Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Bond Hall was filled this past Friday with over seventy people, including Registrar Martin Warner. The impetus for such a crowding was the theme of Ruach’s Big Shabbat: Jews in Ethiopia. Unlike most Fridays where only one service is offered, the considerably larger turnout allowed for two services, one traditional and one more reconstructionalist. Following the service, Professor Andre Key of Temple University came to discuss the Jewish presence in Ethiopia, a subject generally not often discussed in the Jewish community at Swarthmore and in the world at large. Key is currently offering a course at Temple on Ethiopian Jews; such a course, Key stressed, has never been taught in the entire world.
Key began his talk with an interactive exercise. He instructed the crowd to reply, “Africa,” whenever he said, “Egypt.” Repeating this exercise a couple of times, he hoped to impress the idea upon his audience that Egypt is indeed in Africa and, therefore, that the concept of Jewish culture in Africa should not seem so strange. He then continued on to discuss two different theories concerning the origin of Jews in Ethiopia. One theory, the traditional few being held by Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia, suggests that some Jews found their way into Ethiopia after the exodus led by Moses out of Egypt. While Moses went north, others split away and went south. The second theory asserts that Ethiopian Jews are the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Queen of Sheba supposedly bore a child who brought back Judaism and Solomonic lineage to Ethiopia. Indeed, until very recently, Ethiopian monarchs have considered themselves direct descendants of Solomon.
Key structured the majority of his time around answering questions from the audience. The focus of these questions centered around the differences between Ethiopian Jews and Jews in other parts of the world. Surprisingly, although some discrepancies exist, the practices of Ethiopian Jews are similar to those of the rest of the Jewish world. The major difference that exists is that the holy language of Ethiopian Jews is Ge’ez rather than Hebrew. Although Ethiopian Jews do follow practices rather similar to those of Jews outside of Africa, the fundamental question of whether Jews in Ethiopia are truly Jews. Did the unique environs of Africa create a religion apart from what the western world considers Judaism? Key maintained that much of what Jews in Ethiopia have experienced has been felt by European Jews. As was the fate of the homes of many Jews in the twentieth century, Ethiopia was decimated during World War II by the Axis powers. More broadly, Ethiopian Jews share the same concept of Zion, a Jewish homeland in Jerusalem, as do other Jews. According to Key, many Beta Israel priests — Ethiopian Judaism employs priests rather than rabbis — refused to sleep on proper beds until they could sleep in Jerusalem.
Today, as a result of Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991 — airlifts carried out by Israel and the United States — over eighty five percent of Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to Israel. There has been a large attempt by Ethiopian Jews now in Israel to preserve their distinct traditions.
After saying the Kiddush and Motzi, the blessings over the wine and bread, the evening came to a close with a traditional Ethiopian meal cooked by Sarah Apt, class of ’10, and others. All were treated to fare such as lentil salad and peanut covered baked bananas until the food ran out — which it did quite quickly.