Monday, April 23, 2012

Bedrock of Art and Faith at the Churches of Aksum and Lalibela -

Damon Winter/The New York Times
The St. George church in Lalibela, dedicated to Ethiopia’s patron saint, is one of 11 Ethiopian Orthodox churches that were carved out of the rock in the 13th century and are literally anchored in the earth.

LALIBELA, Ethiopia
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ON the roads through Ethiopia’s highlands traffic raises a brick-red haze that coats your clothes, powders your skin and starts a creaking in your lungs. Despite the dust people wear white. Farmers wrap themselves in bleached cotton. Village funerals look like fields of snow. At churches and shrines white is the pilgrim’s color.
I wear it too, protectively: long-sleeved white shirt, tennis cap, Neutrogena sun block. A pilgrim? Why not?
I’m here for something I’ve longed to see, Ethiopia’s holy cities: Aksum, the spiritual home of this east African country’s Orthodox Christian faith and, especially, the mountain town of Lalibela, with its cluster of 13th-century churches some 200 miles to the south.
Lalibela was conceived as a paradise on earth. And its 11 churches, cut from living volcanic rock, are literally anchored in the earth. In scale, number, and variety of form there’s no architecture or sculpture quite like them anywhere. They’re on the global tourist route now, though barely. To Ethiopian devotees they’ve been spiritual lodestars for eight centuries, and continue to be.
Heaven seekers and art seekers are, in some ways, kindred souls, impelled to spend precious time and travel mad distances in search of places and things that will, somehow, fill them up, complete them. For the religious, pilgrimage is a dress rehearsal for salvation. For the art seeker, it can transform a wish list of experiences into a catalog of permanent, extended, relivable memories. But why do art seekers go to the particular places and things they do? This is a personal matter; complicated, with roots in the past.
As an American teenager in the early 1960s I sensed Africa all around me, secondhand. African independence was on the evening news; names like Lumumba, Nkrumah and Senghor chanted by jubilant crowds. “Civil rights” was turning into “black power,” with preachers in suits replaced by Huey Newton holding a spear in one hand, a shotgun in the other.
In college I took an anthropology course called “Primitive Art.” It met in an ethnological museum that had a collection of masks from West and Central Africa. I loved them instantly, these things made for dancing, healing, telling stories, changing identities. They looked old but felt new. I wanted to go to where they came from.
But not ready yet, I went that first college summer to Europe, where I dashed through countless museums in 15 countries before ending up in Istanbul. Again, love, immediate. One look at Byzantine art — the lifting-off dome of Hagia Sophia, the Buddha-calm saints of the Chora mosaics — confirmed what I had begun to suspect: my compass was not set westward.
At that point I didn’t yet know that Byzantium and sub-Saharan Africa had once fruitfully intersected. I later learned, and that intersection is what I’ve come to Ethiopia to see.
The history of Ethiopian culture is deep, going back — if the national epic, the “Kebra Negast” or “Glory of Kings,” can be believed — to at least the 10th century B.C., when an Ethiopian ruler, the biblical Queen of Sheba, traveled to Jerusalem in search of the wisdom of Solomon. The two monarchs met, bonded and had a son, Menelik, who would become Ethiopia’s first emperor.
Solomon, the story goes, wanted to name Menelik as his heir. But the young prince, with Africa on his mind, left Jerusalem behind. He did not, however, leave empty-handed. Secretly he took with him the Ark of the Covenant, which held the tablets given by God to Moses, and brought it to Ethiopia, in effect, establishing a new Israel there.
History, if that’s what this is, then fades out for stretch, until around 300 B.C., when a new empire coalesces in northern Ethiopia, with the city of Aksum as its capital and a still-existing group of immense stone stelae, carved with architectural features, as its grand monument. Another fade-out. By the fourth century A.D. Ethiopia has become officially Christian, and the Ark is in Aksum, enshrined in a cathedral named St. Mary of Zion, where it remains.
Its presence makes Aksum the country’s holiest city, and St. Mary of Zion its holiest shrine, though materially both have seen better days. The town is a sketchy, low-rise place perched on a still barely tapped archaeological site. The original cathedral was leveled by a Muslim army in the 16th century. Its modern replacement is a circular domed structure built by Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, in the early 1960s.
It’s a curious thing. Its wide, unbroken interior has the blank, functional ambience of a skating rink. And it doesn’t feel quite finished, as final touches of some kind were still needed. On a day I visited the church was closed to the public.
Benches were roughly lined up. Free-standing paintings of the Virgin and saints, in a melty neo-Romantic style, leaned against walls.
Two men on a scaffold were working on, or perhaps touching up, a mural.
A priest, in white, stood at a lectern and read aloud from an illuminated book as a European video crew fussed with sound checks, then asked him, please, to start again. To an outsider the general impression was confusing, disconcerting. Can this newish, nondescript, somewhat disheveled, in-progress space really be the physical and psychic center of one the world’s oldest versions of Christianity?
The priest at the lectern burst into song, a long, gorgeous melismatic chant that bloomed in the dome. Everyone stopped to listen, enraptured. There was the answer. Yes, it can.
