The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia

Article excerpt

by Hagar Salamon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 157 pp. $17.95.

The discovery of co-religionists in Ethiopia aroused latent racial tensions in world Jewry and sparked a major discourse regarding the identity of Ethiopian Jews. Significantly, the proclamation of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel that the group was descended from the lost tribe of Dan linked the Beta Israel to the Jewish people in a way that did not challenge the underlying presumption of Jewish common descent. When Jewish religious authorities were debating the issue of admitting the Falashas to Israel, they asked, Are the Falashas real Jews? But the real question according to Hagar Salamon should be: What did it mean to be a Jew in Christian Ethiopia, and particularly, what were the cultural manifestations and organizing principles that governed Beta Israel's experience? The drama of their position as a marginal group in Christian Ethiopia was altered into an internal Jewish drama when they encountered the Jewish world outside Ethiopia. However, for the Beta Israel, who were for a long period cut off from other Jewish communities, the question of Jewish identity was governed by the dynamic concept of transformation and was, as this book demonstrates, profoundly related to Christianity.

Salamon, a lecturer in Jewish Studies and Folklore at the Hebrew University, conducted in-depth interviews with more than 100 members of the group who migrated to Israel from various regions of Ethiopia. In presenting their perspective she proffers a system of opposing categories claiming they are fundamental to the economic and ideological relationships of Jews and Christians in Ethiopia. Underlying her interpretation is the theorem of "the constancy of real objects." Salamon explains, "The notion that a person could be an ordinary man by day and a hyena by night is a concept foreign to the most fundamental categories of modern western thought." On this note she begins her intriguing exploration of the Ethiopian meanings of transformations in the relations between Jews and Christians.

The belief in the transformations of people, material, and forms characterized intergroup relations in Ethiopia. Transformation was ubiquitous and emerged as the central idiom in Jewish-Christian relations. Beta Israel were not distinguished from their Christian neighbors by any physical, visual, or linguistic differences and would seem to have belonged to a single group. However, it was precisely on the physical level that contact between Jews and Christians was forbidden, on the grounds that it led to contamination and transferred impurity. Christians also refrained from close contact with Beta Israel out of fear of magical curses. Both groups developed different mechanisms designed to enable routine daily ties between them.

Economic ties were based on a hierarchical structure in which firm cooperation existed in agriculture and livestock tending as well as in crafts in which Jews specialized. To explain the nature of work relations between the groups, Salamon's informants resorted to a language replete with contrasts and transformations. The land, the main source of livelihood for both groups, belonged to the Christians, and Beta Israel worked it as tenants. The inequality and unfairness of the situation was apparent also in the appellations Christians gave to Jews. Jewish claims to ancient roots in Ethiopia were incompatible with the Christian denial of their right to own land. Christian attempts to justify their ownership indicated awareness that the Jews once owned lands in Ethiopia and potentially might do so again.

The specialized crafts practiced by Beta Israel were highly charged with transformative tensions. Men worked as smiths and weavers, while women made pottery; both crafts involved the mutation of material forms through the use of fire. Christians were ambivalent towards these occupations. They considered the craftsmen inferior but had great need for their products: clay utensils, plows, knives and weapons. …