On June 7, another group of about 70 Falash Mura (people of Jewish origin) immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia. Their arrival revived discussions of the preservation of Ethiopian Jewry’s ancient traditions, particularly their language, Ge’ez.
“You could say that the relative survival of the Ge’ez language could be credited mainly to the Jews of Ethiopia,” added Abeje Medhani, the documentation coordinator at the Israeli State Center for Ethiopian Jewish Heritage. He is responsible for various projects working on the preservation, documentation and recognition of the culture and heritage of Ethiopian Jewry. “Although it is a sacred language for the church as well, only we have continued to use it in our prayers for the past thousand years. Knowing Ge’ez is, in effect, the threshold that anyone who wants to become a kes must pass. A kes must know the prayers and the Torah in the Ge’ez language. Modern researchers make frequent use of Jewish materials to study the Ge’ez language. Jewish monks in the 15th century composed the prayers and religious law books of the Jewish community in Ge’ez.”
While Ge’ez is being preserved in some way, the Qwara language, which originated in the Qwara province of Ethiopia, has almost completely disappeared, though it was once considered the “Yiddish” (a colloquial and colorful language mix of Hebrew and German) of the Ethiopian Jewish community. “Until a few years ago, elders of the community who arrived from the Qwara region still knew the language, which was once in general use among the Jews of Ethiopia. Missionaries and researchers who visited the region in the 18th and 19th centuries testified that it was used by most Ethiopian Jews,” said Medhani. “Today, however, you could say that the language is completely extinct.”
Elias added, “The Qwara language is unique to the Jews of Ethiopia. As far as I know, there is no one in the world today who speaks Qwara or even knows Qwara. I am envious of Yiddish, which has enjoyed something of a renaissance and revival recently. I think that in contrast, the fate of Qwara is sealed.”
Medhani, who speaks Ge’ez, recently published a Ge’ez prayer book, though according to Ethiopian tradition, prayers are recited by heart and not read. “I reached the conclusion that preserving the language will occur through the liturgy,” he said, “if Ge’ez isn’t brought back to use.” Medhani is now working on an Amharic-Ge’ez dictionary. His dream is to see the first nonreligious text published in Ge’ez.
This desire to preserve Ethiopian culture, especially the Ge’ez language, has intensified in recent years, once the Ethiopian immigrant community became established and started integrating into Israeli society. “With the first waves of immigration, there was a very strong tendency to sever ties with our roots and to distance ourselves from our language and traditions. There were concerns that people would stop praying in that language. Over the last decade, however, there has been something of a return to it and a larger quest for Ethiopian identity,” said Medhani.
Elias is convinced that the reason many young Ethiopians are returning to their traditional practices, such as using Ethiopian names and embracing Ge’ez cultural activities, has to do with the discrimination the community faces. “What changed things was the attitude of the government, which refused to recognize the spiritual leadership of the Ethiopian Jewish community.