict Shabbat observance. Core community practices also include the laws of ritual purification, seclusion of a mother and her baby immediately after birth, holiday observances, the traditional rituals for the dead and mourning, and the laws of kashrut. Forgiveness and repentance are a part of their daily life. This community never ceases to show love, respect, and longing for Zion. Their unique practices and traditions are preserved in oral poems, prayers, and in the names of ritual objects and of rituals. In sharing their story, we learn that they are accused of eating humans. When an Ethiopian non-Jewish child is sick or dies, it is claimed that it is because of the evil eye the Jews impose ⎯ another reason for discrimination. From a young man, “one day they came to my aunt’s home, knocked on her door, and shot her. We are helpless for we have no one to complain to; our only choice is to hide.” A bride and groom were killed on their wedding day to prevent Jewish reproduction. The civil war in Ethiopia adds to the danger to both the community and its cultural and religious heritage as the Beta Israel are caught in the crossfire.

The younger generation is no longer hiding and silent. They urge the community to remember what was promised to them by their forefathers for generation after generation: that the day will come when they will return to the place from which they were exiled ⎯ to Jerusalem.

This is an extraordinary story of a hidden Jewish community who still survives in the 21st century, a community who still lives in constant danger but is now ready to share its story with the rest of the world. It is our duty to listen and rescue them.

They hosted 11 events across the United States, including Miami, Washington DC, New York, LA, Portland, San Diego, Boston, and New Hampshire. Most of the events are in collaboration with Jewish communities, while three events took place at universities.

In addition to screening the film and presenting the book, Dr. Shabtay and Belayneh are striving to strengthen Jewish connections between the Jews in Ethiopia and American Jews. We ask for the support of Jewish individuals, organizations, and synagogues for the recognition we are struggling for in Israel and with the Jewish world.

They also ask for donations so they can continue to develop the cemetery, build a synagogue and JCC, and support the elderly and orphans in the secret synagogues. We wish to sell the film to TV channels or institutes so we can use the money to address the community’s significant challenges. The donations are tax deductible thanks to the fiscal sponsorship program they established in the US.

For more information, contact Dr. Malka Shabtay, an applied anthropologist and filmmaker, at Nafkot2021@gmail.com or +972528450377.

L'Chaim

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