The evidence was even stronger outside. I was in Aksum just before an important holy day dedicated to Mary, the object of acute devotional focus in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Pilgrims from far and near were already gathering, camping out in the park around the cathedral, prostrating themselves on its steps. A day later the city would be a sea of white, and St. Mary of Zion would be open, full and finished. People were the completing ingredient.
By the 10th century A.D. the long-lived Aksumite empire, once a rival to Persia and Rome, was out of steam, and the city itself a backwater. New rulers, known now as the Zagwe dynasty, appeared. They retained the distinctively Judaic form of Ethiopian Christianity, with its Saturday Sabbath and practice of circumcision, and further promoted the concept of an African Zion by giving it physical manifestation in a new capital city to the south of Aksum.
The force behind the new city was the 13th-century Zagwe emperor Lalibela, for whom the new capital eventually came to be named. He is credited — and here we are again in a tangle of fact, fantasy and informed surmise — with planning and creating the extraordinary group of 11 churches there, all chiseled directly from sandstone cliffs and gorges, that exist at Lalibela today.
According to legend the emperor himself, spelled by angels on night shifts, did the work, wrapping the whole job up in 20-some years. Whether or not the results can justifiably be called, as they often are, the eighth wonder of the world, they are certainly wondrous. And sharing, as they do, in a tradition of sculptured architecture that extends from Turkey to China, they are indeed world-spanning.
They are also, however, a phenomenon apart. Although no confirming scholarly study of Lalibela has yet appeared, there is reason to think that the complex, which is divided into two groups of churches, was envisioned as a mystical model of the holy city of Jerusalem in both its earthly and heavenly forms, with each church filling a very specific symbolic role within that topography.
One church, dedicated to St. George, Ethiopia’s patron saint, stands apart from the others. Probably the latest of them, it is meticulously executed and gives a clear sense of the labor-intense strangeness of the whole endeavor.
Basically a monolithic, walk-in Greek cross, it’s free-standing but set in a deep, square pit, so that your first view is, angelically, from above looking down on a relief of three nested crosses cut into the church’s flat roof. To reach the entrance, you descend into the canyonlike excavation, into the earth. The church interior, dimly lighted by high windows, has an organic, hand-molded texture. It’s as if it were shaped from loam and you were a seed being planted.
Here too the impression of the interiors coming to life is especially strong when they’re crowded with people.
On St. Gabriel’s day the Lalibela church dedicated to the archangel who announced the birth of Jesus to Mary is open before dawn. The sound of chanting, amplified by loudspeakers, pours out. Following a stream of pilgrims, I go in.
The interior is tight. Lay worshippers are permitted only in one section of it; a second area, closed off by a curtain, is reserved for clergy members. A third, inner compartment holds, as all churches do, a version of the Ark of the Covenant, and is off limits to almost everyone.
The service, continuous for hours, is diffuse but enfolding. Priests and deacons are in a huddle in an alcove, beating drums, rattling sistrums, doing a small-step, hopping dance, and breaking, now and then, into Arabic-sounding ululation.
They face one another rather than the church or worshippers. It’s as if, like certain rock bands, they’re jamming.
Nearby a single priest massages worshippers with a hand-held brass cross; one bent-over man gets a full-body rubdown, one palsied woman a prolonged pacifying touch. Another priest charges out from behind the sanctuary holding flaming tapers straight out in front of him like wands or prods. A third swings a silver censer in hazardous arcs in front of a painting: a modern icon in an old style, of St. Gabriel with European features, Ethiopian skin, and pooling Byzantine eyes.
The ceremonial choreography is all-over, ecstatic, sensually overpowering. It’s the opposite of the face-the-altar focus of most western Christian services, closer to the dynamic of masquerade dances in other parts of Africa, performances that effortlessly combine spiritual efficacy and spectacular entertainment.
To be in the middle of this is discomfiting — What’s my role? What do I do? — then a release. Just stand there.
Time dissolves. There’s no reason to leave. Isn’t this what you came here for? Then, some commotion, a fresh wave of pilgrims pushes in, nudging the priests further into their alcove.
But these pilgrims are wearing slacks, and sport shirts and sunhats. They’re middle-aged Europeans on tour. They were at the hotel last night having dinner at a long table and watching the news in the lobby. There must be close to 20 of them shouldering into what’s little more than a scooped-out monk’s cell. They blink, bunch up, hesitate, not sure what’s going on, where to look first. When in doubt, take a picture. Flash, flash.
They’re part of the Ethiopian present, which is part of the African present, which, along with pilgrims, priests and video teams, is now, at last, part of my present, just as it has always been, twice-removed; part of my past. It’s reality, and it doesn’t stay still, any more than the pilgrim’s desire stays still. I inch through the throng, out the narrow door and head back down the red-dust road. The sound of chanting, ancient, amplified, follows me to a waiting car.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The forgotten champion of the 'lost Jews' | The Times of Israel

