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Crossing The Sambatyon

Crossing The Sambatyon

Ethiopian Jews here have dreams — and demands.

Associate Editor

The Tribe of Dan — long thought to be one of the 10 Lost Tribes — will judge the rest of Israel, says the Holy Book, and last week they did exactly that.

Yes, maybe Israel did carry, on the mysterious wings of iron birds, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel, they of the Tribe of Dan, say mystics and chief rabbis) from Africa to Israel, during Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991), but that was then.

Earlier this month, about 200 Ethiopian Jews here in New York, many connected to Bina and Chassida Shmella, Ethiopian groups that usually traffic in gentle cultural delights, gathered in Columbia University’s Kraft Center for a more political evening, where “We demand,” said one petition, an end to “discrimination in education, employment, housing, religion, and police brutality against Ethiopian Israelis.”

They were serious but not alienated, insisting they were “proud Israeli citizens,” Israelis “of Ethiopian origin, who love Israel… our hopes and prayers are with Israel.” Serious, but not angry, not at all like Black Panthers but more like Oliver Twist simply asking for more, please, and all the more heartbreaking and endearing for that.

Ephraim Isaac, a professor of linguistics at Princeton University and “chairman of the Coalition of Ethiopian Elders,” told the gathering, to considerable applause, that the problems faced in Israel today are “a racial problem, it’s a problem of ignorance.”

There is evidence of change. In February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said, “We are full of admiration for Ethiopian immigrants,” appointed Beylanesh Zevadia, who immigrated to Israel on her own when she was 16, Israel’s first Ethiopian-born ambassador to Ethiopia.

Bizu Riki Mullu, the young woman who founded Chassida Shmella, said in the corridor, “I had so much concern, whether people would come tonight,” but more, “that it shouldn’t be anti-Israel, that it be understood that we have a problem and we’re all trying to fix it. A positive message.”

This was all in the spirit of her organization’s name, Chassida Shmella, two words, in Hebrew and in Ethiopia’s Amharic, that in contrast to organizational names like “congress” or “committee” or “anti-defamation” that conjure up boardrooms and men in suits, means a curious bird, the “Stork,” in Hebrew (“chassida”) and Amharic (“shmella”).

Mullu, who left Ethiopia as a young girl, says the stork “epitomizes kindness,” a loving bird that cares not only for its own children but the orphans of other storks. The storks migrate between Jerusalem and Ethiopia, the legend goes, and when Beta Israel would see it in the African sky they’d sing, “Shmella, shmella, agerachin Yerushalayim deh nah?” (“Stork, stork, how is our beloved Jerusalem,”) for the villages knew a Zionism as poetic and with every bit the longing of the Eastern European villages a century earlier.

“We love Israel,” says Mullu. “But we have also a beautiful culture, and we want to keep it. I’m afraid that too many in the Jewish community see us as an outsider. We dreamed of coming back home [to Israel], but we are here now,” in New York, “and want to be part of this community, as well.”

Mullu lives on the Upper West Side where she goes to the Carlebach Shul, Bnai Jeshurun and a Yemenite minyan, where she feels “like I’m in an Ethiopian synagogue. It’s similar. I’m lucky to be living in this neighborhood. But I wish we had more Ethiopians so that sometimes we can be more sharing what we have with other people. We want to be welcomed. We have the same Torah. We want to remind Ethiopians here that we are part of one people, the Jewish people,” while reminding American Jews that “maybe we have darker skin but we are not different from other Jews who came from other countries.”

Batia Byob-Serratte, born and raised in Ethiopia until she was 10, now works with Israel At Heart, a group that frequently brings young Israelis — almost always with an Ethiopian Jew in every group — to North America to speak about Israel from their youthful and diverse experiences.

There are not many Ethiopian Jews in New York, less than a thousand according to several different estimates, and many younger than 50, but unlike Mullu, more than a few prefer to live in Harlem, north of 125th Street and south of Washington Heights, a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

“And so?” smiles Byob-Serratte. “One of the beauties of New York is its ethnic diversity, so I do feel more comfortable,” not to mention that living in Harlem enables her to stay in Manhattan and find “bigger homes for inexpensive prices.” While more Harlem residents speak Spanish than Amharic, “to be there, it just feels right.”

Byob-Serratte’s husband is not Ethiopian but a non-Jewish American black man whom she met in New York. “The majority of the Ethiopian people I know are not married to a Jewish person but are extremely committed to raising Jewish children. We were considering sending our daughter,” now in nursery school, “to a Jewish school” where the families were mostly Upper West Side Conservative Jews. However, “it becomes complicated when you do have a black child from a diverse background.”

Byob-Serratte speaks to her daughter only in Hebrew, unless they are in a public English-speaking environment. “We do songs in Hebrew, books in Hebrew, we watch Israeli children’s programs in Hebrew. Its very important to me, and to my husband who is not Jewish, that we raise our child Jewish. Passing down my tradition and culture is extremely important to me.”

Mullu says that when it comes to intermarriage, “We don’t know numbers. But we know this happens. This is in part because the American Jews are not so welcoming. When I’m in Israel and walk down the street, everyone knows I’m Jewish and Ethiopian. In America, we walk into a synagogue, everyone looks at us. They see our skin color. We are different. No one knows who or what we are. Ethiopians, we are not strong or pushy but a gentle, quiet people. Very often, Ethiopians don’t stay” where they feel unwanted and then instead “socialize with and marry non-Jewish people. It’s very, very sad for this community that has struggled for 2,000 to remain Jewish, often under horrible conditions, to now lose it in New York.”

They say there is a river, the Sambatyon, separating the 10 Lost Tribes from the rest of us. The river is turbulent, roiling and storming during the week, impossible to cross, impervious to any navigation except the messianic. Only on Shabbat does the Sambatyon become still, mild as a stream, but on Shabbat there’s no proper way to cross it.

Perhaps, perhaps not, but no one was supposed to find the Tribe of Dan until the end of days either.

On Shabbat, as if through still waters, Byob-Serratte walks north with her husband and daughter to the Fort Tryon Jewish Center in Washington Heights, and is content.

Beejhy Barhany, founder of the Ethiopian cultural and support group Bina, walks down to the Old Broadway Shul, just north of 125th Street, a small, mostly white congregation dating back to the days when Harlem was Jewish, Jews who crossed the Atlantic, not the Sambatyon.

“It’s a very open and receptive congregation,” she says, “a great place to worship.

And these were the verdicts from the Tribe of Dan.


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