The first thing I noticed was the tent. It had appeared in the front yard of my apartment complex like a mushroom sometime between the early morning–when I had shuffled off blearily towards the train station–and nightfall, when I shuffled back blearily to fetch my kids and wind up the day. It was illuminated from within, a warm cheery glow, as if someone had lit a small fire, perhaps to tell stories and toast marshmallows.
My Ethiopian neighbors were busier than usual, fussing around with plastic chairs, and bringing in grocery bags full of food. After a year of living in a primarily Ethiopian neighborhood, I had grown complacent about their celebrations, and assumed it was a wedding or party, and tuned out the activity. Throughout the evening, I occasionally heard a deep chanting or singing, and sometimes a horn would blare, but it was Thursday night, which in Israel is the start of the weekend, so I didn’t think much of it.
On Friday morning, I left early to run errands, and when I returned home shortly after 9am, the entire scene had changed.
Hundreds of Ethiopians were dispersed throughout the courtyard surrounding my building. A section behind the building had been furnished with dozens of plastic chairs, and several men had congregated and were conducting a prayer service. Older men in brightly colored clothing were wandering around the area. Many of these men carried fabric umbrellas, and based on their filmy, insubstantial nature, I couldn’t decide if the parasols were ceremonial, or had some higher purpose that lay beyond my comprehension.
I sought out the groupthink of the internet to help me figure out what was going on, as previous experience and shown me that most of my neighbors didn’t speak English, and posted the following on Facebook:
“There is like a revival or something going on in my apartment complex’s backyard. Lots of davening. There’s a tent in the front yard. What’s going on? Does anybody know? If it makes a difference, it’s Ethiopians, in case it’s a holiday specific to that group…”
One of my good friends suggested that perhaps it was a celebration for יום זיכרון לניספי סודן or the commemoration of the dangerous journey to Sudan that many Ethiopians undertook on the way to Israel, mainly on foot. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this before! I raced to Wikipedia and found that the celebration coincided with Yom Yerushalayim, and that every year there was a ceremony held at the national monument dedicated to those who died along the way to the promised land.
While doing further research, I also read stories of families that had been driven to the brink of extinction by war and famine. Women told of starting out with seven children and reaching the Sudanese pickup point with three. I read of families walking for weeks barefoot with just the clothes on their backs, fending off thieves and murderers, only to find themselves in filthy refugee camps where hundreds more died. I felt sick, and sad that no one was telling this story anymore.
I went back to the courtyard a little before 1 pm, so that I could pick up my son from the kindergarten that is at one side of our apartment complex. The activity had reached a fever pitch by this point, with several hundred people streaming in and out of my apartment building. Cups of water and platefuls of injera topped with a small amount of red sauce were being passed out by men and women positioned throughout the crowd. I wanted desperately to take a picture, but no one I came across spoke English.
I saw the daughter of my neighbor standing in front of my son’s kindergarten. She was waiting to pick up her child also. I took the opportunity to ask if this had happened last year, and I had just missed it. She stared at me like I was crazy.
“This is a shiva service for one of the older men who lived in your building,” she stated flatly. “If you listen closely, you can even hear the crying.”
The enormity of the mistake I had almost made loomed over me like a storm cloud.
Because of the dissonance between our languages and cultures, I had confused the solemnity of the funereal for a stately memorial to a shared cultural experience. And now, looking at the scene through clearer eyes, I could indeed see women grasping each other and sobbing, usually quietly, but every now and then in great gasping wails. And I understood instantly that the tent in the yard was so that the family could sit shiva and actually fit the hundreds of family and friends who had come to pay their respects. As I made my way back to my apartment after picking up my son, I weaved through the crowd, now saying the expected response of “Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet”.
I feel privileged to have seen this tangible outpouring of love that is not even considered outside the norm for the close knit Ethiopian community. And I have a new appreciation for their struggles, both historically, and in the present day. And on Yom Yerushalayim at least, if not on every day, all Israel should take a moment to reflect on the journey that has been required of the Beta Israel and thank them for their invaluable contributions to life in this country.
Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a Content Manager for a software company.
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