Monday, January 20, 2014

Meeting the Felasha.

A Star of David greeted us to Wolleka Village

I's been a really interesting day so far - started with village Timket festival, then hiking in Simien National Park followed by a picnic lunch and watching gelada baboons feeding and frolicking. It's late afternoon as we leave the Park with one last stop before we return to our hotel in Gondar - a brief visit to a Felasha village.

The Felasha (also known as Beta Israel) are Ethiopian Jews.  The Falasha claim descent from Menelik I, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.  However, most scholars believe that their ancestors were actually Ethiopians who converted by Jews living in southern Arabia in the centuries before the powerful Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum converted over to m to Christianity in the 4th century AD.  They are a minority and have often suffered persecution.

We were headed to Wolleka, a village that is considered to be the heart of the Felasha community in this part of Ethiopia.  At one point in time, it was a thriving village but these days, only a few Felasha remain as many were airlifted to Israel in the 1980's.  These days, the village exists as a tourist attraction and people who live here make their money selling pottery that they make.


By the time we arrived into Wolleka, I was already mentally tired.  When I got out of the van and was immediately by people shoving items at me for sale.  Although you quickly become immune to this, at times, it truly gets to be too much and Wolleka was no different. One woman after another and one small child after another persistently coming after you. In many ways, it takes away from the enjoyment of visiting places in Ethiopia as you quickly become distracted by having to repeatedly say, "No, thank you" or shaking your head

At the entrance to the village (which was also conveniently, the entrance to a store), Haile gave us background information on the Felasha.  As I had expected, Judy and Sam were particularly interested.

Just as we wrapped up, a woman passed by.  Haile recognized her and introduced her to us. Her name was Maryam (sp?) and she is one of the few, if not the only, remaining Felasha. 

Judy spoke to her in Hebrew. Later, I asked Judy how good Maryam's Hebrew was and according to Judy, she could barely speak Hebrew.  Makes you wonder how someone like Maryam could survive in Israel.

Maryam invited us to spend a few minutes at her house which was located just about a 5 minute walk from where we were standing.

Her place was extremely modest - a mud building that had been painted bright blue and topped with a corrugated tin roof.

She had a few local handicrafts for sale but what was more interesting was the collection of personal photos and letters that she has received from people who have visited her.  We stood before this cabinet as we asked Maryam questions - Haile was the interpreter.  Apparently, most of Maryam's family was airlifted to Ethiopia but for whatever reason, she has not qualified to go.  According to Judy, the Israeli government has a list of criteria to qualify someone as a Jew.  On the top of the list is that your mother has to be a Jew.  For whatever reason, Maryam is not able to fulfill all the requisite criteria.

A very quiet and soft spoken woman, Maryam offered some honey, from her own hives, for us to taste. Of course, we could buy more but honey is not something that we can easily bring back to the US so as delicious as it was, we all had to pass it by.

Sam capturing Judy's memory with Maryam.

Maryam has a mezuzah nailed to her door jamb.

A faded bit of a relief of an ibex on the fa├žade of her modest home.

Before saying goodbye to each other, Judy and Maryam exchanged kisses on the cheeks.  Very sweet moment.


From Maryam's house, we walked back towards the entrance to take a look at the village's synagogue.  It wasn't the prettiest of villages - a bit dilapidated and trash strewn about everywhere.  Made me wonder what the synagogue was going to look like.

Animals share space with humans.  Not uncommon.

Everywhere you go, there's always a child tagging along.....usually trying to sell you something.  There's no avoiding them :-(

The synagogue is the circular shaped building on the right.

Our welcoming party.  You never know if a tourist will need a straw plate (?) or beads when entering a synagogue. Okay, you have to give it to this enterprising twosome.  What better place to nab tourists than at the door to the village's main attraction?

Inside, the synagogue was a small room, completely devoid of any furniture which is not surprising since there are no Jews left in the village.

Several Stars of David had been crudely drawn onto the wall.  If not for this, there would be no other sign that this was a place of Jewish worship.

There were a few photos tacked up on the walls.  They were of Felasha, from the village, who were living successful lives elswhere.  According to a villager, few do return every now and again to visit friends.

Passing through the heart of the village.  Women were at the ready to sell us handicrafts.  No one in our group bought anything.

Houses are a decent size here but the village is just not attractive.  Such a shame because it is located in a pretty part of the Gondar region - lots of hills and trees.

From Wolleka, it was a straight drive back to our hotel in Gondar.  Back at the hotel, dinner was the usual buffet in the dining room. Haile had wanted to get a copy of the video that he had shot in the village so I agreed to meet back up with him at 8p. After that I went back to my room, took a shower and packed up my suitcase for the next day. Tomorrow, we are leaving Gondar and heading to Bahir Dar which is located on the shore of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the third largest in Africa. I'm looking forward to moving on!

Goodnight from Gondar!