ROOTS – ETHIOPIAN-STYLE

Reverting to their original names, learning Amharic, even visiting their native land, young Ethiopians are reconnecting with their heritage. For some, it’s a protest. For most, the result is a strengthened Israeli identity.

Uri Ayali arrived in Israel from Ethiopia with his parents and six siblings when he was 4 years old. It was 1989, and his first name was still Gashau. After five years in an absorption center at Kadouri in the Lower Galilee, the family moved first to Tiberias and then to Netanyah, where they still live. Although he spoke Amharic at home, and his parents told him about Ethiopia, Ayali, like many of his peers, felt alienated from his native culture. But though too Israeli to be Ethiopian, he says he “didn’t feel that I really belonged here either.”

Earlier this year, months before he entered the army, where he serves in the Golani infantry brigade, Ayali returned to Ethiopia. He went on a unique “roots” trip, with his 27 Ethiopian and Russian classmates at Mekhinat Yemin Ord – a pre-army framework for immigrants in the Upper Galilee. The group had been slated to go to Russia as well, but it was feared that some of the kids were liable for army service there and would be drafted. Over those seven days touring the land where he was born, Ayali says, “I found myself” – both forging a connection to Ethiopia and developing his identity as an Israeli.

Many young Ethiopian Israelis like Ayali, most of whom came at or around the time of 1991’s Operation Solomon emergency airlift, are taking a renewed interest in their heritage. Only a few have made the physical journey back to Ethiopia, but others are re-embracing it in a variety of other ways. For a minority of the estimated 16,000 Ethiopian-born Israelis aged 16-26, this involves a simultaneous rejection of Israeli culture and society; for most it seems to be enriching their Israeli identity.

With the air of a tourist, Ayali describes the first half of the roots trip as “sort of routine.” But that changed when they went to Ambover, south of Gondar, the village where one of the class, Yossi Solomon, was born. Yossi’s father, Kes Mahari Solomon, who now lives in Kiryat Gat, was the spiritual leader of Ambover’s 15 Jewish families, but Yossi had left religion behind.

There are no Jews left in the village today, Ayali says, but walking amidst the straw huts and barefoot children, the group sought out the synagogue, a low, concrete building. Astoundingly after all those years, they found it intact. Says Ayali: “We don’t know why the people who live there didn’t turn it into a barnyard or something. It was loosely locked. We just pushed a little and it opened. It looked like something ancient and untouched, covered with dust. There were Torah scrolls, and siddurs and Bibles in Hebrew, and Pesah Haggadot in Hebrew. It just put us on a high.”

The trip had originated in a “community meeting” at the mekhinah last year. Eyal Eldar, the principal, was leading a discussion about fulfilling dreams. Recalls Ayali: “This one guy who came to Israel four years ago said that his dream was to go back to visit Ethiopia. Someone said, ‘Let’s do it’ and we all laughed at him; we never believed it would happen.”

But Eldar made them a deal: He would find half the funds if they came up with the other half. Since asking their parents was out – the students came from economically weak homes – all 28 spent seven weeks picking fruit on the nearby Golan Heights and working at a packaging plant, until they’d earned the 90,000 shekels (about $ 20,000) they needed.

“The trip changed us much more than we imagined it would,” says Ayali. “Before, I had wanted to become an officer in the army for my own personal prestige. Now I want to do so because I’ve seen that our parents lived in mud and managed to survive for years with the hope of reaching the land of milk and honey. So it’s about contributing to this country that I live in, that my parents yearned for so much and reached, and that I have to protect.”

Eldar, whose mekhinah is a long barrack-like building nestling in rolling Galilee hills, regards that kind of mindset as vindication – of his teaching and of the roots trip initiative. Most of Ayali’s generation of Ethiopians, he believes, “is not connected to anything – not to Ethiopia and not to Israel. There’s a disconnect between them and their parents. We’ve tried to teach them that their strength lies in where they came from. We ask them to think about, ‘Where do I fit in on the chain?'”

It’s no coincidence, he goes on, that whereas in past years not all the Ethiopians’ parents came to the graduation ceremony – “some students were ashamed of them” – the roots-trip year had a full complement of admiring parents on graduation day. “That trip reconnected them as families.”

Another sign of renewed interest in heritage is the growing trend among Ethiopian-Israeli youth to return to their Amharic names. “When we first came to Israel, we were treated in a paternalistic way,” says Addisu Messele, chairman of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ). “They wanted to Hebraicize our names, they said it would be better for us. But the younger generation are making a symbolic protest, and changing back.”

