Ethiopian Jewish Women
The Ethiopian Jews, men and women alike, were known as Falashas in Ethiopia, although in the last decade they have eschewed this appellation with its stigmatic connotation of “stranger”, implying low, outsider status. In Israel, they tend to be called Ethiopian Jews, whilst in Ethiopia they often referred to themselves—and are referred to in the academic literature—as Beta Israel (Weil, 1997a). The Beta Israel hail from villages in Gondar province, Woggera, the Simien mountains, Walkait and the Shire region of Tigray. They are divided into two distinct linguistic entities speaking Amharic and Tigrinya respectively.
The origins of this ethnic minority in Ethiopia are obscure. Almost all researchers, including those who maintain that the Ethiopian Jews did not exist in Ethiopia until the Middle Ages, at the earliest, admit that Jews have lived in Ethiopia from early times (Kaplan 1992). Some say that they are descended from the union of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba; other theories refer to them variously as descendants of Yemenite Jews, Agaus, Jews who went down to Egypt and wandered south, or even an outgrowth of Jews who inhabited the garrison at Elephantine (Kessler, 1982). Some academic research suggests that they formed as a group under the influence of Ethiopian Christian monasticism in the fourteenth century (Kaplan 1992; Shelemay, 1986).
The Beta Israel practiced a Torah-based, non-Oral-Law style of Judaism. They were monotheistic, celebrated many festivals and fasts prescribed in the Torah, and circumcised their boys on the eighth day. Some religious festivals known to other Jewish communities were not marked by the Beta Israel, but they, in their turn, celebrated certain days which were not marked by other Jews (Aescoli 1935/6; Weil 1989). Their religious practices were heavily influenced by Ethiopic Christians and many elements were common to both religions, such as praying to Jerusalem, the common liturgical language of Geez, and the emphasis on Israel and Zion (Pankhurst, 1997). It is significant that the Te’ezaza Sanbat, which some researchers designate as the most ‘authentic’ Beta Israel text, personifies the Sabbath as a woman (Leslau 1951).
The process of the alignment of the Beta Israel with world Jewry had its seeds in the nineteenth century and arguably before, but real contact with world Jewry began only in the twentieth century with the advent of Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch (1881–1955), a Semitic scholar from the Sorbonne, who invested his life in bringing the Jews from Ethiopia in line with other Jews. Dr. Faitlovitch managed to influence sections of the community to adapt to world Jewry (Trevisan Semi 1994)—a process that was actually completed in the 1980’s and 1990’s with the transplantation of a whole community to the State of Israel.
Interestingly, the greatest legend in Beta Israel annals, after the famous meeting between Queen Sheba and King Solomon, revolves around a woman, Queen Judith, variously known as Yodit, Gudit (“the bad”), Esther, Esato (=fire), Ga’wa and Tirda Gabaz. The Scottish explorer James Bruce, in his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, describes how the beautiful queen Judith, queen of the Beta Israel, single-handedly overthrew Christianity and eliminated most of the Solomonic royal dynasty based at Aksum. In its place, she established a Jewish dynasty, which ruled for several generations (Bruce 1790 :451–453).
Researchers have pointed to the similarities and differences between the two great Beta Israel legends mirrored in Ethiopian Christian history, of the Queen of Sheba and Queen Judith (Kaplan 1992). Both women were perceived to be extremely powerful royal figures. Both were depicted as converts to Judaism. Both led the Jews against the evil Christians; both were considered to be victorious. However, while according to the Ethiopian text Kebra Negest, the Queen of Sheba established the Solomonic dynasty by having relations with King Solomon against her will, Queen Judith is depicted as the one who destroyed that same lineage. According to Salamon: “The Jewish woman leader in Ethiopia may symbolize… the potential for power castration of the dominant group at the hands of the minority” (1999:127 fn.10).
Beta Israel oral tradition also remembers several outstanding women who occupied high office, both within the community and in society at large. Examples of the former are Rahel, Milat, Abre Warq and Roman Warq, who were leading members of their community, although dates and exact roles are unknown (Holert 1999).
