Middle East


Bleak Wedding

Ethiopian Jewish women hold up pictures of relatives in Ethiopia at a demonstration in Jerusalem, May 25, 2003. (Photo: Orel Cohen/AFP)
It was an odd ceremony: Thirty people were crowded into a small room next to the rabbinate building in Kiriyat-Gat [in central Israel] and were covered with one large tallit. They were in their 60s and 70s and had come to Israel with the last immigration wave of the Falashmura [Ethiopians whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity while maintaining Jewish religious practices]. All had grandchildren and great grandchildren, all were married, but despite it all, they were getting ready to be remarried.

Just over an hour earlier, the men were subjected to the extraction of blood from their genitalia as part of their conversion process. After they were gathered into the room, one of the rabbis asked the men to remove their pants and checked whether they were circumcised. Those who were, moved on to the next phase: a dip in the mikvah [ritual bath]. Then they were taken to the wedding ceremony.

The men carried prayer books that they had received from the rabbis and handed them to their wives. The women, dressed in colorful clothes and wearing sneakers, accepted the arrangement with downcast eyes. “You are betrothed to me,” chanted the rabbi in Hebrew and slowly added, “under Moses’ and Israel’s religious law.” The men repeated his words with their heavy Amharic accents. Their children and grandchildren giggled with embarrassment.

This is one of the most guarded secrets among the Falashmura in Israel. A married man who is part of the Falashmura must remarry his wife as a condition for being recognized in Israel as a Jew. The requirement is stringent and affects Falashmura of all ages, even people who have lived with their wives since they were teenagers. In Israel, the Orthodox rabbinate doesn’t recognize their marriages.

In the last few years, 2,500-3,000 Falashmura were converted that way out of the 17,000 Falashmura residing in Israel. For a small percentage of them their Judaism was never in doubt; they were granted immigrant status based on the Law of Return [which gives every Jew the right to reside in Israel and automatically receive citizenship—WPR].

But the rest entered on the basis of the Law of Entry, which states that they belong to the seed of Israel but are required to pass a conversion process as a condition of receiving full citizenship. The process is long and exhausting, physically and mentally. Sometimes it takes up to one year, but in the absorption centers, where the Falashmura are initially placed, many of the elderly have already been undergoing the conversion process for two or three years.

The first phase is the study of Judaism for 500 hours a year, which includes basic knowledge such as praying, saying the blessings, and knowledge of Jewish holidays. In the end, they are tested. The younger ones pass fairly easily, but the middle-aged and older converts, some of whom are illiterate and have never studied before, not even in their own language, fail the tests again and again.

Those who pass move on to the final phase: full or symbolic circumcision, a dip in the mikvah, and a wedding ceremony—all done in one day. The men have to pass a thorough circumcision test, and if they were circumcised in Ethiopia, the rabbis are satisfied with taking blood from their genitalia. Those who have not been circumcised are sent to the hospital to undergo the procedure. Then comes the wedding ceremony, which is considered the most hurtful in the entire process.

The Falashmura whom I met considered it a horrible humiliation, and on more than one occasion their voices cracked and they bowed their heads when recounting the events. Their experience seems far removed from how a real wedding is meant to be; it is a large, crowded, extended ceremony that resembles a production line, takes place in the backyard of a building, and is attended by strangers.

There is no excitement in the air, no happiness in their hearts, no cheers from their families. The bride and groom stand silently and wait for it to be over quickly. When they return to the absorption center in the evening, they won’t speak of the ceremony to anyone. For them, this was a difficult day, maybe the most traumatic of their lives. Even their children won’t ask questions. In the Ethiopian community, the ceremony is regarded as a necessary evil, a trial that one has to pass.

“After a year in the ulpan [Hebrew-language school for new immigrants], they told us that we had to go to Jerusalem. They took 30 to 40 of us in a bus to the rabbinate building,” recounts Kasta Kumlcho, 63, who lives in the community-housing center in Lod [south of Tel Aviv]. “After they drew the blood and we dipped in the mikvah, they gathered us, all the men and women, in the hallway. Inside a room, a minyan of 10 men [the minimum number required for communal worship] was waiting for us—all white men—and they called us to enter.

