Despite relative isolation from their Jewish brethren around the world for millennia, Ethiopian Jews have coveted the same dream of celebrating Rosh Hashanah “next year in Jerusalem.”
Though unique, the Jewish New Year festivities in Ethiopia bear many similarities to the holiday’s observance in the broader Diaspora.
Limor Malessa and five of her siblings were born and raised in a small Ethiopian village near the Jewish community of Gondar. She left the village at age 13 and traveled to Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa, along with her parents and siblings, in anticipation of emigrating to Israel — the “promised land” that Ethiopian Jews longed to return to for thousands of years, unaware that the holy temple in Jerusalem had long since been destroyed.
In 1991, at age 15, the aliyah for Malessa and her family officially began when Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency privately smuggled the family out of Ethiopia’s capital city to the Jewish homeland by way of Italy.
The family arrived in Israel just a month before the Mossad conducted a massive clandestine airlift operation, dubbed “Operation Solomon,” which saw some 14,000 Ethiopian Jews secretly airlifted out of Ethiopia aboard 35 nonstop flights to Israel in 36 hours. Malessa has now lived in Israel for more than 30 years, building a family of eight children in the city of Ashdod and becoming thoroughly integrated into Israeli society.
Due to the small size of Malessa’s village in comparison to other Jewish Ethiopian townships, not many “kessim” — elder religious leaders with knowledge of oral Jewish law and the equivalent of rabbis — resided in her home village.
The Ethiopian villagers were entirely dependent on the verbally disseminated wisdom of the elders, who were the only people in the village capable of reading Jewish texts written in the ancient Ge’ez dialect.
In Ethiopia, Rosh Hashanah was — and still is — observed during the course of one day. The Ethiopian Rosh Hashanah is comprised of three prayer services: before dawn, in the afternoon and in the evening.
“The holiday also has another name, ‘Zikir,’ which is similar to the Hebrew word for remember, ‘zachor,’ ” Malessa said.
Similar to the custom in other Diaspora Jewish communities, “everyone in the village wears new clean white clothes” for Zikir, she said, while it is “also customary for affluent people in the village to have very large feasts and invite others in the village to join in the festivities.” The festivities are meant to remind people of the day’s holiness, and to “make sure that during the holiday not a single Jew is left without food and enjoyment,” according to Malessa.
Malessa’s mother, Esther Lakau, who lives in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, said she remembers hearing the kessim emphasizing “our long-held aspiration to celebrate Rosh Hashanah ‘next year in Jerusalem.’” JN