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Emory University

Coffee and the moral order:

Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals against culture

For Ethiopian Jews and (formerly Jewish)
Pentecostals in Israel, coffee (buna) is more than
just a stimulant, a cultural symbol, or even a social
lubricant. It is a material medium for disputes about
the limitations of moral agency, the experience of
kin relations that have been broken or restructured,
and the eruption of dangerousbut also
healingpotencies in the social world. Buna
consumption has become a focal point for at least
three different forms of moral compulsion (physical
addiction; zar, or spirit, affliction; and kinship
obligations) that are experienced as isomorphic with
culture and from which freedom is sought. The
decision to drink or to refrain from drinking buna
has therefore emerged as a fulcrum of moral
experience around which different Ethiopian groups
in Israel negotiate the limits of culture and the
quest for an elusive moral freedom. [African
Pentecostalism, Ethiopian Jews, existential
anthropology, moral experience, religious conversion,
culture theory, freedom]

or Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals living in Israel, traditional

Ethiopian coffee (buna) links the material to the moral order. In
the context of coffee-drinking zar spirits, charismatic converts
who reject buna as a form of demonic compulsion, and migration
to a country that consumes coffee very differently from the old
one, buna has come to serve as no less than a material medium for disputes
about the limits of moral agency, the experience of kin relations that have
been broken or restructured, and the eruption of dangerous potencies in
the social world. This phenomenological (or, following Michael Jackson
[2009, 2013a], existential) reading of coffee consumption suggests that,
beyond shared cultural and ritual forms, anthropologists should attend
to the shifting forms of agency and desire that manifest ethnographically
in a moral or affective register.1 These include complex, socially mediated experiences of loneliness and friendship, autonomy and dependence,
and the always contingent search for healing (Hollan 1994), freedom
(Jackson 2013a, 2013b; Laidlaw 2002; Robbins 2007b; Zigon 2007), and
transcendence (Seeman 2004, 2008). These are the lived contexts in which
buna avoidance may come to resonate across confessional lines with those
Ethiopian Israeli Jews and Pentecostals who are impatient withor feel injured byculture.

Avol (the first cup): Coffee talk

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony practiced by the woman of the family is an historic tradition with much religious symbolism. 3 cups are
poured for each guest, incense wafts around the room, flax covers the
floor, and usually peanuts or cooked barley are offered by way of accompaniment. From birth in Ethiopia one becomes aware of the omnipresence of coffee. It truly seems to run through the veins of our
Coffee in Ethiopia2
A few years ago, I returned to fieldwork in Israel after a long absence. I
had known Tadesse since he was a small boy in Addis Ababa, so I was delighted when he offered to drive me from Jerusalem to his mothers apartment up north.3 He had been through a lot since last I had seen him: completed his army service, landed a good job managing a small business,

AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 734748, ISSN 0094-0496, online
C 2015 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
ISSN 1548-1425. 
DOI: 10.1111/amet.12167

Coffee and the moral order

and, tragically, lost his father to drug-resistant TB. He talked

about going to college. But the biggest surprise for me was
the young woman he introduced as Tigest, his fiancee, sitting in the back seat. She didnt say much, so I tried to strike
up a conversation by showing off the bags of fresh buna
(coffee beans) I had bought as a gift for her future motherin-law. I had been prepared to engage Tigest in shy small
talk, but she just grimaced and blurted, That disgusts me!
[Heb: zeh magil oti!] instead. Uncertain how to respond but
sensing the delicacy of the moment, I offered as neutrally as
possible that her vehemence regarding buna reminded me
of some Ethiopian Israeli Pentecostals I had met during previous fieldwork (Seeman 2009:125134). Tigest grew quiet
then, but from behind the steering wheel Tadesse turned to
me with a small smile and said, Well, there is something to
We detoured to a rocky roadside field where, Tadesse
told me, the biblical hero Samson had once fought the
Philistines. Wandering among the stones, we chatted about
the sacred landscape and about our families, including the
fraught and difficult matter of grief and religious change.
When my father died, Tadesse told me flatly, I was alone,
you know? My family just doesnt know how to express
love. He had already grown into his fathers tall, thin frame,
and I found it jarring to hear these things coming, as it
were, from his fathers mouth. My friendship with Tadesses
family had begun 15 years earlier during fieldwork at an
Addis Ababa transit camp for Beta Israel whose immigration was being held up because of suspicions that they
were descended from converts to Christianity who might
not be eligible for automatic citizenship under Israels Law
of Return.4 They ultimately did immigrate under family reunification agreements and were then ushered into
a government-sponsored Return to Judaism program designed to normalize their religious and bureaucratic status
in Israel (Seeman 2009). I knew better than most what this
long and tenuous process had cost families like Tadesses,
so I took the liberty of asking him what he thought his father would have said about his new faith. If he had said one
word to me [in protest], Tadesse replied a little too quickly,
I would have walked away from him too. He confided in
me that his new religious commitments had left him a little estranged from his mother and siblings and that part of
his reason for offering to drive me to their apartment was
that it gave him an excuse to pay them a short visit as well.
Tadesse and his fiancee sat quietly during the inevitable buna that his mother prepared in my honor but
left early the next morning to spend the Sabbath in prayer
and fellowship with like-minded friends in the Galilean
countryside. I cant stay here with [my family] all afternoon, drinking coffee and talking about who-knows-what,
Tadesse told me privately. Do you have any idea what
kinds of things they talk about? Of course, I did know,
from long association with many families like his: There

American Ethnologist

would be gossip about neighbors and relatives, discussion

of work and politics, and lots of bawdy good humor. Buna
talk has been described as a mechanism for ensuring peace
within families and encouraging solidarity among women
(Brinkerhoff 2011; Yedes et al. 2004). David Palmer (2010a,
2010c), working in Britain, has gone so far as to argue that
buna conveys important therapeutic benefits by creating
a space in which forced migrants can talk openly about
the traumas they have suffered. Yet, while my fieldwork in
Israel broadly confirms all of these findings, I have also
found that buna rejectersnot all of whom, as we shall see,
are Pentecostalsinevitably describe the hurtfulness of the
gossip that this practice frequently engenders.
The importance of coffee to Ethiopian (and Ethiopian
diaspora) culture for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike
has been well documented (Brinkerhoff 2011; Edelstein
2002; Freeman 1995; Mjaalannd 2004; Palmer 2010a, 2010b,
2010c; Seeman 2009; Yedes et al. 2004). Learning how to
drink buna was an early part of my socialization to fieldwork and eventually became a cherished way of passing
time among friends. But my analytic interest in this topic
was encouraged by early meetings with Ethiopian Jews who
had become Pentecostals or Messianic Jewish believers,
whose refusal to drink buna was often one of the first clues
that I was speaking with a member of that small and typically circumspect religious minority (Seeman 2009).5 At
first, believers spoke with me almost exclusively about the
addictive qualities (Amh. susenya) of coffee, which they associated with demonic power and the worship of the zar,
but over time a more complicated picture involving troubled family dynamics and resistance to cultural constraints
also emerged.
To the extent that addiction stands in opposition to
core-neoliberal values of freedom, autonomy and choice
(Reith 2004:2), Pentecostal rejection of addictive substances
(cf. Daswani 2011; Meyer 1998, 1999, 2004) such as coffee
can seem like a straightforward affirmation of these values.6
But this congruence should not lead anthropologists to
adopt a reductively instrumental or economic reading of
Pentecostal conversion. The modern discourse of addiction
from which Pentecostals draw is itself premised not just on
instrumental reason or hope for economic advancement
but on subjective, individual evaluations of a loss of
control (Reith 2004:2) over ones body, ones self, and ones
whole social-moral world. Indeed, ambivalence over social
and economic modernization can also exacerbate these
concerns (cf. Meyer 2001). Bernice Martin perceptively
cautions Pentecostalism researchers against a privileging
of the cognitive and calculable in a sphere . . . where quite
other human values are in fact ontologically privileged
Rupture between converts and their natal kin, for
example, is well described in the ethnographic literature on
global Pentecostalism and is often treated as isomorphic


