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Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes- A Book Review

Howard M. Lenhoff

Gefen Publishing House

Paperback, pp 328

ISBN 978-965-229-365-7, NIS 80

Reviewed by Carl Hoffman

I had my barmitzvah in a suburb of Boston a number of years ago, sometime during the Johnson administration. For most kids of my generation, the most common bar mitzvah gift was a United States Savings Bond - $25 bonds from personal friends, $50 bonds from friends of the family, and $100 bonds from relatives and people trying to show off. For my father and his Great Depression-era generation, the gift of choice had been fountain pens; but for me, in the swinging, prosperous 1960s, I received so many U.S. Savings Bonds that, for a while, I think that I and Japan were the United States Treasury's two biggest creditors.

In and amongst all of those bonds, however, was one gift that stood out: a large hardcover book entitled, Pictorial History of the Jewish People by Nathan Ausubel. I no longer remember the identity of the inspired individual who gave me this book, but I remember the many hours I spent poring through it, gazing at the pictures, and getting "hooked" on Jewish history. My favorite chapter was the one entitled "Lost Tribes and Remote Communities", where I first became acquainted with the Jews of Ethiopia, whom the book called "Falashas". I stared wide-eyed at their pictures and read, "The early history of the Falashas, the Negro Jewish tribesmen who inhabit some of the regions north of Lake Tana in Abyssinia, remains shrouded in legend. Their own tradition, dim with primeval memory, is that they had come as triumphant settlers some 3,000 years ago from Jerusalem in the train of Menelik, the royal issue of the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon." Reading dreamily about the "Falasha" at age 13 in Quincy, Massachusetts, about the last thing I could have expected was that I would ever have occasion to see these people in the flesh.

Today, like most of us here is Israel, I see them every day. And in Howard Lenhoff's fascinating new book, Black Jews, Jews and Other Heroes, we are able to read and enjoy the breathtaking stories of how the threatened Jews of Ethiopia were rescued and airlifted to the State of Israel. We learn how a small group of dogged Jewish activists relentlessly battled the indifference and, at times, outright hostility of a succession of Israeli governments to rescue this ancient Jewish community and bring its members "home" to Israel. Lenhoff shows in painstaking detail the difficulties these activists faced in having to navigate politics, religion, the Law of Return, and the seemingly unresolvable issue of "who is a Jew."

Readers will no doubt be especially drawn to the story of how the efforts of two gutsy American women who simply would not take "no" for an answer, led to the spectacular Operation Solomon in which 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in a single day. Lenhoff writes, "Thirty-four airplanes, including Hercules C130 cargo planes and El Al jumbo jets, flew into the embattled Addis Ababa airport. The El Al planes were stripped of their seats to make way for more passengers, and the Israeli insignias were masked…One El Al airplane set a world record by carrying 1,087 passengers…At one time a remarkable 25 airplanes were in flight simultaneously; some of the planes were on the ground about half an hour before they took off, filled to capacity with Beta Yisrael immigrants. Not a single person died during the operation, and ten babies were born."

Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes should be bought and read by all of those who currently despair about Israel, bemoan its current malaise, and doubt its extraordinary abilities. This stirring book shows clearly that when we truly put our minds to something, we Israeli's are capable of working miracles. 

 

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