Author Archives: Shalva Weil

Shalva Weil

About Shalva Weil

Shalva Weil is senior researcher at the NCJW Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in Indian Jews and other ethnic groups. She is the editor of Ethiopian Jews in the Limelight (1997) and two bibliographies on Ethiopian Jewry (2001; 2004). In 2004, she was appointed president of SOSTEJE (Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry).

Ethiopian Women in Israel

Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive

Changes in Family Life

One of the greatest changes which the Ethiopian Jewish community has undergone in Israel in their move from an underdeveloped society to a modern, Western society is in the specific realm of family and personal relations. Female genital surgery is hardly performed in Israel and women express no desire to continue this practice. Girls can no longer marry at first puberty; in fact, it is illegal to marry in Israel until the age of seventeen. In addition, girls have to attend school until the minimum age of sixteen.

ethiopian jewish womanMarried women are encouraged by social workers and others to go out to work in order to assist with the family income, and it is often easier for a woman rather than a man to find employment, particularly in temporary, unskilled jobs, in which the Ethiopian Jews, despite the numerous vocational courses offered to the community, tend to congregate. According to research conducted by Phillips Davids in 1999, early marriage and childbearing are being replaced by later marriage and first birth, which will eventually have a profound effect on life-time fertility.

For the first time, rural Beta Israel are handling money and have bank accounts; a woman’s salary may be paid straight into her bank account; or she may be earning more than her husband.

The Israel rabbinate has established a special department dealing with Ethiopian divorces. One-third of all Ethiopian Jewish families in Israel are one-parent families; the other two-thirds are largely made up of “complex families” constructed from two or more one-parent families, which are intrinsically unstable.

The divorce rate among Ethiopian Jews in Israel is far higher than that among the general population.  The single main reason for this is the emasculation experienced by Ethiopian Jewish men. Males no longer reign supreme; “Israeli” women answer back. If women are beaten, as was the practice in Ethiopia, they can turn to the police and file a complaint against their husbands–and many do. Ethiopian women in Israel look with curiosity and also envy, at their Israeli counterparts, and selectively imbibe Israelis’ lip-service to egalitarianism between the sexes.

Women in Ethiopian Society

Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Men’s Occupations; Women’s Occupations

According to The Scottish explorer James Bruce, in his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, although the Beta Israel reigned supreme for several generations and succeeded in subjugating their Christian neighbors, by the seventeenth century the Beta Israel had become a powerless minority with little or no rights to land (1790). During this period, the Beta Israel women worked as artists and decorators in the Christian churches.

By the nineteenth century, the Beta Israel eventually took up stigmatized craft occupations, which also became associated with the connotation Falasha. The men became blacksmiths and weavers and the women became potters. The “Falasha pottery” which is still famous in the Gondar region, became the major industry of the village Wolleka.

Beta Israel women selling pots and statuettes attracted many tourists, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. However, from an Ethiopian perspective, pottery was a low-status profession, associated with fire and dangerous beliefs that the Beta Israel were buda, supernatural beings who disguised themselves as humans during the day and at night became hyenas that could attack humans.

The Beta Israel in Ethiopia tended to live in scattered villages located on hilltops near streams. It was the job of women to haul water to their homes in earthenware jugs strapped to their backs.

Daily Life of Beta Women

Beta Israel WomanWomen were in charge of the domestic sphere, baking the basic bread (enjera) on an open hearth, which they also stoked to gain warmth. They prepared the stew (wat), commonly made of lentils and chicken or meat, to go with the enjera. The meal was often accompanied by a type of home brew (talla) made of hops, other grains and water fermented in pot containers made by women. Food was stored in baskets made of rushes from local plants, dried in the sun and twisted into coils.