in the rabbinical office of Bet Shemesh, Kess Hadane is seated between
two of his sons in a warm family portrait. This iconic moment drew us deeply into
a poignant social and religious reality. Kess Hadane, once in charge of
twenty-five synagogues in the large Jewish town of Ambover, does not have access
to an Ethiopian synagogue for his own Sabbath worship. Instead, he assists the
rabbi of a local Israeli synagogue and prays Israeli-style. Yet his children thrive
in the Promised Land, distinguishing themselves in pursuits denied to the older
generation. Emanuel (on left) is a captain in the army, and Rabbi Yosef,
educated in the rabbinical school of Turin, Italy, during the 1970s, is the chief
rabbi of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. We had scheduled the interview
only with Kess Hadane and Rabbi Yosef. Captain Emanuel was a surprise
and welcome visitor, but without permission ahead of time from the Army Spokesperson's
Office, we could not interview him.
we came to Israel, the rabbinate told us that there are a few things we "forgot,"
that we didn't have a chance to learn in Ethiopia. We didn't like that way of
talking to us. I don't feel that I have to add anything to my Jewish practice.
. . . There is not even one Ethiopian synagogue in Bet Shemesh, where there are
more than a hundred families. - Kess Hadane
I believe is that our coming to Israel in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon
are miracles. For us to come out of Sudan [in 1984], which had no formal relationship
to Israel, was a miracle. For us to come out of Ethiopia during the cruel regime
of Mengistu Haile Mariam [in 1991], was also a big miracle, like the parting of
the Red Sea. In that operation, Israel brought more than 14,000 people from Ethiopia
in only thirty-six hours. Every single person had food to eat and a place to sleep.
There were people here in Israel to help every one of them. This was our exodus.
This is what I teach at our family's Passover. So I say, after Hashem did such
a miracle for us, what is our obligation, how do we thank God for this miracle?
What is our obligation to Israel, after what Israel did for us? - Rabbi
the 1960s, Yosef Hadane, the son of a respected religious leader, was a teenager
with an aptitude for learning. At the time, some of the most advanced thinkers
in the Beta Israel community, such as Yona Bogale and Shmuel Beri, were attempting
to connect their own tradition with rabbinic Judaism. Thus the talented Yosef
was selected to attend rabbinical school in Turin, Italy. Because his father,
Kess Hadane, was open-minded and trusted the people who were taking his
son from Ethiopia, he sent Yosef with his blessings. Yosef's mission was to become
a rabbi and return to Ethiopia to teach the Beta Israel community how the rest
of the Jewish world practices. But by the time he graduated with a rabbinical
degree, civil war had broken out in Ethiopia. The Marxists were poised to overthrow
Emperor Haile Selassie, and it was unsafe for Yosef to return. He was advised
to go to Israel instead, and so he immigrated in 1972, when there were perhaps
a few dozen Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
has been a fortuitous choice to represent rabbinic Judaism to the incoming Beta
Israel. He is not only a religious scholar, but also an affable communicator,
fluent in five languages, and politically astute. Over the next twenty years,
Rabbi Yosef facilitated the aliyah of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, including
his father and their extended family in 1985, and he helped create some of the
unifying aspects of Ethiopian Jewish life in Israel, such as the annual Sigd festival
in Jerusalem. In 1992, the rabbinate appointed Rabbi Yosef to be chief
rabbi of the Ethiopian community. His role is both powerful and subtle. The burden
of official work is enormous. For example, he must approve every marriage involving
an Ethiopian bride and groom to ensure their Jewish identity and that they are
not related. More broadly, Rabbi Yosef needs to help the community transition
to the inevitable future while respecting and including the past he shares with
them. His original mission as a rabbinical student in Italy is being fulfilled,
but in Israel rather than in Ethiopia.
Yosef, do you feel now that the relationship between the rabbinate and the kessim
is a healthy one?
Yosef: There is a big gap between the kessim and the rabbinate, very
little communication. Some kessim cooperate with the rabbinate and are willing
to learn more about Judaism than they had a chance to learn in Ethiopia. But I
cannot say all the kessim accept halacha [rabbinic Jewish law]. My father, though,
has always been willing to learn more and to be in touch with everyone.
Hadane, what do you do for religious observance without an Ethiopian synagogue?
What do you do on Shabbat?
Hadane: I go to the Israeli synagogue and we pray in Hebrew, not Ge'ez. I
was a respected religious leader and in charge of twenty-five synagogues in Ambover.
Here I am only allowed to assist a rabbi in one synagogue. There is not even an
Ethiopian synagogue in Bet Shemesh, where there are more than a hundred families.
Yosef, why is there is no Ethiopian synagogue for your father or the families
in Bet Shemesh?
Yosef: As the chief rabbi of Ethiopian Jews, I believe there must be synagogues
for the Ethiopians, just as there are for the Yemenites, the Ashkenazim, and so
on. If they do not have their own synagogues, then not all the people will go
to pray. They will not participate because they don't understand Hebrew well enough,
and for them to go and sit and not understand for several hours is very disappointing.
