Out of Africa

A new book by photographer Ricki Rosen chronicles the transformation of Ethiopian Jews into Israelis

ethiopiansoldier298 88aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
ethiopiansoldier298 88aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Two years into her aliya from America, photographer Ricki Rosen had already covered the intifada and other important stories for major magazines such as Time. Then, in the summer of 1990, one story would become the biggest and most engrossing project of her career: the massive airlift to Israel of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia. "[Journalist] Micha Odenheimer called me," Rosen recalled in Jerusalem recently, "and said that there were 100,000 Ethiopian Jews camped out near the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa; that there was going to be an airlift, a major operation; and that Mengistu [Haile Mariam], the dictator, was about to fall and there would be a revolution. Was I interested in going with him? So I called up my photo editor at Time and told him about the rumors. He said, 'It's a slow summer. Go ahead.' "We arrived August 2, 1990, in Addis Ababa. That day, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Needless to say, Time magazine wasn't interested in the story anymore!" But the Jewish world would become very interested in the story. Already in 1984 and 1985, with the help and encouragement of American Jews, Israel airlifted a few thousand Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish state in covert operations across the Sudan border. In 1990, masses descended upon the capital in expectation of a repeat performance. "The rumors weren't exactly true," Rosen explained. "There weren't 100,000. But there were thousands of Jews who had heard that Israel was going to airlift them out, and they had come down from Gondar in the north and were living in slums, camping out around the Israeli Embassy." The sight, Rosen recalled, was gripping. "When we arrived, there was this line that just stretched on forever. Everybody had white robes, which were their holiday clothes, when they would approach the embassy - because they were approaching Zion. It was really a mythic kind of image." That image, and a hundred more, are captured in Transformations: From Ethiopia to Israel, a book chronicling Rosen's three trips to Ethiopia that was recently published thanks to grants from the Jewish Agency and a charitable American Jewish organization. The book, and the story it tells (through Rosen's photographs and an essay from Odenheimer), took nearly 14 years to unfold. WHILE ISRAEL grappled with the question of Ethiopian Jewry to the southwest, a much larger Diaspora community was beginning to earn its freedom to the northeast. In 1991, Rosen continued, "I had the opportunity to go to the Soviet Union in conjunction with the Jewish Agency, traveling all over and photographing Jews getting ready for aliya." One day in May of that year, in Budapest, Rosen said, "I arrived at the office of the Jewish Agency, and they said, 'You have an emergency call from Jerusalem.' When I called them back they said, 'The thing that we talked about is about to happen. You have to return home immediately.' They couldn't say it because of censorship, but Operation Solomon was happening the next morning. "So I came back that night with the Russians and left the next morning for Ethiopia - without a visa. The reason that they were doing Operation Solomon at that time was that the rebels had entered Addis Ababa, Mengistu had fled. The Israelis and world Jewry who had backed the operation were afraid that everything they had been setting up for more than a year with Mengistu would fall apart, and the Jews would never get out of there but be held hostage by the rebels. It was a very sensitive time." It was so sensitive that Rosen's second trip to Ethiopia was very nearly her last. "When I arrived at the airport, the Ethiopians wouldn't let me in," she said. "My ticket was actually to Nairobi, Kenya. I said I was on my way to a safari, and that I had six hours to wait, and I wanted to look at their beautiful country. They didn't want to, but they let me out. Later, when I went back to the airport with the Jews at the start of Operation Solomon, unfortunately the same guy who had let me out saw me and caught me. If it wasn't for some of the people from the Jewish Agency, I would still be in an Ethiopian jail!" The exodus of Soviet Jewry would become a worldwide cause celebre and overshadow the Ethiopian aliya, but their simultaneous occurrence only amplified the magnitude of what was happening. "Before Operation Solomon," Rosen said, the Ethiopian Jews "were coming to Israel, a few hundred every week. So I would hang out several nights a week at the airport to see these planes bringing a thousand Russians and a few hundred Ethiopians. In the arrivals hall, you'd have on one side white Russians, on the other side all black Ethiopians, looking at each other. The Russians were asking, 'Who are these black people? Are they Jews?' and the Ethiopians were also asking, 'Who are those people? Are they Jews?' "It was an incredible scene, it was like the ingathering of the exiles. It had the feeling of something major happening. It was," Rosen noted, "one of the greatest experiences of my life." THAT EXPERIENCE did not end there, however. Rosen would return to Ethiopia in 1999, after a pair of Israeli backpackers had alerted Odenheimer to the plight of Jews in the remote Quara region. By that point, Rosen admitted, she had "fallen in love with the place, and with the people." After extensively photographing Ethiopian Jews' immigration, Rosen began to take an interest in showing their absorption into Israeli society. To do that, she began an exhaustive search for the people in her photographs. "It was actually quite easy," Rosen says with a laugh. "Everybody seems to know each other. They are either related - these extended Ethiopian families, some of them number in the hundreds - or stayed in the same absorption center. "...I started showing these pictures to somebody who had worked with the Jewish Agency, and he immediately said, 'Oh, that's my grandmother's cousin and she lives in Hadera. "So I went up to Hadera and found the Ethiopian neighborhood. I showed the picture to someone who looked old enough to remember Ethiopia, said they were from Operation Solomon and asked, 'Do you know who this is?' They said, 'Yes, they live in that building, third floor.' "Then when I was there," Rosen continued, "I showed her pictures and she said, 'That's my brother-in-law's family, and they live in Netivot.' So I went down to Netivot." Rosen also sought out subjects at several Sigd festivals, which are held annually on a Jerusalem hilltop overlooking the Temple Mount and commemorate the giving of the Torah. And some of the Jewish Agency workers who