It is Friday late afternoon and the synagogue is packed. Though we still have 10 minutes to the start of the service, we have to make our way to the very back of the women’s section — at least 400 have got here before us. Looking behind the curtain, we see that there are far fewer men. They have to work and if they take time off, they will lose their jobs, forcing them to the back of the queue for casual labour on roads and building sites.
The service starts. We are handed a Sephardi siddur, though I know from past experience that this is not quite the service we will hear. Sure enough, the chazanim launch into a torrent of Amharic.
For this is Gondar, in Ethiopia, and the people who are praying so fervently around me are the last remnant of the Zera Yisrael, those Ethiopians of Jewish descent, whose ancestors converted to Christianity but who have chosen to return to Judaism and who were promised a new life in Israel.
Their claim is not spurious. In 1999 the Israeli government compiled a list of 26,000 Zera Yisrael, known more commonly, but abusively, as Falash Mura. They were promised aliyah to Israel and allowed a year in an absorption centre to learn, not only about Israel, but about Judaism, so that after 12 months, they could be converted and take their place as proper, Jewish, Israeli citizens.
Then, in 2005 Israel qualified the list. Only those with unbroken matrilineal descent would be acceptable for aliyah — a questionable move firstly because the Zera Yisrael themselves consider Jews to be Jews through the father, not the mother; and secondly, because they are all converted in Israel anyway.
The ancient superstition that Jews have the evil eye is still widely believed
Their ancestors’ move to Christianity was a complex matter. At a time of famine and particularly harsh antisemitism in the early 20th century, a group of missionaries arrived from England promising food and education. The Kessoch (Jewish priests) in each village made the decision whether to convert or not, so individual families had no choice but to follow.
Beyond bread, the move to Christianity did not avail them. They were never accepted by the Christian community and they were shunned by the Jews who remained true to their faith. In Israel today the animosity between the two groups continues.
Ethiopian Christianity follows the Old Testament quite strictly, resting on Shabbat, circumcising sons on the eighth day and observing biblical kashrut. It was not difficult for the Zera Yisrael to continue their usual Jewish practices, and as far as I can gather, they did not make great church-goers. In spite of inter marriage, they have for over a century been a distinct group, remaining true to Judaism in their hearts and inheriting the deep yearning for Jerusalem of all Ethiopian Jews.
From 2011 the Jewish Agency made a concerted effort to speed up the aliyah process from Ethiopia and last August announced it had finished the job. The day after it moved the Torah scrolls from the compound housing the synagogue and closed the doors, massive demonstrations in Israel and in Gondar demanded that the aliyah continue for those left behind.
Some 1,100 families in Gondar and about 500 in Addis Ababa remain — 5,000 to 6,000 individuals in all — patrilineal Jews and those who were victims of bureaucratic error. The demonstrations had an effect. The synagogue was reopened, the scrolls were returned and services resumed.
These Zera Yisrael are not from Gondar. They left their villages over a decade ago, convinced they would soon be on a plane to Israel. They gave up their land and their livelihood to find themselves homeless and jobless in an urban environment for which they are ill equipped. They cannot gain social housing or benefits since they were not born in Gondar, and so are at the mercy of private landlords who can set their rent at will.
The majority live in a cluster of slum dwellings near the synagogue, one-room mud huts with a shared hole in the ground for a latrine. Some have electricity, some have not. They have made little effort to improve their lot, convinced as they were that they would soon get to Israel. Even now they live in hope. Hatikvah is the name of the association set up to keep the community in the eye of the Jewish Agency.
But they meet together for another reason: antisemitism. The ancient superstition that Jews have the evil eye is still strongly believed. A Jew only needs to look at you a certain way and you will fall ill. I noticed two Christian women as they passed by the synagogue put their shawls up against their faces so they could not see or be seen by the evil they feel lurks there.
So it is that morning and evening at the synagogue you will find them, young and old, listening to the chanting of our prayers in Amharic, responding at intervals with a fervent “Amen” and ending their service each time with words so pertinent to their situation, Am Yisrael Chai, “the people of Israel live”. They live in the slums of Gondar and they won’t be forgotten.