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Israel is closing the books on a rare millennia-old Jewish tradition.
January 21, 2012 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Nearly three decades after Israel 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.

"Descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Dan, according to Jewish lore, Ethiopian Jews spent millennia isolated from the rest of the Jewish world.(PDF) In most Jewish communities, the priesthood of the Bible was replaced by rabbis who emphasized 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.
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posted by Blasdelb (31 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women
posted by Artw at 1:47 PM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Still, the kessoch, easily recognized by their ceremonial fly-swatting tassels and rainbow-colored sunbrellas…"
posted by Nomyte at 2:14 PM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


This may be an ignorant question, but if they're of the tribe of Dan, wouldn't they necessarily have no priests? I thought priests were supposedly patrilineal descendants of Aaron, who was a Levite, not a Danite?
posted by Flunkie at 2:21 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is time for them to abandon the silly hats of Ethiopia and adopt the silly hats of Europe. Only then will we be united in the silliness of our headgear.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:23 PM on January 21, 2012 [23 favorites]


As long as they don't do away with the tradition of insanely hot Ethiopian security guards with frightening weapons, everything will be fine.

(I kid. The fucking Orthodox rabbinate and its ongoing war on the diversity of Jewish traditions can eat a foreskinned phallus.)
posted by R. Schlock at 2:25 PM on January 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


My father helped to bring Ethiopian Jews over to Israel in the 80's. And I've always taken issue with the way Israel provided weapons to Mengistu that he used to massacre his own people, because Israel wanted to increase the number of Jews living there. It just seems so perverse to pretend that you give a shit about these people when your real intentions are so obvious. When I lived there in the mid-80's, it was the Russians who were deemed to be lowest of the low. Sure, we'll let you in to boost numbers, but we'll settle you in the least desirable parts of the country and make it very difficult for you to work your way up in society. I remember this one Hebrew sign for a doctor's office outside of Tel Aviv read: "Dr. Letichevksy (Not Russian)". And that whole accepting blood donations from Ethiopians, and then routinely throwing them out, makes me sick.
posted by gman at 2:27 PM on January 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


This seems to be a rather complex subject to consider but I have to say it reminds me of when I was growing up. My mother's side of the family was Polish and very proudly so while my father's side of the family was simply "Jewish". When I was young this confused me to no end. The idea that my one side of my family was from somewhere while the other was simply of a group. I can't say that I've found any definitive answers over the years.

I can say, though, that the forced assimilation of the Ethiopian traditions makes me quiet uneasy.
posted by sendai sleep master at 2:28 PM on January 21, 2012


See, when we have rabbis who aren't Orthodox, ultra Orthodox or the like, we might have to do things like "accept the diversity of Jewish thought" and the like. Best only for the government to give money to the right rabbis.

And this is why I refuse to visit Israel, and do not consider it a proper Jewish homeland. I won't join any sort of synagogue, either, because I don't want to financially support it; I think it's unconscionable for Reform synagogues to give money to Israel.
posted by jeather at 2:29 PM on January 21, 2012 [13 favorites]


"Still, the kessoch, easily recognized by their ceremonial fly-swatting tassels and rainbow-colored sunbrellas…"

PARASOL
posted by kenko at 2:29 PM on January 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


The question of whose Judasim is the real Judasim has been going on for a long time, and this is just part of a long process - 'How Do the Issues in the Conversion Controversy Relate to Israel?'.

Oddly, I know most about lesser known Jewish communities from a cookbook - Claudia Roden's fabulous 'The Book of Jewish Food'. There are recipes from communities around the world, with discussions on the local influences on food and culture. Fantastic food and an education to boot. You can read a few pages of it on google books if you want a flavour.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:38 PM on January 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


The last time I saw an Orthodox Jew dressed traditionally, the thought occurred to me "y'know, he's really just a shtetl re-enactor".
posted by benito.strauss at 2:52 PM on January 21, 2012 [12 favorites]


"Still, the kessoch, easily recognized by their ceremonial fly-swatting tassels and rainbow-colored sunbrellas…"

PARASOL


Sunbrella, ella, ella.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:53 PM on January 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


For people interested in the topic highly recommend the film "Live and Become"
posted by terrortubby at 2:54 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The last time I saw an Orthodox Jew dressed traditionally, the thought occurred to me "y'know, he's really just a shtetl re-enactor".

Whenever I see the local Hasidim guys (especially on a hot summer day) in full wool regalia I think, "Ah yes, the finest in 17th century Polish winter fashion." And "Dude - you must be sweating like a non-kosher animal." Although the women's dress codes are more like 19th-century Amish, with wigs rather than bonnets or headscarves. Can't let strange menfolk get aroused by their real hair!