According to Bruce, although the Beta Israel reigned supreme for several generations and succeeded in subjugating their Christian neighbors, by the seventeenth century the Beta Israel had become a powerless minority with little or no rights to land (1790). During this period, the Beta Israel women worked as artists and decorators in the Christian churches. By the nineteenth century, the Beta Israel eventually took up stigmatized craft occupations, which also became associated with the connotation Falasha (Quirin, 1992). The men became blacksmiths and weavers and the women became potters. The “Falasha pottery” which is still famous in the Gondar region, became the major industry of the village Wolleka. Beta Israel women selling pots and statuettes attracted many tourists, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. However, from an Ethiopian perspective, pottery was a low-status profession, associated with fire and dangerous beliefs that the Beta Israel were buda, supernatural beings who disguised themselves as humans during the day and at night became hyenas that could attack humans (cf. Salamon 1999).
The Beta Israel in Ethiopia tended to live in scattered villages located on a hilltops near streams. It was the job of women to haul water to their homes in earthenware jugs strapped to their backs. Women were in charge of the domestic sphere, baking the basic bread (enjera) on an open hearth, which they also stoked to gain warmth. They prepared the stew (wat), commonly made of lentils and chicken or meat, to go with the enjera. The meal was often accompanied by a type of home brew (talla) made of hops, other grains and water fermented in pot containers made by women. Food was stored in baskets made of rushes from local plants, dried in the sun and twisted into coils. Women spent time weaving these bright-colored baskets, in which they stored foodstuffs, or on which they served food, if the basket was flat-topped. The preparation of coffee was also the province of women, who washed and roasted the raw coffee beans before grinding them manually in a mortar. They brewed the coffee in a pot over the fire and served it in small cups to guests, primarily females, who dropped in to drink coffee and exchange gossip.
Women looked after the children at an early age. A mother would strap the smallest baby on her back, while drawing water from the stream or cooking. Young boys would stay with her in the home until they joined their fathers in the field; young girls were expected to help their mothers and take care of the younger children until the age of marriage, around first menstruation.
Among the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, masculinity was an ultimate value. The Amharic language is full of expressions praising men and degrading women. Shillele war songs, also sung at weddings and other ceremonious occasions, are designed to arouse male bravery before battle (cf. Herman 1999). A well-known Amharic proverb says:” It is good to beat donkeys and women.” Men’s sexual organs are, by definition, the source of their masculinity. Female genital surgery, or female circumcision (otherwise known as genital mutilation), was normative among Beta Israel women (Grisaru et al. 1997). In Beta Israel society, men had to gain sexual prowess. They were allowed to experiment during the stage of adolescence (goramsa), whereas females had to be virgins at marriage, which usually took place close after first menstruation. While males were expected to be sexually experienced, Beta Israel females could be excommunicated if they were not virgins at marriage. Although marriage is officially monogamous, in practice Beta Israel men sometimes entered polygamous unions with a second wife, or relations with a common-law wife, a concubine, a slave (barya), or simply a divorced woman (galamotta) who was searching for “protection” in Ethiopian terms (Weil 1991). A rich man could have several women, usually residing in different villages, so that there was little knowledge of the other women or contact between them. There are many cases of an older man marrying a younger bride, sometimes even a teenager or a virgin, thus proving his status and wealth to the society at large. Whereas masculinity was symbolized by the staff which every Beta Israel male carries in Ethiopia, femininity was symbolized by blood.
For the Beta Israel, as for many others, the purity of women and their blood signifies womanhood, and the pulse of life as it revolves around sexual relations and the renewal of male-female relations.
In the Bible it states: “When a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the period of her impurity through menstruation….The woman shall wait for thirty-three days because her blood requires purification; she shall touch nothing that is holy, and shall not enter the sanctuary till her days of purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for fourteen days as for her menstruation and shall wait for sixty-six days because her blood requires purification.” (Leviticus 12:1,2–6). The Beta Israel of Ethiopia observed this tenet in strict fashion, precisely following the Torah commandment, isolating the woman in a hut of childbirth (yara gojos/ ye-margam gogo) for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl. According to contemporary researchers, the strict observance of purity laws after birth is also one of the boundary-markers between Ethiopian Jews and Ethiopian Christians (e.g.Salamon 2000:98).
