can i go home?

Tena yestelegne. That’s Hello in Amharic. I am now back from my recent 48 hour mission to Ethiopia (click here to see all the photos)… and oh what a strange and life-altering trip it’s been. Accompanying a group of Ethiopian Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity decades ago back to their promised land after thousands of years of yearning and dreaming: a tale of Biblical proportions… a bittersweet story of the migration of peoples in an ever changing global village… or a strange and fantastic legend straight out of Jewish folklore… I would soon find out.

The trip began at the airport in Tel Aviv Monday night. I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical, a little cynical perhaps, but ready for whatever was to come. I mingled amongst 170 staff members and laypeople from such Jewish organizations as the United Jewish Communities and the Joint Distribution Committee, all wandering about the terminal. They all carried little black backpacks with
the phrase “Live Generously. It does a world of good,” embroidered on them. My backpack was far larger and carried quite a heavy load – 150 lbs. of audio and video equipment to document the trip.

When I boarded the Ethiopian Airways charter flight to Addis Ababa , everyone glared at me suspiciously, wondering who I was and what I was schlepping on my back. Choosing discretion, I kept to myself at the start of the journey, anxious but full of curiosity. When I awoke at the end of the flight, I was in Africa . It was pouring rain.

The next leg involved a one hour flight on a small, propeller-driven aircraft to the Ethiopian city of Gondar. We landed at Azezo airport, which consists of one small landing strip with cattle grazing nonchalantly on the runway. I got into my jeep with six other people from the group and we set off for the village of Ambover in northern Ethiopia, once a thriving Jewish community. The ride was an off-road adventure along a bumpy stone road, with more mud than rocks paving the way.

Along the way, young children tending to their families’ cattle waved us by. We saw beautiful little girls holding
roosters by the neck. They chased after our jeep chanting “Shalom” or “money please” or an Amharic plea that sounded like “Yo, yo, yo” to the uninitiated. The sprawling countryside was breathtaking, the air sweet, the poverty excruciating to behold and overwhelming. Deep in the African countryside, my fellow Jeepmates slathered on mosquito repellent, fearful of being bitten by something giant, and perhaps even lethal.

We traveled in a ten jeep convoy with an escort of armed African militiamen to protect us. Our mission signs were plastered on our vans. No philanthropist, I felt like an impostor as I hung out the window taking snapshots of the children farmers or breastfeeding young mothers. I wanted to capture every single moment so that I would never forget where I was, so that others could share a taste of what I experienced.

We arrived in Ambover and I felt as if I had traveled hundreds of years back in time. There was no running water, no electricity, only thatched huts, cattle wandering about as if they ran the joint, babies and children dressed in ethereal white robes.

We soon were introduced to the Jewish roots of the village, visiting a school and a restored synagogue. This village was once filled with religious Ethiopian Jews who donned prayer shawls and prayed in this synagogue on the Jewish holidays and slaughtered animals according to the rituals of kashrut. The school was once bustling with young boys poring over chapters of the Torah.

Upon our arrival, we were swarmed by local villagers who greeted us with warm “shaloms.” Some wore yarmulkes while others had crucifixes tattooed on their foreheads. Our tour guides informed us that Ambover was currently occupied by no more than a handful of Falash Muras.

Leah with the Falah Mura

The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews who were converted to Christianity starting at the end of the 19th century, whether forcibly or otherwise. They were the subject of huge controversy in Israel, as the Israeli government debated whether they qualified under the Law of Return to receive Israeli citizenship. The government recently decided to bring this astounding community home. I was now witnessing the results of this historic decision.

There were currently a thousand people living in the village and surrounding areas. Some actually lived outside under trees. The luckier ones had a one room hut. They seemed happy… at peace. They had nothing, yet they gave us the impression they were satisfied, as if they had everything in the world. I met a young girl whose father had made it to Israel two years ago. She wanted to join him there, but was deemed illegible to immigrate by the Israeli government.

