(by Beejhy Barhany)
I started to walk at the tender age of nine months. My mom always said that I was somebody in a hurry, with many things to do. Her words proved to be true.
Today, I’m known as Chef Beejhy Barhany, but Tevletz is the actual name recorded on my official birth documents. In the original Tigrinya language, it means “to be the most successful and accomplished.” So, I always knew what my mother had in mind for me. I was the first-born grandchild of my Ethiopian Jewish family in Tigray, which was the seat of the capital in the ancient empire of Axum. I know my history, and I am proud to reflect on it.
In my familial home, everything revolved around food. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of coffee and bread, bunn and dabo, respectively. My mother would rise early in the morning to roast coffee from raw green beans and to burn incense and frankincense, an aroma that you can’t escape. Our family shared in the traditional coffee ceremony of Ethiopia with our neighbors. It consists of three servings. Each round has a name in Tigrinya: Awel, Kalai, and Berrkah. It is said that by the third cup (so close to barucha, the Hebrew word for blessing), a transformation of the spirit takes place. It’s very different than downing a double shot latte on your way to the office. It’s about a feeling of contentment and benediction for the household and whoever made the coffee.
On Thursdays, my mother would start sifting the flour for dabo, the traditional bread that’s part of our weekly Sabbath, beginning Friday at sundown. She made her dabo with milk and honey, in honor of the “Promised Land” of Israel, to which my ancestors made exodus as evidenced in the Torah. It was our hope and dream to follow in their footsteps. My mother involved me in Ethiopian Jewish traditions from a young age. She gave me a small piece of dough to roll to prepare dabo. We later ate it smeared with delicious clarified butter and drowned with delicious chai tea.
At the delicate age of four years old, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother due to my mother’s pregnancy. A few weeks after my mother gave birth to my brother, she awakened me one night and said, “Put your shoes on, we’re leaving.” She put me on a horse and thus began a special journey. Our family, along with 300 Jews from our village, made Aliyah: a journey to Israel that every Jew is expected to make in their lifetime. We literally walked there by foot. Unbeknownst to me, the plan had been in the works for months. This was during a dark period in Ethiopia’s history. It was the time of the Dergue, otherwise known as the “Red Terror,” a campaign of mass killings after Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed. Although we were not persecuted, it was forbidden to leave Ethiopia, so our exodus was done in secret. Our horses and donkeys came with us, but I was so attached to one particular cow, and I refused to leave her—I used to go underneath her and drink milk right from her nipples. A few weeks into the journey, our guide said we had to leave the cow behind. She was given away to somebody on the road. We could hear her crying for us as we left.
Children generally adapt well to changes in their lives, as their fates largely rest in what their parents decide for them, but I was leaving behind everything I knew—my favorite fruit trees that I used to climb, our garden with corn, teff, tomatoes, and jalapenos. My mother tried to make the journey easier by telling me the story of Jerusalem, a land flowing with milk and honey. We traveled through Ethiopia, stopping at well-known Jewish communities where people were willing to help, and we restocked dry goods, like flour and sugar. There was a camaraderie of people supporting one another, feeding each other with the little they had. It helped us stay strong. The support was as much fuel as the food.
We then crossed into the Sudan. Sometimes, we stayed in the forest where nobody could spot us. Women cooked over open fires. Our journey took us three years. We finally arrived in Israel at an “absorption center” where we were taught Hebrew and life skills, including how to integrate into a new Israeli society. I was only seven years old but had an overwhelming feeling of patriotism for my new country, a fulfilling of prophecy to be among sisters and brothers in the Holy Land.
There are an estimated 87 languages spoken in Ethiopia. Hebrew is not one of them. There was a learning curve for us to communicate in the official language of Israel, and I also learned to speak English in school, although my mother never did. It was important to maintain contact with those who had made the journey with us, to keep our heritage, and my mother continued to make traditional Ethiopian foods, even if Israelis didn’t always find it appealing or smelling good, but her repertoire expanded to falafel and hummus. I chose to spend my high-school years on a kibbutz near Gaza, one of the agricultural communities built on a communal lifestyle. At 18, I did my mandatory service in the Israeli army. I had great pride, as did my mother, in contributing to the country that had embraced us.