were in Ethiopia also helped her track down some of the subjects. In this way, Rosen said, she located about 60 people. But it wasn't always easy. "I had a few false leads," she said with a laugh and a shake of the head. One particularly disappointing wild goose chase involved a young woman who appears in Transformations crying in front of the endless line at the embassy in Addis Ababa. "I wanted so much to find her, to find out why she was crying," Rosen said. "I assumed she was crying because they turned her down for aliya, but I was pretty sure that she eventually made it here. I just never found her." Another near miss involved an Ethiopian boy and a Russian boy who had become friends at an absorption center. Even years later, a nursery school teacher thought she could identify the two. So Rosen tracked down family members of the boys. Both had become soldiers, but were serving in bases far away from each other. After several months and dozens of calls, Rosen was able to arrange a meeting of the two at the IDF Armored Corps Museum at Latrun, so she could photograph the pair in their uniforms. But when the Russian boy saw the picture that was supposedly of him, he said, "That's not me!" "I still have hopes that I'll find the [real] Russian boy someday," Rosen said. "Maybe for a second book!" THE POWER of Transformations lies in the stark contrasts between the Jews of Ethiopia of the last decade and the Ethiopian Jews of Israel of little more than a year ago. An early picture of frightened young sisters shown descending the steps of what is likely the first airplane they have seen is juxtaposed with the later image of the two as confident students at university. Skeletal, impoverished families who once shared a tiny mud hut and feared rebel soldiers are shown today in a modern apartment with sons who now serve in the IDF. Some of the recent photos are posed as if to recreate the original photos, as in the arrangement of children around their parents as in the original; others turned out to be similar without Rosen realizing it until later and others were purposely different. "I tried to set things up that would be a reflection of the former pictures," she said, but "I didn't want it to look too simplistic. I don't want people to think that I staged things." Beyond the additions of material goods and an abundance of bright blue and white Israeli flags that permeate the images that Rosen captured lie other things that cannot be staged: pride, even fulfillment. At least, this is what an observer sees. For the Ethiopians who served as subjects of Rosen's photographs, what stand out are the older images - the forgotten images of their first home. In her meetings with them, Rosen said, their sense of nostalgia and rediscovery at seeing those photographs again was powerful. "They could bring only the clothes on their backs when they came on Operation Solomon, so they had no pictures. So [the opportunity to see those old pictures again] was very precious to them - even to the young ones, some of whom may feel embarrassed about where they come from. Especially if they were little kids when they came here, they don't know it at all." In fact, Rosen said, some people - not the Ethiopians themselves - have said they like the old pictures in the book more. "They feel like it's a shame because a certain romantic, idealized image of people has been lost. Some people even feel like it was a mistake to bring them here," she explained. "Personally," said Rosen, "I think that's patronizing. There was disease and starvation, 90 percent of them were illiterate, and they couldn't live as Jews, which was very, very important to them. So, to say that they shouldn't be given the chance to live like we live..." The book "doesn't show much of the failures," Rosen admitted, "of which, unfortunately, there are many. But I wasn't trying to sugar-coat it." It's just, she said, that "most of the people I photographed and met after all these years have been alright." MORE THAN two decades since the first Ethiopian Jews were smuggled to freedom in Israel, and in light of the fact that they are so obviously different from most other Jews here, the question remains as to whether their aliya has been a success. "My grandparents came [to the United States] from Europe," Rosen noted, "and it took them more than 20 years to get out of the tenements and into the suburbs - you know, to live comfortably in America. So I think the Ethiopian aliya is going really well and quickly, especially considering where they came from just 20 years ago. "Still, when people remember their lives in Ethiopia, they remember that they had farms, that they were independent. The adults say that it's been hard for them to get used to the stresses of life here - things like the electricity bill, phone bills, mortgage. They didn't have any of that there. They also didn't have electricity, they didn't have phones, they didn't have running water. "So they remember with fondness and some kind of nostalgia the 'good life' in Ethiopia, even though the infant mortality rate was high, as were the disease rate and the starvation rate, etc. They remember being able to work their farms and feeling that they had dignity and standing in society, while here they work in cleaning jobs or as security guards in cafes or malls. They haven't gotten to the point where they can feel that they have the same dignity, so I can understand their nostalgia for the days when they had more control over their lives in an environment that they understood." Rosen still works as a freelance news photographer; she covered the first Gulf War, the Oslo process, the Rabin assassination, the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Madonna's Kabbala-driven visit to Israel, etc. But following the stories of so many Ethiopians' physical and emotional journeys has, perhaps unavoidably, also affected Rosen's own perspective on Israel. "I never came here as a Zionist, I just liked the place. I never went to Zionist summer camp and learned all the songs and all that. But this story makes me feel like a Zionist," Rosen explained. "I mean, around the world, people are committed to giving aid to Africa - as long as all the poor Africans stay in their own countries and don't come to their comfortable countries. But Israel sent rescue missions, more than once, to bring thousands of destitute Africans to this country, and has accepted them as full members of this community at great expense and effort and energy - and American Jews have helped pay for all of this - all because of the fact that they were Jews. "It makes me feel good. And I think this book makes people feel good about being Jews, about being Israeli. It's not just liberal talk. It's action. It's transformation." Transformations will soon be sold in Israeli bookstores. Until then, it can be obtained by contacting Ricki Rosen at [email protected]