New books chronicle new exodus — Ethiopians’ journey and its aftermath

“Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes,” by Howard M. Lenhoff (Gefen; $24.95).

“The Ethiopian Jews of Israel,” by Len Lyons (Jewish Lights; $34.99).

Roughly 20 years ago, Sudan, whose western Darfur region has been engulfed in genocide for four years, watched another other tragedy unfold — the deaths of thousands of Ethiopian Jews trying to escape to Israel via Operation Moses.

Nearly one-fifth of the fleeing Falashas perished on their journey due to murder, famine, drought and various illnesses. But tens of thousands reached the Holy Land; and the ancient Jewish community (known to themselves as Beta Yisrael), which had an almost invisible presence in Israel until the late 1970s, now numbers more than 100,000 people.

Two new books explore the Ethiopian Jews, one from the perspective of an advocate who helped forge a consensus behind the mass aliyah in the 1970s and 1980s, and the other from an admittedly apolitical jazz aficionado who has dedicated two and a half years of his life to interviewing an array of Ethiopian Jews some 20 years after the exodus.

Former activist Howard Lenhoff, author of “Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes,” might not consider himself one of his book’s eponymous heroes. He never traveled to Ethiopia, never risked his life, never engaged in the kind of swashbuckling derring-do of some of his colleagues.

Yet he played a critical role as president of the American Association of Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) in negotiating with and, in some cases, applying pressure to the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to change policy on Ethiopian Jews.

Typical of the response of the Jewish establishment in the 1970s was this remark by one American Jewish woman: “These blacks are not Jews.” Nor were the Israelis immune to demeaning characterizations of the Beta Yisrael.

Lenhoff quotes a letter from professor Aryeh Tartakower, another leading activist at the time, that spells out the one-time Israeli attitude toward the Ethiopian Jews: “They were to be considered as ‘Aliens’ like other people of this category, to be admitted as tourists only for a short period of time….

Things went so far, that certain overzealous Israeli officials threatened to deport those Falashas who would be tempted to come over illegally.”

As much as this letter may remind us of the present debate over illegal immigration in the United States, the Israelis ultimately did rescue tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews. Not only that, they provided them with food, shelter and education at absorption centers throughout the country.

How much of that was due to the advocacy of groups like Lenhoff’s is hard to know, but Lenhoff and other AAEJ officials met on many occasions with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, obtained more than 50,000 signatures on behalf of the Ethiopians, mobilized protests, distributed literature, got the Jewish press to report on the plight of the Falashas and even commanded a few rescues themselves.

Lenhoff first became conscious of race as a young boy growing up in North Adams, Mass. Most of the blacks in his hometown worked as “janitors and garbage people. It sort of bothered me,” he said from his home in Oxford, Miss. “Naturally, I became friends with them.”

He later served on the faculty at Howard University and participated in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, but his interest in the Falashas did not blossom until he visited Israel just after the Yom Kippur War in late 1973 and early 1974. It was then that he read a Jerusalem Post article by famed newsman Louis Rapoport about the Ethiopian Jews who were being denied the right to the Law of Return. Shortly thereafter, Lenhoff, through Rapoport, got in contact with some members of the Beta Yisrael and even provided one, Rahamim, with $1,000, which enabled him to bring his older brother to Israel.

Over the phone, Lenhoff, a former UC Irvine biology professor, said he was concerned about the rescue missions, thinking at the time, “We’re amateurs. What if somebody gets killed. I’ll be responsible.”

He has also been responsible for his daughter, who suffers from the rare genetic disorder known as Williams-Beuren syndrome. Last fall, he came out with “The Strangest Song,” a book about his daughter, who displays rare musical gifts despite her condition.

The same compassion he shows for his daughter comes through in “Black Jews.” He speaks glowingly of some of the Ethiopian men he has met, like Hezi, the first one he encountered, a drill sergeant in the Israeli army, whom he describes as “a towering figure, over 6 feet tall, with a trademark long, black handlebar mustache.”

The book could do without its many subheads, like “Meeting Rahamim — The Professor Hooked.” Likewise, it could do without definitions of such obvious terms as the Mossad and kibbutzim. Any reader will know that the former is the Israeli equivalent of the CIA and the latter the plural form of kibbutz.

Despite these stylistic flaws, the book offers a primer on grass-roots activism and documents a modern-day Exodus, a story that makes for compelling reading on Passover.

Len Lyons, who has previously written books about jazz and computers, first came into contact with the Beta Yisrael through the Boston-Haifa sister city exchange program, when he and his wife hosted two Ethiopians at their home.

Although he said over the phone from Boston that he did not grow up in a politically active home, he could always “relate to the idea of not fitting in completely with my own world.”

In his new book, “The Ethiopian Jews of Israel,” he interviewed the top stratum of Ethiopian Israeli society. Almost no one is unemployed. Not one interviewee seems to live in a broken home, even though there is a high prevalence of divorce among Ethiopian Jews. No one suffers from any of the other pathologies of the community — spousal abuse, depression and alcoholism.

Lyons admits at the outset that he has not presented a random sample or a true cross-section of Beta Yisrael. He tried to interview some inmates in a prison, but they, like other “people on the margins … failing to engage constructively in society, don’t really want to talk about themselves” because of the stigma and shame of being imprisoned, homeless or even unemployed.