Walk just two blocks in Jerusalem’s city center and you’re likely to hear five different languages spoken; Hebrew, Arabic, English, French and Russian. On a recent Shabbat visit to learn more about the leadership, mission and this year’s Pesach plans at Jerusalem’s Ethiopian Jewish congregation, Amud HaEsh (Hebrew for Pillar of Fire), we were treated to the sounds of a sixth tongue. The congregation’s service, prayer, music and teaching were rendered throughout not only in English and Hebrew, but also in Amharic, the Semitic national language of Ethiopia.
“If one were asked to compare two modern Semitic languages, his choice would almost automatically fall on Hebrew and Arabic,” wrote Jack Fellman, Senior Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, in a linguistic article published by Indiana University in 1975, “for indeed these two languages and the peoples and cultures they symbolize are by now quite interconnected in twentieth-century consciousness … However … although the two languages are linguistically similar sociolinguistically they are quite different. … a closer partner for Hebrew might well be Amharic, the African-Semitic language of Ethiopia.”
As Fellman’s article suggests, Amharic speech sometimes sounds surprisingly like Hebrew to untrained ears, but the unlikely blending of two modern cultures, one from the Middle East’s only Jewish Nation, the other from a predominantly Christian country in the Horn of Africa, has created a crisis in Israel for Ethiopian Jewish youth.
The Ethiopian community has the highest suicide rate among youth in Israel; most Ethiopian Jewish families live in poverty; over six percent of Ethiopian students in Israel drop out of school between the ages of 14 to 17, double the national average; almost half the families of Ethiopian school children cannot afford to buy basic supplies and the arrest rate of Ethiopian youth is the highest in Israeli society.
How did this happen? The biblical narrative in First Kings of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Israel and King Solomon nearly 3,000 years ago is considered by many scholars to be no more than a legend yet, according to Jewish historian, Josephus, in his history, Antiquities of the Jews, Sheba was indeed the queen of Egypt and Ethiopia who, among other things, carried specimens of balsam with her on her visit.
Exactly when and how it happened that a large community of real, Torah observant Jews came to live in the Horn of Africa is unclear, but French Jew, Joseph Halevy, visited Ethiopia in 1867 and provided an eyewitness account of Ethiopian Jewry from a European Jewish perspective. “Halevy described a community that followed legal sections in the Hebrew Bible and observed laws of purity surrounding menstruation, birth, and death. They observed Shabbat and believed in values such as respecting elders, receiving guests, and visiting mourners.” [Read more…]
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