March 15 2009
Services in the Synagogue
This week; we spent the weekend with the community. At 5.30p.m. on Friday; we went to the synagogue along with a number of women; largely elderly a smattering of man and virtually all the teachers and children from the school. Time was when two thousand people attend services regularly – not just Shabbat but all through the week too. Now; most of them are in Israel and of those who are left; many have given up the hope of reaching Israel and have settled into life in Gondar. They have found jobs and don’t feel the need to associate with the synagogue quite so closely any more. There is also a huge problem with Christian missionaries who are intent on wooing away members of the Jewish compound in favour of one of two messianic synagogues in the town. Remember; these Jews were raised as Christians. Part of the Jewish community was converted to Christianity in the last century and only returned to Judaism about ten or eleven years ago. It is a bit disconcerting to have services led by hazzanim who have large crosses tattooed onto their faces. It is certainly not surprising then if some of the community join the messianic Jews. They have more money raised by evangelical Christians in the US and therefore can offer food to adults as well as to children. So the synagogue; felt strangely empty on Friday night.
Kabbalat Shabbat started with the lighting of Shabbat candles. This is performed by a woman in the community and she follows the blessing with a special prayer. The services are led by two hazzanim and are largely in Amharic. Where Hebrew is used; notably for the Shema and the morning blessings; they are led by a hazzan and repeated word by word by the community. They do so with such speed and skill that it is hard to keep up. No one has a prayer book; but responds to every prayer by saying Amen at the end of it. This is just what services used to be like in the Jewish community worldwide before the invention of printing and mass production of prayer books.
The Shabbat morning service was surprisingly moving. All five of the community’s hazzanim were seated on the high bimah; which is placed centrally in the synagogue but on the man’s side (of course). During the Torah service; they walked from the bimah to the Ark at the front. At the Ark; one got out the keys to unlock the doors and then took out the most enormous sephardi scroll and returned to the bimah to the accompaniment of chanting by the men and ululation by the women. The reverence with which these people regard the Torah should really put us to shame. Not one can read it; but they raise their hands to it in supplication; and kiss their palms afterwards as if they believe it posseses some magical power. Back on the bimah for hagbah – it is raised and the ululations begin again. It is then covered in a tallit while one of the hazzanim chants the amharic version of the portion. At the afternoon service – minchah we witnessed the Torah being read again and were equally moved.
On Sunday we were surprised to find a very large number of people in Synagogue for the morning prayers. Perhaps all these people have to work on Shabbat? But no! the reason for it was Rabbi Waldman’s fortnightly shiur – or class.
I mentioned before that there was no electricity. That is not strictly speaking correct. The synagogue is built against a permanent building with the ark resting against its outside wall. The ner tamid is an outside security light; and on Sunday morning they attatched wires to its wires and rigged up a very dodgy sound system so that they could organise a phone link to Jerusalem. Rabbi Waldman is the spiritual leader of the community and he clearly works very hard for them. Although what he said seemed to us to go way over their heads (he spoke in Ivrit and he had an amharic translator with him,) The fact that he spent an hour talking to them, and they could say ‘shalom’ and he responded and that they all enjoyed listening to him made for another incredibly moving moment. At the end of the hour; when everyone had said goodbye to him he phoned again privately in order to speak to us and to thank us for what we are doing for the community. Again this seemed a very touching gesture; and suggested that thought he is so far away he is in constant touch with the community. The phone call was followed by community notices and letters read out from well wishers. The adult then left and the children scrambled as quickly as they could to the front to watch a video on a 22inch screen television. 900 children and one television! Not only that; the video was in Ivrit – far too complicated for most of the teachers, let alone the children, and- two days before Purim; it was all about Chanukkah! We asked that perhaps they could change the video, but they could not find an equivalent on Purim in their collection; so instead I stood up and taught them Purim songs.
That was quite and experience.. Nearly a thousand people; and children not only eager to learn; but with a tremendous facility for learning by ear. As Ani Purim thundered across the shul; I fantasised that I was at Wembley arena and these were all my adoring fans!
We were back in synagogue for minchah; and then again on Monday; for the weekly Torah portion. Monday was the fast of Esther – a fast that I have never in my life considered observing. But here everyone was fasting so I had little choice. They are big on fasts. The community knows them all and observes them all. Possibly it is because they do not have much food – as the old joke says – if they didn’t fast; they would starve. In fact all of Ethiopia is big on fasts. We are currently in the Christian season of Lent that, in the West usually means giving up something you like for 40 days. In Ethiopia Lent lasts 56 days and all Christians fast. That means they do not eat or drink anything from the evening meal until about three o’clock in the afternoon.. After that; they eat nothing that contains animal products. It is a wonderful contradiction found on an Ethiopian menu; that you can order fasting food.
But back to the synagogue .
To our surprise; again the place was packed. At the front sat the old women on one side; and old men on the other – both swathed in white shawls and all the women including the young unmarried girls and even children wearing white kerchiefs covering their hair. Behind the elders were the younger women and behind them the children. On the man’s side; men and boys seem more mixed together and what was noticeable was that only the old men wore the white blankets; the younger men are in modern clothes with brightly knitted kippot on their heads. There are two real elders in the community who share the task of giving a final blessing at the end of each service. They are noticeable by the fact that they carry an umbrella; in imitation of the Christian priests; and a flywhisk made of horses hair – a sign of sagacity.
The next day was Purim… but of that I will tell you… another time…..