‘It’s Not Easy Being an Ethiopian Jew in America’
When Avishai Mekonen, 35, an Israeli photographer who has lived for the past seven years in New York City, lectured before American high-school students in Savannah, GA, one of them asked him to roll up his sleeve.
“Where is the number?” the student asked. Mekonen didn’t get it at first.
“I thought Jews are Holocausts survivors. Aren’t you a Holocaust survivor?” explained the teenager. With experiences of this kind, admits Mekonen, it’s not always easy to be the Ethiopian Jew in America. As if it is anywhere else.
In his new exhibition, “Seven Generations”, he wishes to return to his community the pride of its authentic tradition. Then irony in his quest for shards of his traditional identity is that his work is being displayed in New York, and not in Israel.
It is customary for Ethiopians, before getting married, to have the community elders account for seven generations of each family, in order to ensure that no accidental cases of incest can occur. This tradition also became one of the foundations of the elders’ authority. One who is able to count seven generations back would receive the respect of the community. Those who can count 14 generations are perceived as geniuses.
“Once an Israeli cab driver who took me to an Ethiopian funeral cursed and said: ‘Those Ethiopians! Only one died, yet hundreds are coming!'” recalls Mekonen. “But in our tradition, you must invite all your extended relatives, 7 generations back, both to the weddings and to funerals. It’s like one big family.”
Some of the youngsters he interviewed for the film accompanying the exhibition have no idea what all of this means, or they don’t really care. When Mekonen married his wife Shari, a Jewish American filmmaker, he didn’t really need the elders’ services to count generations of his bride’s family. His parents, who flew all the way from Israel to the U.S. for the wedding, were quite shocked to see the small number of guests. “This is the whole family?” his mother asked, a bit disappointed.
We eat hummus in a small Manhattan restaurant as Mekonen tells me that many years ago he had this idea to make a documentary about the painful generation gap of the Ethiopian community, but dawdled, and his move to the U.S. to join his wife further complicated the matter.
“But one day it struck me, when I met a young Ethiopian in Israel who is able to count generations. This tradition will just disappear, and nothing will be left of it.”
He says that Israeli bureaucrats unknowingly contributed to the destruction of the custom: when Mekonen made Aliya to Israel in 1984, instead of taking on his father’s family name, according to tradition, he was instead registered under his great-grandfather’s name, along with the rest of his family. Born Agegnehu (“gift” in Amharic), he became Avraham upon his arrival. Later, he changed his name to Avishai, to return some semblance of his original name.
“But I’m still Mekonen, and the elders get confused when they try to count generations – it doesn’t seem logical to them, this jump from my great-grandfather to me. Mekonen is supposed to belong to another generation.”
The entire family in Israel was recruited to work on the project. His father made phone calls to community elders, arranging meetings; his mother baked injera, the traditional bread, to honor the hosts; the younger brother was appointed to contact Israeli-Ethiopian hip-hop bands and rebellious teenage girls with tattoos.
“The parents’ generation understood the importance of this project, dressed nicely and fully cooperated. The youngsters neglected it until I talked to them, when they admitted that because of their detachment from tradition they have had serious identity problems. They said they feel “empty and humiliated” when some policeman tells them: “You are Ethiopian, you understand nothing.”
The tears within the Ethiopian community seem so distant from the noisy lobby at the Jewish Community Center building in Manhattan, where his exhibition is presented. In the afternoon, African-American nannies bring children for activities at the Center. 30-year old Jolly is taking care of two active Jewish toddlers, and she seems quite surprised when she sees the pictures: “I never thought there were black Jews!”
Some of the Ethiopians sought comfort in Harlem, so they wouldn’t be forced to deal with the perceptions that “Jews are white”. But Mekonen says “it’s complicated”. In his documentary-in-progress, “400 Miles to freedom”, he explores his personal story and identity, and through this exploration he meets a variety of diverse Jews both in Israel and in America, including Rabbi Capers Funnye, a leader of the African American Jewish community and second cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama, who shares his own historical roots and path to Judaism. He says that although Ethiopians, unlike African-Americans, weren’t enslaved and detached from their history, he feels that the conversations with the community present a strong opportunity to learn about the history of slavery in the U.S.
“There are obvious advantages to being part of a big and influential community,” he admits. “The first time I saw a giant poster featuring a black model, I was stunned and excited that here people actually think that black sells. I wanted it to happen in Israel too. Then in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina where the blacks were neglected, I said, ‘thank God I’m Israeli.’ But when Obama won the election and all our neighbors ran down the street yelling and dancing and singing – I shouted something in Hebrew as well, something like: ‘The good guys won!’ It was perhaps the first time that I felt I belong to this fest, and I said I’m so grateful to be here to witness this historical moment.”
Like almost every Israeli living in New York and hoping “to return one day”, Mekonen dreams of going back to Israel and buying a house in Rosh Pina. He recalls with nostalgia his service in the Israel Defense Forces’ combat engineering unit, the day he was wounded in Hebron by a Molotov cocktail and his time in Lebanon.
“I was a Zionist,” he says. “After I finished my studies I made some documentaries, and one of the films was screened on Channel 1. Even so, I hated headlines like ‘The first Ethiopian filmmaker’ – it made me feel as though they don’t expect anything more from me – you’ve already done your duty, you’re free to go. But I felt that my career had just begun.”
