Meet the Bal Ej, Ethiopia’s Other Jews
Americans tend to think of Blacks and Jews as distinct groups: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.; Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner going down South for Freedom Summer. Some evoke the Beta Israel community of Ethiopia, and a minority recall the Igbo Jews of Nigeria, or the Abayudaya of Uganda. But fewer still know of the Bal Ej, a group of Ethiopian Jews that started splitting from the Beta Israel community in Gondar back in the 15th century, to settle in the North Shewa region of Ethiopia.
A new film, Bal Ej: The Hidden Jews of Ethiopia, is underway about this community, much of which has migrated to the Kechene neighborhood of Addis Ababa. Made by Russian-born Israeli musician and ethnomusicologist Irene Orleansky, the film promises to be a fascinating look at the history, contemporary struggles, and culture (especially musical) of a group of Jews driven by persecution to practice their religion, a pre-Talmudic form of Judaism, in secret for centuries. Forced by the 15th-century Christian Emperor Yeshaq to convert or lose their land, this group of Ethiopian Jews became craftsmen or, in Amharic, bal ej. As much of the community awaits immigration to Israel, relatives in their ancestral villages in the North Shewa region continue to face persecution.