Wolleka Falasha village, once home to Ethiopian Jews known for their craftsmanship, is now a kitschy visitors’ spot, but the residents proudly preserve its Jewish heritage.
The brightly painted Star of David comes as a surprise on the road from Gondar toward the Simien Mountains, just around a bend as you leave the city in northern Ethiopia. “Wolleka Falasha Jewish Village,” the hand-painted sign proclaims.
Welcome to an abandoned Jewish village, one of Gondar’s top ten recommended tourist attractions. A few hundred Jews lived in this village for generations, until they left in the 1980s and early 90s. Some went by foot to Sudan and were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984. Others made their way to Addis Ababa and went to Israel from the capital.
There are no Jews left in the village of Wolleka. But today, the former Jewish village is a kitschy shopping stop for tourists on their way to treks in the Simien Mountains.
Ethiopia’s Jews, called “Falashas” or “strangers,” were typically not allowed to own land or property. This meant many of them turned to professional crafts, including pottery, blacksmithing, embroidery, and cloth and basket weaving.
Wolleka’s reputation as a craft center made it a natural home for a touristy market. But interestingly, the current residents have chosen to celebrate the village’s Jewish roots rather than let them fade into history.
One family keeps the keys to the old synagogue, a round, squat building located a ten-minute walk from the road. The turquoise Stars of David painted on the mud walls outside are starting to fade, but the interior’s intricate paint job is still preserved, a mosaic of natural paints made from red earth, ash, and water.