A Lonely Jewish Island in the Middle of Africa

That was how award-winning Tel Aviv photographer Lior Sperandeo described his impression of the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia. At the end of May, the Hebrew Love Israel magazine published Sperandeo’s photo documentary on this unique group caught in a decades-long dilemma. A week later, the American Jewish magazine Forward covered it as well.

Sperandeo’s documentary series, “People Of”, focuses on giving a voice to forgotten people groups around the world. The Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews whose families converted to Christianity, but still regarded themselves as Jews, have long been trying to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel). Their request met with such a contradictory response from the Israeli government that some applicants were accepted in the 1990s, while others (even from the same family) were rejected and left behind in transit camps. A few hundred more were accepted every few years, until 2013, when the Jewish Agency announced that they had relocated the last of Ethiopia’s Jews. The Israeli government then shut down all its supporting services and advised the remaining Falash Mura to join the Ethiopian Christians… who routinely persecute them for being Jews.

This heartbreaking situation, which has affected some 9000 Falash Mura for as long as 12 years, was finally resolved last November in a Knesset cabinet vote to bring them to Israel – only to be frozen three months later for lack of funding. The idea of accepting this group as Jewish was also hotly contested by some rabbis. The resulting outcry by Ethiopian Israelis on behalf of their abandoned countrymen, whom they staunchly identify as fellow-Jews, even reached the international media.

As the controversy raged on in his home country, Lior Sperandeo traveled to Ethiopia in April to explore this community as part of his “People Of” collection. The result was a moving video portrayal of the Falash Mura (click on the video above to watch), whose Jewish identity is self-evident to any observer. But even Lior admitted, “Until I set foot in the Gondar Synagogue, I didn’t realize how real this issue was.”

From long experience, Lior knew the need to build trust with those he eventually captures on film. “The key is starting from a point of commonality. In this case, unlike many others, the fact that I am an Israeli Jew certainly helped.” So Lior started showing up every morning at the synagogue, “a large tin shack painted blue and white” on the outskirts of Gondar, with a kippa (Jewish skull cap) perched “uncomfortably” on his head, and a camera. After a few days, the worshipers stopped noticing the white-skinned Jew and he was able to document them at will, “like a fly on the wall”.

Sperandeo started to really feel a part of what was happening around him and joined the normal routine of the place. He communicates in words and pictures the regular synagogue attendance by both men and women; the men wearing tefillin (phylacteries) and tallit (prayer shawl), and the women dressed in extra-bright whites. The great contrast between the simple synagogue building and the festively dressed worshipers is part of the “unique essence” of the life which he witnessed.

Lior was there for Passover as well, capturing the traditional preparations in real time: for example, a smiling gentleman throwing ingredients into the air as he makes matza. Besides making 8000 matzas, the community also makes new kippas and tallits every year for the holiday, along with other preparations the photo-journalist found “mesmerizing”.

Not least impressive was the fact that the Falash-Mura celebration is logged as the world’s largest Seder, with no less than 3000 community members crammed together in the dark. The ceremony was conducted by Israeli Rabbi Menachem Waldman, a representative of the Chief Rabbi’s Committee on Ethiopian Jewry who speaks Amharic.

Sperandeo was deeply moved by the singing of the Exodus story from the Hagaddah. “The ancient songs I’d known since childhood received a new meaning to me.” But the irony was unmistakable. “While all the Jews of the world are celebrating the holiday of freedom and redemption – here is a Jewish community anxiously waiting for their Red Sea to part for them, letting them cross over to the Promised Land.”

Regarding the doubts expressed in the Promised Land about the Jewishness of this community, Lior flatly remarked, “After my visit I can testify that this is an absurd claim. In Gondar, I found one of the most vibrant and dedicated Jewish communities that I have ever experienced.”

A chilling moment was when the community members all sang Israel’s national anthem, Ha-Tikvah, and prayed together for the well-being of the IDF soldiers. In spite of the suffering caused by Israel’s repeated reversals concerning their fate, Lior says he observed no anger or bitterness from this community.

He wondered out loud: “What is the real reason Israel won’t let them in? Would a Jewish community in any other continent be treated this way? I was embarrassed.

“It is easy to avoid these questions when we don’t have to look our brothers and sisters in the eyes. This is why I created this short film. My hope is that soon the Falash-Mura, [translated as] the people with no land, will shed this name; because they do have a land – the Jewish Land of Israel.”