x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Israel to phase out lost African tribe

Nearly three decades after the country began airlifting Ethiopia's ancient Jewish community out of the Horn of Africa, Israel's rabbis are now working to phase out the community's white-turbaned clergy - the kessoch.

An Ethiopian kess - Amharic for priest - blesses a newly-wed couple in Ashkelon, southern Israel.
An Ethiopian kess - Amharic for priest - blesses a newly-wed couple in Ashkelon, southern Israel.

ASHKELON, Israel // Israel is closing the books on a rare millennia-old Jewish tradition.

Nearly three decades after the country began airlifting Ethiopia's ancient Jewish community out of the Horn of Africa, Israel's rabbis are now working to phase out the community's white-turbaned clergy - the kessoch - whose unusual religious practices are at odds with the rabbinate's Orthodox Judaism.

The effort has added to the sense of discrimination felt by Israel's 120,000 Ethiopian citizens. These sentiments boiled over this month after a group of landlords in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi refused to accept them as tenants, prompting a rally yesterday across from Israel's parliament.

"We are just like all the other Jews. We don't have any other religion," said Kess Semai Elias, 42.

Descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Dan, according to Jewish lore, Ethiopian Jews spent millennia isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. In most Jewish communities, the priesthood of the Bible was replaced by rabbis who emphasised text study and prayer. Ethiopia's Jewish kessoch continued the traditions of biblical-era priests, sacrificing animals and collecting the first fruits of the harvest. The two traditions diverged so much that the first trickle of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel were asked to undergo a quickened conversion ceremony to appease rabbis who were dubious about their religious pedigree.

When Israeli clandestine operations rescued large groups of Ethiopian Jews from war and famine in the 1980s and early 1990s, a rabbinic consensus was reached and the newcomers did not have to convert - except for a group known as the Falash Mura, whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity generations before.

The 58 kessoch who arrived in Israel in those early days maintained their leadership role in the Ethiopian Jewish community, and in 1992 successfully lobbied the Israeli government to grant them salaries and status similar to those of government rabbis. But as the ageing clergy began ordaining a new generation of kessoch over past decade, and those new leaders also wanted recognition, Israel's rabbinate objected.

After public demonstrations and a brief hunger strike, the newly ordained kessoch struck a bittersweet deal last month with Israel's ministry of religious services.

The ministry would finally implement a 2010 government resolution to recognise 13 of them and give them state salaries. But Israel's state rabbis made it very clear to the new kessoch: they would be the last.

"It's for the best," said Rabbi Yosef Hadana, 63, of the Israeli rabbinate.

Also the son of a respected kess, Rabbi Hadana, long ago traded the shash - the white turban of his father's tradition - for the black suit and fedora of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

"After 2,500 years of isolation from the nation of Israel, we have returned. Now we need to find a way to be one people," Rabbi Hadana said.

Rabbi Hadana said he holds great respect for the kessoch. They were the ones who once spun tales of Jerusalem's splendour at evening storytelling sessions, keeping alive the Ethiopian Jews' religious tradition. But anyone in Israel who wants to continue that tradition, he said, must get rabbinic training. Streamlining their religious practice can help integrate Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society, he said.

Ethiopian-Israelis have long struggled in Israel, with literacy rates relatively low, the culture gap wide and rates of poverty and domestic violence well above the national average.

Many of the older generation have menial jobs - men as security guards and women as cleaners. Their children, most of whom grew up in Israel's Orthodox Jewish religious schools, speak fluent Hebrew, serve in the army alongside native Israelis and are increasingly studying engineering and sciences in Israel's universities. Despite these gains, the younger generation is still struggling compared to other Israelis.

Despite the country's secular majority, its Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish weddings. Israel does not recognise civil marriages, intermarriages or marriages performed by rabbis from the more liberal Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism - unless they took place abroad.

Israeli rabbis have now agreed to train the 13 new kessoch to perform marriages the mainstream Jewish way. Nevertheless, for most of the kessoch, the prohibition on marrying is such a slap in the face that they cannot bear to show up at the weddings of their own community members.

Instead, they perform their own pirate wedding ceremonies for the newlyweds a few days later - a modest reenactment of the week-long marriage celebrations they used to hold back in Africa.

At one night-time ceremony in seaside Ashkelon, women in embroidered cotton robes bounced their shoulders to African beats. Newly ordained Kess Abiyu Azariya, 44, pushed his way to the head of the dance floor. Wearing a white turban and shawl, he recited wedding blessings in the ancient Ethiopian tongue, Geez. "I am singing these prayers to remind the young people what a wedding was like in Ethiopia," he told the crowd in spoken Amharic.

But the young people were nowhere in sight. Most of the 300 revellers in the room were of the older generation.

When asked about the practice, the dozen young Ethiopian-Israelis who showed up were ambivalent.

"I hope it continues, but it probably won't," said David Nadou, 24, shrugging.

The newly ordained kessoch are trying to work against that tide. Kess Semai said they're close to ordaining yet another group of 30 kessoch - even though Israel vows not to recognise any more.

"We kept this tradition for more than 2,500 years," Kess Semai said. "Our community won't allow in the span of 30 years for this tradition to be erased completely."