“And then I suddenly found myself organizing the shelves of an N.Y. supermarket, and I didn’t even have a name – I was a ‘garbage boy’. I didn’t come ‘to conquer America’. Frankly, I was horrified at the thought of a second immigration, after we walked from Ethiopia to Sudan.
“I had all kinds of weird phobias, like that being a black Jew might even get me killed over here. Every day I cursed the American food – it seemed so tasteless. For two months, I ate only hot dogs – it was the only thing I could name in English. When I was working at the moving company, like so many other Israelis, one sofa slipped out of my hands and rolled down the stairs, so I had to quit.
“I thought I would have to give up art. I would bring my CV to production companies, but who has heard of Tel-Hai college? Who knows what Channel 1 is here? They were a bit curious about the black guy coming from Israel, but they always finished with: ‘We’ll call you back,’ and you know exactly what that means. The only thing that kept me strong was that I put a small table in the corner, and started writing scripts.”
Eventually, Mekonen started to exhibit his work, got some grants for his projects and was able to go back to filmmaking. But he still feels like a guest in America.
“From the Jewish community I sometimes hear: ‘Did you come with Operation Moshe? I donated to it!’ The thing is my mother lives it every day. Each morning she says: ‘Thank God, thanks to America’. But I start telling people that we were not only sitting there and waiting for someone to rescue us. We walked for months, and thousands died on the way. But they don’t get it, and some even become angry because it doesn’t fit their stereotypes of the naive Africans that are supposed to be grateful until their last day. It’s pretty difficult for me to see sometimes the fundraising campaigns for the Ethiopian community in Israel, they look so miserable. I want people to see my culture as a rich and happy one. But then probably no one would donate money, and it really helps many people.”
In Israel he misses many things that the native Israelis would rather escape.
“I adore those moments, when you come off the plane and the cab driver starts to haggle over each shekel, things like that,” he laughs. “And of course, I ask myself where I would be today if I had stayed there.”
He doubts that his 4-year-old son Ariel will speak Amharic. “But I want him at least to know Hebrew.” At this moment, he would be glad if his exhibition will finally reach Israel. “I want the elders to see it. They deserve it.”
Slightly more than a thousand Ethiopian Jews have settled in North America since the beginning of the 1990s, and about 500 live in New York City. The Israeli Consulate, which used to ignore the trend, nowadays prefers to keep in touch with the Israelis living in the city.
The new New Yorkers themselves hate when one defines it as a “phenomenon”. They are fed up with questions about the racism in Israel and America, and they reject any question that smells of arrogance and an effort to distinguish them from any other young Israelis who head to seek themselves “in the big world.”
Bizu Rikki Mulu, one of the Ethiopian-Israeli-American community veterans, founded an organization aimed at facilitating absorption of the newcomers. She called it Chassida Shmella (“Shmella” means stork in Amharic, she took it from the song people in her village would sing while seeing the migrating birds: “Stork, stork, how is our Holy Land?”). She thinks that the stream of the newcomers will increase now that Obama is president.
“You have here in N.Y.C. maybe one hundred thousand Yemenite Jews, maybe half a million Russian Jews, and now we have the Ethiopian Jews,” she says. “It’s a normal thing. It is better to keep them attached to the community, instead of saying: ‘We’ve spent so much money to bring them to Israel, they should go back there. If someone succeeds, it’s a success for all of us.'”
Mulu, native of a small village in Gondar, came to Israel in 1978 with a group of 150 Jews as part of Operation Begin. She arrived in New York for the first time in 1991, and although she managed to get a green card, she warns that for most young Ethiopians, the absorption is not so simple.
“It looks easy from Israel, but then they come here and work illegally in all kinds of odd jobs, and no one really cares about them,” she says. “A few fared better, some have their own businesses, and one woman works at the local hospital because her profession facilitates the immigration process. And there are plenty of guys who didn’t really succeed, but they don’t want to go back home with empty hands. I think it’s quite healthy to be able to say: ‘I failed and I’m going to try to make it at home.’ Not everyone is like Obama. In many places in America still, the blacks are here and the whites are there. Only in the 60s, segregation was abolished formally. The young Ethiopians coming here don’t think about these things.”
Chassida Shmella organizes cultural and educational events, but most of the newcomers ask for material assistance. “They ask directly: ‘What can you do for me?’ At first, they are less interested in preserving their religious and cultural identity. But most of them come from religious families, and here there are no parents to prepare the Shabbat meal. They are trying to find their place. At first, people at synagogue might stare at them, but eventually they get used to it, and the rabbi is excited. Only upon coming here I discovered how much the American Jews did for the Ethiopian Jews. But there are also a lot of prejudices and stereotypes. Many still want to see us as the guys dressed in white coming off the plane, because that’s how they remember this Aliyah.”
“The Ethiopian Jews sobered later,” declares one fresh arrival. “In Israel, dog eats dog. Here you have plenty of problems as well, but I personally prefer to be stabbed in the back by a gentile, and not my own brother Jew. Here the Ethiopians tend to succeed more, because people don’t look at your origin and family name, they look at what you have to offer them. With God’s help, we’ll get back to Israel empowered, economically and mentally, to Jerusalem and not to the state-sponsored trailers.”