It's early Sunday morning, and there's still a chill in the air
as Addis Ababa slowly awakens. But behind the seemingly quiet walls
of one of the city's sleepy streets stirs a scene of unexpected
There, in a compound comprised of makeshift buildings and a few
dusty stretches of yard, several hundred people are gathered. The
adults - half-obscured in a sea of white shawls - are bent forward
to the wail of morning prayer. The children are joined in a circle,
singing a simple song in Hebrew.
These are the members of Beta-Israel (house of Israel), also
known as the Ethiopian Jews, or Falashas (foreigners). They've
gathered here, at this compound, financed largely by Jews abroad, to
worship together, to study Hebrew, and most importantly, to work
toward immigration to Israel.
Many of these people say Ethiopia is no home to them, that they
have been rejected by their neighbors because of their religious
practices, and they long to make their way to a country where they
will find acceptance.
Yet, it is a strange irony of history that any Jew should feel an
outsider in Ethiopia. Of all the countries in the world, there is
perhaps no other where Judaism and Christianity have come as close
as they have in this sub-Saharan nation.
"In terms of life and customs and culture, Ethiopian Christians
are the only ones in the world with this close affinity to Jewish
culture and law," says Ephraim Isaac, professor of religion and
African studies and director of the Institute of Semitic Studies at
Princeton University, N.J.
Mingling of two cultures
The mingling of the two cultures is almost as ancient as the
roots of civilization itself. Ethiopian legend proudly insists on a
foundational link to ancient Israel, pointing to the Biblical
account of the journey of the Queen of Sheba to meet King Solomon in
Jerusalem. The Ethiopians claim the queen as one of their own, and
say the two monarchs conceived a son, King Menelik I, who became the
head of a dynasty which ruled Ethiopia for almost 3,000 years.
Modern historians discount this version of events, and most now
believe the Queen of Sheba came from Arabia. But regardless of the
truth of the legend, there is no disregarding the Semitic elements
that have permeated Ethiopia.
They appear most dramatically in the faces of the Ethiopian
people, many of whom display a striking mix of Semitic and black
African features. (The Ethiopians - famed throughout history for
their beauty and grace - have such a distinctive appearance that
some travelers to the continent say that Africans divide into four
groups: black, white, Arab, and Ethiopian.)
Semitic influence appears also in Amharic, the official language
of Ethiopia and the modern version of Ge'ez, an ancient tongue with
Hebrew roots. But it is in religion that the blending of the two
traditions has been most powerful. Half of all Ethiopians practice
the country's unique style of Orthodox Christianity, a religion
curiously melded with Judaism.
Common practices were in evidence centuries ago. Up through the
Middle Ages, the Ethiopian Christian church celebrated the Sabbath
on Saturdays. In a complex of royal buildings constructed in Gondar
in the 17th century by the Christian King Fasiladas, is a bath
designed for ritual purification, built to the exact specifications
found in the book of Leviticus.
Ethiopian Christians still practice circumcision and have dietary
restrictions similar to many Jews. And at the center of their
worship is the Ark of the Covenant. Every Ethiopian church keeps
hidden in a holy inner chamber a replica of the ark.
Many Ethiopians also believe that the original ark has been lying
quietly for centuries in a church in their northern city of Axum
(see story left).
At the same time, Ethiopia's Jews practice a unique brand of
Judaism strongly marked by Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. …