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This Passover, I've found a modern-day Exodus to share


Amanda Pazornik, j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, April 9, 2009


If your family's Passover seder is anything like mine, we skip right over the retelling of the Exodus in favor of, well, dinner.

I've never questioned our speedy seder tradition because, let's face it, after the matzah/charoset/horseradish sandwich, a sprig of parsley dipped in salt water and a hard-boiled egg or two, everyone - myself included - is ready for the good stuff.

At the same time, there's no denying that the story of the Israelites' liberation is integral to why my family comes together every year for Passover, whether we opt to recount it.

So when I discovered an opportunity to celebrate the Exodus at a Passover pre-party just blocks from my apartment, I made sure my name was on the guest list.

Ready for the cool twist? This night was different from all other nights, as partygoers commemorated the modern exodus of Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) to their new homeland in Israel. It happened at "The Road to Freedom," a festive gathering April 2 at New Eritrea, an Ethiopian restaurant and bar in San Francisco's Inner Sunset.

Hundreds of celebrants packed the venue for an evening of food (don't touch that fork) and drink, shopping at a mini-bazaar of Jewish Ethiopian handmade goods (multicolored yarmulkes aplenty) and a sneak peak at Trudi Unger's photographs from a recent humanitarian mission to Ethiopia (each image a story in itself).

The event was co-sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation; Reboot, a nonprofit that seeks to connect Jews through art, culture, music and film; JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa); and Be'chol Lashon, a San Francisco organization that works to grow and strengthen Judaism through ethnic, cultural and racial inclusiveness.

"Tonight, we're not here to ask the four questions, but to talk answers," said David Katznelson, consultant for the federation's Get Fed program. "We're eating leavened bread and telling a modern version of a truly great story - the Exodus from slavery to freedom."

DJ Cheb I Sabbah spun world music as guests sipped Ethiopian wine and beer, and piled their plates high with Ethiopian delicacies. My favorite was the vegetarian alicha, a mixture of potatoes, carrots, cabbage and garlic simmered in authentic Eritrean spices.

Others enjoyed tumtumo - steaming hot lentil beans pureed and cooked with spices, tomatoes, onions and herbs, and hamli, spiced collared greens and spinach. Each dish is meant to be enveloped in ingera, pancake-like bread made of teff flour, and devoured with one's hands.

For me, eating Ethiopian food for the first time was great, but it didn't compare to what would come next.

Katznelson and fellow organizers honored Ra'anan Kesar, one of the pilots who, over the course of 36 hours, flew nearly 20,000 Jews to Israel from Ethiopia during Operation Solomon in 1991. It was the second Israeli-led mission after Operation Moses, which brought roughly 15,000 Beta Israel to their new homeland.

Kesar, who was born in Jerusalem and now lives and works in Silicon Valley, was just two years out of the Israeli air force when he heard about the rescue efforts that would become Operation Solomon.

"We turned to operational mode," Kesar told the attendees. "We only had hours to land a 200-seat aircraft that had to fit 500. We knew our opportunity was closing."

After El Al obtained a special provision to fly on Shabbat, Operation Solomon began on May 24, 1991. "It was amazing," Kesar recalled. "You don't understand that during the operation. But looking back, what an amazing experience."

Cheers and applause reverberated through the restaurant. Kesar was humbled, speaking softly to the countless partygoers who approached him afterward to express their gratitude.

It was a poignant way to close a night of revelry, an experience that I would share with my family at our seder. Because this year, I had to include a story of exodus.