by: Galit Govezensky on April 3rd, 2012 | 2 Comments »
Passover is here again in Israel, with its annual holiday preparations. There are long lines of overstuffed carts in the supermarket filled with cleaning supplies, boxes of matzah, wine, and all the traditional ingredients of Pessach meals for dozens of guests. In many households, there are last-minute efforts to get rid of all traces of hametz by cleaning cabinets and scrubbing floors. At the same time, Israeli families on vacation can be seen hiking and enjoying themselves among colorful fields of wildflowers.
For countless generations, we have been told that Pessach is the holiday commemorating our exodus out of Egypt and our freedom from oppression. Sadly, however, some Jews worldwide still continue to suffer and wait to be released. Among them are the controversial Falash Mura, believed to be the descendants of the Jewish population of Ethiopia known as Beta Israel. Currently, 8,700 Falash Mura live in Ethiopia, while many members of their community came to Israel years ago. Although in the past they were silent, in recent months, a number of protest gatherings have erupted in Israeli cities among this normally subdued minority group. They now raise their voices against the discrimination they confront in their daily lives and loudly protest their separation from their lost relatives.
The Ethiopian Israeli community is comprised of 120,000 Beta Israel and Falash Mura, most of which came under the Law of Return. Much heated debate continues about whether the Falash Mura can actually be considered Jews, causing complex ethical and religious problems. For example, to prove their Jewish identity, most men go through a ceremony known as hatafat dam, a symbolic circumcision.
In 2010, the world’s largest Seder attracted a crowd of 6,000 people in Gondar, Ethiopia. I have heard fascinating stories about their observance of Pessach, which is quite different from ours. Years ago, before matzah was available, Ethiopian Jews performed animal sacrifice, and wine was also absent from the Seder. Traditionally, the Haggadah was not read because Ethiopians had their own Book of Pessach, interpreting the Passover story from the perspective of the Torah. An elderly man from Beta Israel told me that he eats only matzah and a few simple foods during the holiday, so as to experience the pain the Jewish forefathers felt as they wandered through the desert. In fact, the same old man from Afula told me how he himself felt like one of Bnei Israel fleeing from Pharoah when he came to Israel on foot through Sudan in the late 1970s. This secret journey involved a mass of Ethiopian Jews who crossed a vast expanse of dangerous territory as many of their loved ones died of starvation and disease or were robbed and murdered. Their dream to come home, to Israel, was stronger than anything else, sometimes at the tragic cost of their lives.
Until recently my contact with the Israeli Ethiopian community had been very limited and superficial. During my army service I once delivered a lecture about “Operation Solomon” which brought more than 14,000 immigrants to Israel in a series of stunning airlifts in 1991. But I had had never had any real exposure to or knowledge of their culture. When I was asked to photograph an Ethiopian wedding, my initial reaction wasn’t too enthusiastic – it was just another job. But as soon as I arrived to the event, I was swept away by the magic of the ceremony – the ecstatic music and energetic dance, the delicious, unusual delicacies and the intense atmosphere. I felt an urge to get to know this minority group, which is a crucial part of Israeli society.
As a photographer, I desire to know all I can about subjects who catch my attention, and I seek out photos that capture their character and humanity. I don’t simply take portraits and move on; I analyze the smallest details and try to literally step into their shoes – to capture them in the most authentic and interesting way possible. Since I began studying the Ethiopian community in Israel, I have been stunned by the great courage and determination they have demonstrated in order to survive. For the past year I have been documenting daily life in this community and getting to know their diverse members (particularly in Afula and Jerusalem). I have interviewed the young and old in the streets, sharing with them their laughter and stories. I have also attended their rallies as they stand for countless hours holding photographs of their loved ones still waiting in Gondar and other regions of Ethiopia.
I hope I have managed to win the trust of many Ethiopian citizens of Israel. They smile at me as I play with their children, teach me a few words in Amharic and invite me in to share a meal of spicy potatoes, injerra, and a traditional coffee (buna) ceremony. I enjoy watching them feed one another as a gesture of respect, rather than eating with utensils. It has been a gradual but fulfilling process to get to know them and to be exposed to unique aspects of their world. I realize that they are constantly pulled between the rituals and customs of their African homeland and the stressful rhythm of modern Israeli society. The well-known phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” means much more to them than it does to many others, but it may require great patience. This Passover, I feel solidarity for them and hope that they will soon be rejoined with their family members in Israel. To quote an ancient Ethiopian proverb, “By persevering, the egg walks on legs.”
Galit Govezensky is a photographer from Gan Ner, Israel who has published many articles in various travel and culture magazines. She expresses her interest in social and humanitarian issues through her photography and writing. Click here to see more of her photographs and clickhereto visit her website.