An Exhibit at the 14Y Gallery in NYC
Photographs of the Jewish Community in Gondar, Ethiopia
by Peter Decherney
from his forthcoming book Endless Exodus
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Over the last 50 years, more than 100,000 Jewish Ethiopians have emigrated to Israel. Today, a community of approximately 10,000 remain in Ethiopia, living in the cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa. The Jews who remain have left their villages to join the small urban communities waiting for permission to join their families in Israel. Some have been waiting in limbo for more than 20 years.
The exhibit focuses on the preparation for the holiday of Passover, the celebration of the exodus from Egypt. Ethiopian Jews are famous for their communal Passover celebration, and they have always viewed the holiday as emblematic of their situation, symbolizing their exile in the figurative desert and desire to return to the promised land. Passover 2022 – when the majority of photographs were made – was especially important, because it showed the community rebuilding in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Civil War.
I’ve been partnering with this community for many years, while working on the film and now the book. I’ve also made a series of documentary and virtual reality films about migration in East Africa over the last decade. While I clearly bring my own vision to the images, I got to know the people in the pictures before I took out my camera. I showed them the photographs as they were being made, and I showed them the film on my recent trip to Ethiopia. I aim to amplify their stories and help them reach a broader audience, who won’t be able to travel to Gondar but want to connect with this community.
One girl remains praying in front of the methitza (the divider between men and woman) after morning prayers. (2020)
Minuchil, who used to teach at the synagogue and make kipot, and his mother in 2020. They have since moved to Israel and are living in an absorption center in Safed.
Two photographs of Tigest Desalegn taken in 2022 and 2023. Very few Jewish Ethiopians own businesses. But Tigist Desalegn is a young woman with a hair salon right across the street from the synagogue. I kept hoping to learn her entrepreneurial secret, but she claims not to have one. She just set her mind to opening a salon and did it.
With the hope of moving to Israel, Tigist moved with her family from the village of Chilga when she was 11. Her family valued education extremely highly, and she has two brothers with Masters degrees. In 9th grade, Tigist got an afterschool job working in a salon and became determined to open her own. She attends synagogue when she can, and she still dreams of emigrating to Israel as so many of her extended family and friends have. But she also puts time into her business. This is her life, she told me, and she isn’t just going to wait around.
The business isn’t profitable, but it is sustainable. She works as a commercial cleaner every morning to help pay her bills. And she married a Christian man who has a municipal job. In fact, they met when she went to get her business license.
She has customers from different religions, who pay about 30 birr (50 cents) to have their hair styled. Increasingly, customers come with social media images and videos to demonstrate the look that they want. Hair extensions are more popular than ever.
She closed during the first month of the Covid-19 Pandemic and again when there were outbreaks of violence during the Tigrayan War. But she has managed to keep the business going, and she was booked solid in advance of the Passover holiday.
Tigist had a tough year after Passover 2022. She separated from her husband and her father died. She told me that she decided not to register for permission to emigrate to Israel. The reason she gave is that there are others more deserving, but she was clearly motivated in part by an obligation to support her family in Gondar.
Tadilla is married to one of the synagogue cantors and she teaches in the Hebrew School. (2023)
Weavers are making a talit (prayer shawl) and women’s head covering on looms. Since the destruction of the Ethiopian Jewish Kingdom in the 17th century, Ethiopian Jews have been known for their craftwork. (2023-above, 2022-below)
Early morning practice for the synagogue soccer team. (2023)
The synagogue circus practices five days a week and performs on weekends. (2020)
Wude Mola (pictured during Passover 2022) was the distinguished matriarch of a family in Gondar. She came to Gondar from the village of Wolleka in the late 1990s, and she has waited patiently for decades as her friends and three sisters all emigrated to Israel.
Her one-room home is just a few blocks away from the synagogue and it is filled with her children and 14 grandchildren, some of whom live there. Her teenage granddaughter, Rivka, makes coffee (with salt) and popcorn (with sugar) for visitors. They light candles at home on shabbat, and Wude helps to make matzoh for the community on Passover. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Wude used her skills to make matzoh at home and have a seder in the house. Most families returned to the communal seder at the Gondar synagogue, but some have continued to hold seders in their homes.
A picture of Wude’s son Gashu getting his degree from the University of Gondar hangs prominently on her wall. Gashu had been a religious leader of the Jewish community in Gondar, serving as a hazan (cantor) for many years. Eventually, despairing about his chances of moving to Israel, Gashu went back to school to become a nurse in order to make a living in Gondar and support his family. Ironically, Gashu only worked briefly as a nurse in Gondar before being granted permission to emigrate to Israel with his wife’s family. In Israel, he has re-started his studies to gain certification to practice nursing.
Wude’s family made an impression on an Israeli volunteer, whose family began to offer some financial support and also petition for Wude’s immigration. Finally in 2022, Wude received a call from her younger sister in Israel letting her know that she had been granted permission and would be moving to Israel.
