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.