Monday, March 8, 2010

Chasing Jewish Roots : Ethiopia, Israel, Spain & USA

The (Ethiopian) Falasha 
Operation Solomon
From 1993-1994, a span of about 18 months, I traveled back and forth to Tel Aviv Israel working at Bezeq, an Israeli communications company. It is there that I met and befriended my Falashan friends who lived on the outskirts of Tel Aviv and frequented the large market, (my Israeli playground).  My living accommodations faced the Mediterranean sea where I enjoyed the beach, but I played in the dusty city market, learning foods, history, customs, and a few vital words in Hebrew which I’ve long since forgotten. (Photo: The Ethiopian Jews - The Pickman Museum Shop).

Although I loved the Israeli dishes, especially the spicy ones with a touch of Northern African influence, I also fell in love with Ethiopian food in Israel. The Beta Israel community, (they all seemed to live together), didn’t appear to really blend into the Israeli culture; many not having much more of a working knowledge of Hebrew than I.  But with the help of young ones translating, I would sit at their communal gathering, following customs, and falling in love with berbere, the use of turmeric, the feel of injera, and homemade Tej (a honey wine, but milder than that found in the American-Ethiopian restaurants).  Last night when preparing doro wat, an Ethiopian spicy chicken, gomen wat, collard greens and Ethiopian cabbage, tikil gomen, (I never learned how to make injera, but I buy it at the local Ethiopian market/restaurant), I gave tribute to the "Falashans"  who I met over twenty-five years ago.

My experience with the Ethiopian Jews became vital in some genealogical research of a few Mediterranean-tanned friends who discovered their Ethiopian roots.  In America they claimed to be Sephardic Jews.  But family folklore and history confirmed Falasha or Ethiopian Jewish, a distinct group of Jewish persons. There were records of generational names (similar to Genesis, who begat whom), and the elders could recite them without referring to the written word.  The last few generations, however, only recognized it as family folklore, for they were born in the USA and had embraced all that is American. It appears their ancestors, who had left Ethiopia many generations before, also left their generational customs behind as they traveled through northern Africa and Europe, finally landing in the USA on working boats or through some form of trade, intermarrying with other cultures, slowly sending for family members to join them. These American born, mostly claiming to be descendants of Moors from southern Spain, did not quite believe in the Falashan folklore until they did the genealogical data given to them by a dying elder.

As I was only asked to verify the accuracy and probability and to extinguish some of their doubts, I printed off historical information for them to read.  At the time I was not knowledgeable enough in Falashan research to do more than to share my Israeli experiences, but a3Genealogy reviewed their DNA results.

Last I heard, they continued to claim Judeo-Españoles (Jewish Spaniards), but they sprinkled Ethiopian artifacts throughout their home to remind them of their ancestry, and are dedicated to passing the family stories to their children. They were also looking for relatives amongst the Israeli-resident Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted between 1980 and 1990, those who were part of "Operation Solomon," including the ones I met in 1993.  Photo: (Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ehtiopian Jews, book).  However, according to recent data, some Falashans who were forced to convert to Christianity in Ethiopia quietly continue their Jewish customs and remain in Ethiopia, awaiting permission to enter Israel.

Maybe if they search a bit more, they will not only find their Falashan relatives in Ethiopia and/or Israel, but also a link to their family claim on Spanish or Moorish heritage.

In the meantime, I need to get back to the kitchen and make some Nitter Kebbeh (spiced butter) for this week’s Ethiopian feast.

Visit Here: Follow us


  1. Your expericence with the Falashan community is an amazing one. How has this experience shaped your view and your perspective on differecnt communities?

  2. Sanjay,
    Thanks for asking. I have lived in and with many communities due to my International job for which I traveled to every continent except Antarctica for extended periods of time for a 20 year span. I attended European universities as well as a couple in Mexico for my undergrad and grad work. These experiences have made me quite open to diversity and I embrace other cultures. Although I've been living consistently in the USA for the past 10 years, I still carry on a blend of daily traditions (from food, language, reading materials, to entertainment) due to international influences. My college students used to tell me, "you're not American Ms. Brandt."

  3. I know about the Sephardic vs. Ashkenazic split, but hadn't heard about this angle till now. Thanks for a fascinating window on a little-known aspect of genealogy.

  4. Thanks Sanjay and Marian for dropping by and commenting.