One night in July 1983, the inhabitants of the village of Tilamado disappeared. Barefoot and wearing traditional dress, the men and women, the children and the elderly, set out on a journey they had dreamed about their whole lives: the journey to Jerusalem. Little did they know what horrors waited along the way and what terrible price they would pay to fulfill their dream. Joining this exodus was a young boy, Adeno, the son of Yidege and Bazeto Abebe. The village had been his whole world. Before the age of eight, he was already running around in the meadows as a shepherd boy‚ and now, he was embarking on a trek with no end in sight. Thirty-six years later, Danny Adeno Abebe’s journey between Ethiopia and Jerusalem is still ongoing. The boy who grew up in a village north of Gondar and never knew his own date of birth managed to overcome adversity to become the first Ethiopian-born soldier in IDF Army Radio and the first Ethiopian-Israeli journalist. He worked for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper for years, filed hundreds of reports and investigations, and won prestigious prizes. But even today, as a father of four, Danny is forced to confront prejudice and racism. In his book From Africa to Zion, translated by Eylon Aslan-Levy, Danny reveals his fascinating and wonderful life story and the stories of the 16,000 Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel in Operation Moses and of the thousands who died on the way. He describes his childhood in a mud shack without water or electricity, the grueling trek by foot to Sudan, the horrors in the Um Raquba Refugee Camp, his first days at an immigrant absorption center in Arad, and his time at a religious boarding school, where Israel sent many Ethiopian immigrant children. He describes falling in love with the written word and grappling as a journalist with the reality he covered: the Blood Donations Scandal, police violence, and the cold shoulder of the rabbinic establishment. He also writes about his visits to his native village‚ once with his wife Aviva and their children, and once again while writing this book‚ and about his two-year service as an emissary to the local Jewish community in South Africa. Throughout, he reveals himself to be an extremely talented and sensitive writer with a sharp and witty sense of humor. From Africa to Zion is an extraordinary life story, but above all‚ it is a story about people, about love, and about the importance of family, regardless of skin color or ethnicity. This is the Ethiopian Israeli memoir we’ve been waiting for. Danny Adeno Abebe tells us the truth, in all its painful complexity, about the Ethiopian experience in Israel. No Jewish community paid a higher price on the road to Zion than Ethiopian Jews; none has been received more grudgingly by Israeli society. By turns beautiful, agonizing, inspiring, and hopeful, this is an essential book for understanding Israel today.
This Was Home
The Hebrew Bible begins with the verse: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” In that case, God must have also created the place I came from. But then he never came back. He created it, and forgot about it. Since the dawn of creation, practically nothing has changed in the village where I was born in Ethiopia. In many respects, it is still stuck in biblical times.
I grew up in a tiny shack in the Jewish village of Tilamado in an area called Mayliko, north of the town of Gondar. It was a typical village, home to a few hundred Jews who lived together in peaceful coexistence with the Christians and Muslims from the neighboring villages. My paternal grandfather came from a distinguished family in the region. His name was Abebe Reda. How did his first name become my surname? The story goes like this: when we reached Israel, the Jewish Agency clerk asked my father whether his father was still alive. He had died back in Ethiopia, replied my father. The clerk asked his name, and my father replied: “Abebe Reda.”
“Well then,” said the clerk, “from today, your surname is Abebe.”
The Abebe family, therefore, is really the Reda family.
Like all the other villagers, we lived in a tukul ‑ a small dwelling with mud‑covered walls and a thick wooden pillar in the middle to support the five planks holding up the roof. Every tukul housed a family who belonged to a much wider clan. Each tukul attested to its owners’ economic status. A traditional tukul had a roof made of tree branches, but our roof was made of tinplate, as was the front door. Obviously we had no electricity ‑ the village still has no electricity ‑ and two small windows were the only source of light, and even they scarcely brightened up our home during daytime.
The tukul was not just a family home, but an animal pen and barn. Our cattle and sheep lived in a small room separated from the main dwelling by thick wooden posts. My eldest brother used to sleep above the cows on a kind of bed made of wooden planks and padded with straw and old clothes. The rural Ethiopian equivalent of a Tel Aviv loft conversion, if you will. The rest of the family slept on cowskin beds. We used to skin the cows, clean the hide thoroughly, stretch it between two posts ‑ and hey presto, it’s a bed.
