Friday, December 14, 2007

I spoke earlier of wanting to talk about a trivial and a serious experience in relation to the Ethiopians now living in Israel. The trivial note seems quite trivial to me now, but the serious one has really been interesting to me since I first witnessed it a few years ago.

Since I have nothing to do each day, I spend a lot of time in the park exercising and hanging out. I was playing basketball a week ago, and there were a few Ethiopians playing soccer. I stopped playing, and sat and watched these two 12 year old boys play with their young siblings. These two boys were so amazing, that I simply sat and watched them 'dribble' and shoot for half an hour. They were doing all types of moves, from bicycle kicks, to crazy side-steps with the ball, fake-out kicks, no look passes, popping the ball up from behind them to in front, and they were even able to stand in place, kicking the ball like a hacky-sack to themselves, over and over, as long as they wished. 12 year old boys! The things I've experienced in living abroad, in cities, have essentially served to take my threshold of amazement and throw it to the wind. In this case, I used to think Harrisonburg High School had some amazing soccer players. They would always destroy Spotswood, my high school, and we thought they were invincible.

Yeah. And these 12 year old boys, wearing kippot and tzitzit, effectively made me feel quite inferior. There's a reason that Israel competes with honor in the World Cup, and I felt like I was watching that reason with those boys. But, after my initial surprise, I realized that they were probably just normal, average players for their age. These people never cease to surprise me.

Anyway, on with the serious observation. Ethiopian woman were often tattooed, according to some sources, as a way to show their obedience to Christ. According to a study by Monika Edelstein (Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 15, Num. 2, 2002), some groups did force Ethiopian Jewish women to undergo tattooing, but she found more cases where it was simply fashionable or believed to be medicinal. The tattoos found on Ethiopians depended on the region, but generally one would find circles with rays, like a sun, or bordered with crosses. These are found on the forehead or hands. Sometimes jewelry was tattooed on, particularly around the neck. One would see a tattooed necklace, typically with crosses along the necklace, and sometimes with beads. The Ethiopians believed that the Zar spirits, essentially evil spirits, could be held off with these tattoos. Jewish Ethiopians also had these tattoos, some voluntary, some involuntarily. The belief was, however, that the Land of Israel was the only place where the Zar spirits were unable to reside -- thus they were Zionists, and were quite ready to leave Ethiopia when Israel proposed to affect a mass exodus.

The problem is that tattoos are highly and expressly forbidden in Jewish law. The highest order of Jewish law (halacha) is that which is explicitly written in the Torah. Some law is interpretation, but there is also that which we believe G-d Himself wrote, and is naturally undeniable. One of these laws is tattooing. Consequently, these tattoos by the Ethiopians have made the issue of their Jewishness, a highly controversial and contested topic, all the more troublesome. In consequence, most of the women claim to have been either pressured or forced into the ritual markings (Edelstein speaks of the fashionable popularity of the tattoos, however, thus discrediting the claim to force...). I'm not making any type of judgment or opinion on the topic, I'm just giving the background.

So, as many Ethiopians live in Jerusalem, I see these immigrant women all the time with their tattoos. The most common is some type of circle on their forehead, which actually looks like a sun. I have to admit that it is difficult not to stare, but like anything else, you get used to seeing the same thing over and over. I have seen necklace tattoos on these women, but usually they are pretty tame, thin lines, going more down their trapeziums to the collarbone, than actually around the neck. Last month, however, I sat down on the bus and looked to my left and noticed a woman with the most ridiculous tattoo I've yet to see (next to Mike Tyson, of course).

The woman of 30 or so had a necklace tattoo, which was about an inch below her chin. Beneath that tattoo, was an identical tattoo. The design was a thick, bold necklace, with droplets along the line. There must have been about 10 very thick droplets starting at the necklace, and going vertically down, from one side of the neck to the other. I'm not sure what exactly the droplets were supposed to symbolize, but what they immediately looked like were blood drops coming from a cut neck, from ear to ear.

If those were forced tattoos, I would believe it. They could just have easily been representative of glass beads or anything else, but considering that some Ethiopians did endure forced tattooing, I like to think that this young lady had her mortality dangled in front of her, for her and her family to forever remember. Not that I take pleasure in this mortification, but rather because she was a religious Jew, and a voluntary tattoo is grounds for...excommunication, or at least a need for serious repentance. I've seen many people with tattoos here, guys that weren't religious and became so (ba'al teshuva), and they simply have to express the idea that they shouldn't have tattoos, but they didn't know better. For someone that was raised orthodox, however, to get a tattoo -- it causes problems.

Honestly, though, these Ethiopians bring so much flavor to our country. I personally believe they are Jews, though I do not agree with their belief that they are one of the "lost tribes." I don't have any evidence for this, and there is actually evidence that their Cohenim (priests) do indeed have the genetic marker of the Cohen blood-line... The bottom line is that they practice Judaism properly, and many of them underwent a ritual conversion just to ease doubts, and are therefore Jews.

Someone with symbolic blood dripping all over from a sliced neck is, well, more than a 'sight to behold.' Just another reason why I love this country: Exotic Ethiopian women. All of us American Jews tend to make the joke, "Mom, Dad, I brought home a Jew -- but she's black."

Below is a picture of a very similar tattoo on the neck, though the woman on the bus had much more pronounced, larger necklaces.

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