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Culture & Religion

Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Passover with the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia

Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Passover with the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia

In the early 1960’s from north of Gondar in the Simien Mountains to south of Gondar in Ambover there lived thousands of Falasha Jewish Ethiopians.

Richard Lyman on the outskirts of Gondar’s airport with a wrecked military plane

The name “Falasha” is not politically correct today, however, it was the only name we ever heard used. Since the 1980’s over 80,000 Ethiopian Jews have been permitted to “return” to Israel. Within our school in Gondar we were told that there were three Falasha students, however, no one was ever identified. Once in my classroom I broke up a severe teasing episode where one of my students was being accused of being a Falasha.

A number of times I visited the tiny Falasha village located only a couple of kilometers north of Gondar on the Asmara road. It was close enough to Gondar to be a pleasant walk. I never heard a name for the place. It was situated on a knoll around which the road swung. There were just a few round, wood post houses, plastered with mud with straw roofs.

The men were primarily employed making steel farm implements while the women were potters. The Falasha of Ethiopia were not allowed to own land so this particular village did not appear to be heavily involved in agriculture, although there were chickens, sheep and cattle wandering around, occasionally into the houses. In a future article I intend to describe the difficult land ownership situation in Northwest Ethiopia at the time I lived there.

Miss Marjorie Paul, one of the USAID nurse/instructors at the Gondar Health College took an active interest in the Falasha. She confided to me that shortly before we, the Peace Corps, came to Gondar she had encouraged and shown the Falasha women potters how to make small animal sculptures to sell to tourists who regularly visited Gondar.

Following my last visit to the village on April 19, 1964, I made this entry in my diary:

I walked out to the Falasha village to buy some pottery to take home in July. On the way I joined two men who were carrying a large steel beam that they were planning to use to make plow points. The steel beam was left from WWII so they were truly going to “pound swords into plow shears”. Once in the village the men assembled under a tree where they had a charcoal fire burning which they enhanced by working two sheep bladder bellows by hand. Once the fire was hot enough they pounded the red hot portion of the beam in order to work it into plow points. Seated near by on a little camp stool was a large Israeli artist who was sloshing oil paint onto a canvas, seeking to capture the essence of the Falasha men working. Like myself, the ironworkers appeared to be very amused by his creation.

I purchased pottery from Ester Kebede, the chief woman potter. She proudly told me that she had just started signing her name to her pots. She sold me several clay figures including a scarab like figure, and one of her trademark pots for cooking wat. She sent her little boy, Mellesot, back to town with me to carry my purchases. About half way home I thanked Mellesot, gave him five cents and sent him back to the village. At the edge of Gondar I met two students, Zerai and Alemu Asres. Throughout our two years in Gondar, students would not let us carry anything so they walked the rest of the way with me to my house, carrying my pottery.

My diary noted the arrival in 1963 of Dr. Daniel Harel and his wife Vered. They came to Gondar to work with the Falasha living around Ambover, a village south of Gondar. Vered was responsible for the establishment of a school and Daniel a health clinic in Ambover. Vered made Falasha handicraft items available to the large foreign community in Gondar in order to help finance the Ambover school. Later a man named David Zefrone (spelling?) came to Gondar to assist Vered with the school.

Vered Harel, Martin Benjamin and Daniel Harel

On June 5, 1964 I recorded this example of David Zefrone’s encounter with the Ethiopian Bureaucracy:

David Zefrone returned to Gondar, sputtering, after an exasperating week in Addis. He’s working for an international Jewish organization that is based in Geneva and he was invited to go to Geneva to report on what he’s been doing among the Falasha. He flew to Addis and asked for an exit visa at the Interior Ministry. They asked him for a paper from his employer in Ethiopia. He said he didn’t have any employer in Ethiopia. The Ministry then replied that he had to have an employer and then asked him what he did. He told them he taught the Falashas near Gondar. The Interior Ministry then said you must thus be working for the Ministry of Education and should bring a paper from Ato Yoseph in Gondar. He said he did not work for Ato Yoseph or the Ministry of Education. They then told him to go back to Gondar and bring a paper from the Governor saying that it is all right for him to leave. The Israeli Embassy even tried to intervene as his guarantor by guaranteeing his return to Ethiopia if he’d done anything unacceptable while in Ethiopia. The Ministry of Interior said no, so David returned to Gondar.

On March 26, 1964 I was invited to spend an evening with Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, at the Gondar Health College. Fortunately Toynbee delayed his visit a few days so I was able to accept the Harels’ kind invitation to attend Passover at Ambover:

At 5:30 Dan Harel stopped at our house to pick-up my housemate, Martin Benjamin and me. Dan then made a stop at the airport in an attempt to locate a package that was supposed to have arrived in Gondar. About five kilometers south of the airport, just past the bombed out Italian bridge, we turned north off the main Gondar/Bahir Dar road. The turn off point is a little sub-district village that contains an open air mill and about twenty huts scattered around a small market field. The women who live in the huts are all talla (beer) sellers. We then drove over a dirt track about 12 kilometers to the village of Ambover. Dan says that the first time he visited Ambover last year there wasn’t even a path and the trip took him four hours. Since then the villagers have cleared a path so the journey now takes only half an hour.