As my mother predicted, I had many things to do, see, and accomplish in life. She knew from my childhood that I was always on the go. After my military service, I set off to explore the world with all my possessions in a backpack. “You just got out of the army—maybe you want to spend some time at home?” she asked, but she knew that I moved to the beat of a different drummer. This was in the days before cell phones and Internet cafes, so I’d send postcards from each of the places I visited. I didn’t tell her exactly what I was doing—she really didn’t need to know about my bungee jumping in the Amazon or hiking through the jungle in Peru. Some of her greatest gifts to me were accepting my independence and trusting my judgment. She truly had faith in me.
When I arrived in New York City in 2000, I found my new home. I got to work as a babysitter, Hebrew teacher, office manager, and trader in the diamond district. My mom came to visit me when I gave birth to my first child. I loved introducing her to New York. Visiting the Statue of Liberty was one of her favorite tourist sites, as was walking around Central Park. She couldn’t speak the language, but she understood the melting pot, the energy of the people, and she knew why I chose it, or it chose me.
Although I loved New York, there was little understanding of Ethiopian Jews. If I went to synagogue, people may have assumed that a woman who looked like me must be a nanny or caretaker for an older person. With this in mind, I created an organization called BINA: Beta Israel of North America, to bring greater awareness of our Ethio-Jewish culture and to celebrate our presence in the Jewish mosaic. I organized concerts, established the Sheba film festival with movie screenings, orchestrated readings, and promoted performances.
Eventually, I realized I needed a venue for enjoying our Ethiopian-Jewish cuisine as a cultural expression. I found a space in Harlem that used to be Jimmy’s Chicken Shack. It was a famous eatery and jazz hangout frequented by everybody from Sarah Vaughn to Malcolm X; it’s where Charlie Parker, Jr., washed dishes before he became “Bird.” I called it Tsion, which means “the ultimate spiritual place” in Hebrew, a variation on Israel’s Mount Zion. The plan was for my mother to come to New York for several months to help me open the restaurant. We would rely on her spices, many of her recipes, and most importantly, the sense of hospitality that I inherited from her and from my grandmother. They taught me it was a great honor to feed a weary traveler. If you went to their homes, you could not refuse a meal.
She never arrived. She was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died just a year later.
There’s a portrait of my mother hanging in my restaurant. It was painted by one of my staff members who’s a visual artist. I had told her that I would be happy to display her art at Tsion, and she secretly went to my daughter to get photographs of my mother to make the painting. It greets me every day and reminds me that she is quite literally watching over me. Her recipes still inspire. We serve the red lentil stew called tsebhi birsen and a dish of collard greens called hamli.
We regularly perform the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. I use my mother’s coffee pot and cups. I wear her jewelry and dresses. I knew her as a shy and humble person, but according to my aunties, she was quite the fashionista when she was young; she really turned heads. I feel that her spirit guides me in everything I do. My mother was someone I could turn to.
Dabo Ethiopian Bread
1 package (1/4 oz.) dry yeast
4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. sugar
1 T. salt
1 t. oil
1 egg, beaten
additional vegetable oil
In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in 1/2 c. warm water, and let it sit for 20 minutes.
In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, and salt.
Add yeast, oil, and egg to dry ingredients, and mix.
Gradually add warm water to the dough.
Turn onto a floured surface and knead until dough becomes soft and elastic.
Apply oil to your hands, and make a sphere out of the dough.
Place dough into a large bowl, cover with a towel, and let rise for 1 hour.
In the bowl, continue to knead the dough to get rid of an excess air.
Place dough on oiled baking pan, cover, and let rise for 40 minutes.
Preheat oven to 250 F.
Bake for 1 hour, or until golden brown.