CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2005
Anna Morgan is a Toronto-based journalist who writes for The Canadian Jewish News, among other publications. She has taken an interest in the situation of Ethiopian Jews, who, it is believed, lived for more than 2500 years separated from the rest of their co-religionists. The Betya Israel or House of Israel, as they call themselves, were termed "Falasha" or “aliens” by the Ethiopians. They lived peacefully in isolated areas as farmers and trades people, but they suffered discrimination depending on the politics and attitudes of different regimes. Between 1984 and 1991, when famine killed a million people, civil war ravaged the country and Middle East politics became volatile, the Betya Israel appealed to the Israeli government to be taken in under the law of return which guarantees citizenship to Jews. Today, about 100,000 Betya Israel live in Israel.
The precise reason that the Betya Israel ended up in Ethiopia is not known. Morgan has chosen the possibility that King Solomon, fulfilling a promise to Queen Sheba, sent priests and their families back to Habash, as Ethiopia was then called, with Menelik, their son, to ensure he would follow Judaic teachings. Aleesha, the 12-year-old protagonist, is upset at the idea of leaving her beloved Jerusalem. To appeal to modern feminist sensibilities, she also chafes at the notion that she is forbidden from reading the Ten Commandments from the Ark of the Covenant merely because of her gender. Her curiosity and tenacity lead her to uncover a plot to steal the Ark. She takes an emerald from the decorative covering as proof of her knowledge of the plot, but she is unable to return it.
That jewel links Aleesha's story to the modern story of Debritu, a real girl who made the trek over the mountains of Ethiopia and through the desert to Khartoum, Sudan in 1984 to escape the terror imposed by the soldiers of then-dictator Mengistu Meriam. Travelling without her mother, Debritu, a young teen, became the leader of her family, drawing on her inner resources to keep her two brothers motivated and alive. Their journey was dangerous, with their caravan always threatened by animals, bandits, soldiers and the elements. Starvation and illness nearly claimed the life of her youngest brother, but Debritu kept him alive and the family together. She carried with her the emerald, a gift from her grandmother. For Debritu, it was proof that she was descended from the original tribes that came from Jerusalem and that the stories about the Ark of the Covenant were true. It gave her incentive to carry on when circumstances were bleak.
Debritu made the transition to life in Israel, adopting a new name, Shula. Knowing that Morgan has used Debritu's life as the basis for this part of the novel adds impact to her story but does not rescue the novel as a whole from being obviously contrived and didactic. Historical fiction must creatively weave the information it wants to impart within the plot and the life of the characters. The dialogue in Daughters of the Ark is often forced; the fate of the Ark is anti-climactic.
The story of the Betya Israel is worth telling, of course. After keeping their religion for so many centuries, the majority now live in Israel. Unfortunately, they suffer discrimination there because of their skin colour, their non-European background and different habits, their lack of education and marketable skills. As a result, many still live on social assistance. In a country where a large part of the budget is directed to military spending, funds for integration and education are not as available as they once were, a situation which may have serious consequences for a population where most individuals are under the age of 20. Some Israelis question their claim to be Jews, further complicating their acceptance into a new society.
Morgan provides a useful map, a glossary of terms and b&w pictures of Shula and towns along the route that Debritu traversed in her journey.
Recommended with reservations.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.