The Falasha who live near Ambover all rent the land they farm. The village is quite new as it was started only about 20 to 25 years ago when a large group of Falasha moved down from the Simien Mountains in order to avoid the Italians. The only buildings in the village are the health clinic, a school, a synagogue and a few steel roofed houses for teachers. The 3500 Falashas are scattered around on the nearby hills. We arrived in the village at about 7:00 so we quickly were shown about the school and clinic before it was completely dark. The school has been built by masons from Gondar and has been paid for by the Harels and their organization in Israel. David had a major hand in building the door frames, doors, windows, etc. Some students tried to carry a desk out of a classroom to take to the synagogue but they couldn’t because the desk was placed in the room before the door was installed.

Dan’s clinic was in a newly built building with woven reed mats on the dirt floor. He had an eye chart on the wall that was designed for those who cannot read. The chart was of limited use because the residents of Ambover do not recognize chairs, tables, stairs, etc. Dan’s assistant (Getachun) is a Falasha dresser (health worker) who Dan was fortunate to locate in Addis. The man was willing to return to Ambover where he built himself a house and married a local woman. Near the clinic is a large hole in the ground that Dan hopes will shortly become a well. Now the residents must bring water from a spring fed stream at the base of the mountain. The synagogue is just a small square building. When the Harels arrived the synagogue was roofless with an ostrich egg (a common Christian symbol) affixed to the top of the frame. The Harels paid for a new roof complete with a Star of David.

As the sun was setting beyond Lake Tana seven old priests stood inside the synagogue and chanted in Geez (the liturgical language for Christians and Jews). There are seven teachers in the village school. Because several have been educated in Israel they spoke with the Harels in Hebrew. Hebrew is taught to all the 250 students in the school. The request for permission to teach Hebrew was based on the same reasoning that Ethiopian Moslems use to teach Arabic in their schools. The Ministry of Education would probably not allow instruction in Hebrew to be taught if it were not a necessary part of the religion. The villagers have been drinking only water this past week. They have also only eaten newly prepared foods for each meal and have avoided the normal fermented injera.

Far in the distance we could see fires burning in huts. We sat on the ground and watched Venus appear in the southwest and the moon come-up over the mountain behind us. After the priests had chanted for an hour we all went into the synagogue where the Israeli educated youth read and chanted the Hebrew service. At first they were a little confused and were reading aloud the directions on how the table should be prepared, etc. Vered quickly straightened that out. The synagogue was lighted by two tiny locally made kerosene lamps. On one wall behind the priests was hung a long strip of colorful cloth. There must have been 300 people seated on the floor. Most of them seemed to be able to follow the Hebrew.

I recorded the service. However, several years ago I loaned the tape to a doctor in Chicago to enjoy for Passover and it was never returned:

Sometime after 9:00 we all left the building and sat on the ground outside. Over a dozen injera baskets of matzo were brought by children. The bread was blessed in Geez and Hebrew. It tasted like the usual “dabbo” (wheat bread) except it was flat like injera. The Geez prayers that are chanted are from the Falasha Book of Prayer. It is said that there remains only one copy of the book and it is in Simien. The school children next sang a number of Israeli folk songs. The priests repeated some more Geez prayers that were translated into Hebrew for the benefit of the Harels.

We were impressed with how clean the children were. The children did not have flies around their eyes. Dan said that is probably due to the Monday morning inspections held at the school each week. The cleanest student always gets a special bar of soap. On the drive back to Gondar, Dan talked about the problem of the old religious leaders not being replaced. Their children who would normally take on the responsibility, now want to become teachers. I asked Dan if any of the Falasha ever have contact with the Debra Tabor or Dabat Christian missions. He said it is something of a joke among the Falasha. Some may use the mission for a while and then go back to being a Falasha. In his twenty or so years in Ethiopia Rev. Payne has succeeded in converting one Falasha religious leader to Christianity at the mission. Dan said that Payne keeps the man around the Dabat mission like a trophy. The Falasha refer to Passover as Fasika (Easter in Amharic).

As a footnote to this short “tarik” about the Falasha I’d like to relate my conversations with Sister Lena who was a German Anglican nun at one of the two missions. The missions were started in the 19th. century to convert the Falasha to Christianity. About four times during my two years in Gondar I met Sister Lena while she was visiting Gondar. Our longest conversation occurred on June 19, 1964 on the plane from Gondar to Addis. It was the start of her final flight back to Germany where she planned to retire and for me and sixty other Peace Corps volunteers it was a summons to meet with Ambassador Edward Korry at the Embassy for an update on American activities in Ethiopia. Sister Lena first came to Ethiopia in 1932. She said it took her six weeks by mule to reach Gondar from the coast.

At that time Gondar consisted of ruined castles and mud houses. In November 1935, with the Italians approaching, Sister Lena and the others at the mission fled by mule to the Sudan and there they took the train to Port Sudan in order to board a ship to England.

They all contracted malaria while crossing the lowlands between Gondar and the Sudan. Sister Lena returned to Ethiopia in 1952. She acknowledged that the Falasha couples who live at the Debat mission continue to maintain their unique Falasha traditions.


Any updated information on the Ethiopian Jews ? I wonder if the women still make pottery. DIGS