100 Years Later |

Reliving Britain's Dramatic Conquest of Jerusalem Through the Eyes of Israel's Only Ethiopian Jew

Solomon Isaac, cut off from his legendary mentor by the war, captured history in his sole companion - his diary

Shalva Weil
Shalva Weil
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Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch and members of the 'Beta Israel' community.
Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch and members of the 'Beta Israel' community.Credit: Ilan Bronner/GPO
Shalva Weil
Shalva Weil

100 years ago this week, the Battle of Jerusalem was still raging. For two more weeks after General Allenby’s entry into the Old City of Jerusalem until the end of December 1917, the Ottomans made desperate attempts to recapture Jerusalem and other parts of their empire, and repulse the British. First-hand descriptions of those difficult times are hard to find. Curiously, one of the most interesting eyewitness accounts of the events in Jerusalem in the week after Allenby entered the Old City comes from a private diary written in Hebrew by the only Ethiopian Jew in the Land of Israel, who signed his letters “Solomon Isaac, the Falasha.” Today, the term “Falasha” is considered politically incorrect, but in those days, Ethiopian Jews called themselves “Falashas” (as well as “Beta Israel”– the “House of Israel”).

On December 18, 1917, he wrote: “Today I heard that the English took into captivity 8,000 Turks, of whom 60 were officers. The big battle was on Sunday evening. The Turks pounced upon the English by surprise and tried to reconquer Jerusalem. However, they did not succeed. The attack took us by surprise and scared us. The English were in great danger. The battle began on Sunday evening before midnight and became more intense around 2 A.M. The cannons stood in rows from the Mount of Olives up to Mount Scopus and in the direction of Jericho. I myself saw shells falling from the rebel enemy near the German tower in Jerusalem, sending forth smoke to the skies. Many people were frightened that the Turks would conquer the Holy City again, but with God’s help this did not happen. From now on, nothing will happen like this ever again.”

Solomon Isaac was brought to Jerusalem by Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch, a Polish Jew known as the “father of the Falashas.” He had studied Semitic languages in the Sorbonne and left Paris under the sponsorship of Baron Edmund de Rothschild for his first expedition to Ethiopia in 1904. In 1905, Dr. Faitlovitch returned to Jerusalem with two Falasha boys: Taamrat Emmanuel, who later became Emperor Haile Selassie’s aide, and Gete Hermias, a young boy from a village in Gondar province. From the time of his first mission to Ethiopia until 1935, when Ethiopia came under Fascist Italian occupation, Dr. Faitlovitch brought out 25 young Falasha males to study in different Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East. Dr. Faitlovitch returned to Jerusalem after his second expedition to Ethiopia in 1908-9, accompanied by Gete Hermias and his older cousin, Solomon Isaac.

Solomon Isaac was born in Chelga province in Ethiopia in 1890, and had studied for 15 years with the great priests (kessoch) of Guraba, hoping in time to become a kes himself. Compared to the other boys that Dr. Faitlovitch brought out of Ethiopia, Solomon was relatively mature and more educated. In 1909, Dr. Faitlovitch deposited Gete Hermias and Solomon Isaac at the Austrian Lemel school in Jerusalem, which was taken over by the German Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden Society (“Ezra”). The school undertook to maintain and train the Ethiopian Jewish students so that they could return to Ethiopia as teachers for their own people.

However, in 1912, Dr. Faitlovitch transferred Gete to Florence to study together with Taamrat Emmanuel with Rabbi Samuel Zvi Margolis, who had set up a Beit Midrash in Florence. They studied together with some of the well-known religious personalities of the time, including Rabbi Giuseppe Levi of Florence, and the Biblical scholar (Umberto) Moshe David Cassuto (1883-1951).

‘Where are you now?’

A painting depicts General Allenby entering the Old City of Jerusalem, December 1917.Credit: The Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem

In 1914, the First World War broke out and Dr. Faitlovitch was barred from returning to the Land of Israel. Solomon Isaac addressed a lonely New Year’s card to Dr. Faitlovitch in Hebrew, which is still preserved in the Faitlovitch Collection in the Sourasky Library on the Tel Aviv University campus: “My dear master, where are you now? At this time of uprising, disturbance, and confusion, in which streams of blood are spilled like water...”

Contact with Dr. Faitlovitch, Gete and Taamrat Emmanuel, on the one hand, and communication with his own family in Ethiopia, on the other, ceased: Solomon became increasingly homesick for Ethiopia.

By 1917, Solomon was regularly writing a diary in clear Hebrew script in a notebook. Only occasional names or dates, but no sentences, are recorded in Amharic. He did not mention any close friends, except one.