Almost every home in the village had its own gwaro ‑ a small garden surrounded by a stone fence, for growing crops. We grew mashila (corn) and gevs (wheat) in our yard ‑ mostly for personal consumption or barter, which is still commonplace in the villages of northern Ethiopia. For example, we might exchange corn for teff, the grain with which we baked injera, our flatbread. I still remember how my father used to walk barefoot between the tall corn stalks. The house and the yard were separated by another fence, also made of stones, which stopped the livestock from crossing into the gowaro and munching on the harvest we waited so long to reap.
My father was hardly a prize‑winning farmer. His dream was to study. He very much wanted to be an educated man, but he never had the privilege and had to settle for being a blacksmith and working his small plot of land.
We were a poor family, even by the standards of our village. But although we had nothing, I was happy. To be born in a backwater village, completely cut off from the Western world, is a special experience reserved for special people. Like us. Even now in my mid‑forties, I still feel that I had the good fortune of being born there and experiencing what was a prehistoric lifestyle, light‑years away from civilization.
In fact, until we made the journey to Israel, I had never left the confines of my village and its grazing lands. My friends and I knew nothing but life in the village. Our impression was that the world outside simply did not exist. Our village was the whole wide world, but its inhabitants had a single dream somewhere over the horizon ‑ Yerusalem: Jerusalem.
We always knew that the moment the opportunity arose, we would drop everything to realize our dream to move to Jerusalem. But this was a wish we were forbidden from expressing out loud. We spoke about it in whispers, mainly on Shabbat and during the Jewish holidays.
The villagers never mentioned Israel. Everyone, including the children, spoke of Jerusalem. Of a faraway kingdom, a land of God and ancient stones, whose righteous people spoke the holy tongue. Every festival was dedicated to Jerusalem. Every prayer was directed toward Jerusalem. Every event recalled Jerusalem. On holidays and at family events, we used to sing a song called Ende Yerusalem ‑ “Nothing Like Jerusalem.” In later years, even the Christians embraced this song, and they still sing it at weddings.
The Jews of the village were commonly labeled falashas: “foreigners.” The Ethiopian establishment, from top to bottom and throughout history, treated the Jews as aliens disloyal to the state and its government. Consequently, we were not entitled to land or the basic rights afforded to our Christian neighbors. There was an unfunny joke in Ethiopia: “Why don’t Jews get rich? So they won’t have to leave property behind when they run away.” For the same reason, nobody was prepared to lend money to Jews: they feared that they would run away without repaying their debts.
I think that even we Jews had reconciled ourselves to living with our suitcases by the door throughout 2,500 years of exile. That’s why we did not take the label falasha as an insult. We were not offended by it and we did not see it as an expression of antisemitism. As far as we were concerned, our whole existence in Ethiopia was a matter of waiting and longing. The day would come when we would fulfill the dream of generations, the exile would end, and we would return to Jerusalem, which we had fantasized about our whole lives. That’s what everything was all about. We made no secret of our yearning for Jerusalem and never said: “Ethiopia is our homeland and we’ll remain loyal to it forever.” We knew perfectly well, and so did our Christian and Muslim neighbors, that we were living in Ethiopia on borrowed time.
Ultimately, the epithet falasha proved itself and we received a golden opportunity to leave Ethiopia in the dead of night.
Growing up in a far‑flung village like mine is a wonderful experience. There are no unnecessary worries, there is no school and there is no homework. Before we moved to Israel, I never had any kind of formal education. Nowadays, “spoiled” by the West, I cannot imagine my own children having the same childhood as mine. Sometimes I cannot even believe it was mine.
We woke up every morning with the birdsong and the sound of calves mooing in the hope of suckling their mothers’ milk. I loved waking up early ‑ that’s what happens when there is no school… My father used to wake us up, and I used to watch him absorbed in intense prayer before milking the cows. Our village did not have its own synagogue or kes (religious leader). The regional kes came to our village every once in a while to lead religious services, especially during festivals and big events. The rest of the time, people prayed at their doorways. Every morning my father stood just beyond the threshold facing Jerusalem, prostrated himself, and kissed the soil. His forehead touched the ground, he gripped the dirt with his hands and thick fingers, and he muttered words of prayer. When he finished, he stood up, kissed his hands, and went to pick up the milk cans.
We normally separated the calf from its mother for a few hours, to induce the cow to lactate. The calf was tied up at home, and before milking time we released it, let it suckle a little, and then pulled it away again so we could milk the cow. Only then did we let the calf finish its breakfast. Our father served us the milk immediately, straight from the can. I shall never forget its taste, so warm and fresh, on my lips. This ritual repeated itself every morning anew. One of many immortal images from my childhood. I still miss those moments because of their simplicity and magic.
