(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 di