Preserving & Enjoying Ethiopian Jewish Music (2014)

image: Lucy Steinmetz and her husband Bernd Kiekebusch in Lalibela, Ethiopia (Photo by Eileen McIntire)

Lucy Steinmetz and her husband Bernd Kiekebusch in Lalibela, Ethiopia
Photo by Eileen McIntire

Background

The Beta Avraham* Jews of Ethiopia are the forgotten branch of the Ethiopian Jewish family. Located in the low-income Kechene neighborhood of Addis Ababa, the Beta Avraham is an offshoot of the better-known Beta Israel (House of Israel) Jewish community from Ethiopia’s northwest regions. The latter group immigrated to Israel mostly via the historic airlifts Operations Moses, Joshua and Solomon during the 1980‘s and early 1990’s. Remnants of this community relocated to Israel under the Israeli government’s policy of family reunification. In contrast, the Beta Avraham community is barely known and certainly not acknowledged by either Israel or most worldwide Jewish leaders.

According to their oral history, the Beta Avraham left the northern reaches of the country, which they shared with the Beta Israel, more than 150 years ago** and moved south to escape the oppression and violence perpetrated against Jews for their religious faith Over time, they were forced to keep many of their beliefs hidden and limited their religious gatherings to secret caves in the North Shewa hill-sides known now as Secret Synagogues. However, as they were artisans -- potters, weavers and iron workers—with services in demand, it was difficult to hide completely from the outside world.

Like their Northern cousins, the Beta Avraham were often persecuted and treated as a despised minority. The artisans, in particular, were hated as Jews, lowly laborers and as practitioners of sorcery due to their work with fire. At the same time, the products they created were needed by the general populace and gave them a means to survive.

Over the years, in response to extreme persecution, some members of the Beta Avraham chose to convert.  However, like the Conversos*** of Medieval Spain, many practiced Christianity “on the outside,” while still adhering to their Jewish identity and practices at home and in their Secret Synagogues. (See Ethiopia’s Kechene Jewish Community in KulanuNews, Spring 2010).

Although there has been much improvement in recent years (especially under the current government and a constitution that guarantees religious pluralism), elements of fear and a deep-rooted hatred toward the Beta Avraham still exist among large sections of the society. To date, the Beta Avraham have only one official house of worship – based in the Kechene neighborhood of Addis Ababa – and this was started only about seven years ago! The synagogue is run by ENSZO (Eastern North Shewa Zionist Organization), made up of young Jews determined to reclaim their heritage and worship publicly.

Personal involvement

image: Members of the synagogue gather for a group shot (Photo supplied by ENSZO Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization)

Members of the synagogue gather for a group shot
Photo supplied by ENSZO Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization

My husband Bernd and I made contact with the Beta Avraham in mid-2012, when we moved to Ethiopia after 14 years of living in Namibia. I had been commissioned to help lead USAID’s (US Agency for International Development) largest program worldwide to assist AIDS-affected orphans and other vulnerable children (500,000 per year in Ethiopia) plus their family members) and to build the capacity of local government, civil society and community groups to assist them.  In our spare time we have explored the countryside and set up a volunteer program that currently supports 53 deserving university students who are struggling financially to make ends meet.

When Kulanu president Harriet Bograd learned that we would be relocating to Ethiopia, she asked if I would agree to serve as Kulanu’s Beta Avraham coordinator along with Sam Tadesse, long-time Kulanu activist, who had returned home to Ethiopia after 40 years of working and living abroad. Harriet knew that I had been a long-time friend of Kulanu. I agreed.

Our initial introduction and involvement began with our attending Friday evening worship services at the ENSZO synagogue. The local language of Ethiopia is Amharic and Amharic was the language (along with a little Hebrew) used by community members during the service. It was also the language used for the Torah discussion afterwards. As our Amharic is limited, we were not able to participate much in the service itself. However, what held our attention from our first service was the traditional Ethiopian religious music sung by the congregants acappella after each service. The music literally carried me away into a different world through a blend of congregational voices that seemed to spiral upwards towards the heavens.  Such joy, such yearning!   I loved the songs so much that my husband would bring his home-made banana bread to Shabbat services and offer it in exchange for their singing our favorite songs.

Sad to say, none of the traditional melodies were included in the worship service itself as the Siddur (prayer book) and “traditional” melodies used for Lecha Dodi and the Sh’ma came straight out of Israel and largely out of the Ashkenazi tradition.  This is because the Shabbat Service, as now practiced, had not been part of the Secret Synagogue tradition and has only been adopted recently.  Because of the desire of congregants to pattern their services on those of Israeli communities, I became fearful that their traditional songs would be lost over time. 

As the months went by and as congregation members became more involved with learning (what was for them) new practices and melodies, this fear felt increasingly real. 

What to do?

image: List of Songs. Back cover on the CD

List of Songs. Back cover on the CD

It was clear we had to take action to help the community preserve this special heritage. My work contract was ending in the Summer of 2014, and after that, it would be too late for us to do anything .

