‘Know from where you’ve come, and you’ll know where you going. That about sums it up,” said Mutti Ayano, who is just back from a visit to Ethiopia, where he was born.
We’re sitting in the library with his fellow travelers, 11th- and 12th-grade students from the residential Youth Aliya village of Meir Shfeya, near Zichron Ya’acov.
Most of the students at the table, like him, are of Ethiopian Jewish origin. There are a handful of non-Ethiopian students who joined the group. Ayano is their madrich (counselor), and he’s the only one who really remembers life in the Ethiopian village of his childhood.
Half the teens are Sabras, born after their parents came to Israel, and only know of Ethiopia from vague family stories. The others were babies or preschoolers carried in their parents’ arms as they boarded the jets to Israel.
But Ayano, 32, was left behind with his grandmother when his mother crossed the treacherous Sudan desert on their aliya journey, and didn’t arrive until 1991, when he was 10.
Although his official role was accompanying the 16 teens who’d been selected to make this school trip, he suspected this would be an emotional visit for him, too. And he was right.
School trips to Ethiopia aren’t common in Israel. Unlike the Holocaust study tours to Poland, they’re not subsidized by the Education Ministry. But Meir Shfeya’s director Yoram Penias – who isn’t Ethiopian – felt such a trip would have a positive impact on the appreciation of the Ethiopian heritage among the students in the village.
About a third of the students in the 90-yearold Meir Shfeya Village are Ethiopian. Another third come from immigrant families from the former Soviet Union, or on the Na’aleh program for FSU teens who come on their own. A third are Sabras who social services believe would benefit from village schooling outside their homes, including Beduin and Druse, plus Eritrean refugees.
The 300 teens in the boarding school are joined in the Meir Shfeya High School by another 400 external high school students from the towns of Zichron Ya’acov and Binyamina.
Their parents petitioned the courts to allow their children to study in the excellent school.
To strengthen Ethiopian Jewish identity and familiarize students with it, Penias has built an “Ethiopian hillside” at the village. Students worked with him to create five circular Ethiopian huts, called tukuls: three around the hut synagogue, with its Star of David on the roof, and one at a distance. The last is the women’s hut, where mothers traditionally go for seclusion and rest after they give birth. The roofs are made of wood and grass, the walls plastered with straw and mud from the Meir Shfeya cowshed, where prized milking cows flourish.
Because Meir Shfeya is an agricultural village, goats, free-range chickens and geese share the hillside, as they did back in Ethiopia. Tourists and student groups come by to see it.
To raise money for the journey, the 16 students worked on upkeep of the hillside and picked grapes for the Meir Shfeya winery. They also volunteered with young Ethiopian pupils in Hadera, helping them with their homework.
Donations also came in from local supporters and from Hadassah, a long-time supporter of Meir Shfeya.
Ayano and the high school students try to give me a sense of the complexity of being an Ethiopian Israeli. (Because they’re students, I can’t use their full names.) “Some call you ya’oleh,” said B., 16, using the derogatory term similar to “wetback.” “The other students assume we come from nowhere, from a place that had no culture. And we start to think that way, too. We didn’t even know there would be historic buildings to visit.”
Y., 18, admits that she never listened with much interest to her parents’ stories of the challenges or beauty of life in Ethiopia. Even when she had to interview them as part of preparation process for the trip, which included history, films and a night out at an Ethiopian play and restaurant, she didn’t dig deep. ”I was born here, I’m a Sabra. What was there to know about?” A lot, as it turned out. Once Y. landed in Ethiopia, her Amharic got stronger – and so did her interest in everything Ethiopian. At the same time, she felt very proud to be coming as an Israeli.
B. said he suddenly felt incredibly fortunate to be living in Israel, where all the educational opportunities he wanted were spread out before him. “I guess I realized that I have to take responsibility now for my future – no excuses.”
Although most teens like to distance themselves from their parents, youngsters from an Ethiopian background are often burdened by an inferiority complex connected to their parents’ lack of formal education and difficulty adjusting to Israel, said Ayano, who has gone through this himself.
O., for instance, admits to having had a chip on his shoulder since his father died when he was small. No one mentions his father at their home, but O. has always felt that he and his brother inherited their dancing talent from him – not that they showed it at school dances.
His expertise is in Eskesta, the dance of the Gondar region, which has unique neck, shoulder and chest movements. But in Ethiopia, at a club, he wound up facing off with success against the local dance star, with his fellow Israelis cheering on their champion.
“I felt the anger and sadness I’d carried around with me ever since I was a little kid,” O. said. In the few days since they’ve returned from Ethiopia, he’s been swamped with requests to see his dancing. “Everyone wants to know everything about the trip. There’s huge interest. It’s cool to be Ethiopian.”
For several of the other students, the voyage also had personal implications. Although she can’t talk about it because of the emotional upheaval, one teen met her father for the first time. Another found his father’s grave, which – in Ethiopian style – had a picture of the deceased on the tombstone. Still another met two half-brothers, who looked a lot like his Israeli brother.
But the students are unanimous that the most emotional moment of the trip was accompanying their madrich, Ayano, on the search for his own home.
When Ayano came to Israel as a 10 year old, he worked hard to learn Hebrew and succeed in school. A lot of students were heading for boarding high schools and he found his way to Meir Shfeya, where he became a star student.
He served in a fighting unit of the IDF infantry, studied electronics, but decided that his heart was in education. So he came back to Meir Shfeya, to help guide other kids struggling with unresolved issues that have to do with unspoken loss and identity.
The lean, handsome Givati soldier walked with a characteristic Israeli stride over the hills of Rusava, his village, with the whole group struggling to keep up behind him. As a child living with his grandmother, he’d taken care of the sheep and spent his days walking the green hills. His parents had lived in a city where he’d had to hide his Jewish identity because of rampant anti-Semitism. Here, at his grandmother’s village, everyone was Jewish.
“Suddenly I was in a world where everyone kept Shabbat,” he said. “It was a good life, a spiritual life. I wanted the students to understand how hard their families had worked to preserve Judaism in a hostile environment, and how much Judaism and Israel were loved.”
They strode through the village. He talked to the residents. His Amharic is fluent, but he has an Israeli accent. No one remembered his family.
All the Jews have gone.
At he approached the spot where his home had been, the group went suddenly silent. “I knew the house itself was gone, of course. A straw hut doesn’t last forever.”
He knew the hilltop. “It’s here,” he said.
They stood motionless, tears in so many eyes.
Said Ayano, who noted that he feels more at peace with himself, having gone back: “They guessed what I was feeling. I was once again the happy-go-lucky boy with his sheep, and the proud Israeli soldier who fought for Israel. I was the Ethiopian Israeli with all the challenges of identity. I was their counselor, and someone who’d made it despite the struggles.
And I was the little boy who sat around the nightly campfire eating dinner and hearing of the dreams of Jerusalem, the city where everyone wore white.
“We had come from a land that required resilience, but where there was more time to listen to stories.” ■ The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.