An Ethiopian Israeli is working to honor the young man from Lodz who dedicated his life to Beta Israel

 April 16, 2012, 6:51 pm  

Newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2011 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2011 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

(JTA) — Avraham Adgah figuratively scratches his head, wondering what motivated Jacques Faitlovitch to dedicate his life to the Beta Israel — the Jews of Ethiopia.
“That’s the question that occupies me,” Adgah, a civil engineer at Israel’s Technion, says by telephone from his home in Kiryat Ata, near Haifa. “What led a 23-year-old white Jew from Poland to go to an undeveloped country and travel from place to place on donkeys — and when there were no donkeys, on foot? So I ask: What compelled him?”
Jacques Faitlovitch is shown with Ethiopian Jewish students shortly before his death in 1955. (photo credit: Tel Aviv University's Sourasky Central Library)
Jacques Faitlovitch is shown with Ethiopian Jewish students shortly before his death in 1955. (photo credit: Tel Aviv University's Sourasky Central Library)
Adgah wants to honor Faitlovitch by establishing an institute dedicated to the history and culture of communities once known as “lost Jews,” including those from Ethiopia. Such an institute, he says, was the intent of Faitlovitch in bequeathing his Tel Aviv house to the city upon his death in 1955 at age 74.
Tel Aviv University now houses the archive of articles, photographs and personal writings on Ethiopian Jewry that Faitlovitch accumulated during many visits, beginning in 1904. Should the institute be established, Adgah says he will ask the school to return the collection to the old Faitlovitch home.
Adgah, 47, who immigrated to Israel in 1984 from the village of Wegera in Ethiopia’s Gondar region, wants to locate Faitlovitch’s relatives, who he hopes will support the venture and provide personal information about the man for future exhibits. A lawyer told Adgah that he could improve chances for establishing the institute by locating Faitlovitch kin and prevailing upon them to approach Tel Aviv officials.
“I won’t stop talking about him,” Adgah said of Faitlovitch. “I want everyone to know about him. His whole life was the Ethiopian Jewish community.”
Faitlovitch occupies near-mythical status for leaving his hometown, Lodz, for Ethiopia in his 20s, devoting much of his life to the Jewish community there and rallying support and recognition for Ethiopian Jewry among European and American Jews. He brought Ethiopian pupils to study at Jewish schools in France, Switzerland and Italy, where they were trained to teach Jews back home. Later he helped establish a Jewish school in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and founded the New York-based American Pro-Falasha Committee.
Shortly before he died, Faitlovitch helped bring 27 Ethiopian Jewish teenagers to Israel to study at the Kfar Batya youth village, near Raanana. One person in that group was Adgah’s uncle, Yitzhak, now in his late 60s.
According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, Faitlovitch “was an indefatigable lecturer, everywhere trying to stir active interest in the ‘Black Jews of Abyssinia.’ He considered the Beta Israel ethnologically the descendants of genuine Jews and an integral part of the Jewish people.”
Adgah is concerned that time is working against his plan — that the Tel Aviv municipality, in violation of Faitlovitch’s will, might sell the home, at 10 Vitkin St., because of its prime location a block from the beach. In recent years the city has used the two-story home and its garden as a kindergarten and then as a drug-treatment facility, he says.
Faitlovitch was “certainly an historical figure, one of the first European figures to spread the word about Ethiopian Jews,” says Friends of Ethiopian Jews director Susan Pollack, who adds that she has spent “many hours” reading Faitlovitch’s “beautiful [and] fascinating” descriptions of the community.
“He’s highly respected because his writings about Ethiopian Jews were very positive. He described them as very religious, very devout and much more stringent about rituals than were [many] Jews in Europe in the early 20th century. He viewed them as very spiritual,” she says.
Shortly after being interviewed in late March on the Israeli radio program “Hamador L’chipus Krovim” (Searching for Relatives Bureau), Adgah heard from several cousins of Faitlovitch, who married late in life and never had children.
The relatives are excited about the venture and eager to lend a hand, Adgah says. He is gratified that through him, some of Faitlovitch’s relatives have reconnected after many years.
Sara Geiger remembers that Faitlovitch, who was her paternal grandfather’s first cousin, located her and her sister when they arrived in Israel in 1948 after surviving the Holocaust. On many a Saturday night, the sisters visited Faitlovitch and his wife, Mara, at their Vitkin Street home, which Geiger said “seemed large, like a castle.” There they listened to interesting lecturers the couple had invited to address guests in melavah malkah, or post-Shabbat, programs.
Faitlovitch sometimes spoke about his work in Ethiopia, and it was evident that “he really loved his students and the people he helped,” recalls Geiger, 83, who lives in Jerusalem. Geiger remembers her young daughter accidentally breaking a beautiful platter Faitlovitch had been given by an Ethiopian emperor.
Faitlovitch’s “activity was praiseworthy” and the institute effort is “something that has to be done,” Geiger says. “I’m a religious woman with a lot of faith. I believe that for sure [Faitlovitch] will get his reward in the world to come, if he did not get it in this world.”
(Please email Hillel Kuttler at if you are a relative of Jacques Faitlovitch and wish to be involved in establishing the institute in his memory. If you would like the help of “Seeking Kin” in searching for long-lost relatives and friends, please include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief [one-paragraph] email.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Widening gap between Ethiopian pupils and other Israelis - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Report shows widening gap between Ethiopian pupils and other Israelis

