During my month of ulpan, we have been lucky to get to know people from very diverse cultures. The students in my class come from all over the world: Canada, the States, Germany, Russia, China and Japan to name a few. All these students have come together to learn Hebrew and live in Israel. I asked my Russian friend why he started studying Hebrew and he said “I didn’t choose Hebrew, Hebrew chose me.” My American friend and I looked at each other and thought, “Really, Hebrew can choose someone in Russia??” I guess the point is that this language is unique to everyone – it’s something the most diverse people can find a connection with and that is something special.
I have continuously noticed that whether my teachers are religious or secular, Jewish or not, the Jewish religion is frequently referred to in class in various contexts. When we study vocabulary, my very secular teacher will often quote a phrase from the Bible to explain the meaning of the word. I don’t think this is something you can find anywhere else. In Israel, you cannot ignore religion, you cannot really disappear from it. Yes, you can choose not to follow anything but even so, you will still have a deep knowledge and education of the Bible and religious concepts.
A few weeks ago, we had a guest lecturer for ulpan. She was a young woman who had immigrated (and by immigrated, I mean walked) to Israel when she was a baby. She told us the story of her very long journey. The Jews of Ethiopia believed in the Bible and the Jewish traditions, which they follow to this day. She told us they dream of returning to Israel every single day. However, since they were separated from mainstream Judaism a long time ago, they were not aware of many ‘updates’ or new rabbinical decrees on Jewish tradition. The Jews of Ethiopia also believed Jerusalem was really entirely built from gold, since it says that Jerusalem is a city of gold. They didn’t even know that other cities existed in Israel – they thought the entire country was just made up of the golden city of Jerusalem.
It was shocking to hear that, to this day, the Ethiopians believe that the Jewish temple still exists in Jerusalem. She had believed that her whole life until she came to Israel and was heartbroken to learn that it was destroyed.
The Ethiopians also had a more literal translation of the Bible than mainstream Judaism, which uses the understandings of the oral law to expound on the laws. When they arrived in Israel, they found it difficult to keep shabbat the way mainstream Jews here do it. For example, her family still eats cold food on shabbat because they were not used to heating up food on shabbat.
Their trip was not easy in the slightest. They always dreamed of Jerusalem but it was too dangerous to embark on the journey. Different Jewish Ethiopian communities would just wake up and decide that day to start walking. They just walked towards the direction they believed Jerusalem was in, with the clothes on their back and the little amount of food they could bring. On this woman’s journey, a large community trekked together to Jerusalem. However, due to the heat of the desert and the fact that they couldn’t carry enough food and water, over 1400 people died on the journey. Her mother got extremely sick and was left in the desert because they believed she was dead. She was later found alive by kind soldiers who nursed her back to health and later reunited her with her daughter.
Traveling in the desert was not easy. They had to travel through Sudan, while being wary of Sudanese soldiers who would put them in jail if they were found, since it was illegal for them to leave Ethiopia through Sudan. After these hundreds of men, women and children suffered through the desert, the heat, the fear of capture, starvation and exhaustion, they finally made it to Israel.
Arriving in Israel was in no way the end of their hard journey. When they arrived in Israel, they were shocked to learn that Jerusalem was not made of gold. They didn’t know modern cities like Tel Aviv existed. The holy, spiritual land they pictured was nothing like they imagined it. They were surprised to learn that not every Jew was observant here. It was a big shock and a huge adjustment, as if 2000 years disappeared from their lives, forcing them to recreate their vision of modern Jerusalem. And even after their entire journey, they were told that since it was not certain that they were Jewish, they would have to undergo the Jewish conversion process. This is a physically, emotionally and spiritually difficult process to go through and it upset them to go through it. The hardest thing for them, according to our speaker, was feeling like they were not accepted in Israel. They felt like they didn’t belong to any one place, or any one sect.
Today, the Ethiopian Jews are more integrated into society but there are still lots of tensions among the ‘native’ Israelis and the Ethiopians. Like any new immigrant, they often occupy the lower class jobs. They have to re-adjust to life in a foreign country, a new language, a different culture and hope to be accepted for who they are.
It’s difficult to say if I would ever embark on a journey like that – I can’t imagine picking up my life and making my way through a desert to a land I only dreamed about. But I guess every Jew has to find their way back to Israel sometime and every Jew has to hope that the difficult journey will be worth it.