On eagles’ wings
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On eagles’ wings

Rabbi Barry Schwartz of Leonia uses Ethiopian Jewish folk art to create children’s book

Rabbi Barry Schwartz stands by the mural his wife, Debbie, created from the Ethiopian Jewish folk art they have collected. (Courtesy Rabbi Barry Schwartz)
Rabbi Barry Schwartz stands by the mural his wife, Debbie, created from the Ethiopian Jewish folk art they have collected. (Courtesy Rabbi Barry Schwartz)

It’s probably true all the time, but it’s particularly true at this very odd, hard time, that we could use a good redemption story.

A story of a people living hard, dusty lives in remote exile, rich in many ways, yes, rich culturally and spiritually, but impoverished and in danger. A story of those people being lifted out of those lives and magically whisked away to the fabled place they’d always thought of as their out-of-reach homeland.

The story of the Ethiopian Jews, brought to Israel on the wings of eagles.

Yes, that story itself is in some real part myth; the Ethiopian Jews did not have an easy time when they got to Israel, politics was a more potent force than magic in getting them to Israel, and they’re still fighting for many of the rights that came more easily to their lighter-skinned European counterparts. But the core of it is true and inspiring.

And it’s told in such bright colors!

Rabbi Barry Schwartz leads Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, and he is also the director and editor in chief of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Publication Society. (Doing those two jobs mainly from Leonia was easier than it would have been a few decades ago; Rabbi Schwartz was working from home even before the pandemic made that the default for so many other people.) He’s also — because Rabbi Schwartz is a very busy man — the author of quite a few books, including children’s books; the most recent one is “Adam’s Animals.”

He’s now also the author of “The New Queen of Sheba.”

Abraham and Isaac head up Mount Moriah. (Rabbi Barry Schwartz/Gefen Publishing)

This is the story of how that book came to be.

“The New Queen of Sheba” is a small, nearly square paperback, with a glossy yellow cover that shows wide-eyed children rowing a boat. A white-scarved, white-cloaked, discreetly crowned woman sits in a chair behind them; beyond them, a moon shines over a pyramid and a village sits placidly next to what may or may not be a sphinx.

It’s an embroidered picture of the old Queen of Sheba, the legendary mother of the Jews of Ethiopia — Beta Yisrael. The House of Israel.

Rabbi Schwartz first met members of Beta Yisrael in Israel. From 1985 to 1988, he lived in Haifa; he was the rabbi of the Leo Baeck Educational Center there. “I had the opportunity to work with the community, with the first wave of people who got there on Operation Moses,” he said. Operation Moses took Ethiopian Jews who had managed the terribly, often deadly journey to Sudan and from there on to Israel; it was a covert program, lasting from November 1984 to January 1985.

Many of the new Ethiopian olim — immigrants — went to Haifa.

“I was there at the right time and in the right place,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “I was a new immigrant myself. I was drafted into the Israeli army, and so were many other olim, and I found myself in a unit that was three-quarters Ethiopian. The other quarter were immigrants from all over the world.” Rabbi Schwartz already was married and the father of his older son by the time he entered the IDF; his daughter was born in Israel, although his younger son didn’t come along until the family was back in the United States.

The Queen of Sheba sets out to visit King Solomon. (Rabbi Barry Schwartz/Gefen Publishing)

Even before they arrived in Israel, when they still were waiting in Addis Ababa or Gondar, some Ethiopian olim supported themselves by embroidering pillowcases. Artists among them created designs and then artisans turned those designs into practical physical objects, which often were sold through the North American Council on Ethiopian Jewry. Each was handmade, and each one, at conventional pillowcase size, was made of about 40,000 stitches. That means that each piece is extraordinarily dense. “I can’t believe that they are handmade, but they are,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “Every single one of them. And each one was created lovingly.”

Rabbi Schwartz and his wife, Debbie Schwartz, started collecting them. “We used them as pillows at our Passover seders every year,” he said. “It always was a conversation piece.” But “they were locked up, stored away, the rest of every year.”

About two years ago, it occurred to the Schwartzes that they might want to try to add to their collection, which had been left incomplete. “I wanted congregants to be able to see them,” Rabbi Schwartz said. So he asked his wife, “who is a hand rehabilitation specialist by training, but she is an artist as well, in a variety of media, to make them into a tapestry. So she converted these beautiful pillowcases into a tapestry, and we put it up in my synagogue. Now, anyone coming into the social hall sees the tapestry immediately.”

The pictures are a blend of “Ethiopian art with Jewish life,” Rabbi Schwartz said. The subjects are biblical, and the style, with its bright vivid colors and childlike-by-design characters, are straight from Ethiopian folk art. “If you go to Ethiopia today, you’ll see this style of art in churches, but this is distinctly Jewish because of its Jewish settings.

“There is no Jewish art anywhere else like this. It is unique.

