Ethiopian Pied Piper Rocks Heartstrings
Flamethrowers, breakdancers, mimes and musicians all perform on the Third Street Promenade, but when Saturday night rolls around, the biggest draw seems to be coming from a gaggle of bearded Chabadniks dancing to Hebrew tunes.
And the pied piper playing the keyboard is an Ethiopian Jew named Alula Tzadik.
This Rosh Hashanah, the dreadlocked Santa Monica resident will showcase his talents at B’nai Horin, the Culver City shul he has been performing at since 1997. Tzadik will play the kirar, a harp-like instrument dating back to King David’s time.
“He is a very soft and gentle, but a very dynamic presence as a performer,” said Rabbi Stan Levy of B’nai Horin. “More and more congregations are [recognizing his talent].”
There once was a time when millions knew who Tzadik was.
“I was like Michael Jackson in Ethiopia for a while,” Tzadik told The Journal.
Tzadik became a pop star sensation in Ethiopia in the mid-’80s with the hit song “Sentahehu,” named after his original Jewish first name, and now the name of his newborn son.
Tzadik’s journey to Judaism wasn’t easy. His Jewish mother, Tsige (“Shoshannah”), was raped when she was 13 by his Christian father, who was her teacher at school, Tzadik said. Tzadik was taken at birth from his mother because of her religion and did not know he was Jewish for the longest time.
“I knew I was different,” said Tzadik, who doesn’t know his precise age but estimates that he’s in his late 30s.
Tzadik was teased by kids and elders at the Christian orphanage he was placed in as buddha — an Ethiopian word often utilized as a derogatory ethnic slur against Jews. Tzadik remained in the orphanage until his early teens. At age 12, custody was given to his father, who encouraged him to deny his Jewish roots and embrace Bavarian customs.
“Can you imagine? A black man wearing lederhosen,” he scoffed.
Tzadik never learned why his patriarch, who had sired 26 children with various women, sent Tzadik to live in Germany, where he had his only child, Sentayehu, now 17.
But Tzadik never forgot his mother. He found her, and lived with her learning Hebrew songs and prayers.
After his song hit big, Tzadik landed in prison for a year for playing a song at his concerts called “Mr. President,” which was taken to be a protest against Communist dictator Mengistu. Tzadik went free in 1991, when the Communist government was overthrown in a coup d’état.
“Everything was open. We just walked out,” said Tzadik, who, fearing that he would be jailed again, left Ethiopia by foot to Sudan, then continued to Egypt and flew to Washington, D.C., where his father lived. Two years later, after his father died, he lived in New York and in Berkeley before coming to Los Angeles, “one of the best places to be Jewish.”
Shortly after arriving here, Tzadik connected with B’nai Horin’s congregation, which embraces people of diverse Jewish backgrounds.
“We try to be really eclectic in our music and incorporate some of the Ethiopian prayers in our services,” said Levy, who strives “to incorporate more than just the Ashkenazi tradition” to fully reflect the richness of Diaspora Jewry.
Given his labyrinthine journey to Judaism, Tzadik laments the fact that many Americans take their Jewishness for granted.
“We gather Jewish people scattered around to get them together,” Tzadik said of Sinai Temple’s popular monthly service, “Friday Night Live,” for which he performs. “That gives me fulfillment. Many of them don’t go to temple. I wish more people were involved.”
“It’s been said that music is not the notes that you hit, but what happens between the notes,” said “Friday Night Live” co-creator and bandleader Craig Taubman. “Alula’s a classic example of that. His energy, his hair, his smile is just out there. He’s got an aura.”
“Two months ago,” Taubman continued, “we had 25 visiting Fulbright Scholars studying in Santa Barbara — they were Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic.”
A scholar from Nigeria in the audience, who happened to be Christian, connected with Alula and got up and starting singing.
“It took the congregation to a high that I have not seen in five years,” Taubman said.
Tzadik continues to write songs and even scored “God and Allah Need to Talk,” an interfaith-themed movie. He explained that he demonstrates his gratitude for the freedom he enjoys as an American Jew with a monthly mitzvah, performing for Jewish inmates and recovering alcoholics. He also loves the Promenade.
“It’s so beautiful,” Tzadik said. “That makes me really happy to see young people and non-Jewish [people] who want to learn. Sometimes I feel like a teacher.”
“Here [in Los Angeles], I feel really, really connected. People ask a lot, ‘Do you have a family,’ and I say, ‘Yes. You are my family.'”
Alula Tzadik will perform at Rosh Hashanah services at B’nai Horin on Sept. 26 and 27; and at Temple Judea in Tarzana for Yom Kippur services. To contact Tzadik, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .