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Galilee Diary: Summer Vacation

Galilee Diary: Summer Vacation

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally posted in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)


When the queen of Sheba observed all of Solomon's wisdom, and the palace he had built, the fare of his table, the seating of his courtiers, the service and attire of his attendants, and his wine service, and the burnt offerings that he offered at the House of the Lord, she was left breathless. -I Kings 10:4-5

According to the Kebra Nagast, the medieval "midrash" that has become the national epic of Ethiopia, when the queen of Sheba (Ethiopia) was visiting Solomon, he seduced her. Their offspring, Menelik, was educated at Solomon's court; but when he left to go to his own country, he took with him the Ark of the Covenant. Thus, according to this epic, the Ethiopians are the true heirs of Israel - ruled by David's grandson, possessing the original Tablets of the Law. Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was believed to be a member of this Davidic dynasty. And the Ark resides in a church in the northern town of Axum (but only one priest has access...)

We just got back from two weeks in Ethiopia, visiting our daughter who has been there since January. It was quite an overwhelming experience - the beauty, the color, the squalor, the total other-ness of the life and culture - even though the landscape in the areas we traveled was not so different from the Galilee. We hiked beautiful pastoral countryside, coped with teeming Addis Ababa, visited magnificent medieval churches and ancient archaeological sites (and saw the church with the Ark - from the outside, of course).

Amidst all the overstimulation of the trip, for me, religious questions were among the most interesting. Perhaps because of the Kebra Nagast - or perhaps because of reformist "judaizing" tendencies in the medieval orthodox church - or perhaps because the legend of Menelik is historical fact - Judaism is a part of Ethiopian culture. For example, despite efforts by Jesuits from Europe to "cleanse" the church in the 16th century, the religion still forbids pork and shellfish, ordains circumcision of male babies, observes a 40-day period of impurity for a woman giving birth to a boy - and 80 days for a girl (Leviticus 12:1-5), etc. The monolithic churches of the village of Lalibela were built in the 12th century to "reproduce" Jerusalem and other sacred sites from Israel. People were generally thrilled to meet visitors from Israel (Ethiopia has no colonial past, so all whites are visitors, welcomed warmly).

But wait, there's more. I had understood that virtually all the Ethiopian Jews had immigrated to Israel. It turns out the story is a bit more complicated. We attended Kabbalat Shabbat at a small synagogue in the sprawling Kechene slum of Addis Ababa, where about 15 young Jews stood and repeated "amen" as one of them chanted an Amharic translation of the service, and they all sang Lecha Dodi from a transliteration. They explained to me that they are the rebellious younger generation in a community of 50,000 (!) secret Jews - Jews who keep Jewish practices in secret like the anusim of Spain (Marranos); indeed, according to their parents, revealing their Judaism is religiously forbidden - which is why they did not come forward when all the other Jews were brought to Israel. Only the messiah will bring them to Israel. Meanwhile, the Jews for Jesus from the US are active in the community. So who's a Jew and who is not? Are the Ethiopian Jews, secret and open, descendants of Solomon, of semitic tribes from Arabia (Ge'ez, the ancient sacred language of Ethiopia, is a semitic language, and we kept running into Arabic and Hebrew cognates in Amharic), of judaizing heretics in the medieval church? So many questions, so few clear answers...

Ah, but the coffee, the coffee! Ethiopia gave the world coffee, and the Italian fascists brought in espresso machines. Now I know what coffee is supposed to taste like.

Published: 7/14/2009

Categories: Reform Judaism, Israel
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