The bus bounces its way along the road from Axum to Shire, generating a huge cloud of dust as it barrels through the brown, rocky highlands of Tigray.
Bombed-out tanks that were brought to a standstill 20 years ago by Tigrean rebels fighting Ethiopia’s communist government still sit near the road in the places they were stopped, as much a part of the landscape today as the thatched-roofed tukuls, barren fields and dry riverbeds that comprise the territory of northwestern Ethiopia in summer.
The bus comes to a sudden halt as the driver spots a funeral procession alongside the road, a sign of respect accorded to the dead here. The passengers fall silent while the mourning procession walks by — first men carrying flags and rifles, then wailing women carrying parasols and trailing the body.
A bit farther along, the bus slows again as it takes a hard, cliffside curve; the passengers crane their necks to see an overturned truck that appears to have tumbled off the road just minutes before, its load of plastic crates spilled all over the hill.
It takes about two hours to travel the 35 or so miles from Axum to Shire, and then another hour of driving over dirt roads and empty fields to reach Adigereb, a remote village populated exclusively by Jews until 1980, when they all left for Sudan.
There have been rumors of some Jews still left in Tigray, holdouts who opted not to join their co-religionists embarking on the arduous and dangerous journey to Zion in the early 1980s.
“In the beginning, I didn’t want to go to Jerusalem because I was scared of the journey,” confessed Shirva Goyto’om, one of the lone Jews remaining in the province. Shirva lives in a small town about 30 miles west of the city of Shire, which itself has but one paved road.
“In recent years, we went to Addis — I was there — but because of the economic situation, people stay in Addis for three to five years and then come back,” Shirva said.
Like a few other Jews scattered about in this region, Shirva married an Ethiopian Christian and now has a sizeable family. He is a farmer, like his father was. His mother lives in Israel.
Shirva says he no longer keeps the Jewish traditions because they are impossible to maintain without the support of a community. Also, without the ability to immigrate to Israel — he tried but was unable to gain the ear of Israeli officials in Addis Ababa, he says — he has lost interest in practicing Judaism.
All over Tigray, the locals have the same response when asked about the Jews. The Beta Israel left years ago, they say, using the Ethiopian appellation for members of the Jewish caste. A few use the more pejorative term, Falasha, which means stranger.
But even when absent, the Jews are remembered. The houses they once occupied are still called by the names of the Jewish families who used to live in them.
The Tigrean Jews were the first large group of Ethiopians to immigrate to Israel, coming in secret Mossad operations in the early 1980s, before Operation Moses. They passed through Sudan on their way to Israel, sneaking with forged documents onto Athens-bound planes from Khartoum, moving through Port Sudan onto clandestine Israeli naval vessels, or getting airlifted from the Sudanese desert on illicit flights.
Some Tigrean Jews had to wait for up to two years in Sudan before being taken to Israel, and many died along the way. By 1984, approximately 6,000 Tigrean Jews had come to Israel in small groups. Most of them went to live in Beersheba, where Israel’s Tigrean population is still concentrated.
Here and there, in bigger cities like Axum and small villages like Aduhala, a few Jews remain in Tigray.
When everyone else left, they, or their parents, remained. Some stayed behind because they were afraid to leave their homes for an unknown place. Others were fighters with the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, the rebel army fighting the forces of Ethiopia’s central government, and they were too caught up in the war when the Jews left. (The rebels won in 1991, and rebel leader Meles Zenawi is now Ethiopia’s prime minister.) A few were married to Ethiopian Christians and didn’t want to leave their families behind.
A Tigrean community leader in Israel estimates that there are as many as 2,000 to 4,000 Jews left in this remote region. The governor of the region, who is from the historic city of Axum, where Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant resides, is Jewish.
But the Jews who remain here are no easier to distinguish from the local Christian population than the Falash Mura, whose ancestors converted to Christianity from Judaism decades ago. Unlike the thousands of Beta Israel who lived here 25 years ago, the Jews that remain no longer maintain the Jewish practices that made them easily identifiable to outsiders as Jews.
As one official with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee put it, the Jews here are like the Jewish remnant in other countries whose Jewish populations experienced mass exodus: Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq. There will always be a few who remain.
Before leaving for Israel, the Jews of Tigray were cut off from the outside world, known to a few Jewish scholars and advocates but largely ignored by and ignorant of the world beyond their fields, villages and marketplaces.
A lot has changed since they left.
Though camels, mules, cows and other livestock still roam the streets of Shire, they wander past the city’s Internet cafe and CD stores. Shire now has an airport, though the runway is unpaved, the terminal has no electricity, and an empty shipping container serves as the passenger waiting area.
Perhaps most significantly, Tigray’s isolation has been tempered by a close relationship with its most prominent expatriate community: Tigreans in Israel.
Israelis born in Tigray come back to visit, and the people of this region — even the farmers who live in places cars cannot reach and where electricity sheds no light — have grown used to seeing the occasional visitor from the outside world.
Zeudei Adem, an old Ethiopian woman of indeterminate age, lets out a yelp when she suddenly realizes that the foreign visitor in her stone-and-straw home is the son of her old friend and neighbor, Workunesh. Her niece looks on with a wide smile as Zeudei embraces the visitor.
“We knew you made it to Israel,” Zeudei says, rocking back and forth on the mud bench in her niece’s home. “Too bad you didn’t take us.”
The Israelis often come bearing gifts — clothing for former neighbors, cash, badly needed medicine.
One young Ethiopian man living near Adigereb said the area has suffered since the Jews left. The grasses in winter do not grow as tall as they used to, groves of trees have been cut down to make way for military installations, and the cows seem even thinner than before. Somehow, one Tigrean lamented, the Jews took their good fortune with them.
Ethiopian Israelis returning here for heritage visits are as amazed by the locals as the locals are by them. The Ethiopian villagers marvel at the Israelis’ attire, digital cameras, and money, and the Israelis marvel at how they ever lived in as primitive a country as this, where people live without running water or electricity and little prospects for a future different than that of their great-grandfather.
“As soon as we saw the way they live here, we said, ‘Thank God that we left this place,'” said Mazal Rada, who left Ethiopia with her family when she was 3. She now works in security in Kiryat Gat, Israel.
“I stayed at one ‘hotel’ in some town that was so bad it made me cry,” she said. “I want to go home.”