American Ethnologist

Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015

with the rupture in traditional religious and exchange

relations with which Pentecostalism has been rightly associated. But the halting existential valences of religious
conversion and the way these sometimes map onto preexisting fault lines in the dense emotional architectonics of
family lifemy family just doesnt know how to express
lovehave rarely been described. This is the context in
which buna avoidance may help to express and engender a
whole set of morally inflected moods and dispositions that
include ambivalence and regret alongside opportunities
for moral integration, healing, or transformation. Tigests
explosive disgust at the sight of buna exemplifies this process in one way; Tadesses faltering attempts to reconcile
his quiet craving for intimacy with his visceral demand for
freedom from his family does so in another.

Coffee and possession

The coffee I bought for Tadesses mother came from a small
Ethiopian shop in Jerusalems bustling open-air market,
Machane Yehudah. The opening of several such shops in
this one neighborhood over the past decade speaks to the
economic advancement of refugees and migrants who are
now coming of age as consumers and entrepreneurs in Israel. The clientele is still mostly Ethiopian, but here and
there one sees a farenge (Amh. white or foreigner) shopping for specialty items. A heavyset shopkeeper who looks
to be in her forties admits to me that she thinks the coffee she sells may have been imported from Turkey, but
four other immigrant shopkeepers insist that their product
comes directly from the Ethiopian province of Sidamo or
possibly (a slightly less popular product) Harari. They all
say that they do their best business in kilo-sized bags of
fresh buna (literally, coffee beans), but most shops also
deal in the other appurtenances of coffee consumption:
sticks of Indian sandalwood incense that are traditionally
burned while buna is being served, electric and hand coffee grinders, and sets of little china cups (finja or sini),
which are often among the very first purchases made by
new immigrants. All of the shops I visited carried a selection of Ethiopian music as well, though most merchants denied that they carried the Amharic-language gospel music
(mezmur) loved by Pentecostals, and only one openly displayed the gaudy red-and-white beaded necklaces called
daba, that are sometimes worn during coffee ceremonies by
women who are afflicted by the zar.7
Zar possession conditions buna drinking even for those
who have never been possessed, but this is not a subject about which everyone will speak. In the highlands of
Ethiopia, both Beta Israel and Christians often buried coffee grounds outside the doors of their huts to propitiate the
spirits and burned incense whenever they sat for buna. The
aroma of incense and roasting coffee was considered to be
pleasing to zar and human guests alike. Zar possession has


been treated mostly as a mental health problem or culture

bound syndrome in Israel (Grisaru et al. 1997; Wiztum et al.
1996), but Monica Edelstein (2002) has argued for the broad
cultural significance of zar possession to a variety of arenas in which Ethiopian Jewish identity is contested and performed: the monthly separation of men and women during
menstrual flow (the zar are said to be attracted by blood),
the traditional Beta Israel synagogue service, whose details
resonate for some observers with those of the zar ceremony,
and, of course, buna drinking itself, which is one of the most
distinctive ethnic practices maintained by Ethiopian Jews in
Yet Edelstein also points to revealing conflicts. What
happens, for example, when an afflicting zar spirit demands
fresh coffee to be brewed on the Sabbath, despite Ethiopian
Jewrys fierce adherence to the Torahs prohibition of grinding and roasting on that day? Caffeine headaches afflict
many buna drinkers who are forced to abstain from fresh
coffee during the Sabbath (Seeman 2009:134150), but it is
considered quite dangerous for those who are possessed to
refuse the zar spirits insistent demand. Edelstein (2002:162)
cites a journalists account of three Beta Israel priests (qessoch, sing. qes) who were asked about this problem. Two
said that they counsel their followers to forgo buna but to
seek relief for their affliction through prayer. A third, however, argued that Jewish law should permit the preparation
of coffee despite the Sabbath on grounds of pikuah nefesh,
or saving the lives, of the afflicted. When I read this passage from Edelsteins account aloud to Tadesse one day,
however, he just scoffed: I want you to find me one single
qes who wont actually tell people to make coffee on the
Sabbath for the zar. They all will! Tadesse no longer feels
bound by the strictures of Jewish law and Sabbath observance, in other words, but he is fiercely critical of the traditional Beta Israel clergy for the way he believes they betray
even their own precepts by quietly accommodating or trying to placate the zar.
His views are not idiosyncratic. Like Pentecostal groups
elsewhere in Africa (Meyer 1999, 2001, 2004; Newell 2007),
those of Ethiopian Jewish descent also tend to identify
traditional spirit practices and zar sickness (zarenya) with
the expression of demonic power. Zar sickness can include
highly debilitating symptoms like seizure and migraine, but
the typical goal of the balazar, or healer, is to placate rather
than exorcise the offending spirit. Once a bargain has been
struck, zarenya may be transformed into an essentially
manageable chronic affliction (Messing 1958; Young 1975).
In Ethiopia, several different ethnic groups refer to these
spirits collectively as shaytan, which may help to contextualize the satanic terminology invoked by Pentecostals
(Vecchiato 1993:179; cf. Lewis 1984), who typically reject
any accommodation with what they consider to be a form
of deep Satanic compulsiona veritable pathology of
the moral will (cf. Haustein 2011). This pathology is not,

Coffee and the moral order

moreover, limited to formal zar possession but is also

identified with moral failings in other spheres: It is manifest
in the harmful gossip, violence, promiscuity, and addiction
(to alcohol, coffee, or drugs) that all the Pentecostals I
spoke with portrayed as the unquestioned norm among
the not yet converted (Seeman 2009:126133). The only
antidote to these problems, their conversion narratives
made clear, is to give yourself over into the hand of God.
Zar sickness, buna practice, and substance addiction are
treated as a unified syndrome of opposition to divine grace
and power. One woman insisted to me that her demonic
afflictionincluding terrible chronic headacheswould
return if her faith ever wavered (Seeman 2009:127; cf.
Haustein 2011; Meyer 2001).
Addiction is a religious problem for Pentecostals
in part because it is perceived as an external agency or
compulsion set up over and against the sovereignty of God.
Yet, while some informants treated both coffee and alcohol
as equivalent from this point of view, there is good reason
to distinguish between the two analytically. While alcohol
avoidance is well attested for Ethiopian Pentecostals outside Israel (Kifleyesus 2006:80), coffee avoidance simply is
not. Nor is it reportedly encouraged by the Messianic Jewish
Alliance of America, an organization with strong Pentecostal connections whose evangelical efforts have been
focused intensely on descendants of Beta Israel gathered in
Gondar while they await the chance to immigrate to Israel
(cf. Dulin 2013; John Dulin, personal communication 2013).
It is instructive that the one foreign church that does consistently promote coffee avoidance in Ethiopia (the Latter
Day Saints, or Mormons) have reportedly faced difficulty
recruiting women, who are said to be afraid of losing their
culture if they refuse buna (Platt 2013). While the historical
provenance of buna avoidance among Beta Israel Pentecostals must remain in question, there is therefore good
reason to suppose that the meaning of this avoidance has
something to do with the negotiation of attitudes toward
culture (or at least Ethiopian culture) and its entailments.
Additional support for this supposition may be drawn
from the fact that, while none of my Pentecostal informants
admitted to drinking alcohol under any circumstances, several who initially told me that they also eschew coffee because of its addictive qualities later acknowledged that they
do sometimes partake but that they do so in ways that
are carefully stripped of all association with spirit possession, family networks, and other markers of Ethiopian cultural specificity. Instead of roasting fresh coffee beans, for
example, they drink processed or instant commercial coffee, without burning incense or attending to any of the
other ritual trappings of buna consumption.8 They drink
in the morning before work rather than in the middle of
the day like their parents, and they eschew the small sini
(Chinese) cups in favor of larger coffee mugs. Whereas
Ethiopian buna is almost always a strongly social activity,

