Ethiopian Jews Share Experience with African American Teen-agers

Bring a half-dozen Ethiopian Jewish teen-agers from Israel together with teens from the ghettos of Brooklyn and what do you get?

A lot of questions, sprinkles of giggles and a dollop of insight.

Six Ethiopians, all of whom were airlifted to Israel in the early 1980s in Operation Moses, last week toured high schools in Washington and New York under the auspices of the Anti-Defamation League.

They came to show American students that Jews come in many colors and to tell them about their experiences as Jews, as Israelis and as Ethiopians.

In New York they met with students in several public high schools, a Catholic girls school and the Ramaz modern Orthodox Jewish day school.

The American ninth-graders at the Clara Barton High School in the Crown Heights section of New York, the site of black-Jewish riots in 1991, had many questions for the black Jews and were surprised by several aspects of the Israelis’ lives. One of the some 100 students crowded in the school’s library asked whether racism existed in Israel.

Asked another: “Have you been discriminated against?”

Asher Wauk, who is 18, responded. “I don’t think so because we are all Jews and Jews feel the same about each other,” he said.

When asked whether he is conflicted by his identities as a black and a Jew, he said no.

“I feel more a Jew,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what color my skin is.”

Most of the American teens said they were aware that there are black Jews. But they learned much that surprised them. “I’m surprised that the government helped them” by rescuing Ethiopian Jews and integrating them into Israeli culture, said Carolyn Embden, one of the ninth-graders at the Clara Barton school.

“Here the government don’t care about us at all,” she said.

Several programs to foster tolerance are ongoing at Clara Barton, where the principal and about 40 percent of the largely white faculty are Jewish, said Sandra Eisenstrack, a social studies teacher. With 2,600 students, all black or Hispanic, Clara Barton is geared toward careers in the health-care professions.

After clashes between blacks and Lubavitcher Jews in Crown Heights that culminated in riots in August 1991, there was a great deal of tension at the school. Although the students meet with Lubavitchers once a year by going to the sect’s world headquarters in Crown Heights, “tension remains, because the issues haven’t been dealt with,” said Jerry Resnick, the school’s principal.

But there was no tension between the African American and Israeli students – just mutual curiosity. The Americans asked the Israelis questions ranging from discrimination to fashion to whether Ethiopian Jews practice female “circumcision.”

It was hard to distinguish the Ethiopian Jewish girls from their African American counterparts; all wore jeans and many wore their hair long, in narrow braids. Levana Mekonen, one of the Israeli girls, had three beads in yellow, red and green at the end of a braid, representing the colors of the Ethiopian flag.

In Brooklyn, these colors are most often seen in the crocheted berets that Rastafarian men wear over their dreadlocks. Rastafarians are members of a religious movement that originated in Jamaica; they traditionally hold that Ethiopia is Eden and that the black man is the reincarnation of Israel, among other beliefs.

The two Israeli boys looked different from the Americans. They wore yarmulkes and were dressed more conservatively. Both study in Orthodox yeshivas.

Telling their personal stories to the American students, the young Israelis spoke about life in Ethiopia in small villages, where they lived without electricity, cars or televisions. Their families worked as farmers and sheepherders.

They described their journey to Israel – six and eight week long treks across the African desert by night, hiding from Ethiopian soldiers by day, until they reached refugee camps in the Sudan, where they waited for Israeli planes to arrive and rescue them. They told of people from their villages dying and falling ill during the cold desert nights, trembling as they walked without any warm clothes.

They told of the tears of joy when they reached Israel, of people kissing the ground as they wept with relief. They recounted their time in Israeli absorption centers and how difficult it was to make the transition to life in Israel.

“We thought there were only black Jews and in Israel they thought there were only white Jews. We thought the white Jews were very strange,” said Levana, who lives with her mother and siblings in Kiryat Malachi. “But they wanted to know about us and we about them. Both sides had goodwill and we came to know each other.”

They spoke of having their names changed from Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, to Hebrew by Israeli officials and teachers. Asher Wauk’s name when he was born was Sisai, which in English means “smiling and happy,” he said. A teacher in his absorption center began calling him Asher, he said, and so that became his Hebrew name.

When asked whether he minded being given a Hebrew name, rather than being able to choose one of his own or keep his Amharic name, he stammered yes and looked down, obviously discomfited by voicing unhappiness with Israel.

Levana, whose father has not been located since he was conscripted by the Ethiopian army, arrived in Israel a dozen years ago. She spoke of her longing for him and her hope that they will one day be reunited.

All of the Israeli teens come from large families. Asher said that he’s one of nine children. The Americans, in unison, exhaled, “Wow.”

When he spoke about being in school at the Tickvat Yaacov yeshiva in Afula from 8:30 a.m. until 8:00 p.m., the group exclaimed, “What?” And when he told them that his school is all boys, they uttered a group “oooohhh,” half in pity and half in curiosity.

When Levana told the Americans that in Ethiopia parents arranged their children’s marriage at age 16 or 17, one of the American students, Karrian Ashley, said: “I’m surprised. It’s hard to imagine being married so young.” “If I were still in Ethiopia I would be married with two children by now,” said Levana. However, she said that she is determined to finish her army service, go to college and establish a career in the field of psychology before she marries and has children.

The Israeli teens also found a lot that they did not expect, including a sense of pervasive and imminent danger: Metal detectors and security officers at the school entrance. A police van stationed outside. One African American girl said, “You always have to watch your back because somebody might beat you up.”

“We don’t have that in our schools,” said Carmela Lilai, a 17-year-old who lives in Beersheva, looking relieved.

After the school visit, the Israelis took their first subway trip into Manhattan, to meet New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and do some sightseeing. The unusual sight of black young people wearing yarmulkes and speaking Hebrew garnered frank stares of curiosity from other passengers on the underground train. The teens were oblivious to the attention, busy chattering and joking in Hebrew as they took pictures of each other with disposable cameras.

And they were nonplused about their upcoming meet-and-greet with the mayor. True to the universal unwritten creed of teen-agers everywhere, they were much more excited about going shopping.

NEXT STORY