Then and now: Tracking down the Ethiopian Jews who moved to Israel

Itzik Tamano in first grade at an Israeli elementary school in the 1980s, after immigrating to Israel from Ethiopia at age 4. Credit – Doron Bacher

For over 30 years, Doron Bacher documented the immigrants who came to Israel from Ethiopia in Operation Moses (in 1984-1985). His camera captured moments in their absorption and acclimatization to Israel when the operation was still secret and it was forbidden to publish photographs of them. It followed them in school, bar mitzvah ceremonies, the army, weddings, workplaces, and as they moved into permanent housing.

One of the new immigrants who caught his eye was Zehava Mahari, a beautiful 3-year-old girl whom it was impossible to ignore. Bacher met her at the Mikhmoret absorption center in central Israel. She had arrived there with her mother in 1985, at the end of a dangerous, harrowing journey from Ethiopia to Israel.

Mahari’s tale is part of the mosaic of personal stories presented in the exhibition “Operation Moses: 30 Years After,” which opens at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot (The Museum of the Jewish People) on May 25.

“Immigration from Ethiopia was a very, very new thing, and people didn’t know how to process these ‘black Jews.’ But I knew I was photographing history,” recalls Bacher, 61, at the time a young photographer working at Beit Hatfutsot.

When he photographed Mahari, someone from a window in the adjacent building threw an orange at her. She managed to catch it with her dress, which she lifted up slightly with two hands. Bacher says that even now, three decades on, he can’t forget her captivating expression and the innocent face that hid those big eyes and an embarrassed smile.

Mahari’s picture remained in Beit Hatfutsot’s photo archive in Tel Aviv and over the years became iconic. It featured prominently in articles, books and exhibitions, without Zehava having a clue about the fame she had garnered. Over the years, Bacher tried to locate her, but in vain. “I looked for her for 30 years,” he says.