Eldar sees it not as protest but as pride. “Every year,” he says, “I run an activity about names: What was your grandfather’s name? Your father’s? Your name? What will you name your children. There are those that want to go back to their Amharic names, and those that say, ‘No way, I want my children to feel completely Israeli.’ What’s important is that they think about it.”

Ayali prefers being called by his Israeli name. “Gashau is ‘peace, serenity, light’ in Amharic. Uri” – literally “my light” – means the same thing.”

But Shwanesh Manioz never felt comfortable with her Hebrew name, Shoshanah. A petite, self-confident, university-educated 26-year-old, who works as an Arabic-to-English translator for a news service and coordinates an Israeli-Palestinian educational dialogue program, Manioz sees herself as both extremely Israeli and very proud of her Ethiopian heritage. “I believe that if you want to go somewhere, you have to know your past,” she says, leaning forward across the table at a Jerusalem cafe, and pulling her unruly hair behind her ears.

She didn’t always feel this way. Manioz, who arrived here in 1984 with most of her family, says she made her own decisions about where to study, and that her parents – though pleased that she went on to university (where she earned a BA in Middle Eastern and African Studies) – really had no idea what was good for her.

At her first boarding school, in Haifa, “I tried to lose my accent, I spoke only Hebrew. The dormitory separates you from your parents’ culture. I had a problematic relationship with my parents. Until I went to the army I would fight with them, not talk.” Shaking her head, she adds softly, “I didn’t understand them. I was blind.”

After a year in Haifa, and still going by Shoshi, she moved to a high school on Kibbutz Sa’ad, in the south. “That’s when I started making the transition between having only Ethiopian friends to having mostly Israeli friends,” she says. Ironically, it was then, when she met her first boyfriend, an Israeli, that she reverted to her Ethiopian name. “He asked me my name. I said Shoshanah, Shoshi. He asked what it was in Amharic. I told him and he said, ‘From now on I’m calling you Shwanesh.’ I liked it.”

“Shwanesh,” she enthuses, “has a few meanings: to always be in Shwa (an area of Ethiopia from which royalty is said to have hailed); a smooth riverbed pebble… but most importantly, it’s the name my mother gave me. Now I’ve forgotten my name was Shoshi.”

The defining period for Manioz’s identity was the 18 months she lived in New York after her army service. “I had a lot of African American friends, and they always told me, ‘You’re so lucky – you know where your parents are, you have roots. And I realized how little I had appreciated that. All I had to do was go back to my parents and talk to them. Suddenly, in New York, I began wondering about who I am. Am I Jewish? Am I black? Am I Ethiopian?”

Like Ayali, Manioz is adamant that she was seeking, and has found, a balance between her Ethiopian and Israeli sensibilities. Indeed she tries to take her Israeli friends into her Ethiopian world. “I bring them home to my parents, and my parents make them Ethiopian coffee. I bring my friends so that they’ll know me.”

Competing with the Israeli and Ethiopian identities is an African one – emblemized by a kind of rap-reggae look – dreadlocks, baggy clothing in red, yellow and green. Addisu Messele, at IAEJ, says it’s relatively marginal. But Germai Culchabash, 25, an Ethiopian rapper and reggae artist who uses the stage name Jeremy, attests to its growing popularity, although he sees it in anything but negative terms.

Jeremy has become enormously popular over the past six years, singing reggae, rap and hip-hop in a mix of English, Hebrew and Amharic at clubs and festivals, and has performed in England, Canada and Ethiopia as well. “I’m their role model,” he says of the Ethiopian youth.

He says he tries to use his influence in a positive way: His lyrics are nonviolent, and, unlike those of some American rappers, don’t advocate drugs and crime. While the reggae rhythm works well for mellow songs about love and peace, he says, rap is a way for him and his community to express the protest and dissatisfaction many feel. Some of his lyrics deal with matters as banal, if irritating, as the frustrations of the Israeli bureaucracy; others tackle racism, and especially what Culchabash regards as the failure of “Israeli society to recognize the black race.”

Far from compounding any sense of alienation, Culchabash uses his credibility among young Ethiopians to try and help those who are most disaffected. Working with a counseling center set up at Tel Aviv’s central bus station by Fidel (“Alphabet” in Amharic) – the Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel – he plays and teaches music to the young Ethiopians, many of them runaways, who hang out there.