When I returned in March 2023, I reconnected with Wude’s granddaughter Rivka, and learned that Wude was living in an absorption center in Safed, Israel. Her son and family live far away in the south of Israel, but they see each other at least once a month.
An actor (above) waiting backstage to appear in the traditional play telling the story of Purim. The play (below), telling the story of the Jewish people being saved from the Persian villain Haman. (both 2023)
Aster, Hiwat, and Eyerus “Jerry”
Aster and Hiwat (pronounced hee-oat) are first cousins, and they’ve been inseparable from “Jerry” for as long as anyone can remember. They were in fifth grade in 2022, all three want to be both doctors and artists when they grow up.
Aster and Hiwat’s grandmother, Maldu Mekonen, brought her entire family to Gondar from the village of Lay Armachiho over a decade and a half ago. She was born Christian, got married, and had children. Only after the children were born did her husband reveal that he was Jewish. After learning of his religion, Maldu chastised her husband for bearing the weight of his secret alone, and they immediately began to raise the children in the Jewish faith, learning prayers and observing shabbat.
When her husband died, Maldu brought 9 of her family members to Gondar to start a new life with the hopes of emigrating to Israel. She and the children began to attend synagogue regularly, and Maldu saw her children start families of their own before she died.
Aster’s mother is Christian and has tattoos of crosses on her neck. She works for wealthier families making injera and beer and cleaning. Intermarriage is common, though certainly not the norm. Nevertheless, the family is an active part of the Jewish community, and Aster studies, prays, and plays at the synagogue every day.
Hiwet’s mother, Worke, doesn’t work outside of the home, and she dreams of big things for her children. She left school early, but told me that “education is everything.” She is proud that her children work twice as hard, because they have a dual curriculum: a secular curriculum at the state school and a religious curriculum at the synagogue.
Aster, Hiwat, and Jerry study together, play together, and spend time at the synagogue together, and they all help out a lot at their homes. Their world is narrow, and Jerry— short for Jerusalem — told me that she has only ever walked to school, home, and the synagogue.
Aster is the most academically inclined, so she helps the others with schoolwork. They play a hopscotch-like game called “Monday Tuesday,” and they all have pet dogs and stuffed animals, though they laughed at the idea of naming either.
The war and pandemic hit them hard. Aster mournfully talked about losing a cousin who was enlisted by the army. The little work that existed in Gondar dried up, and Aster and Hiwat’s fathers took construction jobs back at the village where they were born. They only returned home every 3 months. Jerry’s father works as a day laborer in Gondar, taking any job that comes his way, even though the opportunities have been scarce.
Shortly after Passover 2022, Hiwat’s family moved to another section of Gondar. While Aster and Jerry remain inseparable, they only see Hiwat twice a week when they make the hour-long walk to see her.
Aster in her school uniform. (2022)
Desse Dagnew, Aster’s father. (2022)
Alemnesh Chekol, Astir’s mother, washing her hair. (2022)
Worke Tesfahun , Hiwet’s mother. “Education is the most important thing.”(2022)
Dereje Alehgn’s harrowing kidnapping story sounds like something out of a movie. While doing errands and getting his shoes shined one day, a few men appeared in front of him. They pointed a gun at his head, and kicked him until he blacked out. He woke up in a cage where he would spend the next 14 days, coming out only to eat porridge and drink water. On several occasions, Dereje begged the kidnappers to kill him rather than force him to continue to fear for his life.
The kidnappers used Dereje’s cell phone to negotiate with his wife and family, starting by requesting 1 million birr (about $19,500) and finally settling for 100,000 birr (a little less than $2000). His family raised the funds from relatives in Israel and deposited the money in Dereje’s account.
The kidnappers took Dereje to a bank, where he withdrew the money and handed it to the kidnappers. As Dereje explains it, the bank staff and patrons could see that he was there under duress, but they did nothing. The kidnappers then blindfolded Dereje and abandoned him alone in a city street to find his way home. There was no hand off to make sure that both sides got what they wanted. Dereje’s family handed over the money with the hope that the kidnappers would later keep their end of the bargain.
Significantly, at a time when very few people in Gondar wore masks, all of the hostage victims I spoke with wore masks. They were, understandably, consumed with fear and trepidation, and others regarded them as symbols for the vulnerability felt by the community as a whole.
Adaraje, the synagogue administrator, standing in the health clinic, which opened in March 2023. It will provide free healthcare and medication to members of the community under 18.
Preparing the matzoh dough.
Making matzoh on griddles designed for making injera bread.
Cutting ginger and roasting peanuts for their version of charoset (a mixture that symbolizes the mortar used by Jewish slaves in Egypt).
Purifying Passover pots in the mikvah.
The final count of matzoh is just under 80,000.