Jewish Journal

Ethiopian Jew finds harmony in spite of turbulent past

by Celia Soudry

Posted on Oct. 18, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Alula Johannes Tzadik in his Pico Boulevard studio

Alula Johannes Tzadik in his Pico Boulevard studio

Alula Johannes Tzadik sits on a wooden stool in a dimly lit Little Ethiopia recording studio. As the dreadlocked musician fiddles with the kirar, he describes in a placid voice how the harp-shaped instrument was often used for prayer and lamentation during the time of King David.

His Pico Boulevard studio is called House of Juice, which conjures up images of a health-food stand. The intended name was House of Jews, but neighboring businesses complained, saying it was too dangerous.

"There is a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment in this area, even from the police," Tzadik said.

While the business name could have easily become a rallying point for some, it seems a minor concession for an immigrant raised in an Ethiopian orphanage during a time of intolerance and violence.

The self-taught artist, who was totally unaware of his Jewish heritage while growing up, has become a renowned musician in Jewish circles. Inspired musically by Miles Davis and lyrically by Bob Marley, he adds his own flavor of soul to spiritual jams -- melodies that help him connect with the L.A. Jewish community.

Jared Stein appreciates Tzadik as a songwriter, composer and performer. The two perform together on the first Friday of each month at Nashuva in Westwood.

Stein enjoys watching him perform on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, where Tzadik has been a longtime performer, stopping passersby short with the image of a black musician singing in fluent Hebrew.

"I like hearing his stories and the stories within his songs," Stein said, adding that Tzadik's ability to meld Jewish and African style contributes to the depth of his music.

"Alula comes from a hard place and situation. He has worked with what's been given to him in America and has done well for himself," he said.

Tzadik shares few details about his past, especially when it comes to his parents.

He said that his mother was raped when she was 13 years old and that he was separated from her at birth. Recalling the dark memories of his childhood, Tzadik preferred life in the orphanage -- with little food, few toilets and beds that were little more than sheets on the ground -- to living with his abusive father and stepmother, whom he moved in with in Addis Ababa when he was a teenager.

He later found his mother, who taught him about his Judaism as well as some Hebrew songs and melodies. And when his father sent him to Germany to study medicine, Tzadik instead became a performer and scored a hit with the song "Sentayahu," the name his mother gave him before his birth.

In the mid- to late 1980s, he was a musical sensation in Ethiopia, much like Michael Jackson in America. The government recruited him as an enlistment propaganda tactic for the army as well as the Communist Party. When Tzadik refused, he was jailed for one year.

In 1991, when President Mengistu Haile-Mariam's regime fell, Tzadik walked to Sudan, continued to Egypt and then fled to the United States, landing in Washington D.C. on May 1, 1991 at 3:20 p.m.

"I remember everything about that day," said Tzadik, who does not know his exact birth year, but believes he is close to 40 years old.

Since his arrival in America, Tzadik said that fitting in as an African has been more difficult than being accepted as a Jew.

"The Jewish community did not accept me as black, white, Jewish or non-Jewish, but simply as a human being," Tzadik said.

B'nai Horin, or Children of Freedom, was the first Los Angeles congregation to welcome him with open arms and introduce him to American Jewish culture in 1997.

Among the first songs by Tzadik that drew the congregation's interest was "Shir Hatikva, Shir Shalom," which he wrote the night he received his green card. The single reflects his dreams and serenity, and conveys the gratitude of achieving something so deeply desired. After recording it, Tzadik said congregants bought multiple copies, sometimes five or 10 at a time.

Tzadik is "extraordinarily talented and a sterling human being whose presence creates an ambiance in itself," singer Debbie Friedman, who knows Tzadik from B'nai Horin, said.

"He is the kind of person you want leading your davening and praying next to you," she said. "He has a mystical approach to things."

After teaching music for three years at the Milken Jewish Community Center in West Hills, he began playing his music monthly, as a volunteer, for jailed Jewish inmates, juvenile delinquents, recovering alcoholics and the elderly.

"Sometimes we would jam with the inmates," Tzadik said. "They could express themselves through music."

Tzadik's favorite place to perform is in homes for the elderly because, he said, "everyone is just so happy you are there. You can see it in their faces." In the jails, "people are so angry," he adds.

In addition to singing, Tzadik plays the piano, guitar, and kirar, to name a few. He also speaks eight different languages and sings in 10, including German, French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Amharic (a Semitic language spoken in North Central Ethiopia) and English.

Along with volunteering at local Jewish organizations, Tzadik performs on the third Friday of each month at Makom Ohr Shalom and is invited to play at Hillels across the country. Tzadik has also played for seven years alongside Craig Taubman at Friday Night Live at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

Tzadik talked about one performance four years ago at the University of Pennsylvania that left an indelible impression on him.

The students told him about a Jewish professor at the school who was a Holocaust denier and had been spreading anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus. Despite the tension Tzadik felt between the Muslims, Christians and Jews who attended the event, he invited everyone onto the dance floor.

"This never happened before, everyone was on the same dance floor together," he said, "They didn't know what to make of me -- I am black, I am Jewish and I was playing this music."

Referring to Muslims and Jews, Tzadik said, "We are one hand, they are the other. Adonai Ehad, one God."

Tzadik can be found @ http://eajac.com.
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