The Jewish community known as Beta Israel has lived in Ethiopia from biblical times completely isolated from other Jews until relatively recently. In the early 1970’s shortly after the Yom Kippur War the Emperor of Ethiopia, Selassie was overthrown by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in a coup which killed 2,500 Jews. Although they tried to escape to peripheral villages away from the city center they could find no respite from the rampant anti-Semitism and discriminatory laws made against them; by the early 1980’s it was illegal for Jews to own land, indeed, it was illegal for them to practice Judaism. They had no freedom or protection under the law and their murder, abduction and forced conscription was a common occurrence. Violence targeted against the Jews in Ethiopia as well as throughout North Africa and the Middle East was the main impetus behind their exodus to Israel.
My friend Ayala lived in Ethiopia until she was twenty years old in the village of Maraba, in the north west of the country bordering Sudan. In 1984, together with others from her village, she embarked on a perilous journey to escape the hardships of her country, knowing that capture meant certain imprisonment. They walked for two weeks, sleeping two-three hours a night with little food until they reached the Red Sea, where a ferry was arranged to transfer them into Sudan. Once in Sudan they waited in miserable refugee camps for one month, hiding their Jewish background and barely surviving. It was here Ayala’s grandmother died and was buried. Eventually a bus was organized to drive them directly to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan were they were airlifted to France. From there they flew to Israel where she has been ever since. In 1984 three forth of the Jews remained in Ethiopia, mainly those who were unable to survive the harrowing trek such as small children, women with infants and the elderly; in short, all those who could not defend themselves. A subsequent rescue operation, called Operation Moshe arranged by Israel and the United States was successful in bringing many additional Jews to Israel.
Ayala is an attractive woman who looks much younger than her 45 years even after all the hardships she had to endure. Here in Israel, although free of the constant fear of being imprisoned and even killed, she had to cope with assimilating in Israeli culture and the undertones of racial discrimination. Some religious authorities, for example, rejected them as Jews stating, among other reasons that a person with tattoos could not possibly be Jewish because according Jewish law this is considered a form of body mutilation and forbidden. Indeed, if you look at many Ethiopian women you will see small crosses decorating their necks and forearms. According my cousin Adam, who lived in Ethiopia for two years volunteering in one of the last remaining Jewish communities, these tattoos were made in order to escape persecution by blending in the predominately Christian population.
Even now Ayala says that her neighbors complain about the smell of her food and I know that there is still much more that should be done for the integration of the Ethiopian population into Israeli society. I believe that it is not only about assimilating the Ethiopians, or any immigrant into Israeli society but also creating an atmosphere which is more accepting, in which differences in color, culture and tradition is not looked upon as something to be changed but as a point of exploration and understanding. The Ethiopians should not, nor any other ethnic group try to erase their cultural past as Yovnot was pushed to do.
Ethiopian flat bread
Teff (Eragrostis tef (Zucc.) is indigenous to Ethiopia where it was domesticated between three to six thousand years ago. Its seeds, which look similar to quinoa or millet but much smaller, are ground into flour to make the traditional flat bread called injera. Although the flour is rich in nutrients, it is used almost exclusively by Ethiopians and has not been more widely adopted. The flour is high in iron, protein and calcium as well as gluten free, making it a healthy alternative to wheat flour for those suffering from celiac disease. The traditional Ethiopian diet consists mainly of ingera eaten with various vegetable and legume stews, called wot. Their diet is very low in sugar and the rate of diabetes in their community is much lower than the greater population. Unfortunately a change in dietary habits of the new generation is correlated to increased diabetes, weight gain and other health problems.
Ayala does not measure any of the ingredients but everytimes she makes ingera it comes out so beautifully that you can see the light through the bread. From experience trying to make Yemenite flat bread called Lachoch, which is like ingera except made wheat flour, it is very tricky to get the right consistency to create a bubbly surface.
2 cups teff flour
2 cups water
1 teaspoon yeast
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Mix the teff, water, yeast and water until a pancake batter is formed. Cover and leave at room temperature for two days. On the third day, mix the batter and add the baking powder, mix well.
Rub a tiny bit of oil on the surface of a large nonstick pan such a Teflon pan or well seasoned caste iron skillet. Pour the batter, using a soup ladle or narrow spouted container, in a spiral formation onto the pan until the surface is covered. Cover the pan and cook on one side for a few minutes. When the batter is fully cooked and holes form all over the top side of the bread it is done. Remove to a plate. Cool the pan by running tap water on the bottom of the pan and dry. Repeat until the batter is finished.
The baking powder is not necessary if a bit of teff flour is added to the fermented batter. When the batter begins to bubble, it can be used to make the bread.
Eat with Ethiopian hot sauce and yogurt. The hot sauce is made with dried peppers, dried garlic, cardamom and fenugreek. The fact is I am not accustomed to the taste of ingera at all, it was a completely new taste for me and I still have to get used to it.