Magdu and Ambat Eyob grew up in neighboring villages in the Quara district of northern Ethiopia. “Even though the Jewish community was small, we made sure not to marry cousins,” says Ambat, serving soft drinks in the family’s apartment in Jerusalem’s Neveh Ya’acov neighborhood. “The men farmed, and women stayed home with the children.”
The tidy apartment exudes the sweet scent of incense; a CD player imports the rhythms of Africa. Across from their apartment building, the security wall is going up. The Palestinian Authority is, as we used to say, a stone’s throw away.
The rural life they left six years ago seems like a distant memory. The younger children say they don’t remember it at all. Quara was an isolated region with few paved roads or telephones, and no hospitals. The isolation, blood feuds within the Ethiopian Jewish community and the civil war had kept them behind when most of Ethiopian Jewry left in Operation Solomon in 1991. They’d heard about the other Ethiopians leaving, and continued to pray that they, too, would move to Jerusalem.
In Israel, to bring or not to bring the Jews of Quara was a front-page controversy. At last, they were certified as part of the Jewish people and their rescue was judged pikuah nefesh, a life-saving act.
Madgu works as a guard in a nearby store. Ambat, her hair wrapped in traditional African style, runs the household. The older children attended boarding schools, but the younger ones are growing up at home, which pleases them and their parents. One of the daughters chose a religious high school with a large number of English-speaking students because she knows English is necessary to get ahead.
LAST YEAR, Ambat and Magdu were delighted to learn that she was pregnant with their ninth child. Ambat was 37, slender, athletic and healthy, so they had no cause to worry. Then suddenly, in the sixth month, Ambat began to hemorrhage. Her Hebrew was still halting and she wasn’t sure what to do. Fortunately her high-schooler daughter was home and phoned their health fund. An ambulance rushed Ambat to the hospital.
Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus is a short ride from Neveh Ya’acov, but for Ambat the ride felt like an interminable journey. The medic assured her everything would be all right, but she was terrified. “Back in my village, I had seen women in my condition. I knew that mothers often died along with their babies. I kept thinking of my husband and my eight children without a mother.”
The medics lifted Ambat onto a stretcher and ran with her. She was quickly prepped for surgery. After an emergency cesarean, the bleeding was staunched. Ambat was weak but she was out of danger.
The newborn baby boy weighed only 600 grams, a trauma for any family. As soon as Ambat could get out of bed, Magdu wheeled her to the neonatal unit, where they hovered over the incubator. They’d never seen so many wires and machines attached to one tiny baby. In Ethiopia, there were legends about tiny babies surviving, fed drop by drop like fledglings, but they’d never known of a baby who had. They were moved by the resources and the love lavished on her child, as he overcame lung problems and digestive problems and infections. “The doctors and nurses were like my mother and father,” Ambat said. “No one seemed to care that we were black. It was like one big family.”
Gram by gram their baby sabra gained weight. Three and a half months later, he came home. Two weeks after that, the mohel and the doctors concurred that he could be circumcised, entering into the Covenant of Abraham. Ambat and Magdu named their son Baruch, Hebrew for “blessed.”
Baruch will celebrate his first birthday on Hanukka. His parents and siblings dote on him and make him laugh. The doctors have prescribed glasses to correct his vision, but he can see well enough to begin wailing the moment his mother takes the corrective lenses out of the case. He’s taking his first steps.
THE DAY after I visited with the Eyobs, a successful and much-schooled sabra professional woman told me that having traveled extensively, she couldn’t understand why someone born in the United States who didn’t have to come to Israel would do it.
“I can understand why Russians and Ethiopians would come,” she said. “But I just don’t get why you would.”
So I told her how just by living here I feel intensely connected to the ongoing drama of my people. The ingathering of my people and the words of Jeremiah, who lived not far from Neveh Ya’acov, calling for the “healing of my people,” still move me.
I like to think of the Eyobs lighting a hanukkiya, a custom not observed by Ethiopian Jewry but which they’ve taken on in Israel, and then celebrating Baruch’s birthday and their own miracle. Nine lights in all – eight lights and a lamp-lighter – like the children in their family, bringing the light of blessings that we have long believed multiply with the reuniting of our people.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.