A Buried Secret

As the evening sun slipped behind the mountains surrounding the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Aselef grabbed my hand and pulled me through the dark, stone corridors between the houses. A narrow, metal doorway stood before us. We quietly entered as a faint, flickering light pierced the surrounding darkness. There, far beyond the noise of the crowded streets, a door slowly opened to reveal one lone menorah and a group of Ethiopian men wearing kippot inside a small, unpretentious structure. With warm smiles spread across their faces, these young members of the Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization stood and greeted us, ushering us in to their humble place of worship.

This congregation is part of a new and extraordinary effort by members of an ancient Jewish community to restore their forefather’s faith, preserve their history, and reclaim their Jewish identity. They are members of Ethiopia’s Beit Avraham community (as they call themselves), seemingly a hidden enclave of the Beta Israel who have remained largely invisible to both academia and the larger Jewish world at this time. Although perhaps inclined to compare the Beit Avraham to the Falash Mura, the Beit Avraham are apparently a separate, distinct sect of the Beta Israel that rather retained ancient Jewish practices under a shroud of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.

Thus, while the Beit Avraham outwardly appear Christian, they have continued to practice their forefathers’ faith in secret. “We were so confused [as children],” said Enewa, a young Beit Avraham man. Community members shared stories of parents worshipping in Orthodox Christian churches one minute and in the next, going to the countryside to practice some unknown, secret religion. Continually haunted by questions regarding this ‘hidden faith,’ many began to seek further explanation and explore their true identity, leading them to discover this so-called “secret religion” was in fact Judaism.14

Mysterious Origins

The Beit Avraham’s settlements extend from the northern Shewa region south to Addis Ababa, which is home to the largest enclave of Beit Avraham – roughly 50,000 – located in an area known as Kachene. Their origins are mysterious. Although questions surround their Jewish ancestry, Dr. Richard Pankhurst, renowned British historian and founder of Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University confirms their claim. Dr. Pankhurst asserts that although the community outwardly adheres to some form of Christianity, they were originally apart of the larger Beta Israel community. “I think they [Beit Avraham] were probably Beta Israel that were converted in some way or pretended to be converted.15 They’ve got all the economic features of the Beta Israel, and they’ve got some of the social customs,” Pankhurst said.

Likewise, a 19th-century German traveler named Isenberg, presumably the first Westerner to encounter enclaves of Beit Avraham in the mountains of Shewa, wrote in 1839,

Outwardly they are Christian…but they are strongly suspected of being Jews. They told me that if I had come on Saturday, they would not have received me as on that day they neither go out of their house nor kindle fires…I went home, being grieved at not having found real Christians, as I was formerly inclined to think them.16

Moreover, when Isenberg questioned an Ethiopian Orthodox priest about these people, he stated that they “join outwardly in fellowship with the Christians, but privately they follow their own religion, asserting the Messiah was still to be expected.”17

image: Potter's Hands

© Amy Cowen

Although little written documentation is available, oral accounts assert that the Beit Avraham most likely emerged from sects of the Ethiopian Jews of Gondar (in Northern Ethiopia) who were separated from the larger Jewish community in the 17th and 18th centuries. According to Beit Avraham historian Abba Seifu and the writings of Jacques Faitlovitch, an early advocate for Ethiopian Jews, sects of the Beta Israel located in the province of Dembeya18 traveled south with Emperor Nagassi and his successors Sebaste and Abbiye as skilled artisans in their service during the 1700s.19 Impressed by their skill, these emperors ultimately utilized them in the expansion and settlement of the Ankober area of the northern Shewa region in central Ethiopia. In turn, they found favor with their rulers and were given access to land that was otherwise denied due to their Judaic faith.20 “They had then…gradually lost all contact with the country from whence they had come,” wrote Pankhurst.21 Separated from the larger Beta Israel community, they ultimately grew to become known as the Beit Avraham.22

It was there, the Beit Avraham would have been under the direct influence of Christian kings and surrounded by their once feared Christian neighbors. Beit Avraham historians, Aba Assefa and Aba Seifu said Christianity began to penetrate the community due to the influence or evangelization of the kings, although the exact timing and source of the “conversions” to Christianity is not definitively known.23 Conversions may have been forced or simply a means to blend into mainstream society to elude discrimination and persecution. Today, many Beit Avraham outwardly appear to adhere to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, yet beneath the apparent image lie remnants of Jewish culture and religious tradition, which are a constant reminder of the Beit Avraham’s ancient identity and past.

