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December 01, 1989 - Image 47

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-12-01

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

titif

fit-frru

Natural Bedding and Home Furnishings

just as black, yet are accepted
as Jews. But these Ethiopian
Jews are so . . . different. For
example, there are people like
the woman I met who was
convinced the Beta Yisrael
were not Jewish because she
had heard they did not have
seders.
In fact, this woman is cor-
rect that Ethiopian Jews did
not have seders. Seders are
rabbinic in structure, and
because Ethiopian Jews were
isolated from other Jews
before Talmudic times, the
seder is a recent development
in their practice of Pesach.
Until recently they fasted and
had a karban pesach, a
Passover sacrifice, complete
with smearing the blood of
lamb on their doorposts as
described in Tbrah. Since the
sacrifice was stopped, they
have continued to observe the
festival through prayer, re-
counting the Exodus, eating
unleavened bread, and
scrupulously avoiding
'chametz.
r In 1984, I spent seven
months in Israel working
with recent Ethiopian im-
migrants. A friend in the
United States sent me an ar-
ticle from a Jewish newspaper
about Ethiopian immigrants
in S'fat, describing them as
not only illiterate, but unable
to hold a pencil or open and
close a window. I read it with
pain and rage. I had been in
the very absorption center
the reporter had visited, and
knew the people she was
describing. Among them were
several who had studied
through the high school level
in Ethiopia and spoke
English, yet there was not a
word about them.
After returning to the New
York area, I happened to be
r===. introduced to the reporter. I
asked her why she had writ-
> ten what she did. Her answer:
"I wrote what I saw." But she
saw only what she was
prepared to see while wearing
ethnocentric blinders: that
people from Africa are
primitive; there's no point in
asking a group of primitives,
"Who here speaks English?"
Last year, The Jewish
Museum in New York City
held an exhibit on Ethiopian
Jewry. The Museum bulletin
describing the exhibition
stated that "Contrary to com-
mon belief, the Beta Israel
did not traditionally possess
many of the objects and sym-
bols used in normative
Judaism. The now well-
known photographs taken in
the late 1970s and '80s that



depict the Beta Israel holding
lbrah scrolls and wearing
prayer shawls in front of a
synagogue surmounted by
the Star of David are really
reflections of external Jewish
influences ... "
This has been described by
some Jewish scholars as
ethnology — an outside view
of a people. It is that, but to
me it is also Jewish ethnocen-
trism in scholarly garb, say-
ing, in effect, "We will analyze
these people in terms of our
definition of Judaism, not in
their terms."
One would not know it from
the bulletin, but Beta Yisrael
had lbrah, albeit in Ge'ez (an-
cient Ethiopic, a Semitic
tongue close to Hebrew) and
customarily bound in a book
rather than rolled in a scroll.
It was written on parchment
and, according to an Ortho-
dox rabbi in Israel who
studied this matter, the
words were laid out in col-
umns on the pages according
to the same formula as Tbrah
texts in scrolls.
The six-pointed star was
used historically by both
Jews and Christians as no
more than an ornament until
the 19th century when Jews,
seeking a "symbol" of
Judaism akin to the Christian
cross, adopted its use, which
was taken up by the Zionist
movement. What is to be
learned about the intrinsic
Jewishness of Beta Yisrael
from the bulletin informa-
tion? They didn't have the
Star of David? Is there any
meaning beyond the message
that "they" are different from
"us" in terms of this practice?
One of the most striking
aspects of the Jewish
Museum exhibit was its
failure to rely on Ethiopian
Jews for testimony as to their
origins. People who have had
an opportunity to spend time
with Ethiopian Jews are
moved by the enormous
power of their self-perception
as Jews.
"All our lives in Ethiopia,
we were treated differently
because we were Jewish,"
they say. "We prayed to come
to Jerusalem, just as our
fathers and grandfathers had
prayed, so that we could be
with other Jews."
If Beta Yisrael attachment
to Jewish values is intense, so
is their dedication. The fact
that over 2000 of them died in
the attempt to reach Israel
can be read as the ultimate
Jewish devotion.
It is also important to note

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THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

49

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