He was in contact with the Jerusalem Ethiopian Christian community, many of them clergy. He would debate theology with many of them, although there was never any doubt in Solomon’s mind as to which camp he belonged. He does not mention any friends of the opposite sex.

The Hebrew in the diary is spiced with quotations from the Old Testament, commentators, the weekly Torah portion and from the Midrash. In addition, the reader of the diary becomes aware of the secular knowledge that Solomon Isaac had attained, in the classic orthodox Germanic style of religious-cum-secular studies, and his familiarity with literature, history and philosophy. Solomon recalls non-Orthodox Jewish poets and authors, a book about the rise of Islam and the development of the Arab nation. He also quotes Descartes and other philosophers.

Solomon Isaac led a lonely existence, occupied, as he was, in prayer, meditation, study and reading. He wrote several times about the morning prayers; he abstained from eating before them. Although he was an Ethiopian Jew, who had no knowledge of Orthodox Judaism in other Jewish communities before he came to Palestine, he adopted normative, Orthodox Judaism readily. He never debated in the diary whether he should perform certain commandments that were not performed in Ethiopia. He wrote how he had his tefillin checked by an expert so that they would be perfectly kosher for his daily prayers; the Beta Israel never had tefillin in Ethiopia.

Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch and members of the 'Beta Israel' community.Credit: Ilan Bronner / GPO

Solomon Isaac used to pray with great devotion, but on one occasion, his concentration was disrupted. He wrote in the diary thus: “I was engrossed in my prayers and I was concentrating on the meaning of the beautiful prayers that captivated me. I followed the changing pattern of each prayer and in the pauses between each piece, I heard the noise of automobiles. Meanwhile, thoughts came into my head that I had never entertained before... What is going on? And meanwhile, I find it is impossible to concentrate on the prayer. Again I try, but I see greater people than I, including my venerable teachers, are also looking through the open window at the automobile stop opposite the Lemel School. What is this? What desire overtakes me to see the automobiles which are ceaselessly making a noise. Several times, I am tempted to go and see them, but in the end, I continue sitting because I feel a sense of shame. I stay in my place without leaning left or right.”

The unusual noise of the automobiles, which so disturbed Solomon Isaac’s concentration, was the encroaching English army, which after years of uncertainty in Jerusalem, was about to oust the Turks.

On December 11, 1917, which fell during Hanukkah, Solomon Isaac actually left the vicinity of the school and walked as far as Hotel Kemenitz, where people were lining the streets all the way down to Jaffa Gate at the Old City. He managed to get past the Turkish soldiers, who were still standing on guard, and get past “an English knight on horseback” to get a good position near Jaffa Gate.

“We waited a quarter of an hour and then I heard a fanfare; then I understood that he (General Allenby) was arriving at that moment,” he wrote. “In front of him, four beautiful cavaliers arrived and after this, his Excellency appeared riding a very grand horse. On his left, there was another general of lower rank. They were most impressive, as were their horses. Some of the women, who stood on the balconies, threw beautiful fragrant flowers. The procession which stood in honor of the great minister stretched from town to the Austrian consulate.”

Despite the jubilance of General Allenby’s entrance to the Old City, as we have seen from Solomon’s diary, the Battle of Jerusalem continued to rage.

By 1918, Solomon Isaac was becoming more and more melancholy in his writings. He attributed his depression to frustration at being unable to learn English, which he wanted to learn desperately; at his school, they taught English in German.

He wrote: “When the English conquered Jerusalem, people began to learn English, but the teachers started to teach English in German... As a result of my sadness, a liver disease attacked me and made me very weak. Then came inner bitterness, and terrible depression, and I suffered terribly because of the cold in the winter.”

Final journey

Solomon Isaac decided to leave his school, because he could not master German. In 1918, he addressed a painful letter to the principal of the Lemel School, which he copied into his diary, and sent it in five handwritten copies to other important personalities, including Dr. Faitlovitch and David Yellin, explaining his mission: “I have to teach and educate the children of my people, the Falashas.” He moved out to a tiny room rented out by a Yemenite Jew, but he never succeeded in resuming his studies satisfactorily. Finally, in 1920, Dr. Faitlovitch turned up in Jerusalem. He was embarking upon another expedition to Ethiopia to collect the next group of students, who would study in Europe. On the way, he collected Taamrat Emmanuel from Italy and Solomon Isaac from Jerusalem. They set off to Ethiopia, accompanied by Dr. Ben-Zion Entin, from Hadassah Hospital, whom Dr. Faitlovitch persuaded to establish a clinic for the Falashas in Ethiopia. On the way home, in Egypt, Solomon Isaac died, as privately as he had lived, near Marob in Egypt.

Prof. Shalva Weil is a senior researcher at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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