Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 8 (2004) 73-86
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Ethiopian Jewish Women:
Trends and Transformations in the Context of Transnational Change
The Ethiopian Jewish family is undergoing dramatic changes in Israel as a result of migration. These changes are so wide-ranging that a single academic article cannot do justice to the minutiae of transformations that are occurring at the personal, family, and communal levels. The intention of this article is to survey recent trends and transformations among women immigrants from Ethiopia to Israel, whose status can be perceived as ambivalent: as weak yet strong, manipulated and manipulator, in the context of transnational change.
I will begin by sketching the background of Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish) women and men in Ethiopia. Even prior to their immigration, there was an ambivalence to how Beta Israel women were viewed by men: Contextually, in history, they were perceived as powerful and strong, and sometimes Beta Israel history was considered to be in their hands; in practice, however, they were treated as subordinate and subservient. It is this ambivalence, I would argue, that continues today in Israel, where some of them, including a category of unattached women known as galamotawochch, are perceived as manipulators and attributed a kind of "independent" status.
Beta Israel Women and Men
The Ethiopian Jews, men and women alike, were known as Falashas in Ethiopia, although in the last two decades they have eschewed this appellation, with its stigmatic connotation of "stranger," implying low, outsider status. In Israel, they tend to be called Ethiopian Jews, while in Ethiopia they often referred to [End Page 73] themselves—and are designated in the academic literature—as Beta Israel.1 They hail from villages in Gondar province, Woggera, the Simien Mountains, Walkait, the Shire region of Tigray, and other regions. Depending upon their area of origin, they speak Amharic or Tigrinya, or occasionally both.
The origins of this ethnic minority in Ethiopia are obscure. Almost all researchers, including those who maintain that the Ethiopian Jews did not exist in Ethiopia until at least the Middle Ages, admit that Jews lived in Ethiopia from early times.2 Some say that they are descended from the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; other theories refer to them variously as descendants of Yemenite Jews, Agaus (non-Semitic Ethiopians), Jews who went down to Egypt and wandered south, or even as descendants of the ancient Jewish garrison at Elephantine.3 Some academic research suggests that they formed as a group under the influence of Ethiopian Christian monasticism in the fourteenth century.4
The Beta Israel practiced a type of Judaism that was based on the Pentateuch and rather than the rabbinic Oral Law. They were monotheistic, celebrated many festivals and fasts prescribed in the Torah, and circumcised their boys on the eighth day. Some religious festivals known to other Jewish communities were not marked by the Beta Israel, but they, in their turn, celebrated certain days that were not marked by other Jews, such as the Sigd festival.5 Their religious practices were heavily influenced by Ethiopic Christianity, and many elements were common to both religions, such as praying toward Jerusalem, the liturgical language of Geez, and the emphasis on Zion.6 The process of the alignment of the Beta Israel with world Jewry had its seeds in the nineteenth century and arguably before, but contact with world Jewry only really began in the twentieth century, with the arrival in Ethiopia of Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch, a Semitic scholar from the Sorbonne, who invested his life in bringing the Jews from Ethiopia into line with other Jews.7 This arduous process culminated in the emigration of the community to the State of Israel, which began en masse in the late 1970s.
One of the most important Beta Israel religious tracts, the Te'ezaza sanbat, personifies the Sabbath as a woman. As Wolf Leslau writes: [End Page 74]
To Jews everywhere and at all times the Sabbath...