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CLOSE-UP : Emissary From a Lost Tribe

August 29, 1993|Christina Wayne

Habtnesh Ezra is accustomed to being a minority; fewer than 1% of the people in her native Ethiopia are Jewish. But in Los Angeles, far from her birthplace in the remote province of Gondar, her status is even more extreme: She's one of an estimated 10 adult Ethiopian Jews in town.

Ethiopian Jews are believed to be the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, having lived for centuries tucked away in isolated mountain villages. They lived apart from mainstream Jewish life for more than 2,500 years, knew nothing of Talmudic law, spoke no Hebrew and observed their own set of holy days. Yet they followed kosher dietary laws and practiced circumcision. Commonly known as Falashas, a derogatory term in their language meaning "stranger," they had their turn in the media spotlight in 1984 and 1991, when tens of thousands of them were airlifted from Sudan and Ethiopia to Israel in separate U.S. and Israeli operations.

Only a handful have made it to Los Angeles. Estimates of the current population vary somewhat, but none exceeds 20. An expert cited by the Jewish Federation Council puts the figure at 10.

Ezra left Ethiopia 18 years ago, at 20, to study nursing at Cal State L.A. She says she was the first Ethiopian Jew in the city. Now a health-care consultant married to an American Jew, she was recently joined by her sister and brother, a move that expanded the population of adult Ethiopian Jews by 25%. Many of them are related in some way to Ezra.

In that way, L.A. might feel a little bit like home. "In Ethiopia, you live with an extended family," she says. "You learn how to share and love. You don't feel alone."

On the other hand, "you have to walk miles just to get to school, so you have to be a really determined person to achieve something," she says.

"America and Israel hold a better future for their children," she says. "America is the land of opportunity if you work hard and set your goal."

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