Ethiopian Jews are the descendants of an ethnic and religious community known as Beta Israel or Falasha. Historically concentrated in the highlands of northern Ethiopia (Gondar and Tigre) they were in some cases denied the right to hold land unless they converted to Christianity. In modern times, intense Christian missionary efforts paradoxically helped to bring Ethiopian Jews into closer contact with foreign Jewish communities. In the past half-century nearly the whole Ethiopian Jewish community has migrated to Israel, where they have faced significant challenges and opportunities. Questions about their status under Jewish law have led to political conflicts of various kinds. In addition, the most recent groups of immigrants includes many whose ancestors converted to Christianity but have sought to return to Judaism in the context of migrating to Israel. The community has integrated into Israeli life but has also simultaneously taken its place as part of the global Ethiopian cultural diaspora.
For Ethiopian Jews and (formerly Jewish) Pentecostals in Israel, coffee (buna) is more than just a stimulant, a cultural symbol, or even a social lubricant. It is a material medium for disputes about the limitations of moral agency, the experience of kin relations that have been broken or restructured, and the eruption of dangerous—but also healing—potencies in the social world. Buna consumption has become a focal point for at least three different forms of moral compulsion (physical addiction; zar, or spirit, affliction; and kinship obligations) that are experienced as isomorphic with “culture” and from which freedom is sought. The decision to drink or to refrain from drinking buna has therefore emerged as a fulcrum of moral experience around which different Ethiopian groups in Israel negotiate the limits of “culture” and the quest for an elusive moral freedom.
The article explores the subject of contemporary Jewish identity through the case of young immigrant women artists from the former Soviet Union in Israel, with particular emphasis on an analysis of the gendered aspects of their religious identity. Drawing on an interdisciplinary method, the research is based on in-depth interviews with artists, artwork analysis, and various theories from the social sciences and humanities. The article’s main argument is that an analysis of the artistic practices of this and similar understudied social groups, particularly those practices undertaken in moments of conflict or times of deep social change, produces a more subtle understanding of the shifting modes of Jewish identity in the age of globalization and transnationalism, whose phenomenon of mass migration has led to the construction of new multi-hyphenated, hybrid identities.
As part of its ongoing series on “Jewish Ideals & Current Dilemmas in Contemporary Zionism,” the Tikvah Overseas Seminars hosted two of Israel’s leading rabbinic activists, David Stav and Seth Farber to discuss recent legislation regarding marriage and conversion in Israel.
They have worked together to promote bills that will allow greater numbers of municipal rabbis to register couples for marriage and perform conversions under the auspices of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. While heralded by some as an opportunity to prevent intermarriage by increasing the number of Israelis recognized as Jews, these initiatives have been criticized by others as further entrenchment of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and conversion. Their conversation highlights disagreements regarding civil marriage in Israel, conversion standards, and the ability of Jewish law to evolve. More broadly, their positions reflect different approaches toward reducing the tensions between the Jewish and democratic characters of the State of Israel.
The event was recorded on February 6, 2015. It is also available as a podcast via iTunes or Stitcher.
The fierce debate over conversion to Judaism raging in Israel today has been fuelled by the Israeli Law of Return and the resulting immigration of large numbers of non-Jews to Israel from the Soviet Union. It has precedents, however, in earlier rabbinic literature. This paper traces the conversion debate from its Talmudic origins, through the nineteenth century halakhic polemic, to the present day. It demonstrates how the processes of secularization and nationalism that have affected the Jewish community have impacted on a changing balance in the roles of religion and nationalism in the definition of “who is a Jew” and “who is a convert?” It also shows how halakhic rulings are affected by social changes and how the ideologies of halakhic authorities impact their decisions.
Viewing religious conversion through the lens of exchange rather than change calls attention to the web of interactions, practices, and discourses that constitute conversion as a relational domain. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork that straddles the institutionalized interface of state-run Jewish conversion in Israel, I show how the conversion process constitutes a reciprocal transaction by which each party to the exchange—the state and its subjects—provides the other with national recognition while also receiving and thus validating its own national identity. I trace the historical and political circumstances that have entangled the Jewish state and a significant cohort of Jewish converts within this reciprocal relationship. In doing so, I identify the biopolitical, moral, and bureaucratic frameworks that bear on this institutional transaction.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, tribal groups throughout Africa and Asia who regard themselves as Jews, such as the Abayudaya of South Africa and the Mizo of northern India and Burma, sought the recognition of their Jewishness by established Jewish communities in Israel and the United States. This process of recognition reflects different understandings of Jewish identity and different political agendas among the various Jewish groups who have become involved with advocacy for newly found Jews. For Israeli Jewish organizations, recognition is based on a more essentialist view of Jewishness and is oriented toward socializing newly found Jews toward Orthodox Judaism and preparation for immigration to Israel. Newer American Jewish organizations reflect greater denominational diversity and a more postmodern understanding of Jewishness as fluid and open-ended. They treat recognition as part of a commitment to Jewish diversity and multiculturalism, with less attention to traditional normative definitions of Jewish identity.