Through the deserts of Africa to the hallowed earth of Israel and Ground Zero, an Ethiopian Jew recounts his convoluted journey to anonymity in America.
By Brendan Spiegel |
ipping chai among a sea of baby strollers and Times readers at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on a Sunday morning in spring, Avishai Mekonen is your prototypical Upper West Side dad, clad in a weathered baseball cap, crisp polo shirt and a five o’clock shadow. The only thing remotely unordinary about this slight, cheery 39-year-old emerges when he smiles—revealing an unusually-late-in-life set of shiny braces—and when he speaks, softly and carefully, with a faint accent that is difficult to place.
But the story of how Mekonen came to be a Manhattan father is not shared by many of his neighbors. It begins one quiet, pitch-black night in 1983 in a mountainous village of northern Ethiopia, when Mekonen’s parents woke him and his siblings suddenly, announcing that it was time to depart for the Holy Land.
Casually leaning back in his chair, Mekonen recounts his tale with a wide-eyed sense of wonder, as if he’s telling someone else’s story, not his own.
“That night I just remember running,” says Mekonen, who was ten at the time. “No time to catch your breath, just running, because you want to be gone from the village before the sun comes up.”
Unlike the millions of New York immigrants who have come here fleeing tragedy or persecution, though, Mekonen and his family weren’t running away; they were running toward something, making good on a promise to fulfill an age-old prophecy.
They were among a population of fewer than 100,000 black Jews living in Ethiopia’s remote Wegera region, in the country’s northwest, where their ancestors had resided since biblical times. While there is significant debate about how and when Jews first came to Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community, as it is known, dates to at least the early first millennium and has been genetically linked to Jews elsewhere in the Middle East.
Living alternately in conflict and coexistence with their Christian and Muslim neighbors, the Beta Israel in Ethiopia remained largely oblivious to most rabbinical updates of the last two thousand years, yet retained their own distinct, deeply devout brand of Judaism. By the 1970s there were seven or eight Jewish families still living peacefully in Sant Tacom, the village where Mekonen was born, and all followed the teachings of the Torah reverently; they kept Kosher and observed the Sabbath to the point where even tying one’s belt was considered too laborious. But above all, the Jews of Ethiopia, including generations of the Mekonen family, prayed for a return to the Holy Land. “They never stopped talking about Jerusalem,” Mekonen recalls of his family. “Every time we prayed they would mention Jerusalem. The honey, the milk, the gold—they talked about this place as if it didn’t actually exist in the world. To me it sounded like a magical place.”
Following World War II, a handful of Ethiopian Jews managed to emigrate to Israel. They began lobbying the government there to officially recognize the Beta Israel as Jews so that others could join them under Israel’s Law of Return, which allows anyone of Jewish ancestry to emigrate.
That right was granted by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1975, and the news trickled toward Sant Tacom just as a new communist military-led government was making life for Ethiopian Jews increasingly difficult. Anti-Semitism was on the rise, a policy of forced cooperatives resulted in much of their farmland being confiscated, and many young boys were taken from their families and conscripted into the army. The government made it hard for anyone to leave the country at that time, and Arab allies compelled officials to prevent Jews from departing for Israel.
After considerable debate about the Ethiopians’ authenticity as Jews, Israel had finally laid out the welcome mat—and that was all the encouragement that scores of Beta Israel needed. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, thousands of families began moving in secret toward the Sudanese border—a rumored fast-track to the Promised Land. The journey to Sudan, though, was four hundred miles long. Entire families, like the Mekonens, covered that distance on foot, crossing through barren deserts, thick forests and over craggy unforgiving earth, silently slipping out of a land they were not permitted to leave.
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