Back in Gondar, I visited the Jewish Agency headquarters. As I walked in, a little boy was having his passport picture taken for his trip to Israel. Others were receiving their vaccinations and taking part in final interviews. I knew these were the lucky ones. One man had camped out in front of the Jewish Agency for ten years after walking for a week to get there. He declared that he would make it to the Promised Land even if it took him the rest of his life.

These Falash Mura were so determined to get to Israel! I was able to talk to many of them with the help of an interpreter. I was struck by how little they knew about what lay in store for them in modern Israel. They had no idea how far Israel was from Ethiopia. All they knew was that it was a land flowing with milk and honey. Their dream was to live in Jerusalem, although they weren’t clear about where exactly it was.

I stumbled upon a small room where hundreds of men wearing yarmulkes were studying Torah and Hebrew. Next door was a huge open space filled with women and children eating meals provided by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency. I wondered what these people would have done if not for these nourishment centers. It pleased me to know that Jews were taking care of their own. Tikkun Olam starts at home sometimes.

That same day we drove back to the airport. The trip back was equally as moving. It wouldn’t stop raining and the air was
fresh. I couldn’t get over how green everything was. Then the driver put on a local radio station and African hip hop blared in my ears. Our R&B is based on African rhythms, their hip hop on our own. Full circle, I thought. History being played out on all levels here.

We got back on our little plane around 6 pm and flew back towards the capital of Addis Ababa. It was one of the longest days of my life. The drive from the airport to the hotel was almost hard to comprehend. Fires burning in the streets, beggars almost everywhere – in a city with high rises and quaint shops and fast food joints.

The hotel in Addis was palatial in every sense of the word. The Sheraton, adorned with marble and gold, was built by an Arab oil tycoon. I felt right at home as I had to pass through a metal detector to get into the building. I got comfortable in my suite: a three room, seven star accommodation with a Jacuzzi and a bottle of complimentary champagne. Not that I could enjoy it as I only had 15 minutes to freshen up before heading downstairs for a beautiful meal. Since Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians, the European influences have remained… especially the culinary variety. Dinner was made up of lasagna, canoli and Fettuccine Alfredo. I couldn’t help but feel guilty living so lavishly while surrounded by such extreme poverty.

After a great night’s sleep in my king size bed, we drove into Addis Ababa to explore. We arrived at the Israeli Embassy to meet with the Ethiopians who would be moving to Israel that evening or in the coming weeks. The last stages of the Falash Mura’s aliyah process were mind-boggling. They were taught such basics as how to brush their teeth and use a pencil. I had often heard stories about what a shock it was to Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in modern Israel, and their first encounter with such hi-tech devices as TVs or an oven. Some spent hours staring at these foreign contraptions not knowing what to do with them.

There were more medical clinics and inoculations, final interviews and last minute instructions. The immigrants seemed both excited and petrified. Next was a visit to the JDC sponsored transit homes. These were houses with small rooms and dirt floors with mattresses on the floor. These transitional homes were the Falash Muras’ last sojourn before boarding the plane to Israel. The image of all of the family’s shoes lined up against the walls of these rooms according to size is burned in my memory. We were told that the homes may not look like much, but compared to conditions these people were used to living in, it was like paradise. That didn’t make me feel any better about the state of affairs.

The kids jumped rope and the parents spoke of what life would be like anywhere but there. When we left the transit homes, hundreds of street vendors bombarded us. They knew their target audience. Apparently, we weren’t the first Jewish group to come to the area, and we surely wouldn’t be the last. They were selling challah covers and talis bags with beautiful pictures of a Jewish Ethiopian family lighting Shabbat Candles.

Our last stop for the afternoon was at the shantytown slums of Addis. We were told it would be a bit dangerous and to leave everything on the bus, including our cameras. I snuck my mini digital camera into my pocket and began walking through the mean streets of the neighborhood. I peeked down an alleyway to see a young boy shooting up what I guessed was heroin. Open sewers flooded the streets. One woman was feeding her baby a rotten piece of fruit she had picked up from the ground. I was filled with different and conflicting emotions: guilt, pity, fear, disgust, helplessness, sorrow.

