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The secret Jews of Ethiopia

ShowImageElders of theBeta Israel community of North Shewa, Ethiopia . (photo credit:Courtesy)

Jews of Kechene, Ethiopia pretend to be Christians as they secretly practice Judaism in remote synagogues.

I have always been fascinated by the story of the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia.

At the time of the epic Operation Solomon, I was living in Russia. By the time I made aliya, the majority of the Ethiopian Jews were already in Israel. Here in Israel, I met many Ethiopian Jews and my interest in Beta Israel history and traditions became even stronger.

This is how one day, while reading a journey diary written in 1910 by the prominent European scholar Jacob Faitlovitch, I read his account of an encounter with a group of Falashas residing in the highlands of North Shewa region of Ethiopia, an area between Gondar, where most Jews lived, and the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

It took Faitlovitch some time to win the trust of these Falashas, to get any information from them. Finally, they revealed to him that they had come to North Shewa from the Dembiya region near Gondar, mostly at the time of Emperor Menelik II’s rule.

In his account, Faitlovitch discussed the difficulties they faced, which pushed them to pretend to be Christians.

“These Falashas live in a relationship of dependence and a lack of freedom which almost borders with slavery and they are strictly forbidden to ever leave the boundaries of the Shewa. Only rarely some of them succeed to move away secretly from the Shewa and to return to their homeland, where they will live again in the Falasha community as Jews.”

Faitlovitch expected this group to vanish in two generations, due to assimilation and persecution. More than two generations passed since that time.

Fortunately nowadays, access to information is much easier than at the time of Faitlovitch. With the help of the Internet, I contacted a group of Jews in the Kechene neighborhood of the northern part of Addis Ababa, who claim to be descendants of Beta Israel who migrated from Gondar to North Shewa.

I went on a long journey, not only a geographically but also in time.

The first historical account of Jewish presence in Ethiopia came from a 10th-century Jewish merchant and traveler Eldad Ha-Dani. He recounts that when the Northern Kingdom tribes of Israel went to war against the Southern Kingdom tribe of Judah, the Danites, who were renowned as skilled warriors, refused to fight against their kinsmen and left Israel for Egypt. They continued their journey until they reached the land of Cush where they finally settled.

According to their oral history, the Beta Israel of North Shewa settled in Kechene when Menelik II decided to build his new palace in Entoto, north of today’s Addis Ababa. Menelik II needed them for their skills in crafts to build his palaces and produce weapons.

For years, the Jews of Kechene continued practicing Judaism in secret, following the  instructions of the leaders who still remained in North Shewa. However, recently a group of young people of Kechene have decided to disclose their faith. They have opened a synagogue right in the heart of Kechene, creating serious tensions between the youth and the elders.


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