Becoming Israelis


A woman of biblical beauty, a dark-eyed Ethiopian gazing directly at the camera, appears on the cover of a new book of photographs, “Transformations: From Ethiopia to Israel” by Ricki Rosen, (Reality Check Productions). She’s wearing white embroidered robes, her hair covered with a kerchief. Flip to the back cover and fast forward 13 years, and the woman, with the hint of a smile, is dressed fashionably in an orange sweater, her hair falling loosely in tiny braids.

One could say she has leaped centuries in less than two decades. Rosen’s striking photographs document the historic events of the early 1990s, when 15,000 Jews were airlifted from Addis Ababa to Israel. Rosen traveled to Ethiopia three times, and although she couldn’t speak the Amharic language of these people, she seems to have communicated enough warmth to allow them to trust her to take their photographs up close.

A few years ago, Rosen, a press photographer who lives in Jerusalem, decided to track her subjects. In a telephone interview, she explains that it wasn’t hard to find them, as many in the Ethiopian community know one another. When she’d show up in an Ethiopian neighborhood with her photos, people would direct her to the families. After sharing the first photograph with them, she’d take another photo, sometimes arranging the family into a similar pose, other times capturing them as they were. Old and new photographs appear on facing pages of the book.

After 13 years, a baby born just hours after arriving in Israel — named Shlomo, Solomon, in honor of the airlift — is celebrating his bar mitzvah with his family in a ceremony at their home,
In the new photo, he’s wearing a tallit, being held by his parents and siblings, one brother in army uniform.

In an accompanying essay, Micha Odenheimer, who traveled with Rosen to Addis Ababa, writes, “In the faces of Ethiopian immigrants, some of the newest Israelis and the most ancient Jews, one sees wisdom that has come at the price of innocence, radiance now tempered by realism, dreams that have both been realized and shattered by the same movement, the same arrival. And also a gritty strength, born equally of treks that led across deserts, of separation and waiting, and of new triumphs, the triumph of learning to survive in a new land that is also the Zion of their ancestors’ hopes.”

Over time, tradition is less visible, especially among the young. Many tattoos are removed from their foreheads; there’s also a shift from handmade containers for food to well-stocked supermarket shelves in Yavneh, from a one-room mud hut with newspapers lining the walls to a lace-curtained apartment in Kiryat Ekron. A young woman first seen carrying a big bag of stuff on her head is now carrying a rifle and sports an army uniform and stylish haircut. Rosen explains that this girl, Yalem Luleh, hopes to compete in the Olympics.

In Israel, Rosen was able to speak Hebrew with the families, unlike 13 years ago. She has become friendly with several of them, and Yalem Luleh came to Rosen’s daughter’s birthday party and gave all the young guests Ethiopian braided hairdos.

Brief captions headline the changes in lives, but clearly, long stories lurk behind each photo. Two sisters dressed in traditional white dresses ascend the airplane stairs, holding hands, looking out together, wide-eyed, at their new homeland. Thirteen years later, the Kalemwort sisters, Woovsrah and Haimonot, are standing on the Rehovot campus where they attend university, again holding hands. One is dressed in bell-bottomed pants and a T-shirt and the other is wearing a khaki skirt; both are smiling. Rosen explains that they would have never gone to university had they stayed in their Ethiopian village
Rosen recalls following a family on a funeral procession in an Ethiopian cemetery to bury their 5-month-old daughter. She photographed them sitting shiva in their mud hut, and then when she found them again in Rehovot they had four more children and one on the way.

“This was one of those experiences that makes me love what I do,” Rosen explains. “I love entering worlds so completely different from our own. Here, they went from the depths of sorrow to a time filled with new life.”

In another photo, Aragitu Melako is seen with her baby on her back, gathering donated clothing at a Jerusalem hotel. At quick glance, her white hat looks like a turban, but on closer inspection it seems that she has a pair of men’s briefs covering her hair. When Rosen showed Melako the photo, she laughed hard at her makeshift hat. She was also proud of how beautiful she looks then and now. In the contemporary photo, she poses with her teenage daughter Tali at her back, the young girl’s midriff bare in a cropped T-shirt. They stand in front of a painted sunset scene in their Ramle home.

“I don’t mean to sugarcoat this,” Rosen says, acknowledging that the Ethiopian community has faced serious problems in resettling in Israel, and continues to struggle with many social problems, including unemployment, high dropout rates, drug abuse and domestic violence.
When Rosen went to find the woman on the cover, she heard that she now works at Israel Radio. Rosen says she was hoping that she had become a journalist, but in fact the woman works as a janitor in the office. But she has one son attending university and another in the army.

Rosen comments that it took her Eastern European-born grandparents a lot more than 20 years to get acclimated to American life.

The photographer grew up in Metuchen, N.J., and came to Israel to cover elections 20 years ago. She loved the country and decided to stay. For her, it’s a great place to work and raise a family. As she says, “you can go out and cover a war and be home for dinner.”

Some Israelis who have seen both photos, the before and after as it were, have commented to Rosen that something of the exoticism and romanticism of the people seen in old photos are missing in the new, that they’ve been corrupted by designer jeans and rock music. Rosen agrees that the new photos are more mundane; they are of Israelis in ordinary settings as opposed to the dramatic and mysterious scenes in Ethiopia. But, she asserts, the Ethiopians didn’t prefer living in mud huts, and she finds those comments patronizing.

“When I look at the photos, I can’t help but feel very good about Israel. After 20 years of living here, like most Israelis, I’ve grown cynical — I’m sick of the problems and wars and conflicts and bureaucracy. When I think of the experience of seeing them airlifted and then seeing them again, seeing babies with distended stomachs now soldiers in the army, I can’t help but feel this is the essence, the purpose of having Israel as a state, as a refuge for Jews.”
“Their story is an incredible affirmation of what can happen when a tribe is found and reunited and welcomed as Jews. This would never happen in any other country.”

Ricki Rosen will be speaking about “Transformation” at the 92nd Street Y, Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 7:30-9 p.m., $25.

The artist R.B. Kitaj, who died last month, left a final book, “Second Diasporist Manifesto” (Yale University Press).

Kitaj, who was 74 and lived in Los Angeles, was one of the few American painters given a retrospective show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during his lifetime. Late in his career, he expressed his growing interest in his Jewish identity through his art.

“Reading Jewish books is to me what reading trees is for a landscape painter,” he wrote.
The book includes numbered manifestations that are ideas, quotes, his commentary, provocations, personal musings and commands, along with images of his work. He described this manifesto as unfinished, that he intended to keep adding “new and random Jewish art propositions” until his death.

“Paint the opposite of Anti-Semitism: Treasure Jews as Holy Fools” and “Intend in painting an ingathering of Jewish attributes, from everywhere, and imagination,” he wrote.

He died as he expressed his hope, “painting my very own Diasporist ideas as a bookmad old man freethinking Jew.”