Jewish Queen Gudit of Ethiopia

By Richard Salzberg  ©2013 

  Everybody needs his memories.

They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.

                                                              ― Saul Bellow


“Why do they even bother with the word ‘Deli’ here?”

“In the name?” He laughed, “I thought you liked this place.”

“I do,” she replied. “It’s just confusing.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s about as Jewish as Easter, that’s all.”

He was still smiling. “So now there should be a law about use of the word ‘Deli’ and appropriate Jewish ownership?”

“Maybe. . .” She had been smiling all along; now, with mock seriousness, “Maybe we should look into that.”

“The food’s good anyway.”

“Yes, it is.” She found the squeeze bottle of dark mustard among the condiments on the table and opened the onion roll that enclosed her turkey and Swiss. “But I mean, really – they don’t even have latkes on the menu, for Christ’s sake.”

“Maybe that should be the law,” he said: “No latkes, no use of ‘Deli’ in the name.” He put some regular yellow mustard on his hot dog and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully before speaking. “This is however an excellent kosher frank.”

“Good. Enjoy . . . and let me hasten to say this is a very nice turkey sandwich, kosher or not.”

“Speaking of Jews and delicatessens. . . I’ve got a question.”

“Let me guess – ‘Did Jesus really eat latkes?’ ”

“No. . . but I like that.”

“So what’s the real question?”

“What year is it?”


“No, really. . .”


“I mean what Jewish year is it?”

“So that’s why you brought me to this ersatz deli?”

“Of course that’s why – !”

She took a waffle chip from his plate. “We just entered the year 5774.”

“That’s a very long time.” He poured more cream soda into his glass of crushed ice.

“A long time for what?” She took another chip from his plate.

“For all that Jewish stuff.” They both smiled at the line.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She was still smiling. “These are very good potato chips.”

“Help yourself.”

“Since you brought it up, old boy, I do have an interesting Jewish item for you.”

“Good. Bring it on.” He took another sip of the cream soda and politely suppressed a belch. “It must be Kabbalah related.”

“No,” she replied thoughtfully. “Better actually, and a bit more esoteric than whatever year it is.”

“Do I have to join anything?”


“Do I have to sign anything?”

“No. . .” She took a small notebook from her bag and opened it to a page marked with a small iridescent post-it. “Not today anyway.”

“Oh, no – what is it with you and the notebooks? Just like your brother.”

“We just don’t want to forget anything important.”

“So you write everything down. . .”

“Not everything.” She shook her head in a practiced way that easily reset her hair. “Now just listen. . . this is from the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (Volume 63, Number 1, 2000) – ”

“Oh, my. . .”

She gave him a look and continued reading: “It is well known from relatively recent Ethiopic tradition that Ethiopia was once ruled by a queen called Gudit, Yodit, Isat, or Ga’aw, with both positive and negative characteristics. On one hand she was a beautiful woman of the Ethiopian royal family, much like the Queen of Sheba, and on the other she was a despicable prostitute who, at a time of political weakness, killed the Ethiopian king, captured the throne, and as a cruel ruler destroyed Aksum, the capital, persecuted the priests, and closed the churches.”

“That is. . . absolutely fascinating.”

“In some anglicized accounts she is also known as Queen Judith.”IDF Queen ~ 9-21-13

“Ah, no wonder you can relate to her! When did all this occur?”

“Sometime during the mid-900’s, about 1100 years ago. Queen Gudit reigned for about 40 years.”

“That’s crazy. And she was black?”

“Hey – this is not H. Rider Haggard stuff – of course she was black!” She smiled and slightly shook her head again. “She was likely descended directly from Solomon and Sheba, who came maybe 2000 years before her.”

“This is too much to compute.” He took another bite of his hot dog. “Who else knows about Queen Gudit, or Queen Judith?”

“The Ethiopians.”

“I should have guessed.”

“Especially the Ethiopian Jews, the Falashas. Mostly all coming from their very strong oral traditions. She was looking through her notebook. “Here’s one more thing. . . ready?”

