Ashkelon – Israel Seeks to End Ancient African Jewish Custom

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    In this Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012 photo, Abio, an Ethiopian kess, Amharic for priest, center, blesses a newly-wed couple during a wedding celebration in Ashkelon, southern Israel. Nearly three decades after Israel began airlifting Ethiopia's ancient Jewish community out of the Horn of Africa, Israel's rabbis are now working to phase out the community's white-turbaned clergy, the kessoch, whose unusual religious practices are at odds with the rabbinate's Orthodox Judaism. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)Ashkelon, Israel—Israel is closing the books on a rare millennia-old Jewish tradition.

    Nearly three decades after Israel began airlifting Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community out of the Horn of Africa, Israel’s rabbis are now working to phase out the community’s white-turbaned clergy, the kessoch, whose unusual religious practices are at odds with the rabbinate’s Orthodox Judaism.

    The effort has added to the sense of discrimination felt by Israel’s 120,000 Ethiopian citizens. These sentiments boiled over this month after a group of landlords in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi refused to accept them as tenants, prompting a large rally planned for Wednesday across from Israel’s parliament.

    “We are just like all the other Jews. We don’t have any other religion,” said Kess Semai Elias, 42.

    Descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Dan, according to Jewish lore, Ethiopian Jews spent millennia isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. In most Jewish communities, the priesthood of the Bible was replaced by rabbis who emphasized text study and prayer. Ethiopia’s Jewish kessoch continued the traditions of Biblical-era priests, sacrificing animals and collecting the first fruits of the harvest.

    The two traditions diverged so much that the first trickle of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel were asked to undergo a quickened conversion ceremony to appease rabbis who were dubious about their religious pedigree.

    When Israeli clandestine operations rescued large groups of Ethiopian Jews from war and famine in the 1980s and early 1990s, a rabbinic consensus was reached and the newcomers did not have to convert — except for a group known as the Falash Mura, whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity generations before.

    The 58 kessoch who arrived in Israel in those early days maintained their leadership role in the Ethiopian Jewish community, and in 1992 successfully lobbied the Israeli government to grant them salaries and status similar to those of government rabbis. But as the aging clergy began ordaining a new generation of kessoch over the past decade, and those new leaders also wanted recognition, Israel’s rabbinate objected.

    After public demonstrations and a brief hunger strike, the newly ordained kessoch struck a bittersweet deal last month with Israel’s ministry of religious services.

    The ministry would finally implement a 2010 government resolution to recognize 13 of them and give them state salaries. But Israel’s state rabbis made it very clear to the new kessoch: They would be the last.

    “It’s for the best,” said Rabbi Yosef Hadana, 63, of the Israeli rabbinate.

    Himself the son of a respected kess, Hadana long ago traded the shash, the white turban of his father’s tradition, for the black suit and fedora of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

    “After 2,500 years of isolation from the nation of Israel, we have returned. Now we need to find a way to be one people,” Rabbi Hadana said.

    Hadana says he holds great respect for the kessoch. They were the ones who once spun tales of Jerusalem’s splendor at evening storytelling sessions, keeping alive the Ethiopian Jews’ religious tradition. But anyone in Israel who wants to continue that tradition, he said, must get rabbinic training. Streamlining their religious practice can help integrate Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society, he said.

    Ethiopian-Israelis have long struggled in Israel, with literacy rates relatively low, the culture gap wide and rates of poverty and domestic violence well above the national average.

    Many of the older generation work menial jobs, men as security guards and women as cleaners. Their children, most of whom grew up in Israel’s Orthodox Jewish religious schools, speak fluent Hebrew, serve in the army alongside native Israelis and are increasingly studying engineering and sciences in Israel’s universities. Despite these gains, the younger generation is still struggling compared to other Israelis.

    The immigrants have also long complained of discrimination. In the late 90s it was discovered that Israel’s health services were throwing out Ethiopian-Israelis’ blood donations over fears of diseases contracted in Africa.

    This is not the first time in history that Ethiopian Jews have been asked to reform. Jacques Faitlovitch, one of the first Jewish outsiders to meet the community, told the kessoch in 1904 they would have to stop antiquated paschal sacrifices if they wanted acceptance in the wider Jewish world.

    Polish-born Faitlovitch also pushed them to stop Judaism’s last existing monastic tradition. Ethiopia’s last Jewish monk spent his final days in Israel, secluded in a synagogue annex and preparing his own food for reasons of purity. He died about 10 years ago.

    Other traditions, like priestly tithes and huts for menstruating women, were also given up upon moving to Israel.

    Still, the kessoch, easily recognized by their ceremonial fly-swatting tassels and rainbow-colored sunbrellas, are not ready to be relegated to history. First-generation Ethiopian immigrants still call on them to adjudicate family conflicts, lead funeral prayers, and slaughter meat according to tradition.

    Israel only recently allowed kessoch into butcheries to slaughter their own animals — even though it is not considered kosher by rabbinic standards.

    But the rabbis still put their foot down when it comes to marriage. To be legal, weddings must be presided by state-recognized rabbis and include mainstream Jewish practices, like exchanging rings and stomping on a glass.