Manioz understands the attractions of the reggae and rap scenes: “On one hand, you’re not always accepted as Israeli. On the other, it’s hard to understand your parents. So you look for your own identity, and you find one that isn’t too difficult, not too deep. It’s easy to identify with MTV.” But often, she muses, there are negative associations – “drugs, criminality, machismo.”

And drugs, alcohol and crime are an increasing problem. A recent conference on immigrant criminality, at Tel Aviv University, heard that Ethiopian Israelis have a higher juvenile delinquency rate than any other immigrant population. Of 512 Ethiopians aged 12-18 surveyed over the past two years by Dr. Arnon Edelstein, of Hebrew University’s Criminology department, 13 percent had been arrested more than 10 times – considered “hard core” criminals, says Edelstein. A third had tried drugs, most by the age of 15. And a quarter of that group admitted stealing to buy drugs. While previous studies of high school kids have found that about 10.5 percent of native Israelis use drugs, Edelstein says, the figure is 20 percent among Ethiopians.

“If I have one criticism of the state,” says Manioz, “it’s that we, who knew nothing of drugs, prostitution, crime, were put into the worst neighborhoods. And we grew up seeing those things on the street, and you can see the outcome. In Ashkelon, my family now has an Ethiopian neighbor downstairs who’s a drug addict. The parents don’t know how to deal with it.”

Investigating a possible connection between crime rate and identity patterns, Edelstein asked 87 of the young Ethiopians in the study to define themselves. Those who described themselves as either solely Ethiopian, or as black/African, were also those with the highest crime rate and drug and alcohol use. Those who defined themselves as Israeli, or as both Ethiopian and Israeli, were the least involved.

“Culture clash is plainly creating a conflict between young Ethiopians and both their parents and society,” he believes. “Fathers, in particular, have lost the ability to supervise.” And the stigma Ethiopians face in Israel fuels alienation and can lead to a descent into crime. “They’re often diagnosed, incorrectly, as having learning disabilities, and placed in non-academic tracks,” he notes. “Only 20 percent matriculate” – compared to the national 46.5 percent.

Manioz confirms the talk of stigmas. “Sometimes when I walk down the street, people offer me jobs. Do I want to work in the kitchen, do house cleaning. I’m a graduate!” she says indignantly. “I work at a news service, run a coexistence program.”

One solution, according to Edelstein, lies precisely in the direction that young Ethiopians like Ayali and Manioz have found for themselves: Placing greater focus on the Ethiopian Jewish heritage. “Let’s give Ethiopian culture wider public recognition,” he urges. “Let all Israelis get to know their culture. Let them celebrate their holidays like the Moroccans do the Mimounah, in the full glare of the national spotlight.” (This is actually starting to happen with Sigd, 50 days after Yom Kippur, the Ethiopians’ traditional annual day of prayer for the return to Zion.) “In that way, we will give the youth pride in their heritage instead of shame. And they’ll face less discrimination.”

A program called Mizmor (song) is trying to do just that. Funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, and endorsed by the Education Ministry, it brings Ethiopian music to kindergartens and Grades 1 to 6 at over 30 schools – using specially trained music teachers. Kids follow along with tapes or the teacher’s singing in a book with Hebrew translation and transliteration and the Amharic original. Woven into the program are explanations of Ethiopian instruments and native rhythms, folk sayings and tales, history and customs.

Many school choirs now perform these songs, especially at Sigd celebrations. “It gives the Ethiopian kids self-confidence,” says Irit Lifshitz of the Center for Educational Technology, who conceived Mizmor together with veteran musician Shlomo Gronich. “They become the center of attention. Suddenly, they too can contribute.” The Idan Reichel Project – a hit album integrating Amharic and Hebrew music, texts and even prayers – has also done its share in giving the Ethiopian music culture public exposure and popularity.

And the same process was effected, quite unintentionally, by Ayali and his 27 classmates on the roots trip. The seven Russian students couldn’t be left behind after Russia fell off the original itinerary. But, Ayali acknowledges, the expectation was that they would be peripheral figures. That turned out to be far from the case.

Ayali recalls what he says was the most moving moment of the trip – their summing-up discussion before they left for Addis airport on the final afternoon. “We all just opened our hearts to each other. The people you’d least expect were the ones who were tearful, Russians and Ethiopians. Until the trip we’d been somewhat at odds. We didn’t understand where we were all coming from. But now they’d seen where we had grown up. They’d thought they had it hard, but now they could match our upbringing to their childhood experiences. And it brought us together. As Israelis.”

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