“They had explained to us earlier that we needed to get married, and we didn’t ask any questions. They had told us to buy a ring; we each had bought a ring for 200 to 300 shekels [US$44-66]. They hadn’t specified, but we knew that it had to be a gold ring. Once inside the room, they spread over us a tallit that acted as a canopy, and then I had to break the glass.”

Kumlcho and his wife have been married for almost 50 years. They met when he was 12 and she was 6 years old. When she reached the appropriate age, they wed, had five children, and a year and a half ago immigrated to Israel. Here they were told that they needed to remarry.

How did you feel on the day of the ceremony? “How can one be happy? I was only saddened, angry, frustrated. I already have grandchildren. They told us that it’s a big day for us because today we were becoming Jewish, but it’s hard to be happy on a day like that. In our opinion, we are Jews. We kept all religious laws in Ethiopia, we lived a modest but good life with our wives; but here they treat us like we’re gentiles.

“To get married for a second time is to annihilate your past and your wife, as if your whole life has been erased and your children aren’t legal. It’s an insult and a humiliation. We came to Israel to fit into Israeli society so that our children would be Israeli in every sense of the word and could serve in the army. Too bad that they’re leaving us with this stain. Too bad that our brothers are doing this to us.”

Did you ever think of objecting to the ceremony? “I didn’t harbor any such thoughts. Everyone does it, and you have no choice. I did it to get a regular identification card that states ‘Jewish.’ Without that, you are considered Ethiopian, which automatically means that you are a Christian. I am an old man, and if something would happen to me, I wouldn’t want to leave any shame on my children, who would be forced to find a place [for gentiles] to bury me. I wanted to save them humiliation and shame.”

He becomes quiet for a moment and then continues. “But above all, there is the most important reason: I have two children in Israel, and three more are married with children in Ethiopia and are waiting in transit camps to come here. If I refused to undergo the conversion process, it would delay their immigration. I’m old. I can’t wait.”

Unlike those who emigrated from Ethiopia in Operation Moses [in the early and mid-1980s] and Operation Solomon [in 1991], who took to the streets in violent protests in front of the Knesset against the rabbinate’s demand that they go through the difficult conversion process, the Falashmura have a lot to lose. Almost all of them have families back home who are waiting to leave Ethiopia and are relying on the conversion of their relatives in Israel.

“There were those who refused,” says Kumlcho, “but the rabbis told them, ‘If you don’t undergo conversion, you can forget about seeing your relatives.’ Since I was aware of this, I agreed to do whatever they asked of me, and I stayed calm.”

Bitoa Liko, 85, also didn’t have a choice. His body is shriveled, his face wrinkled, he wears a blue wool hat to protect him from the cold. Wrapped around his neck is the traditional cotton scarf, the gabi. He and his wife, whom he married when she was 16, were forced to huddle in the backyard of the mikvah in Ashkelon with dozens of other immigrants who were waiting to become officially Jewish. The officials from the rabbinate stood in an adjacent room, read names from lists, and marked off all the couples that had passed the process.

“The most insulting thing is that they wish you mazal tov [congratulations] at the end,” he says. “It’s not mazal tov—it’s a painful thing they do to us. To remarry your wife at 80 is like being stabbed in the heart, but we wanted to get it over with so that we could be reunited with our relatives.”

Liko failed the test four times. On the fifth try he passed. Then the big day arrived. “They took 40 of us. They told us to undress and they examined our genitalia. Then, one rabbi stabbed us with a syringe. It was very painful.” He takes a deep breath and continues: “After that, they took us to the mikvah for a dip, and after that, we were reunited with our wives, who in the meantime had also taken a dip in the ritual bath.

“We didn’t have to bring a ring. There was no wedding canopy, and we didn’t break any glasses. We had to repeat what the rabbi told us: ‘You are betrothed to me.’ They weren’t strict with us; they just wanted to get it over with. I heard that today the procedure is worse.”

