Ethiopian Jewish New Year

Cleveland Jewish News •  2005

This year, we’re celebrating Rosh HaShana with the Maharis, our Ethiopian friends who live in Beersheva. As we near their apartment, the acrid smell ofinjira, Ethiopian bread made of fermented millet-like flour, greets us. Though so many years have passed, we have yet to appreciate injira’s sour taste and wet, spongy texture. Hopefully, there will something palatable to our Ashkenazi palates on the holiday menu this evening.

We find the Mahari’s tiny living room transformed tonight, almost holy. A single light illuminates the dining table, and with it, the poster of an Ethiopian village on the wall above. There, men guide forked plows in distant fields. Women,

babies lashed to their backs, pound grain, while chickens peck in the dust. And the children run barefoot. Worlds apart, the Mahari girls, Shoshu, Alimitu, and Warkanesh, stand before us now, luminous in their white holiday finery.

They whisk our holiday gift, a basket of goodies, into the kitchen. Peeking over their shoulders, we catch a glimpse of a work in progress, the sink stacked with

dishes, mountains of injira at the ready, and pots bubbling with who knows what Ethiopian delicacies. Dinner.

Grandfather Mita, patriarchal in his long white robes, motions us to the table, opens his sheepskin prayerbook, and begins chanting. Instead of using Amharic, the Ethiopian Highland’s modern tongue, Ethiopian Jews pray in Ge’ez, an ancient language today incomprehensible to all but a learned few. We do not understand a word. But as Mita raises his glass of wine, we realize he has just blessed the wine and echo his amen. Now, with blessing over the bread next, we pray that he will not bless injira. He doesn’t. From under a white embroidered cloth, Mita draws out a homemade loaf of Ashkenazi-looking bread the size of a platter, raises it high with both hands, and recites the blessing. Its rough texture and hearty taste, its earthy aroma, is delightful.

As the girls bring out the platters of food, they chatter among themselves, describing Ethiopian Rosh HaShanas past, which were celebrated with splendid bouquets of flowers and great feasts. No plastic-wrapped meats for Ethiopian Jews, no canned peas or beans. Their table had fairly groaned with a full year’s bounty– home grown grains, tender sweet corn, chickpeas, melons, and peppers as well as

freshly-slaughtered sheep and goats. But none of that tonight. Thankfully, instead of goat meat, we dine on chicken and potatoes, served with fried eggplant, humus, techina, potato salad, and coleslaw, all store bought, as Israeli as you can get, and all in our honor.As the meal draws to an close, the girls unpack our gift basket, spreading out its fresh yellow dates, apples, pomegranates, chocolate-covered almonds, and packages of sunflower seeds across the table. Then they find the jar of honey that we tucked under it all, and their eyes light up. Mita, they smile,Honey, and wait for his response. But their grandfather looks away, silent. We turn to his grand daughter Shoshu, who lives in both worlds, and silently ask what has happened.

In Ethiopia, she explains, her Mita had been wealthy and well-respected, the owner of a large farm just like the one in the poster. There, everything he had touched was blessed, everything small became big. His family grew. His rich lands yielded fruitful harvests. His herds of cows, goats, sheep, horses, and donkeys multiplied. And so had his honeybees.

For two thousand years, generation following generation, his people had prayed to return to Jerusalem, to return home. In his lifetime, their dream became a reality. So with unbelievable happiness, Mita gathered his family together, left his old life behind, and faced the new. Now, here in Israel, he is nothing, simply an old man gazing at a jar of honey. A shimmering honeycomb, suspended in its golden syrup, arouses bittersweet memories along with sweet hopes for his future generations.