Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Not Your Grandmother's Jewish Music

Hollywood and the world have typically told the story of the Jewish people as that of an eastern European people. Never mind that there have been Jews in Iraq continuously for about 2500 years.

Until fifty years ago, there were 900,000 Jews in middle eastern countries like Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq and Iran. In 1977, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were discovered when they began walking to Sudan in an attempt to join their brothers and sisters in Israel.

Their story has rarely been told.

Twenty-something singers Cabra Kasai and Avi Wassa are both Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel as small children. They grew up Ethiopian and yet also grew up Israeli. A decade ago this paradox would have forced them to turn their backs on their Ethiopian culture, explains Israeli star Idan Raichel, the 28-year-old composer and musician who wrote all the songs on his double-platinum album, the Idan Raichel Project.

“I was a [counsellor] in a boarding school in Israel,” he says, explaining his early experiences with Ethiopian culture. “I guided there the Russian community, the Ethiopian community, and the Israeli [mainstream] community.”

“I noticed that the Ethiopian community, they changed their names,” he says. One such example is Avi Wassa, whose first name is really Wogperas. “They don’t keep their roots.”

Raichel explains that listening to their cultural music, both popular and traditional, inspired him to create music synthesizing Ethiopian tradition and modern reggae.

The result? A double-platinum album with four hit singles, the Israeli song of the year award for the ballad “If you go” in 2002, and a cast of characters which features 30 different singers and musicians. The follow-up, released less than three weeks ago, has already gone gold with similar collaborations meant to reflect the music of contemporary Israeli society.

Thursday’s performance at the Danforth Music Hall by Raichel and seven of his performers, including singers Wassa, Casai and Israeli solo artist Maya Avraham, kicked off the group’s first major coast-to-coast North American tour. The show, which precedes similar ones in Boston, Miami, Washington and Montreal, was not your grandmother’s Israeli concert.

In front of a packed house, Raichel and band performed their hits, which combine Hebrew, Arabic and the Ethiopian dialect Amharic. Behind his keyboard and decked out in a Rastafarian ‘do, Raichel led his mixed bag of bandmates in songs as they all danced barefoot across the stage in front of the adoring crowd.

Audience members didn’t have to understand the Amharic lyrics mixed with evocative passages from the biblical love story “Song of Songs”. The beauty of the lyrics of the famed ballads “Come” (Come, give me your hand and we will go; Don't ask me where…) and “If you go” (If you go, who will hold me like this) were clear despite the many different languages in the songs.

Most of the songs were not quite the same live, as many of the original musicians of the songs were not present (Raichel tours with only 7 of his 30 collaborating musicians), but the music was nonetheless brilliant and stirring. Though the most die-hard of fans might argue that “If you go” was performed better on the CD, the emotion the musicians put into their singing, dancing and playing made the concert experience breath-taking.

While the sounds and sights of Idan Raichel are surprising to the first-time viewer, he believes that they should be nothing but natural.

“For me, they are the Israel of 2005, which represents the immigration and the colours of Israel,” he says. The distance their group has come in three short years is amazing, he says, explaining how it felt to perform in Tel Aviv’s biggest opera hall for the first time.

“I was thinking to myself, ten years ago, Avi Wassa came from Ethiopia and Cabra Kasai was in Sudan,” he says. Today, he says, “they can walk really proud.”

By Aliza Libman, first published in Excalibur during February 2005. Reprinted in Afterword's Summer 2005 issue. Photo of Maya Avraham by Aliza Libman.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Marching up to Zion

Marching up to Zion
Written by Aliza Libman - News Editor
Friday, 4 February 2005

Ethiopian Jews in Israel struggle for opportunities

An Ethiopian Israeli recounts that when his family reached Israel from Ethiopia in the '80s, his father didn't believe that the Israeli people they saw were in fact Jewish - he had never met a white Jew before.

Since 1977, tens of thousands of Jewish people made aliyah - which means immigrating, or literally going up to Zion - to Israel from Ethiopia. Their incredible story is in fact 30,000 incredible stories, all stemming from a desire for the personal and religious fulfillment that would come from journeying home to the land of their forefathers.

"The Ethiopian Jews, called the ‘Beta Israel' or house of Israel, always remembered the hills of Jerusalem even as they lived in the mountains of Gonder," says Leah Biteolin.

Biteolin, a young Ethiopian Israeli, tells me her story by phone from London, Ontario where she works with the Jewish students of the University of Western Ontario.

"I came to Israel 20 years ago when I was three years old," she says, describing life with three siblings in rural Ethiopia.

"We used to live in a village. We had a small farm; my father was a farmer. We lived with a lot of Jews surrounding and that's what took up most of our lives."

The Judaism practised by the Beta Israel is distinct from the European and Middle Eastern Judaism practised by most of the world's Jews. Its origins predate the Talmud, which determines much contemporary practise. So while Ethiopian Jews might celebrate Passover, which is a biblical holiday, Hanukkah, which comes much later, is something with that they would not be familiar with.

The community in Ethiopia is certainly Jewish, but how they wound up in Ethiopia is a matter of conjecture. Some believe them to be descendents of the ancient tribe of Dan, who defected from ancient Israel thousands of years ago when the Jewish kingdom was split into two - Judah and Israel. Tradition has it that these people left during the ensuing civil war, preferring exile to the possibility of fighting against their brothers.

In the Kebra Nagast, the book of Rastafarian religion, a legend gives a different understanding, which has them even more closely related to modern Jews as the descendants of the wise and great King Solomon and his wife, the Queen of Sheba, whose son Menelik becomes the father of Ethiopian Jewry.

Though either story puts the Ethiopian Jewish community in exile from Israel for 3,000 years, nonetheless they longed to return. Leah describes this longing as a major part of their eventual departure.

