Book Review: Where do They Fit in? The Ethiopian Jews of Israel – Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land
The Ethiopian Jews of Israel –
Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land
By Len Lyons
Photos by Ilan Ossendryver
240 pages; $34.99
What is a white, presumably Ashkenazi American Jew doing writing about Ethiopian Jews living in Israel?
In seeming anticipation of this challenging question, Len Lyons states in his Preface that “through the use of portrait photography and interviews they [the Ethiopian Jews in Israel] will have written this book indirectly.”
And true to his word, the Bostonian succeeds in an effectual retelling of the incredible journey Beta Israel Jews undertook to arrive here throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Lyons also captures, using the words of the many people he interviewed, some of the high and low points of perhaps the country’s most difficult aliya. He is not afraid to address some of the difficult topics such as racism, poverty and alternative cultural practices.
The interviews recorded here are straightforward and inspiring. Lyons captures some of the better-known Ethiopian Israelis, such as politician Shlomo Mula, activist Avraham Neguise and actors Tehitina Assefa and Sirak Sabahat, retelling their personal stories in question-and-answer format. And he does not leave out the “little people,” the regular Israelis who are still waiting to fit in.
Lyons begins with a description of a personal visit to an Ethiopian synagogue in Ashkelon. The scene that unfolds before him during a Saturday morning prayer session highlights both the differences and similarities this former African community has with the general Jewish population. While Lyons manages to understand the general rhythm of the service, he also picks up on the basic set up of the community – where the kessim lead the population and the emphasis is placed on the Ethiopian Jews’ original texts written in the ancient language of Ge’ez.
While Lyons’s presentation of this experience makes for an excellent first chapter, it is the book’s later sections that most captivate the reader. Whether it is because of our society’s obsession with voyeurism or glimpsing into other people’s lives through popular reality TV shows, or because each one had an incredible story to tell, I am not sure, but in any case, the author has asked pertinent questions of each person interviewed and received some poignant responses.
In one interview, with Emebet Adago, a security guard at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Lyons captures some of the hardships faced by many in the Ethiopian-Israeli community.
“I heard recently about the principal of a school in Ashdod who separated the recess of the Ethiopian kids from the others,” Adago tells her interviewer emotionally and goes on to describe the poverty that she lived in as a child in Netanya. Together with her difficult childhood, Adago is still hopeful for the future and in response to Lyons’s question “Does your mother regret coming to Israel, because it has been so difficult for her?” this young woman answers: “Never, never.”
Along with the negative challenges facing the community, Lyons also succeeds in showing some of its positive achievements, interviewing some more high-profile Ethiopian-Israelis such as comedian Yossi Vassa, whose one-man play It Sounds Better in Amharic pokes serious fun at the immigrant experiences faced by many in his community.
Coupled with solid and, in some cases, powerful photography by Ilan Ossendryver, The Ethiopian Jews of Israel is a recommended read for anyone interested in understanding the basics of where these black Jews come from and how they fit into Israeli society.
“They’re always surprised,” Levi said, “and they should not be.”