Just a two minute drive up the road from this abject poverty and we were back at our palace in the sky. I packed up my things attempting to digest all that I had seen and heard over the past 48 hours. I had spent a great deal of the trip crying, feeling guilty, feeling sick. Given the harsh reality of life in Ethiopia, I also couldn’t help but question the motives of the Falash Mura. Did they really love Israel? Were they even interested in returning to their Jewish roots? Or were they simply looking for a ticket out of this horrifying poverty? Life for them in Israel would be far from a life of milk and honey. The Ethiopian population has had the most difficult time integrating into Israeli society, compared with most other immigrant populations. At a McDonalds in Jerusalem, I once saw a slew of Ethiopian kids picking through garbage on the tables.

But I had to have hope. Meeting these long lost Jews first hand, I discovered they were sweet and kind and respectful and warm… some of the warmest human beings I had ever met.

The mission was capped by a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Used to the incredibly tight security surrounding the Israeli Prime Minister, it seemed remarkably easy for a group of 200 people to just walk into his office. We asked him the difficult questions like, “What is your government doing to help the Falash Mura…” He didn’t have an answer because the answer is really “nothing.”

Our final banquet was with the Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia , Yaacov Amitai. The last hours in Ethiopia were the most moving for me. We arrived once again at the Israeli Embassy to witness the final “farewells” of the would-be Olim with their families. Then, we traveled with them to the airport. The women were dressed all in white. The men and young boys wore brand new, somewhat ill-fitting suits. For them, today was the today they were going to fulfill a mitzvah in the name of all the generations before them. The children were dressed in the clothing given to them by the UJC that morning, along with their new schoolbags which they would use in their new classrooms in Israel.

Several Ethiopian Immigrants who had been living in Israel for more than 20 years addressed the crowds in Amharic, assuring everyone that their lives in Israel, though difficult in the beginning would be just fine; that the State of Israel would look after them and help them feel at home in their new homeland. We sang Hatikvah and I shed some more tears. The 90 or so olim boarded a bus for the airport, leaving behind everything they knew, everything that was familiar. They looked scared.

Our delegation held hands with the olim as they went through security in Addis. Many of the men were holding photos of relatives who they looked forward to reuniting with in Israel, relatives who they hadn’t seen in years, some in decades. And since there are no phones in the villages, many whose families had already left for Israel had not spoken to them since they had departed. One man was holding a photo of his long lost sister. He was certain he would find her when he got to Israel. He had no idea where she lived, but still had complete faith he would be reunited with her.

It was time to go home. It was a four hour journey for me, a journey began centuries ago by the Ethiopians — at least in their prayers — the return to Jerusalem… to Zion. They got off the plane singing “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” You could see a golden light in their eyes. There’d be some really tough times ahead for them. I hoped the Absorption Authorities had learned the lessons of the past waves of Ethiopian immigration, at least some of them.

On Friday, 90 Falash Mura returned home to Israel. The government has promised to bring the remaining 4,000 in Ethiopia to the Promised Land by the summer of 2008. Israel is currently home to 110,000 Ethiopian Jews. Many in Israel oppose bringing these former Jews to the country, even within the Ethiopian Jewish community itself. Many see them as opportunists, former Jews who willingly turned their back on their religion while others did not give in, while others remained loyal to their faith despite the danger and adversity.

But after my journey, I support bringing these Ethiopians home. Though many of them were living as Christians in Ethiopia, most of them are descended from Jewish families. Many have family in Israel They seem dedicated to converting to Judaism and re-establishing their roots. The Rabbis have a saying, “Yisrael af-al pi she khata yisrael: Even if you sin, Jewish people are still Jewish.” And the Jewish tribe can use all of the members it can get.

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