In Bet Shemesh, I tried to get the mayor to give his full support to the community,
but he will not. In Ashkelon, there are three Ethiopian synagogues. In Ramle,
there are also three.
does the mayor say is the reason he does not approve?
Yosef:: I don't know exactly why. I spoke with the chief rabbi of Bet Shemesh
about this, and we decided to meet the mayor together and listen to his reasons.
But still, I really don't know why.
Hadane, what was Fasika [Passover] like in your village in Ethiopia?
Hadane: The synagogue was close to my house and all the people would come
there to celebrate together. We would eat together, sing, pray, and celebrate.
It was something we all did as a community. We had our own Book of Pesach, which
explains the Passover story from the Torah, but we did not have the Hagaddah.
Rabbi Yosef: What I
recall is that we would pray in the synagogue, and afterwards they would bless
and eat the matzah. The family would make matzah, or we would get it from Israel.
Before we received matzah from Israel, the Ethiopian Jews practiced animal sacrifice.
They would slaughter a sheep. But in Ambover they stopped this in the mid-1900s
due to the influence of Dr. Jacques Faitlovich, who taught that we were forbidden
to sacrifice outside of the Temple. The Jews of Ambover stopped this practice,
but elsewhere in the villages around Ethiopia the sacrifices of sheep continued
[into the 1970s in some villages].
Hadane, how do you observe Pesach in your family now that you are in Israel? Are
you all together for one seder [Passover meal]?
Hadane: Yes, I have several sons here, and we all prepare Pesach for the extended
family, which, if you include everyone, even the little children, is more than
My father and I both lead the Seder. We all organize the food and reserve the
hall. My father does the Ethiopian prayers in Ge'ez and I use the Hagaddah. We
explain to everyone who is there about the Exodus from Egypt. In the next afternoon,
we gather again until Ma'ariv [evening prayers] and we learn. The adults and children
ask whatever they want to about the story.
would like to ask both of you if you are comfortable with the decision of the
government to accept the Falas Mura into Israel as Jews.
Hadane: I want them to come, but the people who organized the compound in
Addis Ababa have brought in some who are not Jews. They did not always know who
was Jewish. That was a problem. We want our people to come, but I think there
are some who go through the conversion ceremony and still don't follow Judaism
when they finish.
Yosef: Those who came from the Jewish tribe, the Beta Israel, should come
even if they were living a different lifestyle [as Christians]. Even though most
of them are descended from Jewish families, they should do the conversion ceremony
because they have been living as Christians. Of course, if there is intermarriage
with Christians, then the Christian must do the full conversion. You see, Yisrael
al-fa pisha ka ta yisrael: "Even if you sin, Jewish people are still Jewish."
That's what we decided.
they come to Israel, we have to help them no matter who they are. The problem
is that the government hears that some people come here who are not Jewish, so
they bring only a few hundred a month. If the government was convinced that all
of them are from Jewish families, I think they would bring them at a faster rate.
What is the process now
for the Falas Mura to be recognized as Jews?
Yosef: It is called Return to Judaism. They study Judaism and Hebrew, they
go to the mikveh [ritual bath], and the men are circumcised if necessary. If they
are already circumcised, it was not necessarily done by Jews in a way that is
correct, so they have to do it symbolically by taking a drop of blood. The studying
and Return to Judaism process takes one year.
is the process for an Ethiopian couple to get approval for a Jewish marriage?
Rabbi Yosef: I have
to confirm that the individuals are Jewish and that they are not related by blood
as cousins. To do that, I research their family tree seven generations back. I
start with where they were born. From knowing where they were born, I can tell
almost 90 percent of what I need to know. Then I ask the parents, uncles, cousins,
and the neighbors. Sometimes it's clear, or I already know them because I did
the tree for another family member. Other times it takes a long time. I keep my
own list. The difficulty with Ethiopian Jews is that it was an oral culture and
there were no written documents. There are about 250 to 300 marriages a year that
come through my office, but couples can go to their local rabbinical offices too.
But these also come to me for approval.
you ever refuse a couple?
Yosef: Yes, I do. When this happens, they are upset and angry. If I tell them
it's because one of them is not Jewish, they have to convert. Whether they do
is up to them. Otherwise, I cannot approve it. Then they cannot have a Jewish
wedding in Israel.
how has the meaning of the Sigd festival changed now that you are in Israel?.
Hadane: The meaning that it had in Ethiopia was to make it possible for us
to return to Jerusalem. We are still not in the Temple, so we are now praying
to rebuild the Temple and also praying for a greater acceptance of our people
in Israel. There is an additional purpose now?a competition for status among the
Ethiopians who speak at the observance.
Yosef, in the future do you think the Ethiopian practice of Judaism will disappear?
Yosef: We came to Israel because we are Jews; we believe in one God, the same
as all other Jews. Israel is for all of us. We all have to go in the same direction,
with the same beliefs. There must be as many rabbis as possible from our own community,
and we have to be represented in every field, every kind of job. We must see ourselves
as equal to everyone else. This is the only way we will have real integration.