As a rule, our lives were simple to a fault. The boys wore a kind of white tunic that went down to the knees, and the girls wore a longer dress. Only a privileged few wore underpants. My father used to buy us new clothes for the festivals. He used to go to the market in Gedeviye, a two‑ or three‑hour walk away, and sometimes even to the town of Gondar, a whole day’s walk away, to buy a fresh set of clothes for each child.
The locals used to wear sheepskin, especially in the winter. After slaughtering the sheep, the adults used to clean their skin, dry it well, and make clothes for us children, to cover our spindly bodies. Sometimes they also used the wool to make hats, to keep our heads warm.
Every morning, after prayers and breakfast, we used to take our sheep and cattle out to graze ‑ each child and his or her livestock. Children from all the surrounding villages descended on the grazing lands, which straddled a river. The cows munched on weeds and we kept an eye on them, in case they ran away and got mixed up with our neighbors’ cows. The same was true of the sheep, goats, and donkeys. We moved slowly, at the same pace as the livestock ‑ they trundled along and chewed the grass, and we walked behind them. Some of the children used sheepdogs to help them.
The grazing lands were our school. We did not study math or English, but we learned a lot about responsibility. It was also a social experience. While the animals chewed the cud, we children played kwaschiwata, or soccer, with a ball stitched together from old rags. Two big boulders served as goalposts. We were not particularly strict about the rules, but nobody cared, and we could play for hours. Another “sport” we played was a game with three sticks ‑ a kids’ version of the triple jump.
We also held running competitions. I was not exactly a gifted athlete, but my friend Sutetahu won almost every race. Because of his dark complexion, we nicknamed him tekur: the black one. In life, everything is relative. Sutetahu was big and muscular, the strongest boy in the village, and he protected us from other children. He had a short fuse, and all the kids in our village and in neighboring villages ‑ Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike ‑ respected him greatly. Once he got angry when I beat him in a game, and he bit straight into my right hand. I still have the scar to prove it. Like me, Sutetahu also lives in Israel now.
My favorite game was geveta, also known as mankela. We used to collect forty‑eight round pebbles and dig six small pits to make up the board. Some children brought seeds from home, just in case they could not find enough pebbles of the right size. In each round, two children played and everyone else stood around, egging them on and waiting for their turn against the victor. Whoever managed to toss the most pebbles into the pits was crowned the winner of that round. We spent hours upon hours playing like this, keeping one eye on the cows and the sheep and the other on the game. We also played hand‑clapping games ‑ a particular favorite for the girls. Yes, there were also shepherdesses, who joined us in the meadows and all our games.
Around noon, when the sun was high in the sky and the heat became oppressive, we used to skinny dip in the river. A few kids stayed out to watch the livestock, which quenched their thirst in the meanwhile. We could not swim, but the water was not deep and we enjoyed splashing around. The sound of the children’s rolling laughter still rings in my ears. Then we popped home for lunch, ate my mother’s injera, and went straight back to the animals.
As shepherds, flies were an inseparable part of our lives. We children used to swat them away with our hands, but the adults had a special tool made of horsehair. With a runny nose most of the time, I was a real attraction for them. Since we were always barefoot, the soles of our feet were as hard as shoe soles and our heels were permanently cracked.
In recent years I have returned twice to visit the village of my birth in Ethiopia, and each time flooded me with fresh memories that reconnected me to the tiny details that made up my childhood world. One common image was of the early evening, as the sun set slowly and the shepherds ‑ including me ‑ walked briskly back to the village with the livestock: the cows, sheep, goats, and donkeys, all to the sound of their mooing and bleating and lowing, with dogs barking in the distance. The ground trembled under the hooves of the stampeding cattle, and each shepherd counted the animals in his care. Since I could not count beyond ten, I used to count the goats, sheep, and the few donkeys we had separately. I even counted our one horse. Our aging white steed was blind in one eye and covered in lesions, but he was the center of our lives. He was our only mode of transportation and we rode him everywhere.
As children, the question that most preoccupied us was how on earth to get all the cattle and sheep back home before darkness descended on the village, when a goat might escape or a sheep might get separated from the flock. We were scared that our dads might get angry and hit us. We had a huge responsibility on our shoulders, and we treated our shepherding duties with absolute reverence, because these animals were our parents’ most valuable assets. We relied on the horse for transportation, the donkeys for moving equipment, and the cows for milk. We also drank the goats’ milk, and when they grew old, we ate their meat.