An old photojournalist housemate of mine, herself Jewish, who'd lived in Israel during high school, and travelled all over the Middle East in the late 70's/early 80's (Egypt/Yemen/Jordan, etc.) went to Ethiopia just as these airlifts were beginning, to document the communities there. It was already apparent that they would meet conservative resistance upon arrival in Israel.
posted by Philofacts at 3:09 PM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


makes me quiet uneasy
what a lovely typo!
posted by sineater at 3:18 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder if I'm drawn to these articles about Israel the same way I'm drawn to articles about US healthcare - it's hard to stop gawping at the sheer scale of the trainwreck. With more than a touch of There but for the grace of God go I. Artw's link especially.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:19 PM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think I should point out that despite the title of the FPP these priests are almost certainly not following millennia-old Jewish tradition. They're probably descended from a group of Christians that adopted some Judaised practices and an origin myth which claimed that they were from ancient Jewish emigrants. This doesn't mean that they need to be corrected or forced into some societal mold, but we shouldn't uncritically accept that their religious beliefs are historical any more than we should accept that Mormon scripture is a translation of some gold plates written in hieroglyphics.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:25 PM on January 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nor should we uncritically accept that the Haredim are following millennia old traditions. Or any group, really: if the requirement for historical beliefs is unchanging over hundreds or thousands of years, no one is safe.
posted by jeather at 5:04 AM on January 22, 2012 [10 favorites]


I hate those old bearded bastards so so much. They are still celebrating over their successful destruction of the Karaim, Samarim, and other non-rabbinical Jewish groups. They are even now eagerly awaiting the destruction of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements. We should be pleased that our tribe is big enough to include such diversity, but for those miserable pieces of filth diversity is nothing but an invitation to extermination. Judaism can only be their Judaism, and damn what it does to the people as a whole, or whose spiritual needs it fails to meet.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:26 AM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Jeather, does anyone say the Haredim are wearing the same outfit that their ancestors wore even a thousand years ago? If anyone made that claim I would be among the first to refute it.

Mind you, there's a Haredi joke: how do we know that Abraham wore a shtreimel? Answer: the Bible says that Abraham stood before the Lord. Surely someone as pious as Abraham wouldn't have done this without putting his shtreimel on!
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:21 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, the Haredi certainly act as if they alone are following traditions that have remained unchanged for millennia, even if the exact clothing has changed. The Orthodox often do the same, with as little justification. All forms of Judaism have evolved over the past hundred years, much less thousand or two thousand; it isn't the case that some form of Orthodox Judaism is the pure form of Judaism to which all other Jews aspire.
posted by jeather at 12:38 PM on January 22, 2012


"I think I should point out that despite the title of the FPP these priests are almost certainly not following millennia-old Jewish tradition. They're probably descended from a group of Christians that adopted some Judaised practices and an origin myth which claimed that they were from ancient Jewish emigrants. This doesn't mean that they need to be corrected or forced into some societal mold, but we shouldn't uncritically accept that their religious beliefs are historical any more than we should accept that Mormon scripture is a translation of some gold plates written in hieroglyphics."

Joe the evidence that the Beta Israel descend from the time of Solomon is about as strong as the evidence for their being a time of Solomon. Regardless, it is clear that, even if they are Jewish flavored Christian Apostates, they are very certainly millennia old Jewish flavored Christian apostates. Eldad ha-Dani was a 9th century Jewish merchant and traveler who was found by Rabbis speaking a strange dialect of Hebrew, with extensive knowledge of the Tanakh along with copies, an ability to cite and repeat a long oral history of sages, and practicing a form of Judaism that was confusingly neither Rabbinical nor Karaite but priestly in a way very much recognizable in the Beta Israel. The accounts are also corroborated by Obadiah ben Abraham himself who discusses the same people in a letter to Jerusalem in the 1400s.

The Beta Israel have multiple oral traditions of their origins, but most are at least as or more plausible as a Christian Apsostasy that somehow both they and their neighbors forgot. The Beta Israel have had a very recognizable experience with Cristian antisemitism from their Christian neighbors who also have written traditions stretching back millennia.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:21 PM on January 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nomyte: ""Still, the kessoch, easily recognized by their ceremonial fly-swatting tassels and rainbow-colored sunbrellas"

Have we finally located The Village?
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:01 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Blasdelb, you mean that there is no extra-Biblical evidence for Solomon's existence, which is correct. As regards Eldad Hadani, I don't think any historians take the story seriously. Have you ever read it? It's like the fable of Prester John, which it may have inspired. It doesn't even describe Ethiopia as such; this was a Western interpretation based on the fact that Eldad talked about Africa, these guys live in Africa, therefore they're the same people.