American Ethnologist

moreover (Brinkerhoff 2011), these individuals may drink

alone or in the company of a single flat-mate or friend.
While I do not deny their concern with caffeine addiction
in its narrower physiological sense, therefore, it seems to
me that the more salient issue is the broader addiction and
loss of freedom they associate with culture and with buna
practice as a privileged site of cultures transaction. My argument is that this aspect of Pentecostal buna avoidance
resonates with a much wider spectrum of everyday dilemmas and anxieties concerning culture that are also shared
by at least some non-Pentecostal Beta Israel and that this
convergence demonstrates the need for an analytic frame
focusing not just on religious practice but on the shared existential contours of social life.

Toneh (the second cup): Loosening the ties

that bind
Coffee is not only Ethiopias primary export commodity
but also plays a central role in its symbolic economy (see
Aregay 1988; Pankhurst 1968). Government travel posters
depict women in graceful white shammas pouring coffee
into tiny white cups, while e migres in Europe, the United
States, and Israel all treat buna as an important part of their
emergent cultural nationalism (Brinkerhoff 2011; Freeman
1995; Palmer 2010a, 2010b, 2010c; Seeman 2009). Indeed,
arguments over the origins of coffeewas it an Amhara or
an Oromo invention?continue to haunt disputes over the
legitimacy of the historically Amhara-dominated Ethiopian
state (Yedes et al. 2004). Despite the centrality of buna
to modern conceptions of Ethiopian culture, few of the
Ethiopians I have spoken with seem to be aware that the
Orthodox Church actually banned coffee consumption as a
foreign Muslim or pagan custom until 1889 (Pankhurst
1968:198; see Aregay 1988). The British diplomat and engineer William Cornwallis Harris was denied entry to a sacred
shrine in 1841 by the bishop of Shoa not just because of
fears about possible British invasion but also reportedly
because the English were in the habit of drinking coffee
and smoking tobacco, both of which Mohammedan abominations are interdicted in Shoa upon religious grounds
(Harris 2010:168). Beta Israel leaders seem to have shared
in this reticence, and though they do not make an issue
of it the way Pentecostals do, even today some Beta Israel
qessoch quietly discourage their close followers from
adopting the Muslim custom of drinking buna or showing
obeisance to the zar.9 Todays widespread idealization of
coffee as a naturalized constituent of Ethiopian national
culture thus conceals another history that is redolent with
anxiety over the nature of religious authenticity and foreign
If coffee was suspect as an artifact of foreign (i.e., Muslim) agency in some Jewish and Christian settings, however,
it is worth pointing out that Muslim jurists also occasionally


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Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015

challenged its use on the grounds that it should be treated

as a prohibited intoxicant (Hattox 2000; Topik 2009). In
nearby Yemen, 19th-century advocates of coffee and of the
narcotic qat engaged in poetic disputations over which was
the superior substance. Coffee advocates frequently contrasted the enmeshment of coffee in modern exchange networks with the stultifying backwardness and poverty they
associated with qat (Wagner 2005). So, if some Ethiopian Israelis have come to see buna today as a sign of backwardness and loss of moral freedom, it makes sense to view this
understanding as just one structural variant on a broad regional trope involving contests over moral agency, modernization, and cultural or religious authenticity, all of which
have been negotiated through attitudes toward coffee.
Buna drinking is subject to highly contradictory and
politicized messages in Israel. At one immigrant center
where I conducted research during the 1990s, a model
house was set up to educate new immigrants about
the valorized nuclear family and its technologies (Seeman
2009:111). Immigrant families, which typically included five
or more children, almost always purchased long coffee tables that could accommodate their communal meals and
buna drinking, but the model house at the immigrant center featured a kitchen table for four, complete with coffee
mugs. In a cultural-heritage video produced at another immigrant center, meanwhile, a young woman dressed in traditional white garments conducts a coffee ceremony for a
group of older men in the midst of a grassy field from which
all signs of contemporary Israel have been removed (Tekes
Ha-Buna 2008). Though valorized as a cultural icon worthy of preservation and nostalgia, in other words, buna is
set indelibly into a receding past from which all evidence of
the complex contemporary reality has been evacuated.
Ethiopian immigrants themselves frequently reify
buna-as-culture in predictable ways. They tend to speak
of culture (Heb. tarbut; Amh. behal) as a convenient
shorthand for an amalgam of characteristic and reified traditions that include special clothing and styles of dance,
Ethiopian cooking, religious practices, and, of course,
Ethiopian coffee (also see Mjaaland 2004). Our culture
(behalachin) is not to be identified with the anthropological concept of culture as something fluid, contestable, and
multiply contingent but relates, instead, to the weighted
projection of Ethiopianness onto a rustic pastiche of invented traditions and customary lifeways (cf. Kaplan and
Rosen 1993). Buna thus becomes a self-consciously cultural practice (Gershon and Taylor 2008) that engenders a
sense of comfortable familiarity in the face of rapid change,
a context in which it comes to stand for being Ethiopian.
Because of its very centrality to this widespread construct,
however, buna practice may also come to be perceived by
at least some Ethiopians as standing in tension with coded
practices of modernity that are considered to be Western or, in the context of my research, Israeli by contrast.


Jennifer Brinkerhoff (2011) describes the case of an

Ethiopian woman living in the United States whose friends
tease her for being too American because she refrains
from drinking buna.
Pentecostals give more explicit ideological articulation
to these dynamics than others in Israel, but they are far from
alone in facing the dilemmas of coffee or of culture. The
comments of a 32-year-old social worker named Yossi who
immigrated in 1985 and lives an observant Jewish lifestyle
were fairly typical of what I heard from other Ethiopian
Israelis around his age once I began to listen with these
existential predicaments in mind. Yossi drinks buna occasionally when he visits his parents but has little use for it
in his own home. I just dont really like buna so much.
I drink coffee in the morning, but I prefer Turkish coffee,
black. The Ethiopian coffee tastes so bitter! Less extreme
in his rejection than Tigest, Yossi too invokes the embodied vagaries of taste to explain why he has grown to dislike
buna, and he does so in a way that seems at first to negate
the social or religious import of this preference. On a visit
to his mothers apartment, Yossi describes to me how her
doctor ordered her not to drink coffee anymore because
of high blood pressure. But his mother breaks in, animatedly, to say that she explained to the doctor how much more
healthy buna is than store-bought coffeeit hardly affects
the blood pressure at all! When I try to push the conversation by asking about the relationship between coffee and
zar sickness, however, she deflects my question by asserting forcefully that other Jewish communities also have their
own problems with the spirit world, though they call the
spirits by other names, like shedim or dybbukim. Ethiopians, she insists, are nothing special in this regard. Be that as
it may, she succeeds in reminding me of the political sensitivity that still surrounds any identification between buna,
Ethiopian immigrants, and zar possession in contemporary
Israel. Like many of the women her age who immigrated
from rural villages in Northern Ethiopia, Yossis mother is
among the afflicted.
Yossi is impatient with the regard for the zar shown by
members of his mothers generation, but he stops short of
denying their existence. In the state religious (mamlachti
dati) school he attended as a boy, he was taught a legend
according to which the shedim were banished from the land
of Israel during the reign of King Solomon. He also remembers another, more tongue-in-cheek, version, according to
which the spirits lost their power over humanity when they
were declared nonexistent by the 12th-century rationalist
Maimonides. In practical terms, both versions indicate that
the spirit world, though real enough in its own terms, can
be safely ignored by contemporary men and women. This
is a stark contrast to the strategy adopted by Pentecostals,
who characteristically emphasize the ongoing power and
malevolence of the zar. Yossi fails to acknowledge any explicit connection between his personal distaste for buna

