Focus on Israel’s Ethiopians

In a mikveh in Auburndale, you can commune with the Ethiopian Jews of Israel this summer – their portraits, that is. Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh is hosting the exhibit “From Tesfa to Tikvah/From Hope to Hope” by photojournalist Irene Fertik. Fertik has spent her life photographing minority communities in America and abroad. “I’ve never considered myself an artist,” said Fertik, who was at reception for the show this week. “I’m a documentary photographer; more of an activist with a camera.” Fertik said that tesfa is hope in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, and tikvah is hope in Hebrew. Fertik, who calls herself a child of the ’60s, stressed the impact the Civil Rights movement on her life. After working at her student newspaper at the University of Pittsburgh, she moved to New York City armed with a small portfolio of photos. “I started freelancing for many African-American organizations and individuals,” said Fertik. “At the
time there was a very vital and flowering renaissance of black art, the second Harlem Renaissance. I was photographing a lot of musicians, writers, actors and dancers in the black community. I didn’t want to shoot poverty; I wanted to shoot the vitality of the black experience in its most positive manifestation.” She later worked for the Burlington Free Press in Vermont and then for the University of Southern California. Fertik said that when she heard about Ethiopian Jews in Israel, she started donating to the New Israel Fund and researching the history of the community. “Eventually I said I want to see if these black immigrants are being treated any nicer than anywhere else in the world by my people,” said Fertik. “I stayed a month the first time in 1992. I watched the way they interacted with other Israelis, and it felt very normal, not like there was racism.” She returned every few years. “My perspective is always to go into a community to get an intimate view of the story,” said Fertik. “I have a lot of wonderful Ethiopian families that I feel a part of and through that I have shot a lot of intimate life cycle experiences and really celebratory events like weddings and births.” Among the families she befriended is that of actor Ferdo, who has been dubbed the Israeli Denzel Washington. He stars in the movie “Live and Become,” about an Ethiopian boy in a refugee camp in Israel. It will be screened next month in conjunction with the show. Fertik noted that her Ethiopian story has its darker sides, such as the Israeli government’s refusal to let her shoot photos inside an AIDS clinic and the 2006 epidemic of youth suicide in the Ethiopian community. But she was determined to document everything she could access. “Ethiopian culture is very reserved
and private,” said Fertik. “They don’t want their pictures taken. I had to promise people I
would never sell this work, it’s all for a book.” This past year, Fertik donated her photography skills to the New Israel Fund, which led to the Mayyim Hayyim show. Proceeds will benefit the organization. The show’s other sponsors are the CJP Boston-Haifa Connection, Ethiopian Jewry Committee of JCRC, Friends of Ethiopian Jewry, Mayyim Hayyim, and the Israeli Consulate. Also partnering is the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

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