The New Queen of Sheba

  • Review
By – February 15, 2021

Tra­di­tion­al Ethiopi­an Jew­ish embroi­dery — with its fine detail­ing, majes­tic col­ors, and light-heart­ed depic­tions of bib­li­cal themes — is trea­sured for its extra­or­di­nary aes­thet­ic and cul­tur­al val­ue. It is not only a dec­o­ra­tion, but also a medi­um for pre­serv­ing Jew­ish life and his­to­ry when oth­er mate­ri­als are not read­i­ly available.

In The New Queen of She­ba, a group of Ethiopi­an Jew­ish chil­dren have been told by their kes, their revered teacher, that their age-old dream is about to come true. They will short­ly depart Ethiopia, where life is harsh, and will reset­tle in Eretz Yis­rael, where they will be able to start again with brighter hopes for the future. In prepa­ra­tion for this jour­ney, the chil­dren are giv­en pil­lows to be dec­o­rat­ed accord­ing to a spe­cial theme: each child is asked to use his or her own bib­li­cal name as the motif for a draw­ing that the women will repro­duce in tra­di­tion­al embroi­dery. Rebec­ca­’s pil­low will fea­ture camels and a well; Jon­ah’s pil­low will show a whale, Moses’ pil­low will depict the split­ting of the sea. The pil­lows may serve as a source of com­fort, but will also remind the chil­dren of their his­to­ry and the time­less tra­di­tions that will remain part of their dai­ly lives. Make it beau­ti­ful,” they are told. It is your story.”

The chil­dren begin to draw, but one young girl is dis­tressed by the project. Her name is Mal­ka, a gener­ic word for queen,” and she is upset because she believes she does not have a bib­li­cal char­ac­ter of her own to inspire a work of art. The kes tells her that she does indeed have a bib­li­cal role mod­el relat­ing to her name: the Queen of She­ba is an impor­tant fig­ure in Ethiopi­an Jew­ish lore. He describes how the Queen of She­ba vis­it­ed King Solomon, test­ed his leg­endary wis­dom, and then returned to Ethiopia bear­ing spe­cial gifts as a mark of the king’s esteem and deep respect. This queen is con­sid­ered the ances­tor of Ethiopi­an Jew­ry, and Malka­’s name is one of which she can be proud.

The author’s short after­word edu­cates the read­er about two air­lifts, Oper­a­tion Moses in 1984 and Oper­a­tion Solomon in 1991, which brought many Ethiopi­an Jews to Israel where they were able to start their lives anew in their ances­tral home­land. He notes that the book’s vibrant illus­tra­tions are actu­al pil­low cov­ers made by Ethiopi­an Jews as they await­ed their mir­a­cle” — trans­porta­tion to their holy land. He also cites the bib­li­cal vers­es that tell the sto­ry of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

This unusu­al book, with its lush, impres­sive art tells a sto­ry that both edu­cates and inspires.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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