Coffee and the moral order

and his lack of interest in spirit possession. But when I ask

him what he thinks about Pentecostals, who have rejected
the zar much more systematically than he has done, he acknowledges that this rejection is the one thing he thinks can
be said in their favorthough he quickly adds that Pentecostals themselves are far more malevolent and dangerous to the Ethiopian Jewish community than the zar ever
could be.
Yossi may think that his mothers zar possession is
anachronistic, but the missionaries, as he calls them, constitute an ongoing and existential threat. He points proudly
to an old black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall
of his parents small apartment. Five grizzled brothers (the
youngest is Yossis father) stand guard with old-fashioned
rifles outside a mud and straw hut in the village of Ozawa,
where Yossi was born. It was his senior uncle, Yossi tells me,
who first opened the village to Beta Israel settlement despite threats from Amhara Christian neighbors who wanted
the land for themselves. When foreign missionaries tried
to proselytize Beta Israel in the village, he says, his uncle
chased them off at gunpoint. To this day, Yossi considers it
his special duty to dispute with those he suspects of being
missionaries. After an incident in which a woman he was
dating tried to preach to him about Yeshua (Jesus), quoting
from Isaiah 51, he threw himself into Jewish antimissionary
literature so that he could learn how to counter her claims.
I realize while listening to him that Pentecostals may play a
role in the Ethiopian Jewish moral universeas dangerous
purveyors of moral pathologyquite similar to the one that
zar themselves play for Ethiopian Israeli Pentecostals. Missionary records from the 19th century show that Beta Israel
sometimes accused their converted relatives who had become native agents for European missionaries of practicing witchcraft against them (Seeman 2009:267268), and it
is not at all uncommon among Ethiopian and other Jewish
Israelis today to accuse missionaries of tricking, bribing, or
preying on the personal weaknesses of those they evangelize. For unconverted Beta Israel, the decision to convert often appears the very opposite of the free moral agency that
evangelical literature insists upon as a condition for conversion (Seeman 2000, 2009:6283).
The importance of buna avoidance to Yossis sense
of himself as a member of a new, modernizing generation
shines through our conversations. You know, my mother
sits for buna two, three times a day, a few cups each
time, he says. I work during the day. Do you know that
when they [the older generation] do buna, each cup can
take up to half an hour! Buna is not just a drink in this
context; it is a social practice that stands for leisurely talk
among neighbors and members of an extended agrarian
household (cf. Kaplan and Rosen 1994; Pankhurst 1992:17).
But buna also stands in a fairly transparent way for the
authority of parents and elders (see Brinkerhoff 2011),
whose influence may appear to be at odds with Israeli

American Ethnologist

mores of independence and relative personal autonomy.

Yossi is employed by the municipality of a large city, where
he works with disadvantaged (mostly Ethiopian) youth
while occasionally moonlighting at other occupations.
Many of the Ethiopian Israeli men I know who are in their
thirties and forties hustle two or three different jobs to
make ends meet, to put something away for themselves
and their children, or to meet their obligations to unemployed parents and relatives. The pace can be exhausting,
and it can also breed resentment toward the ties that keep
them from leaving their ramshackle neighborhoods and
shoddy government-subsidized apartments until the whole
extended family is ready to relocate. It is hardly surprising
that buna practice can come to be associated with blocks
on upward mobility and personal autonomy in this context.
Yossi has been thinking about resettling with his wife
and two young children to a rural West Bank community
where he can teach my children some values, some
Judaism, but his wifes parents said that if he and his
wife relocated it would kill them, thus putting enormous
pressure on the couple not to leave. So much pressure, in
fact, that Yossi and his wife separated for several months
during which she went to live with her parents while he
searched for an apartment that would allow them to gain
some distance from his in-laws without leaving the city.
Yossis ambivalence toward buna and his problems with
his wifes parents are intertwined because both involve the
contested transition of moral weight from the extended
household and kin network to the nuclear family and
professional world. Torn as he is, Yossi identifies buna not
just with changing tastes and personal preferences but also
with a broad generational shift that includes a new appreciation for time as a commodity that must not be wasted.
The conflict between aspirations for independence and
the constraint of traditional obligation is one of the most
powerful forces defining life for young householders in the
Ethiopian Israeli community today, and buna occupies one
of the main fault lines where subterranean pressures in
family life may surface. Buna drinking and its avoidance
come to serve as an optics through which different social
and moral arrangements can be imagined, validated, or
pragmatically rejected.
That certainly seems to be the case for Sivan, a 27year-old secularist and small business owner who lives in
Tel-Aviv with her boyfriend. She does not appear to object
when her mother prepares buna for me during a family celebration at her parents apartment in the lower Galilee, but
she does not participate in the ceremony either. When I explain my research to her, she says that she sometimes drinks
coffee (she uses the Hebrew term cafe) but never buna. The
distinction is contextual rather than linguistic: Processed
coffee can also be called buna by native Amharic speakers.
Nevertheless, she tells me that when someone says to me
buna netatale [lets drink buna], I always know exactly what


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Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015