As for any similarity between the practices of the Beta Israel and the story of Eldad Hadani, I would be very surprised to hear of any significant ones. He doesn't mention their priesthood or their peculiar rituals, but he does claim that his countrymen spoke Hebrew and that they had a lot of rabbinic practices that the Beta Israel apparently don't. In any event, you would need to show that they didn't base their practices on his account rather than the other way around.

Incidentally, "millennia" means "at least two thousand years". I'd really appreciate it if we could start using the term correctly.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:13 PM on January 22, 2012


It's curious that the fundamentalist, orthodox, misogynist, racist (how come there was not one mention of the racism inherent against the Ethiopian Jews?) and rabid Jews of Israel/Palestine don't get along with their Christian and Muslim counterparts. They are so alike.
posted by Azaadistani at 4:27 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of things at odds with Orthodox Israelis, this Jewish paper in Atlanta called for the Mossad based in the U.S. to assassinate Obama because he's not pro-israeli enough.
posted by dejah420 at 6:57 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jeather, does anyone say the Haredim are wearing the same outfit that their ancestors wore even a thousand years ago?

Not to derail or anything, but what is the meaning or significance of the garments that the Haredim wear? I've always wondered about that, and I'm afraid I don't know enough of the terminology to look it up.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:09 PM on January 22, 2012


Doh, my linking is borked, here's the link without hyperlinking: http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/21/us/jewish-president-threat/index.html
posted by dejah420 at 8:44 PM on January 22, 2012


The life narrative that Eldad ha-Dani related to crowds around the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia was ridiculous, involving things like enslavement in China and being saved from cannibals by his skinniness, largely a sensationalist fantasy. However, modern scholars tend to, though certainly don't universally, agree with his contemporaries, that Eldad ha-Dani was indeed not from anywhere recognizable to Jews of the time, that his halakot and dialect of Hebrew were genuine, and that he really was a Jew from somewhere other Jews hadn't known in a very long time. The best arguments against Eldad ha-Dan describing the Beta Israel note that he was unable to describe Ethiopian geography, that he did not speak Ge'ez, the local language, and may have instead spoken some Arabic in addition to his weird dialect of Hebrew. However, predating the 19th century scholarship into the issue, there were oral traditions that placed proto-Beta-Israeli migrants fleeing Egypt after the reign of Cleopatra to both Ethiopia and Yemen, which does make sense from Eldad ha-Dani's circumstances.*

If you can read Hebrew

"In any event, you would need to show that they didn't base their practices on his account rather than the other way around."

The idea that a society of a half a million people would form to become the society that a dude who wandered way to the north, who they don't remember, said was always there is more ridiculous than anything Eldad ha-Dan ever actually said.

I'm not saying that the case for the historicity of the Beta Israel's claims is rock solid, but I am saying that the case for their history back to the 9th Century is about as solid as most Jewish historical claims from before the Hellenistic era and their claims to direct homology to modern Judaism are more solid most claims from the pre-Babylonian era. Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic Jewish history also gets way more deeply whacky, as you really look into what corroborated evidence there is of what was actually there, than rainbow sunbrellas. Those who live in glass houses and all.

*There are different origin accounts which are sometimes seen as competing and sometimes seen as indications of multiple one way waves of migration

Also, so long as we are being pedantically prescriptivist, a millennium means one thousand years, thus a second millennium after or before a certain date would begin a 1000 years after or before that date. 1001 years involves millennia, plural. For example, we are currently living in the third millennium of the Common Era. I am staking the claim that the Beta Israel are not unlikely to have existed in some form of Jewish identity since at least the 9th century CE, millennia.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:05 PM on January 22, 2012


WorkingMyWayHome wrote: Not to derail or anything, but what is the meaning or significance of the garments that the Haredim wear?

Communal identification and conservatism. Different groups wear different clothes, and the only explanations I've encountered for particular styles have been obviously post-facto. Take the furry hats, for instance. You can look at old photos and pictures and see that they are derived from soft cloth hats with a fur lining or trim, but each generation of of hat-wearers improved the basic model until you ended with things that look like busbies or furry cartwheels.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:10 PM on January 22, 2012


It's curious that the fundamentalist, orthodox, misogynist, racist (how come there was not one mention of the racism inherent against the Ethiopian Jews?) and rabid Jews of Israel/Palestine don't get along with their Christian and Muslim counterparts. They are so alike.

Oh but they do, every time some brave people try to hold a gay parade in Jerusalem.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:11 AM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


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