Sipping chai among a sea of baby strollers and Times readers at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on a Sunday morning in spring, Avishai Mekonen is your prototypical Upper West Side dad, clad in a weathered baseball cap, crisp polo shirt, and a five o'clock shadow. The only thing remotely unordinary about this slight, cheery 39-year-old emerges when he smiles — revealing an unusually late-in-life set of shiny braces — and when he speaks, softly and carefully, with a faint accent that is difficult to place.
But the story of how Mekonen came to be a Manhattan father is not shared by many of his neighbors. It begins one quiet, pitch-black night in 1983 in a mountainous village of northern Ethiopia, when Mekonen's parents woke him and his siblings suddenly, announcing that it was time to depart for the Holy Land.
Casually leaning back in his chair, Mekonen recounts his tale with a wide-eyed sense of wonder, as if he's telling someone else's story, not his own.
"That night I just remember running," says Mekonen, who was 10 at the time. "No time to catch your breath, just running, because you want to be gone from the village before the sun comes up."
Unlike the millions of New York immigrants who have come here fleeing tragedy or persecution, though, Mekonen and his family weren't running away; they were running toward something, making good on a promise to fulfill an age-old prophecy.
They were among a population of fewer than 100,000 black Jews living in Ethiopia's remote Wegera region, in the country's northwest, where their ancestors had resided since biblical times. While there is significant debate about how and when Jews first came to Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community, as it is known, dates to at least the early first millennium and has been genetically linked to Jews elsewhere in the Middle East.
Avishai Mekonen, age 10 (Photo courtesy Avishai Mekonen/Narratively)
Living alternately in conflict and coexistence with their Christian and Muslim neighbors, the Beta Israel in Ethiopia remained largely oblivious to most rabbinical updates of the last two thousand years, yet retained their own distinct, deeply devout brand of Judaism. By the 1970s there were seven or eight Jewish families still living peacefully in Sant Tacom, the village where Mekonen was born, and all followed the teachings of the Torah reverently; they kept Kosher and observed the Sabbath to the point where even tying one's belt was considered too laborious. But above all, the Jews of Ethiopia, including generations of the Mekonen family, prayed for a return to the Holy Land. "They never stopped talking about Jerusalem," Mekonen recalls of his family. "Every time we prayed they would mention Jerusalem. The honey, the milk, the gold — they talked about this place as if it didn't actually exist in the world. To me it sounded like a magical place."
Following World War II, a handful of Ethiopian Jews managed to emigrate to Israel. They began lobbying the government there to officially recognize the Beta Israel as Jews so that others could join them under Israel's Law of Return, which allows anyone of Jewish ancestry to emigrate.
That right was granted by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government in 1975, and the news trickled down to Sant Tacom just as a new communist military-led government was making life for Ethiopian Jews increasingly difficult. Anti-Semitism was on the rise, a policy of forced cooperatives resulted in much of their farmland being confiscated, and many young boys were taken from their families and conscripted into the army. The government made it hard for anyone to leave the country at that time, and Arab allies compelled officials to prevent Jews from departing for Israel.
After considerable debate about the Ethiopians' authenticity as Jews, Israel had finally laid out the welcome mat — and that was all the encouragement that scores of Beta Israel needed. In the late '70s and early '80s, thousands of families began moving in secret toward the Sudanese border — a rumored fast-track to the Promised Land. The journey to Sudan, though, was four hundred miles long. Entire families, like the Mekonens, covered that distance on foot, crossing through barren deserts, thick forests, and over craggy unforgiving earth, silently slipping out of a land they were not permitted to leave.
Gleefully stuffing a pastry into his face, Mekonen talks about "my journey" with the enthusiasm of a child recounting a storybook tale. Grinning and gesticulating even while relating frightening details, it's clear that for him this is not a story of horror, but adventure.
"If you ask me how the journey was, the only memory I have is the dark," he says. "When I'm talking about dark, I mean you can't see anything. It's jungle and we had no lights. We came from the village; we didn't know what flashlights were. You're just walking by hearing."
Mekonen folds his tallit, the traditional Jewish prayer shawl. (Photo courtesy Narratively/Julie Turkewitz)
Mekonen's father, his pregnant mother, three brothers, and grandparents traveled with a group of one hundred Jews from surrounding villages. Reminiscent of the Underground Railroad, they stopped at friendly homes by day and navigated the jungle by night, guided by rebel fighters who had an intimate knowledge of the land from their years-long battle with the government there.
The rebels, however, were working for financial incentive only, and had little tolerance for those who would slow them down or put the group at risk. As they navigated the treacherous terrain, walkers slowed and at times even fell from mountain cliffs.
"There's no talking," Mekonen remembers. "We can't even ask what's going on, we just have to listen to them. If there was a baby crying, they would stuff something in his mouth. If one of our animals made noise they would shoot it. Sometimes at night someone would fall and there's no time for stopping. You hear people screaming; then you would just hear someone yell to stop the screaming — you don't know which family. Each morning before we go to sleep, they would count the people, and we would see the number shrinking."
By the time the diminished group approached the Sudanese border, after several months of walking, at least a quarter of them were gone and the excitement of heading to Jerusalem had devolved into disease and desperation.
"The rebels wanted to take advantage of us before we got to Sudan," Mekonen remembers, explaining that the guides gradually fleeced the travelers of their remaining goods and money before leaving them at the border.
"They said, 'You don't have any choice. You go back to the village, you're going to go to jail.' So when we reached the Sudan border we had nothing, because the rebels took everything. They just said, 'This is the border,' and left. We were alone in the desert. We didn't have a plan about Sudan — we just had the plan to get to the Holy Land."
* * *
Today, there are fewer than a thousand Ethiopian Jews in New York, according to Beejhy Barhany, a friend of Mekonen's and a fellow Beta Israel who emigrated to New York fourteen years ago. Barhany, who shares Mekonen's cheery, casual demeanor, runs the Beta Israel of North America Cultural Foundation, a nonprofit that provides assistance to Ethiopian Jews in the U.S. and organizes cultural events to foster understanding of the community.
One thousand people may not sound insignificant, but when thought about on a New York scale, it's miniscule. In a city of 160,000 Romanian-Americans, 53,000 Bangladeshis, and 40,000 Scots, there are precious few New Yorkers who can say they only share a background with a few hundred others here.
What's more, for people with such a distinct story, there is no tight-knit community of Ethiopian Jews in New York. "We're spread out across the five boroughs," says Barhany, who left Ethiopia with her own family when she was four. "And most of the Ethiopian Jews who come here are young — they don't have whole extended families here. In Israel, we are a very close, united community. When you have a wedding there, you're not going to have a hundred or two hundred people show up — you're going to have a thousand or even more."
In fact, Ethiopian Jews like Mekonen and Barhany are accustomed to a community so insular that pre-wedding tradition among the Beta Israel holds that families must count back seven generations to ensure that the two parties aren't related.
"I love New York, but it's impossible not to miss that community," admits Mekonen, who is married to a non-Ethiopian Jew and now has two young children.
Barhany's foundation and a few others organize observations for holidays such as Sigd, an autumn festival that is unique to Ethiopian Jews. But for the most part, the Beta Israel here don't enjoy the type of community support available to other immigrant New Yorkers.
For Mekonen that missing connection is just one more burden atop the constant struggle of getting by in New York.
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.
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