secret jews

Secret Jews, an emperor's bedroom and Ethiopian pizza – It's the first report back from JR Tours in Ethiopia

The First Day. Addis Ababa.

We made it to the hotel just to dump our bags and then headed out straight away to meet with the 'Secret Jews' of Kechene. Of course, they're not so secret now. Their synagogue in a slum on the outskirts of Addis has a wall emblazoned with a menorah and other Jewish symbols. This is their story. In a period of intense persecution in Gondar some centuries before, a third of the community decided to leave for the centre of the country. They acted outwardly as Christians meeting in caves for Jewish worship. For 400 years they have only married each other, and kept their identity a secret till about 10 years ago when a group of young men defied their elders and 'came out' as Jews. They now have a synagogue in Addis.

When we arrived we were invited to take off our shoes and wash our hands before entering the synagogue. The room was small, the ark in the middle of the synagogue with seats ranged round the walls, because, they said, their ancestors had forgotten which direction to pray. This way each person prayed towards the ark, which being in the centre portrayed God as being in the centre of the world. By the ark a wooden post rose up to the ceiling. This portrayed the oneness of God. After an explanation, their chazzan started singing a song in praise of God that he had composed himself. His gentle voice and wonderful rhythmic African music in call and response to the men there had us all entranced.

They call themselves the North Shewa Zionist Association, but they are not recognised by Israel as Jews – unlike those who attend the Adenite synagogue – our second port of call. There was a profitable trade between Aden and Ethiopia that involved a number of Jews who settled for a time in the capital. One of these, Shalom Shelemay seems to have been particularly influential, bought land and built his offices and donated one room at the top of a staircase for the synagogue. This is a synagogue as we know it, small, but beautifully kept in true Yemenite style. Nowadays it is only used on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur and when members of the Israeli embassy entertain VIPs. There are still some Adenite Jews living in the city, but not enough to maintain regular services.

In the afternoon, hardly anyone took the option of resting and we visited the Ethnographic Museum set in the palace built by Haile Selassie and now part of the University. We saw some of the state rooms and the Emperor and Empress's bedrooms and bathroom and then followed the trail from birth to death as practiced by the hundreds of different tribes and cultures found in Ethiopia, a great introduction showing not only the country's diversity but its uniqueness. In the same vein we were reminded of the contributions the Italians made to Ethiopian culture in their few years of fascist occupation. Every town has a piazza, every menu offers pasta, coffee comes as espresso or macchiato and every Ethiopian ends a meeting with "Ciao". We ended our day in an Italian restaurant eating pizza.

Ciao for now.

By Sybil Sheridan