they mean. She becomes enigmatic: I will tell you, I really

dont like this whole buna thing. When I am here with my
family and they go to make buna, it brings me back to a really dark place, a place I do not want to go.
Sivan remembers the nearly interminable buna sessions her parents held when she was a child. Neighbors
and friends would gather, sometimes drawn by the smell
of roasting coffee that telegraphed her parents desire for
sociability throughout their crowded immigrant neighborhood. Like Tadesse, she describes a kind of hurt and
anger that she associates with the talk that accompanied
buna drinking in her parents home. What really bothers me is the way they would talk about people, really
tear them apart, say awful things. Brinkerhoff (2011; Platt
2013) makes a case for buna as a practice that empowers Ethiopian women, but this was not Sivans experience.
Sivan describes herself as womanly and full-bodied, though
her sister, who is sitting with us, hastens to add that she is
certainly desirable and good-looking, not at all fat. Ever
since she became a woman, Sivan says, she has avoided
tight outfits that accentuate her bust (she is wearing a
T-shirt and cutoff jeans in her mothers living room). Once,
as a teenage girl, however, she says that she came in late
from socializing with her friends and found her parents still
drinking buna with some neighbors. She was wearing jeans,
which was still considered immodest among most of the
new immigrants, and one venerable shamgileh (elder) muttered to her father from behind his coffee cup, I see that
they dont make clothes for girls in this country. It was the
kind of cutting remark that some older Ethiopians love; it
gouged deeply but was just indirect enough that her father
and the others present could pretend to ignore it or to misunderstand the connotations.
Even more than 15 years later, Sivans anger simmers
visibly when she retells the story. Do you know what that
did to my father, what humiliation [Heb. bushah] it caused
him? I am pretty Israeli [i.e., not shy and retiring], so I got
up into [that elders] face and told him thats not how things
work here and that hes not in Ethiopia anymore. He didnt
say anything. Sivan does not drink buna as an adult, but
her visceral reaction to the practice is also an expression
of moral judgment about a whole social framework and
rhetoric of culture and modesty that extends far beyond
the coffee with which it is identified in her tale. Like both
Yossi and Tadesse, but in ways that encode her position
as a woman within dense kin and community networks,
Sivan experiences buna as a constrictive, stultifying force
because of the way it imposes traditional culture hurtfully
on a young girl trying to navigate a new and modern
social framework. Even so, she always brings her mother
a kilo of buna as a gift when she visits. This is the double
valence of buna among many young Ethiopian Israelis
who are not Pentecostal converts: a mark of authentic and
highly prized folk tradition that is still associated with the


immigrant generation but that no longer fits neatly into

anyones busy, time-constrained, and morally reconfigured
contemporary life. Coffee comes to serve as a kind of
synecdoche for Ethiopian cultureVictor Turner (1967)
would probably call it a condensation symbol because of
the way that both abstract and viscerally experiential poles
of meaning converge along a single continuum generated
by ritual. This ritual often fails, however, in the sense that
it engenders ambivalence or even antagonism among
some of its participants. It was only when I stopped asking
people to describe their culture and began attending more
assiduously to the existential contours of their everyday
lives (and only after long acquaintance and friendship) that
these themes began clearly to emerge.

Baraka (the third cup): Culture and moral

Though they are not alone in practicing buna avoidance,
the special significance of such avoidance for Pentecostals
resides in the power of buna to signify compulsion simultaneously in at least three different yet densely interrelated
registers: first, as a substance associated with bodily addiction (sus), which is a form of potentially devastating moral
pathology; second, as a cipher for the all-consuming compulsion of kin networks that constrain nonbelievers spiritually as well as economically; and, third, as a medium for
demonic subversion of the moral will through spirit possession and zar affliction. Though each of these understandings also resonate powerfully in some non-Pentecostal settings, believers are the only individuals who regularly
move this rejection to the very core of their life projects
through their attempts to render a space wholly free of satanic compulsion. They are also the only ones to link their
rejection of buna directly to an articulate hermeneutic of violence and freedom.
Theology, violence, and political subjectivity
On a summer day in 2008, a construction worker named
Hussam Taysir Duwait from the Palestinian neighborhood
of Sur Baher drove his front end loader into a pedestrian
crowd on Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem, killing three
people and injuring more than 30 before he was shot and
killed by an off-duty soldier.10 Three different Palestinian organizations initially claimed credit for the attack, and some
witnesses said that they heard Duwait shouting Allahu
Akbar, although neighbors, his family lawyer, and a Jewish
ex-girlfriend later attributed his act to insanity brought on
by drug addiction. Jewish Jerusalemites I knew were transfixed by the attack not least because of the grisly details described in local media, such as a young mother who was
said to have thrown her infant to safety from an open car
window before she was crushed. News media were still filled

Coffee and the moral order

with discussions of the attack when I met with Tadesse later

that week to talk about strategies of biblical interpretation.
Tadesse only wanted to talk about the biblical Book of
Job. He asked me how well I knew the story of the archangel
Lucifer who fell from grace, which surprised me at first
because I did not identify that postbiblical tale with Job,
as many Christian readers do. While a few modern Jewish
writers have been concerned with demonic explanations
for historical events (cf. Teitlbaum 2004) moreover, such
views are essentially unheard of in the rarified academic
and Modern Orthodox Jewish circles I am more likely to
travel. Tadesse was as much taken aback by my indifference
to this topic as I was by his seemingly single-minded focus
upon it. So how do you make sense, he wanted to know,
of that terrorist (Heb. mehabel) with the bulldozer? I remember saying something noncommittal about the mans
undoubted political motivations, but Tadesse was having
none of it. No, he insisted, a person doesnt just wake up
one morning and decide to go do something like that. Thats
the power of Satan! I thought at the time that Tadesse was
simplistically denying violence its political context, but it
would have been both truer and more generous to say that
he insisted on the contingency of political acts with respect
to the (possibly compromised) moral will of individual actors like Duwait.
From Tadesse that day I learned that terrorism is of
a piece with all of the other forms of everyday violence,
addiction, and social or personal breakdown that threaten
to wreck the local moral world. You know my girlfriends
mother, he continued seamlessly, she tries to placate the
zar, drinking buna all the time, but you should see how
everything falls apart (Heb. ha-kol mitparek)she is getting a divorce, her house is in chaosthats the power of
Satan! He went on to tell me about groups of disaffected
youth he had read about in newspapers. They go to TelAviv, he told me, to take drugs or commit crimes and some
of them even have tattoos proclaiming their allegiance to
Satan. This latter accusation was an especially piquant reversal of the stigma some Israelis have cast upon Ethiopian
immigrants who arrived in the country bearing signs of the
cross tattooed on their arms or foreheads (Seeman 2009:25,
3437)an Orthodox Christian custom to which both
Pentecostals and Jews in Israel vocally object.
Along with satanic compulsion, violence is rarely far
from the surface in Beta Israel Pentecostal descriptions of
the compulsions afflicting the unconverted. A man in his
forties named Moshe says of his preconversion life that
he was wild and lived like a dog, adding, You know,
I came close to killing a man (Seeman 2009:125). One
family of my acquaintance sent their 35-year-old daughter back to Ethiopia to visit a noted spirit healer (Amh.
tankway) after she became listless and later aggressive,
pulling a kitchen knife on her husband (she was eventually
medicated in Israel). But whereas many Jewish Beta Israel

American Ethnologist

blame such violence on individual spirit possession, Pentecostals tend to associate the hidden potential for violence
with the whole of the unconverted community. One day, as
we strolled together on the Via Dolorosa in Old Jerusalem,
Tadesse urged me darkly to give up my research on buna
because he thought someone might try to harm or even
kill me if I persisted. There are a lot of things people dont
want you to know about, he said. I never was ultimately
threatened, but it is true that my questions about buna
and spirit possession frequently seemed to provoke real
One of the things that has changed over the years since
I first started speaking with Ethiopian Israeli Pentecostals
during the mid-1990s is that, instead of gathering to pray
and read the Bible in homogeneous Amharic-speaking
groups (cf. Seeman 2009:131132), some believers now
attend small prayer communities (Heb. kehillot, sing.
kehillah) composed predominantly of white, middle-class
Israelis. These Israelis may not identify as Pentecostals
they more often refer to themselves as Messianic Jews,
or yehudim meshichiyim (see Ariel 2006; Feher 1998;
Westmark 2014; cf. Kornblatt 2004)but Pentecostal
(and broader charismatic or Renewalist) influences are
frequently profound. The U.S. Pentecostal televangelist
Morris Cerullo (ordained in 1950 by the Assemblies of God)
describes himself as a Jew by birth and says that he received
a specific divine vision to begin evangelizing Jews while he
was preaching in Argentina shortly before the Six Day War
in 1967. He claims to have mailed copies of the New Testament to every Jewish household in Israel (see Cerullo 2010).
He also held a major congress for believers in Jerusalem in
1994, the same year Tadesses family immigrated, and when
I ask Tadesse about religious role models, Cerullo is one of
the first names he mentions (Seeman 2013). Some of the
individuals most closely involved in promoting Messianic
Judaism among those currently waiting in Ethiopia for
immigration visas are Pentecostal in their personal practice
(cf. Dulin 2013).
Despite their assertions of belief in Jesus, gifts of the
spirit, and participation in global Christian networks like
Cerullos, however, Ethiopian Israeli believers like Tadesse
do not generally refer to themselves as Christians. Christianity, Tadesse once told me, is the worship of Mary and
the angels (he has the Orthodox Church in mind)it is
avodah zarah (Heb. idolatry). Major evangelical organizations like the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity amongst the Jews, which played an important role in
the evangelization of Beta Israel through the 19th and 20th
centuries (Seeman 2000, 2009), labored to create a Hebrew
Christian community that would evangelize the House of
Israel from within. Consistent with this model, contemporary believers tend to function as Jews with respect to many
aspects of Israeli Jewish civil culture (Seeman 2013), though
they are also frequently reviled.