When I came home at dusk after a day in the meadows, covered in dust, obviously barefoot, wearing a filthy and often torn tunic ‑ and when it was cold, also a woolen hat knitted by someone in the family ‑ my father asked me how my day was and went straight to milk the cow, while there was still light. My mother served dinner, and just like in the morning, we drank the warm milk fresh from the cow’s udders, which my mother poured into her homemade ceramic cups. It was all such a joy.
When darkness fell on the village, we lit a bonfire. Not in the yard ‑ in the house. At night we heard the livestock chewing the cud, and our neighbors’ dogs patrolled the village and gave us a sense of security. We did not have a dog of our own. My father was not a fan of dogs.
There was a wonderful magic to my childhood in the village in Ethiopia, but the truth is that our lives were not easy. There was no school and we had lots of free time to play with friends and frolic with the sheep in the fields, but children in Ethiopia had no rights and were treated with disrespect.
Ethiopian children were their parents’ punching bags. Beatings were considered a stellar education. They were the only form of dialogue between us and our parents. Even our aunts and uncles beat us when they wanted to. In fact, anyone who could beat us did so at some point. I remember how once my uncle hit me till I bled, and my parents stood by, because this was simply the norm. We were family, after all, and he was my uncle.
Children did not sit down to eat with their parents, and if we had guests, we ate their leftovers. When guests arrived, we washed their hands, and if my mother was too busy to do so herself, we also washed their feet. We children were cheap labor. In families with lots of children, the kids worked and the parents rested. My parents raised only four boys. In Ethiopian terms, they were practically childless.
My father was, and still is, a good‑looking man. A head of sleek hair, a long and handsome face, and not a drop of malice. He loves other people with every sinew in his body. His whole life in the village was a tale of generosity, which was why so many admired and respected him, despite our relative poverty. Christians and Muslims used to visit our home, sit outside and chat, drinking buna (coffee) and tela, a healthy and delicious kind of homemade beer brewed from wheat, and eating injera. My mother used to make them a chickpea stew so that they would not have to eat meat slaughtered by a Jew. They respected us and our beliefs, and we did the same for them.
Every day of the week, Christians and Muslims from nearby villages used to visit ours to trade or meet Jewish friends. They were always made to feel at home, in the finest spirit of Ethiopia’s hospitality culture. But on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, and other holidays, they kept well away from our village in order not to desecrate the sanctity of our holidays. On these days, only Jews walked around outside, wearing their traditional, festive white robes ‑ the men wearing agdamiya (a white fabric wrapped around the whole body), the women in kemis (a colorful Ethiopian dress). The atmosphere outside on Shabbat and the holidays was one of a kind.
But despite the warm and friendly relations between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and despite the “live and let live” spirit, there were occasional skirmishes. When I was seven, my father ran afoul of one of our Christian neighbors, who claimed that my father ‑ a blacksmith by trade ‑ had not finished the plough he had ordered on time. The man showed up in our yard with a rifle, and during the altercation my father or someone else ‑ I still don’t know who ‑ struck the man on the head. The Christian was wounded, and a rumor soon spread that a Jew had drunk the Christian’s blood, no less. His acquaintances decided to avenge the blood spilled by a “dirty Jew.” They came to a truce in the end, paying compensation to the family of the injured man ‑ and the crisis was averted.
I was not a healthy child. I had a problem in one eye, which was especially sensitive and watery. Since there was no doctor in the village, my mother took me to a tenkuwai master, a witch doctor who helped the sick and, if needed, provided curses or protection from them.
Witchcraft was part of the local tradition. If you wanted to jinx your neighbor, out of rivalry or envy, you would go to a tenkuwai master and ask him to put a curse on his head. The shaman would give you a root of some sort and explain how to use it. For example, you might need to ground it, mix it with an egg, and spill it on the threshold of the person you want to curse. As far as I know, my family was never cursed, and we never cursed anyone else. But it happened to our neighbors. Many Ethiopian families hang roots on their doors to ward off jinxes, which they get from tenukawai masters. Some of the Jews who immigrated to Israel kept up the custom there.
My mother says that when I was born I looked like a feranj ‑ a white man ‑ which at least back then was synonymous with beauty. When I was a baby she kept me hidden at home lest the neighbors see me, envy her, and place a jinx on us. If that were not enough, my parents were blessed with only having sons, considered an especially efficient workforce. That was another reason for envy. Indeed, when I developed the problem with my eye, my mother feared that we had been cursed and took me to the village of Ambover, a half‑day’s walk away, where a well‑known tenkuwai master lived.