First, I encouraged community members to incorporate their traditional melodies into their Sabbath service. It is the philosophy of Kulanu, with which I wholeheartedly agree, that every community should celebrate its uniqueness and not just try to emulate Jewish communities elsewhere. They may incorporate practices and melodies from other countries, but communities shouldn’t do so at the expense of losing their own unique traditions.

Second, How could we introduce these wonderful melodies to the worldwide Jewish community so others might experience the same soul-filled uplift that Bernd and I experienced? And how could we ensure they would be preserved in Jewish libraries and music archives for future researchers and musicologists? We decided that a CD was the answer both for in-country distribution and for overseas listeners (using iTunes and similar platforms).

Kulanu offered to serve as a conduit for the latter, so that the income garnered via Internet downloading could be passed through to the Beta Avraham group. With financial help from Kulanu volunteers and friends, and with the design skills of my husband Bernd, we were able to create a CD of the Kechene Jewish Sabbath melodies. To prepare “our” CD, we met with congregation members and with lead-singer Demeke ben Engda – the congregation’s general manager and primary Shaliach Tsibur (leader of services) and discussed which songs should be included. This involved multiple sessions. Demeke wanted a mix between old melodies and new ones that he has composed for the Kechene-based congregation, and we agreed.**** Demeke and Sintayehu Gezahegne, another member of the congregation, provided us with background information, which we could include on the insert to be included with every CD. 

Getting everyone’s green light:

We wanted to make sure that the CD project would not cause controversy among the community’s elders (i.e. members of the older generation whose Jewish life still remains largely hidden from the outside world and revolves around the Secret Synagogues in Ethiopia’s North Shewa area.) A delegation from the Kechene synagogue took off several days to visit at least five Secret Synagogues and reported that they had reached an understanding with the elders on many issues of common concern. Although the elders agreed to the making of the CD, there were problems when it came to designing the cover. One family feared being “outed” if their daughter’s picture became public. Her headshot was part of the photograph that everyone wanted to use for the CD cover.  Eventually, Bernd tried his hand at Photo-shop and replaced her portrait with mine.  My friends now tell me that I look twenty years younger!

Next steps

The CD is called Temesgen, which means “Thanks to God” and is subtitled “Worship Songs from Ethiopia’s Beta Avraham Jewish Community”. The songs on this CD come primarily from the Secret Synagogues, passed down from generation to generation with a sprinkling of original songs by Demeke. Fifteen of the secret synagogues still exist today concentrated in the North Shewa area about 80 miles north of Addis Ababa. Some are located in buildings; others are in caves located hours away by foot from the nearest town. In the largest of these, called Mugar, about 300 men and women live permanently, their numbers swelling at least twice a year when other community members join them to commemorate their martyrs and celebrate their festivals. As with other Ethiopian Jews, their tradition consists only of pre-Talmudic practices.

Although the Kechene community is not recognized by the State of Israel, in their songs, they yearn for Jerusalem and for Israel, the land of their ancestors. Demeke and Sintayehu explain that the traditional music on the CD, carries special significance and takes them spiritually to a different time and place. All the singers on the album remember their grandmothers and grandfathers singing these traditional songs in the Secret Synagogues.

On a recent trip to the USA, Bernd delivered the CD and cover images to Steve Corn of Big Fish Media, who had helped Kulanu with other CDs for uploading on various digital stores such as iTunes, Amazon and Spotify. We are hoping for the widest possible publicity with friends telling friends and online networking. But the best gift happened at the Shabbat service just before this article was completed. The service content had changed. Now, and hopefully into the future, Senbet L’yuna, a traditional Ethiopian melody, has replaced “Lecha Dodi”.

Editors note: We all owe Lucy and Bernd a Kol Hakavod (congratulations) and special thanks for their dedication to the Kechene Jewish community and for their labor of love in creating this special CD. Thanks to Lucy as the birth mother and producer of the CD who labored over many months working with the leaders of the community to select songs and arrange for the recording. And thanks to Bernd for his overall support of the project, his design of all pieces of the CD, and for the success of his banana bread in bringing these special melodies to our attention.

For more information about the Beta Avraham (also known as the Ethiopia North Shewa Zionist Organization), see (www.enszo.org).

To purchase this CD, simply go to itunes.com or amazon.com and search for “Temesgen.”

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*Previously, the community used the name Beit Avraham to describe themselves but now prefer the name Beta Avraham; both mean “house of Abraham” in Hebrew.
**The exact time frame is unknown.
*** Conversos: also known as Crypto-Jews, and Anousim. The word Marranos has also been used in the past, but it is considered a derogatory term.
****Only one song had ever been recorded before (by Irene Orleansky in her CD, “Music of Israelites and Jews of Africa and Asia”), so we decided to use the song, but to arrange it differently—Senbet L’yuna (Unique Sabbath).