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Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015

Charismatic worship allows for the emergence of otherwise impossible taxonomies and juxtapositions. It is only
among believers, for example, that Israeli Jews and Arabs
regularly participate together in communal prayer. Tadesse
tells me that one Arab family prays with his kehillah in central Israel, but he hastens to add that these are people who
believe in the Bible, not the Koran. On a trip to the Old
City of Jerusalem, he parks his car at an Arab-owned lot
near the Damascus Gate and chats amicably in Hebrew with
the Palestinian attendant. Later, when I ask him whether he
thinks there is a solution to Israels long-standing impasse
with the Palestinians, he paraphrases a biblical verse warning the ancient Israelites not to enter into any covenants
with the Canaanite nations lest they become a snare in
your midst. You see, he says, that is the problem we have
now, and it wont end. Then he pauses for a moment and
becomes more thoughtful. But you know, if that is the decision that has been made [by the State of Israel], not to
follow these verses, then I am completely against giving
people only half-freedom. You cannot do that. If they are living here, then you have to give them their rights or we will
never have peace.
Ostensibly contradictory moral and historical frames
are thus invoked and juxtaposed. Should we be surprised
that the elegant cultural and theological templates traced
by anthropologists often fail to encompass the messy contrarieties with which people actually think about and act in
the social world? Pentecostalisms focus on the overwhelming binary of moral compulsionone must belong either
to God or to Satandoes not in any way preclude a subtle
self-awareness of moral and political agency in the hands of
human beings (cf. Meyer 2001). It is just that human agency
must always fall short, always risk imploding upon itself or
being subverted by demonic imperatives. In a world where
agency is always perceived to be subject to higher powers,
one must eventually make a decision whose patronage to
accept. It is in the decision to belong to God alone that real
freedomnot the merely imagined freedom of cultural authenticity or personal indulgencepertains.
This conception of moral freedom may complicate the
comparison between buna avoidance and other forms of
commensality and abstention studied by anthropologists.
Building on the work of Gillian Feeley Harnick (1995) and
others, Tom Boylston, for example, argues that fasting and
participation in the Eucharist render Orthodox Ethiopian
Christians consubstantials under Gods aegis (2013:271)
and members of a common moral community. Fasting
prepares individuals for the Eucharists sacred feast and
also reenacts the suffering of Christ. Yet despite Boylstons
welcome attention to theological and intersubjective motifs
in Ethiopian rituals of abstention, any comparison between
fasting and buna avoidance must remain somewhat tentative. Anthropologists have not typically examined the
relationship of commensality or abstention to the shifting


dynamics of morally freighted relationships along an individuals life course. Emphasizing the way shared abstinence
helps to create moral community would also tend to suggest a sharp distinction between the collective boundarymaking properties of buna avoidance among Pentecostals
and the more idiosyncratic effects of such avoidance
among individual Jewish Beta Israel, while I have argued by
contrast that we ought to highlight the existential continuities between these two settings. Pentecostals themselves
reject all comparison of buna avoidance with practices like
fasting or dietary prohibitions, not merely because they
are loyal to their own commensal practices but because
they interpret all prohibitions and restraintsespecially
those practiced by Orthodox Christians and traditional
Beta Israel as oppositional to the simple freedom that
they say can only be achieved by resting in the hands of
I once asked Tadesse to explain why the buna prohibition seemed so much more important to him than what
I took to be more explicit biblical directives like the Jewish
dietary laws or Saturday Sabbath. The Pauline resonance of
his reply should not have surprised me, but it did help to
shake me loose from some stubborn ethnographic misconceptions:
Look, nothing is prohibited, but it is always a question
of what it means. Like, I wont drive on Shabbat to go
shopping or to work or something, but I drive to meet
my friends, to pray to God and to be with them. Do you
think God wants me to sit alone in my house? We are
just like those Jews you have in America, what are they
called? The ones who drive to synagogue on Shabbat
you know, reformim (Reform Jews).
Tadesse wasnt just telling me that I had unfairly invoked a
foreign cultural and religious concept called prohibition,
which was true enough. The real problem was that I was
still trying to understand buna avoidance as a fixed semiotic
practice or cultural rule while he was insisting upon a doctrine of freedom. Nothing is prohibited, he insisted when
I pressed. Not buna, not even pig! The reason people dont
drink buna is that they want to be with God, and this [drinking buna] isnt being with God.
The constraints imposed by Ethiopian culture, by
biblical law, or by zar possession are all analogous from
Tadesses point of view, and to suggest otherwise is to impute precisely the kind of cultural compulsion or constraint
against which believers continually chafe. Frustrating
though it may be for the anthropologist-as-interpreter-ofculture, his claim is precisely that there is no overarching
rule or supererogatory cultural norm and certainly no fixed
prohibition to reckon with: just the minute-by-minute
decision to throw oneself freely into the hands of God.
My ethnographic dilemma is that I do not possess a ready

Coffee and the moral order

conceptual language for describing this emergent (and

highly contested) experience of freedom.

Conclusion: Unraveling Geertzs web

Clifford Geertz famously defined man as an animal
suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun
(1977:5). The constraining and potentially stultifying connotations of this metaphor, which has been foundational
to cultural anthropology, should not be lost on social theorists. Thinking about culture as a web in which people are
suspended begs the delicate question of freedom my informants insist upon. For me, at any rate, the question cannot really be whether there is a human space free of cultural
conditioninga century of research in the social sciences,
including the anthropology of science and of medicine,
has shown that cultures footprint in human affairs may be
most significant precisely where human actors denyin the
name of rational objectivity, for examplethat they are in
any way its subjects (cf. Seeman 2009:150179). From this
point of view, buna avoidance contributes to a culture of
no culture, drawing analytic attention, as I have done here,
to the ways in which the discourse of culture itself may be
claimed, adapted, or disavowed in distinctive religious, social, and institutional settings (Gershon and Taylor 2008).
At the same time, anthropological discourse is itself
arguably premised on the idea that, without settling for
any kind of naive objectivism, it is nevertheless possible
to gain a privileged and critical vantage point on culture.
So, while a wide variety of theorists have proposed alternatives to culture as a primary analytic focus for anthropology
(cf. Abu-Lughod 1991; Asad 1993; Kleinman and Kleinman
1991) and some have explored the limits within which individuals have the ability to reflect critically on their own
cultural frameworks (cf. Tomlinson 2002), it is also important to take seriously the conceptual claims made by people who believe they are engaged in practices (like buna
avoidance or experimental research) that have the potential
to emancipate them from cultural constraint. While conceding that the web of meanings we habitually refer to as
culture may be part of the air we breathe as social beings, in
other words, might there not also be practices, habitudes, or
ways of being-in-the-world analogous to life at a higher altitude, where cultures compulsions are (or are experienced
as) somewhat more thinly distributed? Though admittedly
imperfect, this metaphor might suggest an analytic frame
better attuned to the shifting registers of freedom and constraint in the experience of everyday life. An existentially positioned account of a practice like buna avoidance allows us
to take informants claims about freedom seriously without
forcing us to adopt their theological frame of reference as
our own analytic starting point.
The anthropology of Christianity (and especially Pentecostalism) has emerged as a leading context for reflection

