Walking along the neighborhoods of Morasha (in Jerusalem) and the Russian Compound, you’ll encounter street names like Bnei Brit, HaRav Shmuel Salant, HaHavatselet – Hebrew names, Jewish concepts. But turn off HaNeviim (Hebrew for “the prophets” – can’t get much more Jewish than that!) and you’ll find yourself on a street whose name appears entirely unrelated to the Jewish experience – Ethiopia Street.
Well, the name appears entirely unrelated to the Jewish experience because it is. The street takes its name from the Ethiopian church that stands upon in – a church whose foundations were laid in 1882 and that took 10 years to build. Many of the houses that line the street are also Ethiopian in origin, constructed by Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II in order to generate more income for the church.
Of course, this is Israel, so the story does not end there. Even on a street named Ethiopia, a street named for the church that dominates it, Jewish connection runs deep. Even the homes built by Menelik II tell a Jewish story – although some served as family residences, his constructions also housed Hadassah Hospital’s original school for nurses! And if you look carefully at the façade of another of his homes – its modern address is 8 Ethiopia Street – you’ll see a Lion of Judah gazing at you from above the top balcony. Also making their homes on Ethiopia Street were Israeli luminaries such as Eliezer ben Yehuda, regarded as the father of modern Hebrew, the pioneering Israeli journalist Dov Frumkin, and the woodcut artist Jacob Pins.
I was so struck by the idea of Ethiopia in Jerusalem that I found myself wondering about Jews in Ethiopia itself. Like so many, I learned with pride and amazement about Operation Moses, which brought 6500 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel, and Operation Solomon, which rescued nearly 15,000 more in only 36 hours, and have visited with Ethiopian immigrants to Israel at absorption centers in Givat HaMatos and Mevasseret Zion. And I am luckier than most in that my brother-in-law, also a rabbi, visited Jews that remained in Ethiopia and brought news as well as information about supporting the community. But here are a few things I did not know and found fascinating – I hope you do as well:
One: The first reference to Beta Israel comes from the ninth-century diary of a merchant named Eldad Hadani, who described himself as the citizen of an independent East African Jewish state comprising the ancient tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher (it is interesting to note that these were the four sons of Jacob born not to the traditional matriarchs Leah and Rachel but to their handmaids Zilpah and Bilhah).
Two: In the thirteenth century, a group claiming to be descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba took control of Beta Israel. Centuries of war between Beta Israel and Ethiopia’s Christian kings ensued, and Beta Israel lost independence in 1622. The loss was devastating for Beta Israel as the victorious kings – in actions reminiscent of enemies who had vanquished Beta Israel’s fellow Jews centuries earlier – confiscated Beta Israel’s land, forced them to convert, and sold them as slaves.
Three: Eldad Hadani’s claim would be at least partially validated by the Radbaz (Rabbi David B. Zimra), who in the sixteenth century issued a ruling that Jews from Cush – equated with Ethiopia – came from the tribe of Dan. Although the Radbaz had only theoretical knowledge of this community, his declaration would support Beta Israel’s recognition as full Jews.
Four: The Ethiopian Jewish community remained unknown to the wider world until 1769, when James Bruce – an explorer from Scotland – traveled to Ethiopia in search of the source of the Nile – and found Beta Israel instead.
Five: Five babies were born on planes traveling to Israel through Operation Solomon.
As I said, I was fascinated by all five facts – but it’s the fifth that’s really staying with me. Imagine going into labor in a destabilized and perilous Ethiopia, but knowing that your baby would live free and protected and secure in Israel.
That’s what I’ll probably be thinking about next time I find myself on Ethiopia Street.