Once, on a Sunday morning, I labored up the hill leading to the Kechene neighborhood of Addis Ababa, through a maze of netele-clad vendors hawking their wares. Keeping to myself in typical Western style, I passed quietly by squat piles of purple onions, tufts of cut grass used in coffee ceremonies, and bright red tomatoes, focused only on getting to my destination on time. I was relieved that Ethiopians generally value relationships over timeliness, because strangers delayed my journey by approaching me to shake my hand, right arm extended, left hand placed at the right elbow, in classic Ethiopian style. Their faces exuded warmth as they proclaimed, “Shalom, Melissa!” I was on my way to teach my second Hebrew class and word of the identity of this faranj had spread quickly through this surprisingly intimate neighborhood of approximately 100,000.
The pop-up shuk gave way to a less crowded, asphalt-paved road populated by pairs and trios on their way to and from the market. I checked the time and sped up my pace. Suddenly, an aged, wrinkled, man wearing an ill-fitting, mismatched suit and wrapped in a traditional gabi reached out to me. He took both of my hands in his and humbly uttered, “Moshe led us once from Egypt. May you now lead us to the land of Israel in this generation.” While I do not fancy myself a modern day Moshe, I was at once both crushed and inspired by his plea, understanding that he believed with complete body and soul that Hashem would usher his community to Israel when the time was right. It was evident to me that he believed the time was, in fact, right now.
As Purim approaches and we are reminded of our privilege of practicing Judaism openly through Esther’s journey, I think of this community of Bal Ej Jews, with whom I spend several months per year. Although they haven’t traditionally celebrated Purim because their traditions stem only from the Orit (Torah) and not from Neviim, Ketuvim, or talmudic practice, they have a long tradition of hiding Judaism and are currently shedding their masks, in Esther-like fashion.
This pre-talmudic community of Bnei Anousim includes members who have maintained Jewish practice in secret, while outwardly appearing to practice Christianity, for fear of harm. Many traditions were lost as they painfully forsook written copies of the Orit and committed teachings to memory. For hundreds of years, most knowledge was passed on from elder leader to elder leader and to others only on their deathbed. They developed a complex system of covert rituals, as did other persecuted Jewish communities, to maintain and express Judaism clandestinely.
On Shabbat these days, they continue to pour kiddush wine from a vat with three handles and a triangular shaped mouth so that when viewed from above, if you know what you are looking for, you can see a Magen David. As in a game of telephone, sometimes teachings were forgotten or misunderstood.
When I asked about their tradition of praying in a circle, I was told that they used to face Jerusalem when praying, but over the many years of fleeing and relocating, they lost the knowledge of the direction of Jerusalem. Therefore, they developed this formation so that they were confident at least one person was facing the correct direction. In the modern day, with access to compasses, maps, and GPS, they maintain this tradition because it has come to symbolize that Hashem is among the community.
Sometimes, I noticed that individual women were absent from Hebrew class and through this I learned that some fundamental mitzvot, such as niddah, are still maintained. Through celebrating Pesach and being welcomed into people’s homes for meals, I learned that some also maintain dietary laws, eating only meat they know was slaughtered according to kashrut. This means slaughtering sheep and goats themselves, with cleavers honed to perfection, on the front stoop of their homes or the synagogue, because there are no kosher butcher shops in Ethiopia.
Although these are important practices, the younger generation realized their knowledge of Jewish tradition wasn’t full enough to pass on a meaningful Jewish life to their children. They knew that if didn’t revitalize Judaism now, their traditions would disappear and their ancestors would have hidden for naught. They wanted to fully express Judaism and rejoin the broader community of world Jewry, so they approached their elders, whom they call Abba and Ima, and proposed that they claim Judaism openly. They wanted to reconstruct their own traditions as well as learn about talmudic Jewish practice. For years, families and neighbors were torn apart because of disagreement regarding this matter, but eventually the elders granted their support.
The transition hasn’t been easy and the new, open practices have perplexed some. One older woman expressed to me that continuing the Jewish traditions of her parents meant praying silently and this “new” tradition of spoken prayer seemed unfamiliar, strange, and fundamentally un-Jewish. In her experience, in the bustling capital of Addis Ababa, Muslim and Christian calls to prayer penetrate the smoggy air at all hours of the day and night, but no audible Jewish prayer existed. Her hands gestured wildly as she described that prayer now sounded like, “blah, blah, blah,” and I gathered that from her perspective prayer now had a sound instead of a presence and that being Jewish was inherently linked to secrecy.
One afternoon in the lobby of the Sarem hotel, over miniscule cups of hot coffee and warm soft drinks, friends and I engaged in a long discussion about the history, present, and future of their community. Belayneh, when he is able to fall asleep, is constantly awakened by new ideas to improve the community’s situation. Asalef works hard to create a relationship between community and the State of Israel. Eldad, a young man who is defined by his strong friendships with others, is committed to remaining together as a group. Zelalem and Seble, devoted mothers, decided to raise their children as the first generation of openly Jewish Bal Ej in hundreds of years.
Their individual and collective stories coalesced and I murmured, “Im ein ani li, mi li…?” I discussed their embodiment of Hillel’s teaching, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” with a young community member named Demeke, who has a love of and talent for all things musical. Within a few days he’d composed a tune in the Ethiopian style and taught it to the community. In a poignant blending of talmudic and Ethiopian traditions, even the youngest children now sing these words proudly, like an anthem, fully claiming Judaism openly, in the spirit of Purim.
This community is the subject of an upcoming documentary film by Irene Orleansky produced by the author entitled: Bal Ej: Hidden Jews of Ethiopia. Please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or the filmmaker at email@example.com to arrange a screening near you.