In the same book of Leviticus, it is further written: “When a woman has a discharge of blood, her impurity shall last for seven days; anyone who touches her shall be unclean till evening. Everything in which she lies or sits during her impurity shall be unclean.” (Leviticus 15:19–20). In Ethiopia, every woman belonging to the Beta Israel spent approximately a week—the length of her menstruation—in a special menstruating hut (ye-margam gogo/ye-dam gogo/ye-dam bet), where she was prohibited from coming into contact with people who were in a pure state. As a person who was impure by virtue of her blood, she was isolated for the length of time of her menstrual period and could share the hut only with other menstruating women. Since her impurity was contaminating, she was not allowed to dine or spend time with pure people, least of all her husband, who could resume sexual relations with her only after she had purified herself in the river. A series of stones surrounded the menstruating hut, separating the impure women from other members of the village. In many villages, the hut was situated almost outside the village, on the peripheries of conquered, civilized space—the village—and the unknown, the wilds, the unconquerable space—the outside. In the village of Wolleka near Gondar that I visited in Ethiopia (in 1971 and 1988 respectively), which was known as a Falasha tourist village where “Falasha pottery” was sold, the menstruating hut was situated on the hill in the center of the village, albeit far away from the view of passing tourists, but nevertheless in center-stage as far as the villagers were concerned. It was marked off by stones surrounding the hut in circular fashion, and little children would push food on ceramic plates inside the circle, which would then be taken by the menstruating women. Although Dr. Faitlovitch and other Westerners, as well as Ethiopian pupils who had studied in the West, tried to persuade the Beta Israel women not to observe the purity laws according to the Biblical precepts and tried to encourage them to come in line with Jews elsewhere (Trevisan Semi 1999), Beta Israel women in Ethiopia kept these rules strictly until their immigration to Israel, and often thereafter.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, emissaries from Israel and Jews from other countries visited Ethiopia and encouraged the Jews to emigrate. However, aliya did not become a reality until the mid-1970s, when the Sefardi and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis declared in 1973 and 1975 respectively that the Falashas (sic) were Jews and could therefore come and live in Israel. In 1984–1985 seven thousand seven hundred were airlifted from the Sudan to Israel in Operation Moses and 14,400 were airlifted in twenty-four hours from Addis Abeba to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991. Some women gave birth on the flight itself.
During the 1990s thousands of people belonging to the group today called the Feresmura or Felesmura (Jews converted to Christianity from the nineteenth century on) migrated to Israel. In 2003, the numbers of Jews of Ethiopian origin and their children, some of whom were born in Israel, is estimated to be 85,000 souls. Fifty percent of the Ethiopian population in Israel are women (Central Bureau of Statistics 2001; personal communication from Israel Ministry of Absorption). A government decision in February 2003 moved to bring an additional twenty-one thousand Feresmura to Israel in the near future.
One of the greatest changes which the Ethiopian Jewish community has undergone in Israel in their move from an underdeveloped society to a modern, Western society is in the specific realm of family and personal relations. Female genital surgery is hardly performed in Israel and women express no desire to continue this practice (Grisaru et al. 1997). Girls can no longer marry at first puberty; in fact, it is illegal to marry in Israel until the age of seventeen. In addition, girls have to attend school until the minimum age of sixteen. Married women are encouraged by social workers and others to go out to work in order to assist with the family income, and it is often easier for a woman rather than a man to find employment, particularly in temporary, unskilled jobs, in which the Ethiopian Jews, despite the numerous vocational courses offered to the community, tend to congregate (Weil 1991). According to research conducted by Phillips Davids, early marriage and childbearing are being replaced by later marriage and first birth, which will eventually have a profound effect on life-time fertility (1999).
For the first time, rural Beta Israel are handling money and have bank accounts; a woman’s salary may be paid straight into her bank account; or she may be earning more than her husband. Quarrels tend to break out between the marriage partners over genzeb (Amharic: money). The Israel rabbinate has established a special department dealing with Ethiopian divorces. One-third of all Ethiopian Jewish families in Israel are one-parent families; the other two-thirds are largely made up of “complex families” constructed from two or more one-parent families, which are intrinsically unstable (Weil, 1991).
The divorce rate among Ethiopian Jews in Israel is far higher than that among the general population (Weil 1991). The single main reason for this is the demasculinisation experienced by Ethiopian Jewish men. Males no longer reign supreme; “Israeli” women answer back. If women are beaten, as was the practice in Ethiopia, they can turn to the police and file a complaint against their husbands—and many do. Ethiopian women in Israel look with curiosity and also envy at their Israeli counterparts, and selectively imbibe Israelis’ lip-service to egalitarianism between the sexes.
Between 1905–1934, Dr. Faitlovitch selected twenty-five Beta Israel from Ethiopia to educate in Palestine and Europe, where he “planted” them in orthodox Jewish communities—in London, Paris, Florence, and Frankfurt. The idea was that they would return to their villages in Ethiopia and teach their brethren. This dream was not fully realized, but some students pursued a career in education (Trevisan Semi 1994). Not a single female was selected to study in Europe, since it was considered too dangerous a voyage, but there were one or two female pupils at Dr. Faitlovitch’s school in Addis Abeba, founded in 1923.