"My parents started to hear that people are coming to Israel," she says. "The rumours in the village start."

"Most of our community really hoped and dreamed to come to Israel," she adds.

With Ethiopia under a communist dictatorship, emigrating was a risky and complicated proposition. Between 1977 and 1984, approximately 3,000-4,000 of the Beta Israel made the gruelling journey to Israel.

"My parents basically left their whole life and went for their dream," Leah says, explaining that they could not arouse suspicion by packing their things and leaving.

"We left everything in the village, [and walked] with everything we could carry."

The only way out of Ethiopia was to go via Sudan, and the only way to get there was to walk.

"We did it by walking in small groups," she says. "Part of the family stayed in Ethiopia ... all the family was in different places."

Leah, her parents, her two sisters and brother took three weeks to make the trek from their village to the Sudanese border.

"When we arrive to Sudan's border, we just say we are refugees."

At this time, there were a lot of refugees - Jewish and otherwise - streaming across the border.

"A lot of Ethiopians had been arrested there, so we changed our names," she says, adding that they did not tell people they were Jewish or that they were hoping to get to Israel. Figuring they'd wait and see, the family found a local outlet of the Red Cross.

"Fortunately, they helped us," she says.

Her childhood memories include standing in line for hours at the Red Cross to wait for vital supplies, such as water. Her efforts, though, were not always productive.
"Sometimes there was, sometimes there wasn't."

Leah's family sat in the refugee camp waiting for six months, not sure of what was next.

"There wasn't any Israelis that contacted us," she says, adding that they lived in what she calls "terrible conditions".

In 1984 alone, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews attempted the same journey Leah and her family did. Around 4,000 died in the Sudan desert.

As it turned out, her parents made the ultimate sacrifice.

"Unfortunately, my little brother did not survive. He was one-year-old and there was pollution and not enough food."

After six months, Leah's family was contacted by Israeli officials.

"Suddenly, some people started saying, ‘We are Israeli,'" she recalls.

For Leah's family, the challenges did not end when the Israelis found them and flew them to Israel.

"There is a huge gap between the Ethiopian community and the Israeli community," she says.

Though Leah now speaks fluent English, Ethiopian Jews came to Israel speaking only their native Amharic.

"We had to adjust to everything," Leah says. "For my parents, it was very difficult to start again. It was really an effort by our community."

Culture shock was a huge problem for the Ethiopians, who came from a rural agrarian community into Israel, an urban information-driven country.

For the Ethiopians, says Leah, it's been a challenge to catch up.

"We are people who came from a third world country, from small villages, from traditional life, to a high-tech country" she says.

Their families, struggling to learn a new language, feed a family and cope with a culture shock, had tremendous difficulty in Israeli society.

"Most of our society came from a society that don't know how to read and write and here [in Israel] everything is about knowledge."

While Leah is a proud Israeli, she makes it clear that her family's journey was a choice, not because they had any need to leave Ethiopia.

"Life in Ethiopia wasn't that bad," she says. "Our status was that of equals," she adds, lapsing into Hebrew. Her community is happy to be in Israel, she explains, but she wants people to be aware of how much they sacrificed in order to have personal religious fulfillment.

"We came because this is the only place we belong," she exclaims, sighing when she mentions the challenges.

"Living in Israel, immediately you are different because you look different," she says, adding that traditional Ethiopian culture is different than Israel's louder and more brash culture.

In their culture, she explains, valuing politeness and respect leads to a less in-your-face culture.

"In Israel, it looks like a weakness."

The largest influx of Ethiopian Jews happened in the late 1990s during what became known as "Operation Solomon", when the situation had reached a critical point and Israel sent 34 planes to airlift 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours. Some of the challenges have been as a result of Israel taking in so many new immigrants in such short periods of time.

"It's really difficult to know how to deal with that much immigration," Leah explains.
She notes that the way Israelis deal with the immigrants has shifted over time.

"Today in Israel, they understand more the need to transmit to children the culture of the place from which they came," she says. "In the beginning the approach was the melting pot ... everybody needed to be Israeli."

For students attending the boarding schools common to many high school students in Israel, that meant they had to become Israelis and that they might end up turning their backs on their Ethiopian heritage.

"Now, it's changing. Everyone knows the need of a child to know his family and his culture."

Twenty years after they started coming, the Ethiopians are slowly becoming more successful.

"Our family is now 20 years in Israel and we make our way somehow," she says. "You can see the change over the years."

But with the community still suffering from low socio-economic status and with its extremely high unemployment rate, Leah knows there is a long way to go. Some of that change will be effort on the part of mainstream Israeli society.

"In Israel, society's need to change is really acknowledged ... but it takes a lot of time," she says. "The Israeli government did a lot to bring us. Some of the Mossad agents risked their lives. It was a major effort and we really appreciate it."

But Leah stresses that the journey did not end when Israel brought the immigrants over.

"There is more to be done."

Leah thinks that the most important thing is for the community to see its own strength through programs where Ethiopians help Ethiopians. She tells me about an after-school centre where she used to volunteer, helping Ethiopian immigrant children with their homework so that they could have the head start she didn't get.

"It takes some time," she repeats. "It's hard to start life over with nothing."

But the powerful dream which saw the Ethiopian people brave harsh deserts, squalid refugee camps and the threat of imprisonment or death has also seen them begin to overcome the cultural gaps, the grasp of poverty and the mounds of red tape they need to brave living in Israel.

Every year, she says, there are "more and more people who succeed", adding that Ethiopians are becoming professionals - doctors, lawyers and professors.

She is certain that the future holds good things for the Ethiopian community in Israel.
"I can see the difference from 10 years ago."