Today was a day that will live in the memories of your kids for the rest of their lives. We landed in Gondar, a tiny airport in Northern Gondar, met our guide, driver and Dejene Hodes (graduate of the program and now running heritage tours to Ethiopia) and started our journey and the culture shocks started as soon as we left the airport. Just looking out the window at the mud-huts, tuk-tuks, the way people were dressed, the amount of people walking in the middle of nowhere was an extremely eye-opening experience. Our first stop was the Jewish community in Gondar.
The Israeli Government doesn’t recognize them as Jews, even though they almost all have blood relatives living in Israel. They number around 6,000 people and the community is centered around a compound, which includes a synagogue, classrooms, library and a mikveh. We met the head of the community and other people who were hanging around.
They gave us a tour of the complex, interacting with us in Hebrew – how strange it was to be in the heart of Ethiopia and be surrounded by blue and white and Hebrew and Israeli posters of the chaggim and Eretz Yisrael.
They are fairly religious making the girls, cover up their pants with scarves or skirts and the guys covering their heads. They have prayers three times a day and teach everyone Hebrew. We watched a teenage dance class in action, which was a great entry into Ethiopian culture (it was Ethiopian dancing). It set the tone for the trip in a really nice way. They invited us back for Minchah when there would be more people around.
We left and checked into our hotel and then went to the Debre Birhan Trinity Church. It was unique in the amount of Jewish imagery from the Torah that it contained. It was shaped like Noah’s Ark and it was covered in magnificent murals adorning the roof and the walls of the church, depicting scenes from Jesus life but also many stories from the Torah. It was a very different Church than any of us have ever visited before. After that we ate a quick lunch with the option of traditional food for those who wanted it and many people tried their first Injera (EthiopianBread).
After lunch we continued on to Wolleka, a fallasha village just outside Gondar.
There were more Magen David’s in the village than in Israel.
We started off by going to the Cemetery. In order to get there we had to walk through fields and cross a stream and suddenly we were presented with a few of dozens of blue tombstones poking through the trees. We walked around the cemetery, seeing Hebrew mixed with Amharic and blue and white and stars of David everywhere. What an experience!
Then we returned to the village and were surrounded by children and women trying to sell us their wares.
It was a little overwhelming. We stopped in one women’s hut (traditional building, which serves as a home to most people) and talked about the history of Ethiopian Jews and tracing it back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon and their son, Menlik 1 and their descendants and their legends about the Ark of the Covenant being in Ethiopia as a gift by King Solomon to his son. Inside and outside the hut there were many mini-sculptures of Solomon and the Queen and their son and the Lion of Judah and Shabbat candlesticks with the Magen David and all sorts of other artifacts for sale, celebrating this story and embracing the Solomonic dynasty, which Ethiopians seems very proud of. We then continued to the Old Synagogue, which is no longer in use and then when to a Women’s commune, set up by a Jewish Ethiopian Woman to help single mothers produce and sell their products.
We saw some traditional weaving and then participated in a coffee ceremony. Some students needed the coffee by then.
We then visited the Royal Enclosure of Gondar, which was the capital city for 200 years and each Emperor built their own castle within the enclosure. We explored the castles, seeing something different in each one and it; stunning architecture and once again, there were Magen David’s everywhere (in the Royal Castles). They were pretty spectacular, plus we got to seeing two wedding celebrations and some live music on a Masinco (a one string violin). Michael was so happy at seeing this, I thought he’d burst.
We then rushed back to the Jewish Compound for Minchah, where about 150-200 people had turned up to daven. (Bigger than my minyan back home).
They started davening and we heard Kaddish and it sounded familiar and then that was it. From that point on we only understood two more words – Amen (which they say a lot) and Israel. The reason we didn’t understand this, despite having gone to very good Jewish Day Schools, was that the rest of the service was led in Amharic. Amazing! Such a unique experience. After Minchah, we handed out candy to all the kids and then we left.
Our last stop was Fasiladas pool, in which pilgrims still take a plunge during the Timket (Epiphany) celebrations. It was a 400 year old pool with a very clever system of recycling its water. Way ahead of its time. By this point, we were starting to crash, so we headed back to the hotel and rested. Our hotel is beautiful. Situated at the top of a hill with wonderful views over Gondar. Abby stayed awake to watch a beautiful sunset and a few us were star gazing this evening.
Finally, we had a traditional evening, which included local Gondar dress, music and dancing, more coffee and Tej, a honey wine/beer drink. It was a lot of fun and brave souls, Benji, Lisa, Yarden and Leah all joined in the with dancing, attempting to move their shoulders in ways that just don’t look realistic. Benji and Lisa even did solos.