    Despite the country’s secular majority, its Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish weddings. Israel does not recognize civil marriages, intermarriages or marriages performed by rabbis from the more liberal Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism — unless they took place abroad.

    Israeli rabbis have now agreed to train the 13 new kessoch to perform marriages the mainstream Jewish way. Nevertheless, for most of the kessoch, the prohibition on marrying is such a slap in the face that they cannot bear to show up at the weddings of their own community members.

    Instead, they perform their own pirate wedding ceremonies for the newlyweds a few days later — a modest reenactment of the weeklong marriage celebrations they used to hold back in Africa.

    At one nighttime ceremony in seaside Ashkelon, women in embroidered cotton robes bounced their shoulders to African beats. Family and friends greeted the couple with the toot of a golden horn. Honey beer flowed from a steel kettle, and an army of men scooped curried lamb — slaughtered by the presiding kess — onto flat injera bread.

    Newly ordained Kess Abiyu Azariya, 44, pushed his way to the head of the dance floor. Wearing a white turban and shawl, he recited wedding blessings in the ancient Ethiopian tongue, Geez. “I am singing these prayers to remind the young people what a wedding was like in Ethiopia,” he told the crowd in spoken Amharic.

    But the young people were nowhere in sight. Most of the 300 revelers in the room were of the older generation. The dozen young Ethiopian-Israelis who showed up that evening were outside drinking cheap Israeli beer and fiddling with their smartphones. When asked about the practice, they were ambivalent.

    “I hope it continues, but it probably won’t,” said David Nadou, 24, shrugging.

    The newly ordained kessoch are trying to work against that tide. Kess Semai says they’re close to ordaining yet another group of 30 kessoch — even though Israel vows not to recognize any more.

    “We kept this tradition for more than 2,500 years,” Kess Semai said. “Our community won’t allow in the span of 30 years for this tradition to be erased completely.”

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    44 COMMENTS

      • Unfortunately their gitten is not as Jewish law – per the Talmud – prescribes. I hope they are non-Jews, because otherwise there is a huge issue with many of them being mamzerim. Its a sad situation.

        • Depends. If their marriages also don’t meet our standards, life is good. The problem is if the marriages were to be considered valid but the divorces not — but even then no one really cares unless she remarries and subsequently has children. From what I understand remarriages of divorcees is not really that common in their circles.

        • “Unfortunately their gitten is not as Jewish law – per the Talmud – prescribes.”

          Unfortunately it appears to have escaped your notice that the Ethiopian Jews were living in complete and utter isolation from so-called “mainstream” Jewry at the time both Talmud Yerushalmi and Talmud Bavli were being compiled.

          As they had no access to the Talmud how could they possibly have complied with it?

          Nice try, Yankel – but no cigar!

          Best wishes.

          • I’ll take that cigar anytime, my friend! The story is that when they divorce the husband leaves a get (their form of one, at least) by the house of their Rabbi. The get never reaches either the woman or her representative (shliach). So according to the Mishna, Gemarrah, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch etc. the divorce is invalid, on the basis of the Pasuk; v’nasan b’yodah. If she remarries, the child is a mamzer. That is what I had meant when I said that their gitten are not as halacha condones.
            Does that make it more clear?

    1. this telling other Jews how to practice their religion

      maybe the Ethiopians are more pure in their customs since they have been isolated and not influenced by other outside customs like the rebies or rabbinate

      • I am sure they are more pure in their customs than you are, because that does not take any stretch. And there is decidedly very little about you that is pure at all.

        However, the Teimanim ave been in Yemen since the time of the first bais hamikdash and while they have some different minhagim, the basic halacha is the same, thus further proving the lie of your comments.

    2. Obviously black hats and black coats have much more connection to the time of the original golus from Eretz Yisroel than the white turbans of the kessoch. I’m sure the tanaaim and amoraim of the Yerushalmi all wore black fedoras.

        • Can you find the Teshuvah from Rav Moshe? (Don’t look to your buddy on Failed Messiah because the teshuva he shows has lines crossed out, obviously by the piece of dirt).

          You are wrong about what R Moshe says. ( No surprise, you are amazinglly consistent that way)

          • even if what you say is true thatw as then not now

            From the 1970s to the 1980′s, the Ethiopian Jews underwent a pro forma conversion involving immersion into a mikveh (ritual bath) and for men, a symbolic circumcision involving extracting a drop of blood from the penis. Such steps were safety measures to allay everyone’s concern about their questionable status. More recently, however, concerning the status of those members of Beta-Israel who were forcibly converted to Christianity, Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar ruled that descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity are “unquestionably Jews in every respect.” With the consent of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Amar ruled that it is forbidden to question the Jewishness of this community,who are pejoratively called “Falashmura.” According to the present law, the Chief Rabbinate requires a ritual immersion prior to marriage, from Jews of Ethiopian or any other ancestry alike.

            • How has R Moshe’s psak changed in 25 years? R Moshe is unfortunately not here more than 25 years.

              What is rediculous comment you have made. Par for the course.

            • So you are trying to bring proof from the Rabbi of a “progressive conservative synagogue” as to what halacha should be? Someone who has divorced himself from halchic observance?

