An African homecoming

For Carolivia Herron, an African American Jewish convert and a retired Harvard University professor of Comparative Literature and African American Studies, documenting Ethiopian Jewry’s oral history is a significant part of her personal journey home to the Jewish people and Israel.

“I have no biological connection to them [Ethiopian Jews], but my heart is with them,” confides Herron, an author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction who spent the past two weeks here documenting personal stories of Ethiopian Jews for a new book. “For many years I wanted to be Jewish. I had this very strong yearning and I can really relate to their struggle to get here. Ethiopian Jews embody my entire love and desire to be part of the Jewish people.”

While her ancestry does not lie directly with these African Jews – Herron can trace her roots back to Sephardim who fled Europe following the Spanish inquisition in 1492 and ended up intermarrying with Gullah Africans off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina – she still feels compelled to use her expertise in the study and documentation of oral history to put into modern words and print the Ethiopian Jewish journey to the Promised Land.

Herron’s storytelling finds its vehicle in the form of veteran community leader Yeshayahu Chane, 56, one of a handful of Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel before the Chief Rabbinate recognized the Beta Yisrael Ethiopians as Jewish.

Chane, who arrived here in 1973 and was forced to take on foreign worker status before being allowed to make aliya, met Herron by chance in the summer of 2007 when she was visiting with a delegation from her Washington, DC-based Tifereth Yisrael Congregation.

“There was nothing abstract about it,” says Herron, who moved back to her native Washington in 2000, as she recalls the visit to Chane’s Lod synagogue. “As soon as we met each other, I felt as though I had arrived home.”

The connection was also immediate for other members of Tifereth Yisrael, and when Chane later asked if they would be interested in publishing his memoirs about Ethiopia and his early experiences in Israel in English, Herron was the logical choice for the job.

The purpose of her current visit is to capture on video as many of Chane’s memories as possible, as well as those of other elderly Ethiopian Jews in Lod, so that she can later compile and publish the book.

“Yeshayahu’s original manuscript had been translated first from Amharic to Hebrew and then from Hebrew to English, but I felt it was too many steps away from the real thing and I wanted to get closer, much closer, to his story,” explains Herron. “His story is incredible, but he does not go into enough details. I want to create a novel-like book that will allow people worldwide to feel connected to his story.”

“It is important to make a story specific and not too universal,” continues Herron, who during her tenure at Harvard University founded the “Epicenter for the Study of Epic and Oral Poetry” to research cultures that lack clearly documented histories. Her work with Ethiopian Jews in Israel is an extension of her work with the Epicenter, she says.

Herron, whose own journey back to Judaism is no less fascinating than those of the people she studies, is an expert in taking verbal memories and weaving them into a story that will have wider appeal.

In perhaps her most prized piece of literature, Herron has taken her own family’s story and created Always an Olivia, a children’s book retelling the journey some Sephardic Jews took from Europe to America, including her own ancestors.

“There were three things that every generation kept [that signifies their link to Judaism],” says Herron, who joined her original name, Carol Olivia, to form Carolivia. “Every generation had a boy name Oscar, a play on the Hebrew name Asher; a girl called Shulamit or Olivia, meaning peace, and continued to light candles every Friday night.”

“When I was nine years old and my great-grandmother was 103, she told me the story of ancestors and my Jewish roots,” says Herron, recalling that following her official conversion to Judaism in March 1993, “the first time I lit the Shabbat candles and said the prayers my father suddenly remembered his own grandmother lighting the candles on Friday night and reciting the same prayers.”

“I always had this feeling that I wanted to be Jewish,” she says. “I remember one of the first images I saw of Ethiopian Jews was of a young girl sitting on an airplane on her way to Israel. I really had a deep understanding for her and felt that same yearning to be in Jerusalem.”

Now, with strong ties forming between herself and Ethiopian Jews in Israel, Herron says she plans to continue researching, writing and documenting the history of other Jews of color.

“I know that the white Jewish community does not understand why someone who is black would also choose to be Jewish,” finishes Herron. “Isn’t our life hard enough already? But the homecoming of Ethiopian Jews and their entire community’s love for Judaism and Israel is a phenomenon that I can completely relate to.”

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