ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Haile kept confusing me with the time.
“I’ll meet you at 7 a.m.” he would say. And I’d say, “No way. That’s too early.”
“I mean, p.m.” he’d self-correct.
“But, Haile,” I’d plead, “that’s too late! What time are you talking about? You keep changing the time and the a.m. and the p.m.”
“I mean Ethiopia time,” the amiable 25-year-old school teacher and member of the Beta Israel Jewish Community of Addis Ababa would say.
Me: Speechless. Or, “Huh? Ethiopia time?”
Ethiopia moves not merely to its own rhythm, but to its own time. Literally. On the world clock, the country is on East Africa Time (EAT) which is Universal Time (UTC) +3 hours, so 3:00 p.m. in Addis Ababa is noon in London. Traditionally, however, Ethiopians use a 12-hour clock with a cycle from dawn to dusk (7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.). So, when Haile says 7:00 in Ethiopian time, he means 1:00 p.m. EAT.
And if all of that isn’t enough, it is 2007 in Ethiopia. Yep, you read that correctly: 8 years and 6 hours behind the rest of the world. According to the Coptic Church calendar, there are twelve 30-day months plus…wait for it…five or six epagomenal days (days within a solar calendar that are outside a regular month) which comprise a thirteenth month.
Got it?! I didn’t think so.
What’s more (if there could be more), many people born in villages, such as my guide in Gondar, don’t know their exact date of birth.
“I feel like I’m 35,” Lij told me. Wow, I thought. In Ethiopia, one even gets to choose their age.
No wonder all the clocks here seem to be wrong. In the hotels, for instance, clocks behind the reception desks show the correct time for New York, London, and Tokyo. It’s the clock showing the local time that seems to need a new battery. In Ethiopia, I’m not sure if I am twice as old or half my age, or older or younger than my own parents. But I do know that trying to keep it straight is an exercise in a mind-bending time warp. More than this, ask when something will take place, and invariably one will be promised, “in 5 minutes,” which really means, “when it happens,” which translates to anywhere from now to eternity.
In Ethiopia, I’m not sure if time is gained, lost, frozen, or forgotten altogether.
Whatever the time and however old it might be, it seems there has been a Jewish presence in Ethiopia for most of that period, at least back to the 4th century CE. Some people believe the Ethiopians are the descendants of an Israelite tribe who journeyed to this dusty land with Menelik I, said to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In fact, legend tells that Menelik, accompanied by thousands of Israelites, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem (which is supposedly housed in the Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum; the problem is, the keepers of the Ark and Church will not allow anyone to view it, never mind open it, which only leads to skepticism about the Ark’s authenticity). Others believe the Falashas migrated south from Egypt, some coming via Yemen, following the destruction of the First Temple, as descendants of the Tribe of Dan.
The Beta Israel (House of Israel) once numbered well over 100,000 and resided in some 500 villages across a wide swath of North and Northwest Ethiopia, mainly around Lake Tana, the nation’s largest lake. Though some believe there are still tens of thousands of descendants in the country today, there are but a fraction open, active Jews. They live mainly in Addis Ababa (the Semien Shewa Beta Israel, aka Bale Eje), and in Gondar City (the Hatikvah Jewish Community), while still others in the hills of the North Shewa region practice Judaism in secret synagogues for fear of oppression by their Christian neighbors.
Most Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s during the height of a plague of famines in Operations Moses (1984), Joshua (1984), and Solomon (1991). The Ethiopian population in Israel today is some 130,000. This number includes thousands of descendants of Falash Mura, members of the Beta Israel community who converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries due to Mission pressure. In 2003, the Israeli government recognized them and granted Right of Return provided they have a maternal lineage. Israeli citizenship may be obtained if they convert Orthodox (a controversial plan because some see it as tantamount to forced conversion).
Haile came to my hotel at 1:00 p.m. (Universal Time). We had shared so many Facebook messages over the months prior to my arrival, it was nice to finally have face-to-face face-time over traditionally prepared cups of Ethiopian coffee.
The following day, he guided me to the few Jewish sights of Addis Ababa. We first visited Beta Selam Synagogue, the prayer house of the Semien Shewa Beta Israel (aka Bale Eje), signaled by a sort of stovepipe turret topped by a Magen David.
The synagogue is located in the Kechene neighborhood down a road of rather threadbare houses that are really not much more than mud huts with tin rooftops. Though it is built of concrete, the makeshift synagogue in the front room of a house isn’t much more substantial.
What it is, however, is an active house of prayer and social gatherings of devout Jews. Unfortunately, my visit did not coincide with either a service or a social event. Consequently, I met only a few of the community’s members. This ill-timed visit left me with fewer photographs than I had traveled a long way to take.
A short drive away, we visited the Shalom Shelemay Yemenite Synagogue. From the Magen David adorned gates, I could immediately see that this synagogue is more established. Inside, it was bright and airy despite its diminutive size.
With Purim celebrations just a few days before, there were remnants of a festive gathering, notably, children’s drawings of Hebrew letters and pictures of Mordechai and Esther. What I could not really ascertain, however, is just how many people attend the synagogue with regularity. There are apparently regular Shabbat services at both Shalom Shelemay and Beta Selam Synagogues.