              What type of fool are you? You can’t even help yourself.

      • Correct. And now that the mistake has been made and they are in EY, let them have their kessoch so the rest of us know to let them be separate and keep their strange religion that is based as much on notzrus as on Judaism.

      • “ simple. they are not jewish. end of story. ”

        What?! Who are you to say they aren’t Jewish! (lol) Come on!

        They seem like they’ve kept the Jewish religion alive in a pretty pure way, considering they were stuck in the horn of Africa for decades & decades, away from other Jewish communities & customs!

        G-d BLESS THEM for trying to keep Jewish in those conditions! My goodness!

        Of course their “version” (so to speak) of Judaism will look much different than other people’s… but that doesn’t make them LESS Jewish!

        Shoot, they seem to keep a more purer tradition of Judaism than Reform Jews do!!!

        Hello! (lol)

    3. This article is woefully ignorant, Just a quick example ‘exchanging rings and stomping on a glass’. I mean how ignorant can one get? There is no exchange of rings. The groom presents the bride with a ring (by tradition – it can be a coin or anything of value) in exchange for which she undertakes certain domestic services to him (he has already agreed to his duties as laid out in the kethubbah). Stomping on a glass?? A custom to recall the destruction of the Temple, no more.
      The article presents the story from the viewpoint of the powers-that-be that initiated the airlift – to flood the country with people who claim to be Jewsat-heart but who have proven connection with the Jewish people. Later the same trick would be played when hundreds of thousands of Russian/Ukranians were allowed in, a huge percentage without any Jewish blood in their veins at all. The purpose of all this? To try to redress the balance of power in favour of the secular population.

    4. Rabbi avigdor miller said that these people are not Jews and will just cause lots of problems for Israel ontop of the problems they already have. If these people do not follow authentic Judaism, then it ain’t Jewish. It MUST HAVE A MEKOR AL PI HALACHA

    5. I wonder what the best Hebrew translation for ‘e pluribus unum’ might be?

      When I have worked it out perhaps I will send it to these reactionary rabbis who seek to stifle thousands of years of (another) Jewish tradition.

      We have different nusachim for Ashkenazim and for Sefaradim. We even have a nusach Italki, too. On that basis, why interfere with the nusach Beta Yisrael?

      Put in cruder language: “if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it”.

    6. “weddings must be presided by state-recognized rabbis and include mainstream Jewish practices, like exchanging rings and stomping on a glass.”

      There was never a mainstream Jewish practice of exchanging rings. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein if rings are exchanged, the kiddushin is invalid

    7. “To be legal, weddings must be presided by state-recognized rabbis and include mainstream Jewish practices, like exchanging rings and stomping on a glass.”

      Usually, AP is professional and gets their facts straight. There are 2 mistakes: (1) Jewish Orthodox weddings do not involve “exchanging rings”; only the bride receives the ring from the groom. (2) “stomping on a glass” is recorded in the Gemarah, and is certainly a tradition at Orthodox weddings, but it is by no means a requirement. The true requirements are, for example, 2 Shomer-Shabbos adult male witnesses; a kosher Ketubah; the wedding ceremony performed according to Halacha,. etc.

    8. R. Moshe Feinstein’s psak is that they are NOT Jewish. They didn’t follow the halochos of gitten, divorce, and chalitzah (marrying one’s dead brother’s wife). This would render many in their midst mamzeirm.
      Animal sacrifice and bikurim outside Eretz Yisroel!! when we have no Bais Hamikdosh!! They come from Tzidokim-types, if at all.

    9. wow! so many comments attacking my own comment, the lubavitcher rebbe zya said they are not yidden, for me thats end of story
      and people who have researched their customs have found that many do not stem from yiddishkeit at all
      of course, the secular professors, who have all been trained al pi torah have found a connection to yiddishkeit by some back road….

    10. What really disturbs some people is that the Ethiopians were separated before the Talmud was written and therefore are living proof of earlier traditional Torah practices. Plus, to state what others here are afraid to state, they are black, and there are unfortunately many racist Jews who just can’t accept that our people are, and always have been, diverse.

      • The twelve tribes are descended from four mothers, two of whom were sisters. Bnei Bilhah and Bnei Zilpah were discriminated against by Bnei Leah all the way back in the days of Yaakov Avinu. Tribal identity was stronger than national identity in the days of the Shofetim and to a large extent during the days of the Beith HaMiqdash (first one) as well. Nothing new under the sun.

    11. When MOSHIACH comes, it will all be sorted out, who is or isn’t really Jewish. Until then, It is best to err on the side of caution and have them convert according to mainstream Yiddishkeit if they want to intermarry with other Jews. Otherwise it is best that they stay separate. I have my doubts as to their authenticity as real Jews.

      • Based on out current climate, if Moshiach would come tomorrow, what kind of hat would he have to wear to be recognized and accepted as Moshiach? Would the Rabbinate be acceptable enough, or would one of the Chasidishe Rebbes be acceptable? And if the Chasidishe, which one? Lubavitch? Satmer? Belz? I bet that Moshiach will have a great laugh.

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