American Ethnologist

on tropes of continuity and rupture in ethnographic writing. This prominence is no doubt partly due to Pentecostalisms own strong idioms of radical conversionary transformation andas Joel Robbins (2007b) so astutely notes
anthropologys difficulty in taking claims about rupture of
the cultural fabric at face value. Believers feel themselves
called upon to break with ties of kinship and commensality
as well as with traditional religious practices and to engage
their preconversion cultural matrix as if it were shot through
with demonic power. The well-noted paradox, of course (cf.
Meyer 1999), is that by treating local spirits like the zar as satanic forces, Pentecostals also help to keep traditional cosmologies alive despite the dislocations of modernity that
might otherwise obliterate them. Robbins (2004) argues
that Pentecostals help to preserve traditional cosmologies
in cognitive terms (e.g., through belief in varied spiritual
forces) by self-consciously shifting the normative (and,
I would add, affective-experiential) evaluation of these
claims in radical and distinctive ways. The real question is
not, therefore, whether there really is a rupture of culture at
stake in Pentecostal conversion (an interpretive question, at
any rate), but rather what kinds of rupture and what kinds of
continuity define the lived horizons of some particular inhabited world (Seeman 2014). This is a question that takes
on added significance in the context of the abiding association between cultural rupture and the experience of moral
freedom suggested by many converts themselves in these
Christian settings (see Engelke 2004; Meyer 1998).
Anthropological fascination with rupture as part of
the deep structure of Christian theological concern (cf.
Robbins 2007b) is not the only context in which these issues
have been raised. We shall need a way of describing the
possibilities of human freedom, James Laidlaw challenged
anthropology more than a decade ago, of describing . . .
how freedom is exercised in different social contexts and
cultural traditions (2002:311). Under the explicit influence
of Michel Foucaults (2000) later theorizing, Laidlaw worried
that without an ethnographic commitment to describing
such possibilities, anthropology would always tend to fall
back onto bad habits of valorizing collective action and social regulation over peoples attempts to fashion themselves
into certain kinds of persons and, indeed, to reflect on what
kinds of persons those should be. Yet while Laidlaws and
Robbinss emphasis on the technologies of self through
which some people seek self-consciously to remake themselves against the grain of culture seems descriptively apt
to a practice like buna avoidance, my ethnography pushes
toward a wider engagement with the unscripted, everyday
practices in which freedom is imperfectly negotiated over
time and against the backdrop of significant relationships
with other people. Both buna practice and its avoidance, I
have argued, need to be understood against an intersubjective horizon of emotionally fraught relationships with
kin or neighbors, economic pressures, and the shifting,


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Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015

embodied experience of gender and sexuality. Unresolved

mourning for a lost father, the desire to free oneself from
a parents exaggerated influence, or anger over a girlhood
humiliation all contribute to the felt textures of freedom
and constraint as emergentand usually contested
qualities of a particular local moral world. If chafing against
the limitations imposed by culture were better recognized
as an ever-present potentiality within the human existential repertoireand not just as a specialized technology
of self or conversionary experiencewe might be better
attuned as ethnographers to everyday negotiations over the
significance and limitations of culture.
Recognizing this everyday potential is not at all to detract from the uniqueness of Pentecostal conversion or to
deny the importance of distinctive religious and ascetic
practices to the emerging conversation about freedom toward which Robbins, Laidlaw, Foucault, and others have
all directed our attention. But it is intended to suggest that
our consideration of these specialized practices should be
reoriented to an existential and not just ritual or theological register so that continuities with everyday experience
might be made more visible and examined across a broader
social field. Robbins (2004:128), for example, has argued
that the dualistic opposition between God and Satan in
Pentecostal cosmology gives rise to a durable binary that
can be used to express the opposition between past and
present, church and world, or public and private spheres
in different ethnographic settings. But how do we determine which, if any, of these binaries is actually the more
foundational? Each of these local Pentecostal formulations
also evokes the broader opposition between worldly constraint and a religiously grounded sense of freedom that Birgit Meyer has aptly termed the struggle against the local
(2004:457). What I want to emphasize here is that this struggle is frequently experienced not just as transformation or
even rupture but in the distinctively moral valence of escape. Whatever its uncertainties, the predilection of some
phenomenological writers (Csordas 1995; Jackson 2009,
2013a, 2013b; Seeman 2009; Willen and Seeman 2012) to
portray broadly existential dilemmas like this one as if they
were foundational to more specialized cultural and theological tropes at least has the advantage of opening up grounds
of potential comparison across seemingly incommensurate
cultural and religious landscapes.
Rupture may indeed contribute to the deep structure
of Christianity, as Robbins (2007b) claims, but it is also
central to a modernist aesthetic without whose clamorous
insistence on autonomy and freedom from all kinds of local
constraint Pentecostalism itself could hardly be conceived.
Viewed on its own terms rather than the through the lens
of triumphant Christianity, Judaism too manifests a highly
developed trope of rupture and change that differs in some
key respects from that of its sister religion. But perhaps
more directly significant than any of these tropes for


Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals in Israel has been the way

culture itself is sometimes deployed by the modern state
as a stultifying proxy for race (cf. Herzfeld 1997; Seeman
2005; Wikan 2001, 2008) that pits the culture of Ethiopian
immigrants viscerally against their aspirations for freedom
and change. Esther Hertzog (1999) has shown how state
social workers sometimes invoked the continuity of immigrant culture to justify policies that discouraged Ethiopian
immigrant women from seeking professional advancement
outside the home, while I have demonstrated (Seeman
1999, 2009:150179) that public health officials invoked
the irrational force of Ethiopian culture to neutralize
immigrant outrage over discriminatory state policies. The
opposition between culture and freedom that has helped
to shape the experience of buna avoiders like Tadesse and
Sivan cannot be explained by reference to their theology or
cultural background alone without reference to the political
and existential conditions under which they labor.
I am arguing, in other words, that the ethnography
of buna avoidance points to the ways that specialized
Pentecostal conversionary tropes call attention to more
widespread anxieties engendered by the coincidence of local constraints and ideologies of freedom or by an even
more basic tension between the human desire for autonomy as well as stable systems of relatedness, aspirations
to transcendence alongside rootedness in local sources of
value and continuity. While Robbins (2007a) has argued
that moralities of freedom emerge primarily in the course
of peoples need to deal with the juxtaposition of structurally incompatible value hierarchies like those associated with the evangelization of the New Guinea Urapmin,
and Jarrett Zigon (2007) has countered that the ethics of
freedom are more likely to emerge in the wake of moral
breakdown like that accompanying the fall of the Soviet Union, I remain sympathetic to Michael Jacksons argument (2013a:229230) that these antinomies represent
fundamental constituents of the human condition that may
well manifest in any local setting if we are attentive.
One potential drawback of the approach I am advocating is the tendency to emphasize elements of an avowedly
shared set of existential constraints at the expense of the
local texture and specificity that have always been the
hallmarks of careful ethnographic analysis. No matter how
rooted in broad existential anxieties, I do not believe that
expressions like buna avoidance can ever be separated from
their enmeshment in local histories and ways of being-inthe-world but, rather, that they open a privileged window
onto the ways that broadly shared human dilemmas emerge
in particular settings. Thus, even though all of the individuals I spoke with about buna avoidance shared an anxiety
grounded in the opposition between freedom and culture,
I must emphasize that even basic terms like freedom did
not mean precisely the same thing to all of them. Beta
Israel Pentecostals like Tadesse tend to find their sense of