Remnants of an Ancient Past

Although primarily conducted behind closed doors, the Beit Avraham have managed to preserve elements of their Jewish past within the modern community at large. “The Beit Avraham practice Shabbat and purification secretly because most of the Gentiles killed and punished our people,” remarked Aba Assefa.24 Contrary to the rest of Ethiopian society, the main community ceases all work by sundown Friday evening and keeps the Jewish Sabbath; their menstruating women undergo ritual seclusion and purification as commanded in the Torah, marriage to outsiders (gentiles) is forbidden, circumcision is performed on the eighth day, doorposts are smeared with lamb’s blood during Passover, and they possess an inner longing for Zion.

“With Eyes Turned Toward the East, Looking Toward Zion…”
(words from Hatikvah)

As we climbed the mountain of Entoto in Northern Addis Ababa, Asalf Teketel, a young Beit Avraham advocate and artist, began to recount childhood memories of hiking Entoto to collect firewood with his mother. Pointing to an area now heavily overgrown by trees, he said, “There was a big group with us, and we were all singing.” Teketel began to hum, as a beautiful Amharic25 melody emerged from his lips. Translated, the song speaks of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the desire to one day be reunited with their homeland of Israel and Jerusalem.26

The mountain of Entoto is located in what is known as the Shewa region. In past times, mountains in this region contained caves and remote villages that served as secret and obscure locations for the Beit Avraham to freely practice their Judaic faith. Over time, these locations became what they refer to as, monasteries or isolated religious establishments, which not only enabled the Beit Avraham to preserve their identity, but also provided shelter due to rising persecution. Upon exploring the highlands of Ethiopia in 1844, British traveler, Major W. Cornwallis Harris, writes,

Deep-seated in this secluded retirement, and shut out from the rest of the world by the leafy screen, lies the monastery of Mantek, said to have been founded a thousand years ago. It is inhabited by Tabeeban [alternative name for the Beit Avraham]—men strongly suspected of being Jews in disguise—cunning workers in iron, wood, and clay…27

Mantek, located deep in Ethiopia’s highlands, is one of the community’s remaining monasteries that still stands and functions today. Monasticism, an element unique to Ethiopian Judaism, has been present among the Beta Israel and descendents since the 15th century. Many attribute its origins to a Christian monk who converted to Judaism and later introduced monasticism into the Beta Israel community in the 15th century. Since, monastic institutions have become a central part of Ethiopian Judaism.28

According to Aba Assefa, the Beit Avraham had as many as 40 monasteries, of which the Gentiles ultimately destroyed 25. For the Beit Avraham, these institutions were fully Jewish: “They (grandparents) would call the monasteries Jerusalem in remembrance of Zion,” remarked Mesfin Assefa, a young Beit Avraham advocate. Today, 15 monasteries are still in existence, but serve primarily as religious communes for Beit Avraham elders who desire to practice their faith freely during the last years of their lives. “My parents and grandparents want to die as Jews,” said Assefa.

Tenacity in the Face of Adversity

Although remnants of the community’s Jewish identity have indeed been preserved, there is fear that the community’s heritage will ultimately fade and be forgotten with time. “It’s not good,” a monk said. “In the future, it will be hard because the people [Beit Avraham], they share the culture of the Gentiles, and they forget our synagogues. [But] I think the God of Israel will protect His people.” In addition to the increasing pressure to assimilate into mainstream Ethiopian culture, the community also faces discrimination and persecution.

image: Weaving Loom

© Amy Cowen

Parallel to the main Beta Israel communities of the past, the Beit Avraham are skilled artisans and craftspeople. Although Ethiopia’s economy relies heavily upon the community’s textiles and other commodities, artisans are often marginalized in society and despised on account of their occupation. Moreover, due to the community’s use of fire for blacksmithing and making pottery, they are believed to possess what is known as the “evil eye” or buda.

According to Durrenda Nash Onolemhemhen and Kebede Gessesse, “A buda (evil eye) [is] considered both the spirit that possessed a person and the capability of causing the spirit to possess one.”29 Through special powers, a buda is believed to have the ability to transform into hyenas, eat human flesh, drink human blood, and cause illnesses, death, and the like. Consequently, this superstition fuels further hatred and fear of the Beit Avraham and produces more discrimination and marginalization of the community. For example, the Beit Avraham are often denied employment, housing, quality education, and access into religious and public places. In Ethiopian Orthodox churches throughout Ethiopia, priests publicly denounce the Beit Avraham and condone persecution of community members, declaring them demon possessed. Persecution has amounted to violence and even murder in remote areas where the Beit Avraham are more dispersed.

