Cover: Rainbow writer

With her first book in Hebrew for adults due to be published soon, British-born Naomi Shmuel is continuing her tradition of bridging cultural gaps.

Naomi Shmuel 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Naomi Shmuel 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
The books of British-born Naomi Shmuel were the first children’s books in Hebrew to introduce brown-skinned heroes into children’s stories, heroes Ethiopian immigrant children could identify with and feel proud of.
The writer has a personal connection with the Ethiopian community, since her husband, Emmanuel, is Ethiopian.
Most of her books deal with the issue of cross-cultural transition in one way or another. Many of them are used today in schools and preschool programs to foster cross-cultural understanding and tolerance.
Most of her 14 books are in Hebrew for children. However, her upcoming book, Beten Mele’a Dma’ot (A Belly Full of Tears) – the manuscript of which recently won her the 2012 ACUM literary prize – is her first Hebrew-language book for adults.
“I had doubts whether I could write a book for adults in Hebrew, but being awarded this prize is encouraging,” she says.
ACUM – the Israeli Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Musical Works – is an organization that protects its members’ rights to their work, and it offers annual prizes in various categories.
On its website, the group praises Shmuel’s writing, saying that although “the way to acceptance is long and difficult,” she “dares to build a bridge of hope over the difficulties and limitations.
The book’s beauty is in its great restraint, its gentleness, similar to a watercolor painting.... With clear and compelling language, with courage, the author Naomi Shmuel reawakens an entire world that stares us in the face, but for most of us is strange and elusive.”
A Belly Full of Tears is based on a true story – one of many that tragically make headlines every few months – about an Ethiopian woman murdered by her husband.
Although the author interviewed the victim’s family while researching the book, they cannot be identified.
The story – which is optimistic and respectful of the culture, and is not judgmental – occurs on two levels: the family’s attempts to cope with the tragedy, and life in Ethiopia before their immigration to Israel.
“I dedicated the book to the memory of all the Ethiopian women murdered by their husbands. The book is meant to help people – Ethiopians and others – understand the issue better,” the writer says. “I expose the problems as an observer. I don’t pretend to have all the answers.”
SHMUEL, WHO lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, was born in England, the youngest of four children. Her mother, writer and poet Karen Gershon, was born in Germany and came to England on the Kindertransport (see box). In 1968, Gershon and her husband, Val Tripp, a non-Jewish art teacher, came to Israel with three of their four children.
Shmuel adjusted to life in Israel, but because her father was unhappy here, returned to England in 1973.
After completing a degree in anthropology at London University, she reflected on her identity.
“I felt I had to return to Israel to figure out my Jewish identity,” she says. “I don’t think I had answers when I returned here, not until my children were born, and I had to decide how to raise them. I came to the conclusion that the glue that keeps family together is tradition.”
She met her husband while working for the Jewish Agency in the Kiryat Gat absorption center. He had come to Israel on foot by way of Sudan in 1983.
“I’m often asked how my family accepted him, but the question should also be about how his family accepted me,” she points out. “After all, I was considered a ‘faranj’ [foreigner] by the Ethiopians. Both our families accepted us.”
They got married in 1986 and have four sons. The two recently became grandparents.
In recent years, Shmuel, who works for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s Student Authority, has been a guest author at schools in Jerusalem and throughout the country, often lecturing at schools with both Ethiopian and native Israeli students. A principal from a school in Beersheba told her that because of her books, the Ethiopian children felt more integrated One of her books, which is popular among school-aged children, is Yaldat Hakeshet Ba’anan (Rainbow Child), about a girl born in Israel to an American father and Ethiopian mother.
In school, she faces children who meet a dark-skinned person for the first time.
“The book strikes a chord with children from all backgrounds: Ethiopians, Russians and Israelis. It’s about coming to terms with a multiple identity and accepting who you are,” says the author.
In B’no Shel Tzayad Ha’arayot (The Lion Hunter), a boy named Oren is born in Israel to Ethiopian parents. His father, Aharon, was a lion hunter in Ethiopia. In addition to the generation gap and the difficulties the family faces as new immigrants, there is a growing cultural gap that separates the father and his teenage son. The story that unfolds is told alternately by Aharon and Oren, offering insight into both perspectives. Although the constant clashes between them are inevitable, special circumstances prove Oren to be just as courageous as his father.
In Abba Hum (Brown Daniel), a book for preschoolers, Daniel tells his playmates why his father is brown and why he made the journey to Israel from Ethiopia.
“This is a book I originally wrote for my son Daniel when he was four, and is widely used in preschool programs in Israel to foster cross-cultural understanding and talk about the issue of color,” the writer explains.
Four years ago, Shmuel, who is also a parenting facilitator and a graduate of the Adler Institute, founded the Project for Cultural Competence together with Manbru Shimon, a social activist and educator with experience in parent groups and children’s workshops within the Ethiopian community.
“We provide workshops, training and lectures for teachers, social workers and community workers in both the Ethiopian community and general community,” Shmuel explains. “These issues include coping in a heterogeneous classroom with color and racism.”
Together with Merhavim, the Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel, she and Shimon have developed “Shades of Belonging,” an educational pack for teachers in elementary schools that have pupils of Ethiopian origin. The pack includes lesson plans and activities for improving the social and learning environments in the heterogeneous classroom, and it encourages children of Ethiopian background to explore their cultural heritage and accept their identity. The pack was published with a grant from the German Future Foundation.
“Cultural competence refers to a set of skills that enable people (professionals and others) to function better in a multicultural environment,” she says.
“It goes beyond the classroom, and is relevant in every sphere of life in Israel.”
All in the familyKaren Gershon – poet, Holocaust survivor, and mother of children’s book author Naomi Shmuel – came to England on the Kindertransport from Germany at the age of 15. Her life is the subject of Vanessa Rosenthal’s play Karen’s Way: A Kindertransport Life, which will be performed in Jerusalem during the intermediate days of Passover as part of Beit Avi Chai’s Stage 1 theater festival.
Based on Gershon’s own words and poems, the play – a dramatization with live music – traces her story from an idyllic childhood in 1930s Germany, through her time as a refugee, and finally to her achievement of literary acclaim.
Gershon was born Kaethe Loewenthal in Bielefeld in 1923. Alone in England at 15, she would never see her parents again.
“After the war, my mother was in denial of Judaism,” says Shmuel. “She felt it was better not to identify as a Jew. She married my father, Val Tripp, who was not Jewish, and in effect we grew up in a home with practically no traditional celebrations or religious content.”
In the early 1960s, Gershon returned to visit Germany, then started writing poetry. Her Selected Poems and We Came as Children – a collective autobiography of refugees – were both published in 1966, when the Holocaust was still a taboo subject for many. By the time she died in 1993, she had published six poetry collections, three non-fiction volumes and three novels.
Former president Zalman Shazar, a poetry lover who enjoyed Gershon’s work, located her in England and invited her to participate in a delegation of writers visiting Israel in 1966.
“My mother was enamored with Israel, and this led to her aliya with my father and siblings,” relates Shmuel. The family lived in Jerusalem for six years before returning to Cornwall.
In 2009, Yad Vashem published Shmuel’s book Fragments (in English and in Hebrew), which is based on her mother’s life story and recounts her journey to find both a home and an identity.