Coffee and the moral order

freedom precisely in the habitus of surrender that most

of their unconverted kin simultaneously associate with
witchcraft, brainwashing, and loss of moral agency to
predatory missionaries. Freedom itself is not, in other
words, a purely transparent or self-evident category of
experience but one whose significance is both relational
to some experience of constraint and inevitably contested
within a particular cultural and religious framework.
Freedom is, moreover, typically worked out across a biographical trajectory whose scope may well exceed that of
standard ethnographic fieldwork. Putting these different
instantiations of freedom-as-an-antipode-to-culture
into adequate comparative context will therefore require
sustained ethnographic engagement with still other ways of
framing the role of contingency in human experience that
may include moral luck (Nussbaum 1986), ineluctable
circumstance (Jackson 2013b), and unlooked-for blessing
(Seeman et al. n.d.) in different settings. Distinctive local
ways of thinking about contingency and its sources may
well serve as the grounds on which the contours of an idea
like freedom itself are contested.
Reflection upon buna avoidance does not force me,
at any rate, to deny the power of culture in human affairs
but, rather, to insist on its conditionality. It isnt just differing semiotic systems that make the worlds in which we
live distinctive from one another, but also the differing textures of constraint, freedom, and compulsion that characterize their lived horizons. Ethnographers may grasp these
imponderables more fully when we attend to peoples life
projects and not just their cultures, their existential positioning with respect to important others over time and not
just their systems of kinshiptheir halting and sometimes
eclectic attempts to make pragmatic sense of the worlds in
which they live. That suffering should figure prominently in
this kind of ethnographythrough conversion narratives,
stories of personal hurt and dislocation, or accounts of political violenceshould come as no surprise. Geertz long
ago observed that suffering has the potential to destabilize
established cultural matrixes and taxonomies. But whereas
Geertz thought that religion (exemplified by ritual) served
primarily to shore up cultures regime through a kind of
defensive cultural theodicy (Geertz 1977:87125; Seeman
2004), the ethnographic evidence presented here points in
a different direction. Practices like buna avoidance demonstrate not just the persistence of culture in the face of grief,
dislocation, or loss but also the halting attempts by actors
who are differently positioned in social and religious space
to seek a fragile and possibly paradoxical experience of freedom and transcendence of cultures constraints.

Acknowledgments. This article has benefited from generous
comments by more colleagues than I could possibly mention here
by name. However, I would like to single out the members of the Fri-

American Ethnologist

day Morning Seminar at Harvards Department of Social Medicine

as well as colleagues and students in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory, the Faculty Seminar in Sociology and Anthropology
at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Social Science Research Councils New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative. I
am also grateful to John Dulin, Jennifer Brinkerhoff, Jorg Haustein,
and Emanuele Fantini for sharing observations from their fieldwork in Ethiopia. Special thanks to those friends and informants
who opened their lives to me. I have tried to do justice to what you
have taught.
1. Laura Ahearn has minimally defined agency as the socioculturally mediated ability to act (2001:112). By calling attention
to the moral or affective register of agency in this article, however, I am invoking a realist and phenomenological tradition (cf.
Archer 2000; Kleinman and Kleinman 1991) that distinguishes itself from mainstream practice theory by insisting on the importance of intersubjective grounds and consequences of that ability
(Desjarlais and Throop 2011; Jackson 2013b; Throop and Murphy
2002). This experience-oriented approach also inclines me to the
view that agentive capacities need not be thought of as properties of bounded individuals but may be distributed across social
fields that include institutions, ancestors, deities, or spirits (Coole
2005; Seeman et al. n.d.). I am sympathetic to James Laidlaws
(2002, 2014) critique of the way anthropologists sometimes seem
to circumscribe agency to valorized political contexts like resistance, but I argue that his Foucault-inspired model of freedom
through discrete technologies of self represents only one of the
phenomenological registers in which freedom may be described.
2. This description of the coffee ceremony comes from a
commercial site advertising Ethiopian coffee beans (http://www., accessed July 20, 2008). In
response to a readers query, I should note that the three cups of
the Ethiopian coffee ceremony bear no relation to the four cups of
wine from the Jewish Passover seder!
3. I have changed all individuals names and identifying details.
4. Beta Israel (Amh. House of Israel) is a more respectful ethnic
and religious term than Falasha for those who are predominantly
known today as Ethiopian Jews. For a more thorough discussion of
this nomenclature, see Seeman 2009:811.
5. I use the term Pentecostal advisedly throughout this text because, along with believer it was the term I most often heard used
during fieldwork. As discussed below, many of the individuals involved in this religious community also had connections of one sort
or another with Pentecostal personalities or institutions outside Israel. I am aware, however, that the Amharic term Pente is sometimes used for charismatics (or even Protestants) of all kinds, and
take seriously Matthew C. Westbrooks suggestion (personal communication, 2014) that the phenomenon I am describing may also
be described under the somewhat broader umbrella of Christian
Renewalism (see Westbrook 2014).
6. Indeed, it is unfortunate that Gerda Reiths (2004) subtle
analysis of addiction and freedom in modern society makes no
mention of religious dynamics that are often central to the lived
negotiation of these experiences. Few Pentecostalism researchers,
similarly, have devoted themselves to the cultural phenomenology
of addiction as an important ground of conversionary experience.
7. Zar is one of the most characteristic forms of spirit possession across the Horn of Africa. An afflicting spirit will take periodic possession of a person and may demand expensive gifts
or favorite foods (especially meat dishes) from a spouse or relative. In Ethiopia, zar propitiation frequently involves a demand
for music as well as buna. There are no reliable statistics on zar
affliction among Ethiopians in Israel, but anecdotes suggest it is
fairly common among women who migrated as adults from rural


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Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015

8. Researchers in Ethiopia have told me that they have seen

(non-Beta Israel) Pentecostals reject elements of buna practice associated with spirit possession but that they did not extend this
argument to rejection of coffee or its addictive properties per se
(Emmanuel Fantini and Jorg Haustein, personal communication,
9. Indeed, the hesitation of some qessoch regarding both buna
and zar practice is poorly known even among otherwise knowledgeable Ethiopian Israelis. One informant told me that he had not
realized until I asked him that he never saw qessoch drinking buna.
It is possible that Pentecostal buna avoidance in Israel represents
an expanded and more stringent version of this reticence.
10. See Kirschner 2008. For a listing of other news sources on the
incident, see Wikipedia, s.v. 2008 Jerusalem Bulldozer Attack.

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