From Ethiopia to Israel: A Journey

From Ethiopia to Israel: A Journey

In honor of this month’s celebration of Black History Month, I thought it would be apropos to discuss the history of Beta Israel (בֵּיתֶא יִשְׂרָאֵל :translated as House of Israel), also known as the Ethiopian Jews. In addition, I will also touch upon the connection between Jews and both Africans and Black Americans, with the culinary feature of this month being the egg-and the dish of ShaShuka.

Although it is well known about the Israelites stay in the African nation of Egypt, the Jewish community in the province of Gondar (not Gondor) in Ethiopia was largely forgotten – many Jews in other parts of the world did not even know of its existence. This community which began in the time of Moses was half a million strong at its height, and ruled their own kingdom for hundreds of years.  However, in 1624, the Portuguese (looking for control of the area) led an assault against the Ethiopian community, killing as many as possible and making slaves and converting those that did not die.  In addition, they destroyed all writings and items related to their Jewish history and identity.  However, the community, now oppressed under foreign rule, still endured (and was still numbered at about 100,000). There was little contact with the community and Europeans until 1769, when a Scottish explorer (James Bruce) unintentionally found their community in his search for the source of the Nile River.  In 1935, the Italian Army met up with Beta Israel, when they tried to march across the country; interestingly enough, the Emperor of Ethiopia at the time hid out in Jerusalem, but this did not improve the condition of Beta Israel upon his return. By the late 1940s, communication greatly increased, especially after the formation of the State of Israel (who began giving aid and building schools for the Beta Israel community).

The community still endured, even after Ethiopia broke ties with Israel because of the Yom Kippur War (the Arabs threatened to stop the oil supply if they did not comply). However, soon afterwards the Emperor was replaced through a coup d’etat, and the new leader (Col. Mengustu Haile Mariam) was not friendly towards the Beta Israelis, fostered anti-Semitism, and moved many of the Beta Israelites from their private farms to state run cooperatives. In 1977, Menachem Begin (Prime Minister of Israel at the time) began working on taking members of the Beta Israel community out of Ethiopia and bring them them to Israel, which began the mass exodus a decade later. However the situation became worse in 1980, when Judaism was outlawed, and many Jews were falsely accused of crimes and imprisoned.

In 1984, due to a great famine in Ethiopia, they asked for International help.  Israel came to their aid, but asked for more members of Beta Israel to be allowed to leave (in what had been named Operation Moses). This was supposed to be done in secret, but when the Arab countries found out, they forced Sudan to block any Jews from leaving (and two thirds of the community remained behind). With the help of the US (spearheaded by Vice President George Bush), Operation Joshua was launched to bring another 500 people to Israel.  Finally, in 1990, due to political pressure, the Ethiopian government allowed Operation Solomon to be launched, and many more members of Beta Israel were brought to Israel. The Israeli government has continued to try to emigrate the remaining members of Israel, with over 135,000 Ethiopian Jews now living in the country.

Speaking of Africa and the Middle East, a few years ago, I had begun making an egg dish originating from that region called shakshuka (שַׁקְשׁוּקָה).  This dish is prepared by poaching eggs in a tomato sauce with various spices (this can vary greatly). The origin of the word possibly comes from the Tunisian, meaning “mixture.” However, the word may also derive from chakchouka, the Berber word used for ragouts (types of stews). Although many countries in Africa and the Middle East claim the dish as their own, it most likely first became popular in the North African countries of Tunisia, Algeria, and/or Morocco.  Some historians also claim that the dish spread around the Middle East with as the Ottoman Empire spread around the entire region (and some also claiming that the dish may have originated in area of current Turkey).

Eggs are the main ingredient for this dish.  Although I am not going to debate which came first, the chicken of the egg, I will tell you that the modern chicken was first hatched in southeast Asia at least 10,000 years ago (chickens were first domesticated in that area by 7,000 BCE). Chickens were probably not introduced in Europe or the Middle East until 800 BCE, when trade began between these two regions. The first of its breed was probably a hybrid of various other birds living in that region (e.g., the red jungle fowl). Although shaksuka is primarily made with chicken eggs, there are many different fowl that lay eggs. There were eggs being laid long before early humans ever appeared on earth, and have been eating them ever since (most likely raw, until fire began being used about a million years ago). [Fast fast:  Eggs do not need to be refrigerated unless they are washed. In the US they are washed, so you need to refrigerate.]

For an unabridged version of this article, see

The Recipe

It should be no surprise, the recipe this month is for shakshuka (which I had made for a crown of 125 people at an event a few years ago).

Ingredients (serves 4-6):

32 oz.  Marinara or Tomato Sauce (store bought, or better, if homemade)

6          Eggs

If not in your sauce: 1 tsp each of: cumin, paprika, and chili powder

Note: I also like to add additional 2 chopped tomatoes and 1 sliced onion


1) Heat sauce in pan

2) Poach eggs in sauce.

Keep on Cookin’

Chef Lon



“How the Chicken Conquered the World” (Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler: Smithsonian Magazine: 2012) @

“Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewelry” (Official website: @

“Jewish Virtual Library – Ethiopia” (Jewish Virtual Library) @

“Origin of the Chiken” (Greg Laden: Science Blogs: 2008) @

“Shashouka” ( @






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