The tenkuwai master listened patiently to my mother explaining the problem with my eye and then made an amulet for me to ward off the evil eye, diseases, bad dreams, and other woes. He took a handful of plants and roots thought to have special properties, put them in a thin cowskin pouch, and tied the amulet around my neck. I walked around with it for months in the hope it would cure my eye problem and protect me from misfortune. Most children in the village wore similar amulets, each tailored to their specific problems.
Whenever someone was seriously ill, the villagers made an improvised stretcher out of wooden sticks and straw. Four people carried them for the three or four hours it took to reach a village that had a conventional clinic with a doctor and a nurse. But for day‑to‑day medical problems, when there was no immediate risk to life, shamans and quack cures did the trick. If you don’t have antibiotics, you can always chew a bitter root. And if your prognosis is somewhat not good, you might need a remedy made of fur from a lion’s mane (there were no lions in our area, but in southern Ethiopia you can still find witch doctors who swear by this treatment.)
Besides the tenkuwai masters, there were all sorts of local healers: debtera (who diagnosed and cured mental problems using holy scriptures), awaki (experienced elders who were consulted about day‑to‑day problems, especially marital issues), and zār shamans (who banished demons). Among these many healers were also Jews.
Once I went with a group of friends to peep into the home of an exorcist to watch her banishing demons. She sat in a smoky incense‑filled room, jerked her head from side to side, groaned loudly, and muttered gobbledygook. She had bulky blue necklaces around her neck and her head was wrapped in a netela (kerchief). She started shaking her head more and more vigorously as her body rocked back and forth. We were small kids and utterly terrified, but our curiosity won the day. We all knew that demons attacked people when they were weak ‑ at moments of pressure, sorrow, or pain. They preyed on lonely people, like the widow who lived on the edge of the village or the man who played the flute by himself down by the river.
After the exorcism, the adults sat down to drink buna and eat dabo (Ethiopian bread), and the sorceress gave them instructions on what to do next, speaking in a strange voice. After we got home, we gathered a few more friends and tried to reenact the ritual we had just witnessed.
Whenever a family found itself in dire straits, it was customary to give the exorcist a sheep or a chicken as a kind of sacrifice to placate the evil spirits.
If a tenkuwai master was the rural equivalent of a doctor, then a debtera was like a psychologist. In many cases, debteras were men who had failed the stringent tests to become a kes and had to make do with a more advisory role.
In our village, the debtera had a privileged status because he could read and write, and especially because he forswore the supernatural and gave the villagers useful advice for their day‑to‑day lives. The kesim, religious leaders, looked down on the widespread belief in magic and tried to stamp it out, but it was deeply rooted in the local culture. When they reached Israel, the Ethiopian Jews tried to suppress and conceal this custom, but it is still practiced. I blew the lid on it in an exposé for Yediot Aharonot, which is reproduced here in the appendix.
The kes was the most important figure in the community. He was not only a religious leader, but also a judge and the only person who was literate in the holy script of Ge’ez. We obeyed his every command. Unfortunately, the kesim were among the forces responsible for stopping Ethiopian Jews from obtaining an education, which they saw as the gateway to assimilation.
On the outskirts of our village stood a tall and ancient tree, with a thick trunk and deep roots, where we performed animal sacrifices during Jewish holidays. That was when Kes Menashe Zimru joined us from a nearby village. Kes Menashe was a soft‑spoken old man who walked with a stoop, his face covered with a white beard and his head with a large miter. He seemed to exude an aura of holiness. Ahead of Kes Menashe’s visits, the whole village and especially my family went into a frenzy of preparations. My father admired him, and we children shared his excitement. My mother cooked her tastiest lamb dish and baked the finest injera: thin with lots of “eyes” (air spaces). Kes Menashe used to arrive astride a mule, a symbol of his high status. Before entering the village, he stopped at the riverbank and bathed in the water. When asked why, he answered: “I have shaken gentile hands and embraced Christian childhood friends. When I visit a Jewish village, I arrive pure.”
We children used to lead Kes Menashe’s mule from the fields to the village. It received lavish treatment and a special meal, and we were careful not to leave it near our horses and donkeys. After all, it served a holy man. The villagers hugged and kissed the kes, and we all stood in line to be blessed. Men, women, and children ‑ all received his warmest blessings. The kes asked everyone personal questions, showing that he knew everyone individually.
Decades later, the image of Kes Menashe visiting us at home and sitting down is still seared in my memory. My mother used to heat up water in a pot, bend over, and ask to wash his feet. The kes always politely declined, and my mother kept pushing till he obliged. That was the custom: to rinse the feet of honored guests. My mother, by the way, used to ferry the water in pitchers from a distant well, because our village lacked a well of its own. This difficult job was reserved mainly for the women of the village. I shall never forget the sight of my mother carrying a huge urn on her back to bring us potable water.
We used to sacrifice an animal on every holiday on which Jews used to perform sacrifices in Jerusalem when the Temple stood over 2,000 years ago ‑ chiefly Passover, when ritual slaughter was part of the ceremony. Since the kes had traveled far and was not always able to come with a specially slaughtered animal for the sacrifice (a cow or a sheep), he authorized the shimaglewetchi ‑ the community elders and village notables, including my grandfather’s brother ‑ to perform the slaughter by themselves.
The festival of Sigd, which Beta Israel ‑ Ethiopian Jewry ‑ celebrates fifty days after Yom Kippur is marked with a fast that ends with a festive meal. Everyone wore clean white clothes, the elders slaughtered cows and sheep, the women baked injera, and the whole village sat under the tree together to feast.
The girls in Ethiopia normally got married as young as thirteen or fourteen, sometimes even earlier. Many families feared that their daughters would be raped by Christian or Muslim men from the neighboring villages, so they were eager to marry them off as quickly as possible. In most cases, the bride and groom never met or even saw each other before their wedding day. Only their parents knew each other. One day strangers would turn up (usually in groups of three) at a girl’s house on horseback, drink coffee, and soon all the neighbors knew: the girl was to be engaged, and a wedding was to be held in a few months.
Marriage between members of the same village was frowned upon for fear of inbreeding, and also because neighbors were considered practically family. The shimaglewetzi used to inspect a bride and groom’s lineage going back seven generations, and only once they were found to be completely unrelated were they permitted to marry. The groom’s family undertook to raise the bride as their own daughter, to shield her from harm, and to keep their son from sleeping with her till she came of age. No family dared to violate their adera ‑ the most sacred oath in all of Ethiopian Jewish culture.
My mother grew up in the village of Maweri, not far from Gondar. At birth she was named Bazeto, which means “may there be many like you,” and when we moved to Israel, the Jewish Agency renamed her Bracha. She married my father when she was just eleven years old ‑ for his part, he was only eighteen ‑ and after the wedding, she left her family and moved in with my grandparents. She gave birth to her first son, my eldest brother, when she was sixteen, and she had me when she was seventeen and a half. My mother treats my father’s parents as her own, even though she has perfectly nice parents of her own. She has spent most of her life with her in‑laws. She used to visit her parents occasionally with my father, making the long journey by foot to their village.
A wedding was an exciting event for the whole village, no matter the identity of the happy couple. After all, everyone knew everyone else. Everyone in the village was invited, and they all ‑ children and adults alike ‑ took part in the preparations, which lasted several months. News about a wedding spread by word of mouth, without postal invitations, email, or WhatsApp. The sense of joy that pervaded the village ahead of such happy events was unmistakable.
Weddings were preceded by an engagement ceremony, in which the father of the groom bestowed jewelry on the father of the bride, and the groom himself received bulls and cows from the bride’s parents. If the groom came from a well‑off family, the bride price that his family gave the bride’s parents generally included livestock. The wealthier the family ‑ by Ethiopian village standards ‑ the larger the bride price. Only one person was absent from an engagement ceremony: the bride‑to‑be herself.
The mizeh (groomsmen) were handpicked by the groom’s family and accompanied him in the days before the wedding to help out with anything he needed. Three days before the big event, the groom’s family and the bride’s family held separate parties, each in their own village. The groom’s family held a keshera ceremony (from the word “kosher”): they took two strings, one white, symbolizing the groom’s purity, and one red, symbolizing the purity of the virgin bride. The kes tied the strings together, placed them at the groom’s feet, and proclaimed loudly, citing Genesis: “From ashes you came!” Then he transferred the strings to the groom’s knees and declared, “You have come of age!” From there he continued to the groom’s chest, above his heart, and said, citing Job, “Your strength is in your loins!” Finally the kes tied the strings around the groom’s forehead and said, “And your wisdom is in your head.” After each of these stages, the participants answered, “Amen.” And when the ritual was over, everyone burst into song and dance.
On the day of the wedding, the groom rode a decorated donkey to his bride’s family home, his groomsmen walking and singing in his wake. When they reached the house, they jumped around in ecstasy, dancing and waving sticks and sometimes guns, and urged the villagers to join the celebrations.
This ceremony at the bride’s parents’ house was the first time that the couple met, yet even here, the groom was prevented from seeing his future wife’s face, covered in a white veil that exposed only her eyes. The kes greeted and blessed the happy couple, and the groom promised that he would provide for her, attend to her every need, and remain faithful.