Most interesting and surprising was the Yemenite Jewish Cemetery. I had been told there was no Jewish cemetery in Addis, but that defied logic to me. It was only after I actually arrived in town that, low and behold, Haile confirmed there is indeed a Jewish cemetery.
The cemetery is not far from the Shalom Shelemay Synagogue. The big metal gates with a prominent Magen David make it hard to miss. I was immediately struck by three features: beautiful, tall, swaying, rustling trees standing like sentries over the souls; an Israeli flag flapping in the breeze atop a lofty pole; and the many graves covered by individual metal, house-like shelters. I had never before seen the latter two in any of the hundreds of Jewish cemeteries I have visited. The caretaker told me there were 3,400 graves, but unless there are multi-level burials, I think 340 is far more accurate. I spent about an hour wandering around taking photos.
The next morning, Haile and I stopped in at Chabad-Lubavitch of Addis Ababa which is nothing more than a space at the home of Rabbi Eliau, his wife Dvora, and their children (they are looking for a bigger, more appropriate space, they told me). Despite being secured behind a high wall topped by barbed wire, the yellow Chabad flag flapped in the breeze for all to see. What I thought was going to be a quick 30-minute visit turned into a 2-hour, relaxed chat complete with an early light lunch. Rabbi Eliau’s main task is overseeing matters at the Shalom Shelemay Synagogue.
To my surprise, it was Haile’s first time to meet them. I had wrongly assumed his community may have some contact at least with the Rabbi. But it seems there isn’t much of an overlap with the Shalom Shelemay community either. This lack of connection certainly did not prove an obstacle to access for my photo mission. I sensed that Haile felt a bit intimidated or uncertain how to speak to the Rabbi.
“How are the Orthodox and Chabad different?” Haile asked.
“They’re the same,” replied Dvora.
That befuddled Haile. Later, over some fresh juices at a petrol station, I explained that I was not sure they understood the question clearly and not to worry about not understanding the response. I tried to clarify that there are different manifestations of “Orthodox” as there are differences between Jewish communities.
“At the core,” I said, “we are all as Jewish as each other. Some Orthodox Jews may not say that, including Chabad followers. In my view, some people just practice and follow the religion more closely. But I don’t make distinctions between Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox as being ‘more or less Jewish’, just more or less observant.”
I swooped into Gondar at 9:00 a.m. (UTC) on a 45-minute flight from Addis (this beats a 9-hour drive in a private car or a 12-hour bus ride). I was greeted by Lij Meseret, a local guide who specializes in treks in the Semien Mountains. This was his first-ever Jewish photo trip. He was recommended to me by Irene Orleansky, a friend who worked with him a couple of years ago to visit some of the secret synagogues and their community members in the North Shewa region of the Semien Mountains for a documentary film she was making, “Bal Ej: the Hidden Jews of Ethiopia“.
Those were places I really wanted to go to, but I knew they were off-limits because gaining access first requires gaining the trust of the community. And gaining their trust requires at least one visit without taking a single photo. They also live a full day’s trek in the hills, so my Jewish Africa project will simply not be incorporating the secret synagogues or their members.
I settled into my hotel and relaxed till after lunch. The afternoon was hectic and thrilling.
Just outside town is the Felasha Village, the closest notable former Jewish village to the city. Today, no Jews reside there (though there is one Jewish woman who lives across the road), but their old mud hut synagogue, library, and houses remain. To my dismay, but certainly not to my surprise, the residents who moved into the village after the Jews left some 30 years ago have totally commercialized the place. I suppose this is just a form of preservation (of themselves and of times past).
The roadside is littered with colorful “Felasha Village” signs and touristy handicrafts. Clearly, a stop here is on the itinerary of any tour group. Nonetheless, I found it all of great interest and I excitedly photographed away with an entourage of village kids in tow who tried their best to make a sale.
At 5:00 p.m., we pulled up to the compound of the Hatikvah Jewish Community of Gondar. I was not aware of their existence until that very moment, nor were they of me. With a bit of explanation about who I am and what I am doing, I was warmly welcomed to join and photograph the early evening service (after dark, it is really dark and not ideal for everyone, especially the children, to be out and about, so they hold ma’ariv and Shabbat services while it is still light).
There must have been 200 people there (with room for at least twice that) with the women’s side substantially more full than the men’s. The open-walled synagogue is covered by a corrugated roof and surrounded by corrugated fences painted sky blue and white over which a couple of armed guards pointed their rifles (apparently, the local Christians have been known to hurl rocks once in a while). The spiritual leader took a few minutes between prayers to show me the mikveh and some classrooms.
At the end of the service, he suddenly called me to the front to say a few words. He translated my comments into Amharic. When I said I was honored to be so warmly welcomed without any advanced notice, they all applauded loudly. They clapped again when I told them about my Jewish Africa project. Moments like that are really special.
Unfortunately, the following days were less than busy. In fact, they were quite uninspired in terms of the number of photo ops because Lij had simply over-budgeted the amount of time required to take in the remaining Jewish sights which only comprised of a number of cemeteries and one synagogue all located in different villages near Debark, a dusty town about 90 minutes drive north from Gondar City. I realized that I should have been more specific in questioning the itinerary and budgeted for 4 or 5 days instead of 9.
I hate having too much time on my hands on the road. Busy is best. But in Ethiopia, just what is time, anyway?
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