With faces stained with tears, community members recounted an incident of a young mother who was verbally, sexually, and physically assaulted by Ethiopian soldiers along with several murders that occurred in 2006. Furthermore, one-year prior, Mesfin Assefa along with his wife and newborn were kicked out of their home. “The owners push us to leave their home because we belong to ‘Kachene’ (the Beit Avraham neighborhood). Nobody will rent [their] house if they know you belong to Kachene,” said Assefa.

Many Beit Avraham fear that publicly revealing their Jewish past and outwardly practicing Judaism would only intensify persecution, causing most Beit Avraham to remain silent. Yet in the face of adversity, some are beginning to organize themselves, emerge, and struggle against the oppression and persecution. Groups and congregations such as the Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization (as mentioned previously) have formed within the Beit Avraham with the purpose of revitalizing the community.

Completely renouncing Christianity, these young men now adhere to traditional, modern Judaism to unify themselves with the world Jewry of today. Gaining access to modern Judaic material, contacting international Jewish organizations, and enlisting the help of other Beta Israel have enabled them to transition into modern Judaism and develop congregations that resemble those of Jewish communities worldwide. They hope to reconnect the community with its Jewish roots, be recognized by the rest of the Jewish world, and potentially gain immigration rights to Israel. “I want to be a symbol; I want to create evidence for the younger generation,” exclaimed Feleke Abebe, who attempts to teach the community’s youth to hold onto their roots. “I tell young people that we are Jews. You are a Jew!”

A Journey Home?

Only a very small number of Beit Avraham have publicly embraced their Jewish heritage much less adhere solely to the Jewish faith. Until there is greater religious tolerance in Ethiopia or an awareness and acceptance by Israel and the rest of the Jewish world, these numbers are likely to remain small. The prospect of obtaining full recognition and aliyah rights to Israel appears unlikely at this time. However, it is my hope that this manuscript will at least serve as a starting point for discussion and further exploration of the Beit Avraham community and their relationship to the larger Beta Israel and the rest of the Jewish world.


Notes

  1. North Shewa Zionist Organization. Personal discussion/interview with numerous members. Kachene, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 13 September 2004.↑ Top
  2. Pankhurst, Dr. Richard. Personal Interview. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 4 November 2004.↑ Top
  3. Isenberg, C.W. and J.L Krapf. The Journals of C.W. Isenberg and J.L. Krapf. Detailing Their Proceedings in the Kingdom of Shoa and Journeys in Other Parts of Abyssinia 1839-1842. London: Frank Cass & CO. LTD., 1968 ↑ Top
  4. Isenberg, C.W. and J.L Krapf. The Journals of C.W. Isenberg and J.L. Krapf. Detailing Their Proceedings in the Kingdom of Shoa and Journeys in Other Parts of Abyssinia 1839-1842. London: Frank Cass & CO. LTD., 1968 ↑ Top
  5. Dembeya was once the center of Ethiopian Jewry. It included modern day Gondar and surrounding Northern areas ↑ Top
  6. Pankhurst, Dr. Richard. Notes for History of Ethiopian Craftsmen. Publication unknown. Seifu, Aba. Personal interview. Kachene, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 28 October 2004. ↑ Top
  7. In the 15th century, they were denied ownership of land under King Yishaq’s (1413-30) rule who passed a decree declaring, “He who is baptized in the Christian religion, may inherit the land of his father; otherwise let him be a ” Thus, the Beta Israel became known as Falashas (exiles), a marginalized and landless people due to their allegiance to Judaism and revolt against Christianity. (Tamrat, Taddesse. Church & State in Ethiopia: 1270-1527. Oxford: University Press, 1972.)↑ Top
  8. Pankhurst, Dr. Richard. Notes for History of Ethiopian Craftsmen. ↑ Top
  9. Seifu, Aba. Personal interview. Kachene, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 28 October 2004. ↑ Top
  10. Assefa, Aba. Personal interview. Kachene, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 6 November 2004.
    Seifu, Aba. Personal interview. Kachene, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 28 October 2004.
    ↑ Top
  11. Assefa, Aba. Personal interview. Kachene, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 6 November 2004.
  12. ↑ Top
  13. Ethiopia’s official language ↑ Top
  14. Teketel, Aselef. Personal interview. Entoto Mountain, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 22 September 2004 ↑ Top
  15. Harris, Major W. Cornwallis. The Highlands of Ethiopia. Vol. II. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844. ↑ Top
  16. Leslau, Wolf. Falasha Anthology. Michigan: Yale University, 1951. ↑ Top
  17. Gessesse, Kebede and Durrenda Nash Onolemhemhen. The Black Jews of Ethiopia. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998. ↑ Top