In the 1950s, two groups of young Beta Israel students came to Israel in order to study; most returned home at the request of the Emperor Haile Selassie to take up governmental and teaching posts in Ethiopia. The groups were mixed—male and female— and two women stayed on in Israel after marrying Israeli men.
Since their immigration to Israel, both boys and girls study at educational establishments. In a survey carried out in 1996 of 120 Ethiopian high school graduates of the Israeli educational system who studied in schools during the years 1987–1989, ninety-eight percent of the respondents, who were now in their 20s and 30s and setting up their own families, answered that they favored egalitarian education for both sexes (Weil 1997b:102). Girls’ educational achievements were similar to those of boys. Whereas in 1987–1989, nearly ten percent of girls of Ethiopian origin of high-school age were not studying at any educational institution, probably because they were already mothers (Weil 1997b), today nearly every female adolescent is enrolled in school. However, some young Ethiopian female adolescents are joining their male counterparts, albeit at a slower rate, in dropping out of school without completing twelve grades. Recently, there is an increase in the number of Ethiopian females who are referred or turn to institutions for girls in distress.
At the other extreme, women are among the forerunners of those receiving higher education in Israel. Yardena Fanta holds a doctorate in education from Tel Aviv University. Other women have completed their MAs or are making successful careers in law, social work, social sciences or physiotherapy. In the Hebrew University Program for Excellence in Education among Ethiopian Jews, which trains young Ethiopian Jews as teachers, just over half the students are female.
Approximately one-third of Ethiopian women in Israel are employed, as distinct from more than one half of Jewish women from other origins (Swirsky et al. 2002). The Ethiopian women are largely concentrated in unskilled occupations, although some are employed in white collar occupations, as social workers, clerks, dental assistants and so on. According to an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) source in February 2003, forty-eight percent of Ethiopian women serve in the IDF. Approximately half of those who do not, volunteer for National Service. Several exceptional women have taken up key positions of leadership in the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. The ‘changing of the guard’ is not only with respect to a new, young, secular leadership in Israel, as opposed to an old, religious guard (Weil 1997c); today, women have also taken the reins. While Ethiopian Jews in Israel are afforded equal privileges and responsibilities in practically every sphere of life, in practice they are socially and spatially segregated, which sometimes gives rise to feelings of deprivation (Weil 1999). Shula Mola, as the director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, tries to battle this. Negest Mengashe has recently been appointed the administrative director of the National Project for Ethiopian Jews, aimed at raising vast governmental and outside funds to ameliorate the condition of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. She can also be credited with being the first Ethiopian woman in Israel to run (unsuccessfully) on the list of a women’s political party to the Knesset (Israel Parliament). Truwork Mulat directs the Steering Committee for Ethiopian Jews attached to the Ministry of Education. Simha Getahun is the coordinator of multicultural programs in Elem, an organization for disattached youth. Tsega Melaku is deputy-director of the Amharic Radio of Kol Israel. Meski Shibru is Israel’s most famous Ethiopian Jewish model and singer.
Ethiopian Jewish women have made dramatic changes in their move from Ethiopia to Israel. In different periods in Beta Israel history, women were attributed great power, and sometimes reified, as in the case of Queen Judith. In other periods, and particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries prior to immigration, Beta Israel women were inactive in public and were in charge of the domestic sphere. In the Ethiopian villages, women looked after the young children, drew water from the stream and cooked for them and their menfolk. Some women were educated, but since the age of marriage was so low, very few terminated school. Women’s purity was central to both women and men, and women were isolated in a special hut during menstruation and after childbirth.
Immigration to Israel changed Ethiopian Jewish family life in a dramatic manner. In Israel, girls are not allowed to marry at first menstruation and women are encouraged to go out to work. Some young women have been referred to welfare institutions; some live beneath the poverty line. One third of Ethiopian families in Israel are one-parent families. At the same time, some young women have become community leaders; others are acquiring a higher education. As the apparent gap between migrant Ethiopian women and men continues to grow, new forms of family structure and adjustments will no doubt emerge.
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How to cite this page
Weil, Shalva. "Ethiopian Jewish Women." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 18, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ethiopian-jewish-women>.