The question of how he felt during the ceremony draws giggles and embarrassing smiles. “It was done in a rundown tent. The fact that they took us to a place like that proves that they took our dignity and our Judaism away. We had a lot of problems in Ethiopia, the Christians would persecute us, and we all dreamt of coming to Israel. In Ethiopia, our houses and crops, our wheat and cattle were burned, everything we made a living from. We were left without a home or food. Then we waited eight years in the transit camps in Gondar [in northern Ethiopia] under conditions of starvation and disease, all just to make it to Israel.

“We thought that once there, all our troubles would be solved, but even the goyim [gentiles] never did to us what the Jews are doing to us here. But we had to do it. If I gave my son away for marriage tomorrow, what would they do if they learned that he wasn’t Jewish? What would he say—‘I can’t get married because my dad is registered as an Ethiopian’?”

Those who refuse to remarry can’t enjoy the allowance the government gives to new immigrants, can’t take out a mortgage, and can’t receive a pension or obtain life insurance. The Law of Return doesn’t apply to them.

The older immigrants I met spoke of the wedding ceremony with resignation, but the young crowd had a different story to tell: They were angered and frustrated. “This whole experience isn’t done to make us feel closer, but to distance us,” says Moshe Tedesa, 26, who immigrated a year ago with his wife of eight years. “This isn’t the way to bring people closer to Judaism. I don’t need them to inform me when I’m Jewish. I was born a Jew, and I don’t get my Judaism from them—I brought it with me.”

Among the elderly immigrants, there are those who haven’t completed the conversion process yet. Their identification papers are orange rather than blue, marking them as non-citizens. Others, who immigrated in accordance with the Law of Return but didn’t finish the conversion process, hold a blue identification card, but next to the rubric “nationality” there’s a special marking, a red line; it is the Ministry of Interior’s way of separating a kosher Jew from a Jew who hasn’t received rabbinical approval yet. Those who carry these marked ID cards are ashamed to use them.

The rabbinate regards the wedding ceremony as a vital part of the conversion process. It wasn’t always like that. In 1993, the Falashmura were still
recognized as Jewish descendants and were only required to pass a quick process of “returning to Judaism” that lasted a few weeks. [In 1995], division over religious issues regarding the Falashmura led the chief rabbinate to tighten its grip on the immigrants. Today, they are seen as gentiles and are forced to undergo a conversion process that is required of anyone who converts to Judaism.

Four years ago, as a result of a bold protest staged by immigrants living at the trailer park in Hatzerot Yosef and in other locations, the rabbis decided to gather only a few people per wedding ceremony and agreed that only a short ceremony would be necessary. Today, no ring or canopy is required and no glass is broken. In place of a wedding canopy, a large tallit is used, and the ring has been replaced by another symbolic item “worth a penny,” such as a prayer book, the Bible, or candlesticks.

“The rabbinate essentially has the Falashmura at their weakest point,” says former Knesset member Addisu Messele, chairman of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Immigrants. “The immigrants have no choice and are forced to go along with every-thing, because reuniting their families depends on it.

“The rabbinate is taking advantage of that and lays down more and more rules. The tactic is to break families apart, to let boys without their parents and brothers without their sisters
enter the country, so that the rabbinate
can keep a tight grip on the immigrants. As opposed to us, who came during Operation Moses and Operation Solomon and could rebel and protest, the Falashmura are at the mercy of the decisions of the Ministry of Interior.”

As if all this weren’t enough, there is also the stench of racism: The Falashmura are the only immigrant group in Israel that receives the orange identification card upon arrival.

Israel’s chief rabbinate sees no problem with the process the Falashmura have to undergo. “There are complaints here and there, but those are few,” says Rabbi Elijahu Maimon, head of the Rabbinical Court for Conversion. “There are a few who refuse, but 99 percent don’t and gladly go through the process. Usually, the immigrants regard this as a beautiful thing. In any case, today we try not to have a large number of people at a ceremony, only a maximum of 25. We’ve given up on the ring because apparently it was a bit of a sensitive issue. We see to it that the ceremony takes place in a nice location. If there’s a synagogue by the mikvah, then the wedding takes place there. The children who witness the event receive a little token, a Bible or a prayer book. And the mother receives candlesticks for Sabbath."