To say that Western Jewry has romanticized the idea of the Falasha (Amharic for "exiled" Jews) of modern-day Ethiopia would be a gross understatement. Indeed, the very origins of the Ethiopian Jews are symbolically charged with an elusive historicity: on the one hand, their mythological beginnings have been traced to the supposed union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; on the other, many legal branches of Judaism consider their communities to be the descendants of the lost tribe of Dan, said to have resettled in Egypt before moving further south. The latter hypothesis was espoused by a number of rabbinical authorities from the time of the Second Exile up until the modern era, when, as early as 1876, European Jews began to undertake serious efforts to bring their Ethiopian brethren back into the fold, mainly by attempting to bring them to Palestine. Individual Ethiopian Jews began to trickle into Israel from the 1950s onward, although it was not until the mass airlifts of the 1980s and early 1990s (organized by the Jewish Agency in order to rescue Ethiopian Jewry from civil war in the Horn of Africa) that their existence became known to the Jewish world at large. Since that time, their integration into Israeli society—while idealized from afar—has been, in all reality, a painful process at best, the result (among other things) of a series of disparate cultural norms, and, quite significantly, the pervasive absence of the voice of the Ethiopian community in Israeli public discourse. Fortunately, this is beginning to change, most notably in the realm of cultural production.
Omri Tegamlak Avera's recently published book, Asterai, is the first novel to be written in Hebrew by an Ethiopian-born Israeli Jew. The book is divided into three parts, the first of which involves the familial and religious life of Beta Israel, as the Ethiopian Jewish community refers to itself, as seen in the first person through the eyes of the adolescent boy Fetgu. The second part of the book involves Fetgu's new life in Israel, offering an infrequently seen glimpse into the private life of Israel's most impoverished Jewish group. The third is an extra-literary history of Beta Israel, told according to the versions handed down by the Ethiopian sages.
Fetgu's life in Ethiopia is centered on his family's raising of sheep, since, like most Jews in Ethiopia, they are prevented by their Christian neighbors from holding fertile lands. From a religious perspective, their spiritual practices differ somewhat from commonly known Ashkenazi or Sephardic Judaic practices. For instance, the majority of the Jews in Fetgu's community do not live near any house of worship, and therefore pray at home without needing to form a minyan [prayer quorum]; the faithful of the community are led by [End Page 198] a priestess; and, like their non-Jewish neighbors, whose worldview is imbued with animism, the members of Beta Israel are constantly on the look-out for the koloch and koleh, shape-shifting demons who inhabit the surrounding nature. Fetgu promises his grandmother, a seemingly clairvoyant woman, that he will remember all of these customs when Beta Israel is finally led back to Jerusalem, as the grandmother has envisioned. Most significantly, Fetgu's grandmother makes him promise to learn, before his departure, as much as possible about the enigma of the Asterai, the divine bird with whom "gifted" members of Beta Israel can speak, in a kind of expanded consciousness that the grandmother calls "sfat haelohim" [the language of God] (p. 42). The bird also takes away the sins of the community during the so-called "Asterai fast" of Yom Kippur. When the boy's family is about to begin the dangerous trek across the Sudan, the Asterai implores him to bring seeds of wheat from Ethiopia to be planted in the Land of Israel. Fetgu obeys, but from this point on, his trouble communicating with the Asterai becomes more and more pronounced, as he loses hope in the divine power of the bird in the...