Education Ministry report finds the largest gaps among the oldest pupils tested, those in eight grade, while the gaps among younger students tested, in fifth and second grade, were significantly smaller.

By Talila NesherTags: Israel education
The large academic gap between pupils from the Ethiopian community and other Israelis only widens as the children get older, according to a new Education Ministry report.
The report, by the ministry's National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, was compiled by analyzing the results of the International Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the results of the national Meitzav achievement tests, which focus on Mathematics, Hebrew, English, and Science & Technology.
Ethiopians demonstrating against discrimination, January 2012.
Ethiopians demonstrating against discrimination, January 2012.
Photo by: Moti Milrod
The Meitzav tests revealed that the largest gaps were found among the oldest pupils tested, those in eight grade, while the gaps among younger students tested, in fifth and second grade, were significantly smaller.
According to the international PISA tests, the difference between the Ethiopian community pupils and other pupils in Hebrew-speaking schools is more than a standard deviation, in all three areas tested - reading, mathematics and science. The Ethiopian community pupils scored 118 points lower in math, 111 points lower in reading and 116 points lower in science, than their Israeli peers.
Sixty percent of the pupils defined by the Education Ministry as "originating from Ethiopia," are actually Israeli-born, while only 40 percent of the children from the group were born in Ethiopia.
A comparison between those pupils actually born in Ethiopia with other Israelis reveals even greater gaps: 145 points in math, 143 points in reading and 152 points in science. Significant gaps were also found when comparing Ethiopian community children to other groups from low socioeconomic groups - 55 points in reading, and 63 points in math.
The report concluded that "the gaps in the Meitzav tests between Ethiopian community pupils and other pupils in Hebrew-speaking schools are huge - especially large gaps can be found in the eighth grade."
The results of the Meitzav tests indicate that the more years the pupils spend in the educational system, the larger the gaps become. The largest discrepancies are in Hebrew and math, even though the gaps have slightly narrowed in the past two years, specifically among fifth and second grade pupils. Still, the National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education's report ends with a gloomy conclusion: "It's hard to point to any significant change in the trend throughout the years." According to the Education Ministry's data, the 35,000 Ethiopian community pupils account for three percent of all pupils. Some 14,000 of them were born in Ethiopia. Fifty-three percent of those pupils study in national-religious state schools, 44 percent in secular state schools and 3 percent in Haredi schools.