“And the colors!” he continued. Later, when a photographer tried to capture them in pixels, “we did the best we could, with high resolution photography, but we still couldn’t do justice to the vibrancy of the colors. They stand out, so boldly and so beautifully.”

Rabbi Schwartz looked at the tapestry often; it held both memories and promise for him. The memories were specific to him, but the promise is more universal.

“And as I stared at it, it came to me that if I write a children’s story about these pieces of art and put them in a book, many more people will be able to see it than could see the pillowcases, or even the tapestry.

Rebecca stands at the well. (Rabbi Barry Schwartz/Gefen Publishing)

“Then it was just a question of getting my imagination going,” Rabbi Schwartz continued. He had to turn this collection of images into a story.

Soon he had an idea.

The book’s title appears on the cover and the title page three times, once in English — that’s the “New Queen of Sheba” — once in Hebrew, and once in Amharic. The book tells the story of a group of Ethiopian children in a little town in northern Ethiopia. It’s narrated by Malka, a little girl in a purple dress, who tells the story of how her town’s teacher, its leader, the kes, tells the children that they are about to be taken to Israel on eagles’ wings. He asks each child to draw a picture of the biblical figure after whom he or she is named.

Abraham, Rebecca, Moses, Joshua, and other children tell the stories of their namesakes, and show the pictures they’ve made to tell their stories. But what about Malka, the little girl with the unspecific title for a name?

Dear reader, the story ends well for little Malka.

The last picture in the story is the only one custom-made for the book. It was drawn and colored in the style of all the others; it shows Beta Yisrael boarding the El Al plane for their first flight ever, headed toward their ancestral home.

That ends the story inside the book; where that story ends is where the story of the book picks up.

The villagers stand around their kes, back in the village in Ethiopia. (Rabbi Barry Schwartz/Gefen Publishing)

The picture of the Ethiopian olim about to board the plane was made by Lauren Rowland, and the photography was done by Reina Stern. Both are congregants of Rabbi Schwartz’s. Their work on the project was volunteer; so was everyone else’s. The book is a charitable endeavor, a work of tzedakah whose proceeds will go to organization run by and for Ethiopian Jews.

The book has an Israeli publisher, Gefen, which specializes in books in both Hebrew and English. “Until now, all my books have been published by JPS or Behrman House, but I was very happy to make the connection to Gefen,” Rabbi Schwartz said. It just seemed right that this book, of all books, be Israeli.

He also was glad to be able to make the narrator of the book — its central character — a girl. “In all communities in general, including the Jewish community in general and the Ethiopian Jewish community in particular, we need to make a greater effort to tell the stories of women, and to elevate them,” he said. “So I seized upon the fact that the Queen of Sheba is a revered figure in Ethiopian Jewish folklore, and in Ethiopian folklore in general. Haile Selassie traced his lineage to her and to King Solomon, so the fact that this mysterious biblical woman is revered in the folklore gave me the opportunity to create this story, with a woman as the hero.”

Ethiopian Israelis always have been at least somewhat uncomfortable in Israel, despite how much they want to be there, Rabbi Schwartz said. “When I was in Israel, in the late 80s, there already was some unease and unrest and charges of discrimination. More than 30 years ago, more than 30 years before the current Black Lives Matter movement, I accompanied members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Haifa to a demonstration in Jerusalem about discrimination against Ethiopian Jews.” There was longstanding animosity between the Ethiopian community and the Israeli rabbinate about such issues as the halachic Jewishness of the community, which had faced forced conversion for hundreds of years. “No sooner had the Ethiopian Jews arrived than the Orthodox rabbis said that they need to convert, and to live according to Ashkenazi halacha,” Rabbi Schwartz said. (Beta Yisrael, on the other hand, was entirely secure in its understanding of its members’ Jewishness, and lived according to its own, separately evolved understanding of Jewish law.) In response, “their kesim,” their leaders, “organized a protest, and the Leo Baeck Center supported it. And a contingent of us went to the protest with the community.

“The community has made many strides since then, but there continue to be challenges.”

Those challenges have risen to the country’s consciousness many times since Rabbi Schwartz and his family moved back to the United States — most particularly over the deaths of two young Ethiopian Jewish men during the last two years — but this year public awareness of the issue surged as the enraged responses to George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis emerged around the world. Some were in Israel. “It hasn’t gotten much press, but there have been protests about police discrimination and racist police action,” Rabbi Schwartz said.

There also still are Ethiopian Jews waiting to make aliyah, and their situation is dire. Coronavirus seems about to explode in Ethiopia, although it has not yet. “Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, and it is very poor. They are all kind of holding their breath. If the virus does begin to spread there, there will be no way to prevent it.”

Those last Ethiopian Jews are desperately poor, and if the disease hits them, it is hard to see any happy ending for them. But the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry is sending them help.

Rabbi Schwartz hopes that his storybook will help the community in more than ways than one — that it will provide both funds and pride.

Nothing less would befit a community who rode into their new home for the first time on eagles’ wings.

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