Ethiopian Remembrance

Kabbalat Shabbat

(Ceremony Welcoming the Sabbath)

image: Ethiopia context map

Oh! Kabbalat Shabbat, where have you gone? You used to visit me every Friday, rain or shine, summer or winter. Where have you gone, my dearest Kabbalat Shabbat, my beloved? Those were the days when you brought happiness and joy to my heart.

Our small community awaited you with joy and received you with ululation and songs and with our unending dances, our hands outstretched to heaven. Our mothers, after preparing a special feast for you, would go to the river to bathe and adorn themselves with their snowy white home spun kemis (dress) and shema (shawl). They would rush back home and carry the Injera, Watt and Dabbo (Shabbat Bread) they had prepared for you to the synagogue. There they would wait for the fathers and the young men to join them to celebrate you with songs and dances and feasting.

The synagogue smelled nice and warm; it radiated peace and joy.

The little girls, our sisters, who earlier in the day cut grass from the riverbank, mixed it with fresh eucalyptus leaves and spread it on the floor of the synagogue, would wait for you standing behind their mothers. Dear beloved, your arrival week after week created a special holiday atmosphere for the old and the young. The synagogue smelled nice and warm; it radiated peace and joy. On your arrival, we all felt safe and protected from our enemies.

image: Sam Tadesse. Photo by Laura Alter Klapman.

Sam Tadesse.
Photo by Laura Alter Klapman.

Our fathers, after their long day of toil, rushed to the river to bathe and to put on their best cloth, all the while singing and praising your name. Kes Abraham and Kes Shumulachew, the two elders of our community, used their musical voices singing and urging you to come. Kes Taddesse, their junior, led the chorus encouraging the young and the old to join in the singing and dancing. I was entranced and my small legs jumped up and down as I walked from the riverbank to the synagogue behind the men and the big boys. The walk was especially timed so that the elders would enter the synagogue at sunset signaling your arrival. As Kes Abraham, Kes Shumulachew and Kes Taddesse entered the synagogue, our mothers, who were waiting on their side of the synagogue, would clap their hands together and ululate as if their daughters were being wed. For them you were the beautiful bride who was spending the festive night with her family before going away with her handsome groom in the morning.

I had an image of you as a beautiful angel descending from the heavens…

Oh! Kabbalat Shabbat, I did not know what you looked like but I had an image of you as a beautiful angel descending from the heavens and slowly entering the synagogue smiling at each of us. As I gazed up at the ceiling of the synagogue and felt your presence, I would pray to Adoni to please give me the eyes to see you. Week to week I asked my father if he had seen you. His response was always “Yes, my son, and you too have seen her.” But I was always puzzled by what he meant. As it was our tradition, I did not challenge or argue with my father for it would have been disrespectful. At the same time I felt guilty and sinful as I could not see you. Oh! My beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat, please forgive my ignorance!

image: Sam and Menbi Tadesse. Photo by Laura Alter Klapman.

Sam and Menbi Tadesse.
Photo by Laura Alter Klapman.

Oh! my dear Kabbalat Shabbat, where have you gone? When the sun slept and you arrived, the synagogue was engulfed with happiness. We sang and danced, reveling in our joy and did not break bread until midnight. When we did finally eat, each bit was accompanied by our praise of Adoni, the G-d of Abraham, Sarah, Joseph and Moses. Then it was time for story telling. I do not remember when I went to sleep, but I woke in the morning at my father’s feet with my brother Joseph’s head on my stomach.

One of the stories etched in my mind is about the long journey Moses made to Ethiopia to meet with our fathers and to wed one of our beautiful and most gentle and kind women. It is said that when Moses was returning back to Misr with his bride, G-d appeared to him over Mount Semien. Since then, for thousands of years, Mount Semien was a sanctuary and fortress for our people. Over time, draught, hunger and the incessant attack from our Christian emperors and neighbors forced our people to leave the sacred mountain and to find other places of sanctuary.

Draught, hunger and incessant attack forced our people to leave the sacred mountain

Oh! My dear Kabbalat Shabbat, where have you gone? I never tired of working hard to help my mother prepare the feast for your arrival. Along with my friends, I went into the woods to climb trees and collect dry twigs for the fire. I would tie both ends of a string into a circle and hook it on to my tiny feet, stretching it out as far as I could, and climbed up the tree.1 Each time I broke a dry branch, I would say this one is for you until there were no dry branches left. My friends and I would tie up the branches and carry the bundles home on our heads to deliver this precious firewood to our mothers.

Even while sitting in the classroom I daydreamed of you. Oh! Kabbalat Shabbat, where have you gone? Is this the result of our enlightenment and modernity, or is this because I am on a different path. My community has scattered and the cord that bound us is no more.

The rivers have dried up. Those that run are polluted and they don’t anymore give their abundant ketema (grass) for us to spread on our synagogue floor to welcome you.

Although we gather to celebrate you, we don’t do things the way they ought to be. Where are our mothers and sisters who cheered and ululated? Where are the elders with the musical voices that announced your arrival? I don’t believe things will ever be the same again. Oh! Kabbalat Shabbat, the love of my childhood, I long to see you again and celebrate you with our elders, fathers, mothers, and sisters in the old traditional way.

IN MEMORY OF MY ANKOBER COMMUNITY BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF THE COMMUNISTS.2

SAMUEL SON OF SON OF KES TADDESSE ALTAYE