The Last Jews in Ethiopia

David Plotz in Africa

The Last Jews in Ethiopia

David Plotz in Africa

The Last Jews in Ethiopia
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 22 2003 2:35 PM

David Plotz in Africa

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Click here to see more of David Plotz's photographs from Africa.

Eli trots up the stairs to the second floor of the compact two-story building, waving at me to follow him. Tiny sunbathing lizards skitter away at our approach. Eli pushes open the white double doors, gesturing at me to stay put, then walks through. He emerges a few seconds later with a yarmulke and prayer shawl for each of us. "Now," he says, "Please come in."

The synagogue of Addis Ababa
The synagogue of Addis Ababa

This is Succat Rahamim, the synagogue of Addis Ababa. It is a single room, about 20 feet on each side. It feels silent, serene, and old. The walls are painted white and have prayers written on them in ornate Hebrew script. An ark covered by a brocaded blue velvet curtain faces the door. Benches stand against each wall, which means that the worshippers—back when there were worshippers—faced each other. Behind the benches are alcoves with leather-bound prayer books; the alcoves, Eli says, used to be vaults, back in the day when the Banin family used this building as a storehouse.

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A century ago, Eli tells me, the Banins, a Jewish family from the British colony of Aden, owned all the land around here. That land, long since sold or confiscated by the communist regime, now makes up downtown Addis Ababa. This neighborhood is called Banin Sefer. "I think many Ethiopians would be surprised if they knew who it is named for," Eli says with a laugh.

From the '50s till the early '70s, the synagogue bustled on holidays and filled on Shabbat. But there hasn't been a rabbi for 30 years. There aren't enough Jewish men in Addis to make a minyan anymore. Eli ticks off the remaining Jews on his fingers: Kanzen, his brother Mordechai, Asher, Shlomi. Period. The men gather once a year for Yom Kippur. Occasionally, one of them will bring a cow, sheep, or chicken to the yard behind the temple and slaughter it himself. This is the only kosher meat in Ethiopia. Mostly, though, the building stands empty, a puzzle to the passersby and to the mosquegoers across the courtyard. "There are only a few of us left. Some of us are quite old. If one or two of us leave," Eli says, shrugging, "well, that will be the end of it."

I came to Ethiopia to cover the famine, but I have also come to find family. Eli, who runs an import and trading business in the Addis main market, is a friend of a friend of my wife's family. Kanzen, who has long been the biggest pharmaceutical importer in Ethiopia, is my wife Hanna's distant cousin. They don't know me at all, but they have made it their business to make me at home. Over the past two days, between meetings, I have spent time with Eli and Kanzen learning the history of the Jews of Addis.

The history of the Addis Jew begins in Aden, the port city in what is now Yemen. Aden was one of the great communities of the Jewish Diaspora, a prosperous trading center for hundreds of years. Adenite Jews shipped goods to Asia, to Africa, and up the Suez Canal to Europe. They were tightly knit and proud: Adenites married other Adenites. At one point, there were about 10,000 of them, and most were cousins. My wife's grandmother grew up there.

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In the 19th and early 20th century, Aden was a British colony. The Jews and the majority of Arabs kept a peace, if not always a friendly one. But in the early '30s the situation of the Jews began to deteriorate. Violence broke out with the Arabs. Many Jews packed up and emigrated, and more left in 1948, their numbers steadily declining through the '50s. In 1966, the British finally surrendered Aden, and the remaining Jews left with them, moving mostly to Israel or Great Britain.

But a small and hardy group didn't want to leave the region altogether; they had built strong businesses in the Horn. Instead, they crossed the narrow Gulf of Aden to Africa. About 400 settled in Asmara, the capital of what's now Eritrea; a few went to French-influenced Djibouti or the Ethiopian railway depot of Dire Dawa; and about 70 settled in Addis Ababa, including Hanna's grandmother. Although she ultimately settled in Palestine, several of Hanna's distant cousins were among those who stayed.

The Addis community prospered for the first few decades. Ethiopia is an incredibly tolerant country, perhaps the only place in the world where Islam and Christianity coexist in real peace. It was easy to add Judaism to the mix. Ethiopians believe themselves descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and so the Adenite Jews were treated as long-lost relatives. (Kanzen says that even today whenever he has trouble with any Ethiopian, he just mentions that he is Jewish, and peace is made.) As it turned out, the Jews and the Ethiopians shared some traditions. Like Jews, Ethiopians don't eat pork. And some Ethiopian Christians don't cook or labor on Saturday.

(Ethiopia also had its own native Jewish community, the Falashas, who lived in the far north of the country. Read about the Falashas' extraordinary history and their relation with the Adenite Jews.)

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But the Adenites were never assimilated. The Jews, who tended to speak Italian, Arabic, and English, congregated with each other and with European expatriates, especially Italians. They didn't marry Ethiopians, and the Ethiopians in turn never fully integrated them. Even Eli, who was born here and speaks fluent Amharic, doesn't hold citizenship.

The community grew in the '60s and early '70s, as relations warmed between Israel and Ethiopia. Hundreds of Israelis moved to Ethiopia to work and advise the government. For the first time, the Addis Ababa synagogue hired a rabbi. But the boom didn't last. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, most of the Israelis went home and many of the Addis Jews followed, including almost everyone with kids. When the communists toppled the emperor in the mid-'70s and installed a brutal dictatorship, even more Jews emigrated, and regular synagogue services ended. Eli's mother and five brothers and sisters left for England, the United States, and Israel. He stayed behind to take care of his father, who died several years ago. Of Kanzen's six brothers and three sisters, only Kanzen and one brother remained.

It's increasingly difficult to live here, Eli says. The country isn't improving, and he sees signs that Ethiopia is losing its legendary tolerance. Radical Islam seems to be gaining popularity, though it's still in the minority. Eli is extremely worried about drawing attention to Addis' Jews or to himself. (Eli is in fact a pseudonym.)

The last Ethiopian Jews are an end to the Jewish Diaspora. Sixty years ago, Jewish communities thrived from India to Morocco, from Ethiopia north to the Artic circle. Today, Aden is empty of Jews, and only one Jewish family remains in Asmara. Ethiopia's half-dozen won't be around forever. Kanzen is the only remaining Jew with children in Addis, but he doesn't expect—or want—them to stay. They go to English-speaking schools and speak English and Italian at home.

Most who left these far-flung outposts—even those who were driven out—made good lives in Israel, the United States, and England. Still, there's something sad in the idea that this is ending for good, and I felt a little melancholy when I said goodbye to Eli after our excursion to the synagogue. Jews will never go back to Addis Ababa or Aden: They're not wanted. In a generation, the only Jews in Ethiopia will be Israeli diplomats and visiting aid workers—all passing through. It will never be their home.