It was in Hebrew School, as a teenager, that I first heard of the “ten lost tribes” of Israel. At the time, I didn’t understand what the concept meant. How could the tribes have gotten lost? Where did they go? It was decades later that I learned of the conquering Assyrians; the victorious Babylonians; the destruction of the First Temple; and the dispersion of the Israelites into foreign lands.
And so it came to be that ten of the tribes of Israel assimilated into the cultures of other countries, leaving behind the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to merge and fend for themselves. These latter two became the ancestors of today’s Jews.
But imagine this… Suppose that one of the “ten lost tribes” wasn’t really lost after all. Let’s pretend that the tribe of Dan actually migrated south and ended up in Ethiopia, in the northern province of Gondar. And let’s imagine that these “aliens” (Falashas), who lived among and were outnumbered by non-Jews, considered themselves to be from the “house” (Beta) of Israel whereby they continued to observe and practice Torah-based Jewish traditions from pre-Talmudic times. And let’s finish the scenario with the notion that their existence was never known, despite their ongoing dream and desire to return to the holy land; more specifically to their beloved city of Jerusalem.
Well, this seemingly far-fetched tale is true. The eastern European and western Jewish world did not know of the existence of its dark-skinned Ethiopian brothers and sisters who were living in a time capsule. In turn, Ethiopian Jews could never fathom a world that had passed them by; one in which there were white Jews whose customs, laws, and practices had dramatically evolved.
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The Ethiopian immigration and absorption into Israeli society has not gone quickly or easily. Adjusting to a modern civilization from an agrarian one; learning Hebrew; adopting new Jewish holidays and values; acclimating to new cultures and contemporary trends; and becoming integrated and productive members of Israeli society have posed numerous challenges and setbacks for successive generations of Ethiopians. Even those born in Israel during the past three decades have suffered from familial, as well as societal, pressures that make advancement difficult to achieve.
Four years ago I was introduced to numerous Ethiopian people through my work with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. I learned of their hardships, their journeys, their struggles; and came to admire their determination and successes.
I attended a celebration in Yokneam, Israel last evening. The community commemorated thirty-five years since Ethiopian Jews immigrated to the country and settled in the off-the-beaten-path-city that is located about twenty minutes away from Haifa. My small delegation of colleagues and I were welcomed warmly as guests of honor, as a result of our contributions and efforts – through a twenty-year partnership – toward improving the lives and futures of Ethiopian families. It was wonderful to taste the food, hear the singing, see the dancing, learn more about and experience the unique culture of these special people.
I was particularly thrilled to meet up with Adam. Adam, who carries the weight of his extended family and community on his shoulders, is coming to terms with what it means to be a leader, a role model, and a new father…all at the ripe old age of twenty-six. His intelligence, wisdom, fortitude, patience, and commitment are worth emulating. Adam would be embarrassed if he knew how much he inspires me to be a better person and do more for others.
Most importantly, I got to meet Adam’s wife and their new daughter. My heart swelled as I cradled the infant, her eyes staring unwaveringly into mine. (I anointed myself her American aunt.) On such an auspicious day, the promise of the next generation gives me hope for the future. I gave the little bundle a gentle squeeze and whispered, “M’dor L’dor.”