The couple and the groomsmen proceeded to the groom’s village, where both families held a joint ceremony. The festivities lasted seven days, and friends and family came from far away to take part ‑ some by foot and others by horse or mule ‑ Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Then the celebrations continued for another two whole days at the bride’s old village. The role of the children, including me, was to look after the many guests’ horses.
Just like in Israel, food played a central role in weddings in Ethiopia, but the job of the catering company was taken by the women of the village. Each woman visited the groom’s family home to receive a bucket full of buho ‑ a watery dough ‑ to bake injera at home, which she brought back to the hosts of the party. The sight of women shuffling between houses carrying buckets full of buho, or with platters of baked injera on their shoulders, was a surefire sign that a wedding was around the corner.
Meanwhile, the men slaughtered cows and sheep for the wedding feast. Well‑to‑do families slaughtered a large number of animals, while poorer families made do with a few sheep. I vividly recall my father’s excitement ahead of weddings, and how my mother ran barefoot to collect buho and help with the preparations as much as she could.
A few days before a wedding, a huge gazebo called a das was erected in the middle of the village. Its size depended on the wealth of the family hosting the wedding. We children scuttled between the feet of the adults hard at work, who occasionally sent us to fetch eucalyptus branches to build the canopy.
When it was time, a village elder blew a goat’s horn shofar, which blared through the village and surrounding fields. Everyone rushed to the gazebo ‑ the sound of the shofar was the signal that the party was starting.
Part of the gazebo was set aside especially for the young couple, their families, and the groomsmen, and all the other guests sat around them. The villagers sang special wedding songs accompanied by eskista dances ‑ a traditional Ethiopian folk dance involving vigorous shoulder jerking. Christian and Muslim guests dined separately from the Jewish guests but joined in the communal dancing.
At dusk the bride arrived on an ornamental saddle atop a mule, joined by the groom and his groomsmen. Some grooms gave their brides a piggyback ride all the way to the village, even over extremely long distances. When the guests heard them coming, everyone spilled out to greet them in song and dance. We children also joined the procession, but we were usually not allowed to join the dancing. We were still only children, after all.
The villagers led the bride into the gazebo to her seat. She sat down, still fully covered, next to the groom, as a huddle of female relatives tried to explain what was going on. The sun set, and the village was filled with the sounds of the masenko (a single‑stringed horsehair lute) and kebero (a traditional hand drum). There was no lighting, and obviously no sound system, but who cared? Everyone sang and danced and was merry.
After the kes blessed and sanctified the young couple, the village elders lavished the groom, and particularly his family, with praise. Despite our longing for Jerusalem, the groom did not step on a glass in memory of the Temple ‑ like in Jewish weddings in the rest of the world ‑ because this custom originated in the Babylonian Talmud, not the Torah, and Ethiopian Jewry split off from the rest of the Jewish world before the Talmud.
The villagers did not speak freely about sex, certainly not with the children. Whispers and giggles were the hallmark of another ceremony to confirm the bride’s virginity ahead before the couple consummated the marriage. If the bride was old enough, the couple consummated the marriage straight after the wedding. But in many cases, she was just a girl.
The groom’s best man was the beker, and one of his main roles was to accompany the bride to the tukul where she would undergo a virginity test. He swore an oath to the village elders to report the true results. The test itself was conducted by two reputable village women using a wosfe, an instrument with a round head and a similar diameter to an adult penis. If the bride was indeed a virgin, they took a shash (a thin white cloth), smeared it with animal blood, stepped outside and waved it in the air. If the bride was too young to have sex, the test was only performed after the wedding, when she came of age.
If the women failed to venture out to dangle the bloodstained cloth, it was a sign that the bride was not a virgin. In this case, the groom ripped the string tied around his head, the wedding was called off immediately, and the bride was banished in disgrace from the village back to her parents’ home. I have heard it said that sometimes the poor girl was also beaten, but neither my parents nor I have any recollection of this happening in our village.
Either way, the cancellation of the wedding and the expulsion of the bride were not a matter of discretion, unless the kes ruled that the girl had lost her virginity due to rape. No man would agree to receive a non‑virgin bride. This seems strange, even outrageous, to Western eyes, but this was life. The community preferred not to discuss such things. Sex was a total taboo.
