Menashe Zemro, 92, Dies; Led Ethiopian Jews
Menashe Zemro, the last remaining ques, or traditional spiritual leader of Ethiopian Jews, died on Wednesday in Qiryat Gat, the town where he settled after arriving in Israel in 1991. He was 92.
His funeral yesterday in Qiryat Gat, in southern Israel, attracted thousands of mourners but Israel television reported that no representatives of the Orthodox rabbinate, Israel’s governing religious body, were present. By the rabbinate’s ruling, Ques Menashe and other Ethiopian Jewish leaders were not authorized to officiate at ceremonies like weddings and funerals, as they had done in Ethiopia, and were indeed not to be called rabbis.
Pointedly ignoring this caution, Addisu Masala, a member of Parliament of Ethiopian origin who spoke at the funeral, called Ques Menashe ”the chief rabbi of the Ethiopian Jewish community in both Ethiopia and Israel.”
Despite the rabbinate’s ruling, until shortly before his death Ques Menashe counseled the steady stream of Ethiopian Jews who accepted his authority and sought his wisdom in his ground floor apartment and adjoining chapel.
Shoshana Ben-Dor, an anthropologist in Jerusalem and the director in Israel for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, said Ques Menashe was ”very unhappy that the traditional forms of Judaism that he had practiced were not being accepted by Israel authorities and were being allowed to disappear.”
Ques Menashe never learned to speak Hebrew, but in his native Amharic and in other languages of Ethiopia, he would caution his followers to bear the trials of immigration with patience and tolerance.
Such cautions were not always heeded: A little more than a year after his arrival, 16 Ethiopian Jews were arrested as they rushed into the Prime Minister’s office to demand that the rabbinate treat Ques Menashe and his colleagues no differently than other rabbis.
Ms. Ben-Dor said that the leader was vigorous for his age and that his most striking physical quality were ”eyes that were incredibly mischievous.” She said it was likely he had come to adulthood without awareness of the scale, scope and history of Jewish life in Europe or America.
Mr. Masala said Ques Menashe was survived by several children and grandchildren.
Ethiopia’s Jews, known as Falasha or Beta Israel, traced their origins to Solomonic times but had long been separated from other Jews. Their communities had the Torah but never acquired the Talmud or the medieval commentaries that shaped modern Judaism, and conducted their rites in Geez, a Semitic language that is also used in Christian liturgy.
Graenum Berger, 90, of New Rochelle, N.Y., who began a campaign more than 30 years ago to help rebuild the Falasha community, said that in addition to conducting rites, a ques is responsible for memorizing the genealogy of his congregation, going back as far as 10 generations, and maintaining prohibitions on marriage with non-Jews.
Ms. Ben-Dor said that each region where Jews lived in Ethiopia had a chief ques, and that Ques Menashe had held this position in Semien and Wogera, north of Gondar, the historical heartland of Ethiopian Jews. She said that as many as 20 percent of the 45,000 Jews who have settled in Israel since 1974 originated in this region, but with the deaths of two other regional leaders, many from beyond the area looked to Ques Menashe as a leader. The title of ques is gained through learning.
Ques Menashe came to Israel as part of the last wave of Ethiopian Jewish emigration. Israel arranged for most of the migrants to be airlifted out, and in the 15 years before his arrival, much of the migration had been carried out in secret.
Ms. Ben-Dor said that while other figures of similar religious rank had come from Ethiopia earlier, their arrival could not be publicized.
There are now about 70 Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders in Israel, The Associated Press reported, but they are elderly and no longer possess even the local authority they had in Ethiopia. There are younger Ethiopian Jews who are pursuing Orthodox rabbinical studies.
”A person like him doesn’t exist anymore,” said Mr. Masala, the legislator. ”It looks like he was the last.”