“I guess.”

“There were also some reliable accounts by contemporary Arab historians.” She looked at him. “They were good back then. This is from a guy named Ibn Hawqal. Listen. . .” she began to read. “The country of the Habasha has been ruled by a woman for many years now: she has killed the king of the Habasha who was called Had’ani. Until today she rules with complete independence in her own country and the frontier areas of the country of the Had’ani, in the southern part of the country of the Habashi.”

“Where do you get this stuff?”

“Here and there, and for this kind of thing there are always at least a few earnest European academics and Orientalists, usually Brits.”

“It sort of reminds me of ‘David and Bathsheba.’ ”

“Of what – ?”

With feigned incredulity, “ ‘David and Bathsheba’ – the movie.”

She nearly moans. “Oh, my God. . .”

“Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. 1951. I just saw it on TV. It’s not bad.”

“I must really be boring you?”

“I was kidding!” He looked at her plate. “How’s the cole slaw?”

“It’s very good,” she said. “Here – you can have the rest.”

“No,” he replied with mock humility. “I couldn’t.”

“Have it. I already took what I wanted.”

“Thanks,” he said, using a spoon to help himself. “So tell me more about Queen Gudit.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I’m serious – it’s fascinating.” He took a taste of the slaw. “And this is delicious.”

“I will tell you this. . . the Jews in Ethiopia can trace their Judaism so far back it wasn’t even recognizable at first by the Jewish establishment. They call themselves Beta Israel – ‘House of Israel’ – and their version of the faith is the most ancient, pre-Ezra – you know, Ezra?” He shrugged and took some more cole slaw, and she continued, “One could say that in ancient times Ethiopia was a Jewish nation. . . their traditions go back to the time of the First Temple. That’s how deep their Judaism is.”

“And Queen Gudit was either a devil or a beauty queen warrior?”

“Whenever the goyim write the history, the Jews are always the devil. You should know that.”  

“You mean I should know that because of one Jewish grandparent?”

“That would have been enough for the Germans, brother.”

“This is all too heavy. I just wanted to grab a bite to eat.”

“Finish your chips, you’ll feel better.” She took one from his plate, using it to accompany the last bite of her sandwich. “One last thing. . .”

Oh, God. . .”

“There are about 130,000 Ethiopians living in Israel today.” IDF & Dad ~ 9-21-13

“Really? Falashas?” He was impressed again with all that he did not know, but the instinct to appear clever supplanted that. “Living like kings, I suppose,” he smiled, “ – or maybe queens?”

“Well, not exactly.” She said with a sigh. “The Jews are marvelous exclusionists, you know, and the normative Jewish establishment has always been masterfully cynical. But the Falashas are there now, God bless them, formally recognized as Jews for the Law of Return; and they’re making a tremendous contribution to Israeli society.” She looked around for the waitress. “Can we get some coffee?”

“Sure,” he said, searching the room.

“How the Ethiopians got to Israel is an incredible saga in itself. A very courageous story. . . and you know, they can all be said to be descendants of the good and mighty Queen Gudit.” She took the last potato chip.

“Like I said. . . ” he found the waitress and got her attention, “it’s fascinating.”

“By the way, the winner of the Miss Israel pageant for 2013 came from Ethiopia with her family when she was twelve.”

“She must be gorgeous.”

“Beautiful. . . she looks just like a queen,” she said. The waitress came to the table and they each ordered an espresso.

“Wait,” he said, catching the waitress as she was about to leave with the empty plates. “Thanks.” He turned to Judith and asked, “Want some dessert?”

“No, thanks,” she replied. “I’m fine.” The waitress left, and she thought for a moment before speaking. “Have you ever heard of the Ibos of Nigeria?”

“Who – ?”

“The Ibos of Nigeria?”

“No, who are they?”

“They might also be members of the tribe.”

“Which tribe?”

“The Jews. . .”  

–  Finis  –


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