If everything was in order, the groomsmen accompanied the newlyweds to their new tukul. We children hid between bales of hay and in the adjacent houses to try to hear what they were doing. The bride and groom entered their new home, the best man guarded the door, and the other groomsmen returned to the party. After the newlyweds had sex, the best man entered and wiped a drop of the bride’s blood off the groom’s penis with shash, the white fabric. He presented this stained cloth to the village elders as proof of consummation. The bloodstained cloth, still wet, was wrapped around a seft ‑ a special handmade bowl. The best man walked through the crowd holding it; the guests roared with joy and the women burst into jubilant ululations.
A few days after the wedding, the bride’s parents invited the groom’s parents to another celebration, called milash, and slaughtered a sheep to mark the creation of their new, extended family.
In Ethiopia, the women were responsible for day‑to‑day family life. When a husband came home from working in the fields, it was customary for his wife to wash his feet with warm water and kiss them. My mother did the same and then served my father his food. That was our culture, and nobody saw it as humiliating or degrading.
When disputes arose between a man and his wife, the communal elders entered the fray in a bid to mediate and find a compromise. It was strictly forbidden to defy them. Their decisions were final, like court rulings. Whenever the woman was violently abused, it was usual for the couple to divorce, but divorced women found it very difficult to remarry, while divorced men could easily find another virgin bride. As a result, every effort was made to try to preserve domestic peace.
For generations we kept our faith despite the best efforts of missionaries, who constantly targeted us for conversion. The Ethiopian authorities also tried to sway the Jews: any Jew who converted to Christianity was entitled to various state benefits, including land. One family in our village who decided to embrace Christianity was immediately smeared as falashmura (“cut off from our lives”). The converts were ostracized, left the village, and quickly had themselves tattooed with crucifixes ‑ on the forehead for women, and on the arm for men ‑ as visible proof that they had abandoned their Judaism.
We treated the falashmura with intense revulsion, lest they destabilize our faith and make us doubt the possibility of redemption. The loathing was certainly mutual. From the moment our former neighbor converted, he started spitting every time he saw us in the meadows or by the river. He called us kayla ‑ cannibals. Nowadays observers might treat Ethiopian Jewry as monolithic, but the truth is that these internal communal rifts still exist in Israel.
For white people, all dark‑skinned people look the same color. By the same token, in Ethiopia we thought that all white people looked the same but we were adept at distinguishing between different shades of black. Those with darker skin were often insulted and treated with disrespect. Everything in life is relative, even racism.
One of the most common insults was barya, a word that we children whispered to each other in trepidation, without understanding its true meaning. There was a boy in our village called Gedamu. His family lived on the outskirts of the village and worked for one of the more established families. Gedamu’s skin was darker than ours, and we called him barya.
The barya were members of tribes from the Sudanese border who were stripped from their families, converted to Judaism, and were forced to work for wealthy families. They tilled their masters’ lands, tended to their flocks and cattle, and handled all their day‑to‑day work, without any rights or land of their own. They received no pay for their work, only dwellings and food. Sometimes a barya reached his feudal lords as a child, having been bought to serve as a shepherd, and when he grew up, he became a farmer and a servant. Anyone born to a barya family was forced to continue his parents’ work.
Gedamu belonged to a barya family, and everyone knew it. Like him, the other barya were also darker‑skinned and were identifiable by other giveaway characteristics. Those of us who were not barya were called chewa ‑ people with slightly lighter skin. Like me, for example.
When our village started preparing to move to Israel in the 1980s, there arose a dispute: what should be done with Gedamu’s family? Some saw them as part of the community, since they dwelled among us and raised their children in the village. Others saw them as a foreign implant. Both sides voiced their opinions, but in the end the family who owned Gedamu and his parents decided that they would come with us. They still live in Israel today but have severed all connections with their former masters in Ethiopia.
Many Ethiopian Jewish families brought their barya with them to Israel. If in Ethiopia the subject was brushed under the carpet, in Israel it was kept totally hidden. This internal racism has largely survived the present day. Ethiopian Jews do not marry barya, and it is forbidden to speak to them. I once met an IDF Paratroopers’ officer from a barya family. He had planned to marry his Ethiopian girlfriend, but her family refused and threatened to boycott the wedding. He ended up marrying a white woman.
A few years ago I attended a miserable wedding, with very few guests, with a barya groom. Just before the wedding, his former slave master from Ethiopia snitched that he was a barya. The bride’s family demanded that the couple break off the engagement and eventually refused to come to the wedding. The fact that the barya families underwent a full conversion according to Jewish law when they moved to Israel was of no consequence to anyone.
But I cannot help but ask: Are we Ethiopian Jews in Israel not tantamount to barya, as far as our white compatriots are concerned?