A merging of identities

Yeshitu Shmuel's 'spiritual journey' leads her to return to the village in Ethiopia where she was born and raised

Yeshitu Shmuel 521 (photo credit: Ayla Peggy Adler )
Yeshitu Shmuel 521
(photo credit: Ayla Peggy Adler )
WHEN ISRAELI IMMIgration officials started processing the Samuel family from Ethiopia, they promptly Hebraicized their name to Shmuel. Then there was the question of what to call their tall, graceful, 10-year-old daughter, who already had three names.
The primary one was Baiyasheesh, because she was born a month after her mother’s mother had died. The name, given to her by her mother’s side of the family, means in Amharic “it’s too bad I didn’t have the merit to see her.”
The second one was Yeshitu, which her father’s side preferred, and it was chosen because to those grandparents, she was the blessed first-born granddaughter of their youngest son. It means “you are connected to everyone,” but also means that the bearer of the name has something profound to bring to the world.
The third was Yenenat, meaning, “my mother,” and this was the name her mother chose and calls her to this day.
An immigration bureaucrat struggled to pronounce Baiyasheesh, seized on the sound of the double shins and said, “Right.
Now you’re Shoshana.”
The year was 1983, and the family had just spent more than two years trying to get to Israel, most of it waiting in a refugee camp in Sudan and trying to get to Khartoum, where Israeli officials flew them out through a third country.
On that same night that they arrived, they were placed in a camp in Pardes Hanna. In the dark, the narrow trailer seemed like a train car, and the newly named Shoshana thought it was taking them to Jerusalem.
They awoke, of course, to a very different reality. Everything was unfamiliar.
Ethiopians were still few in the country, as it was a year before Operation Moses, when about 8,000 Ethiopians Jews came to Israel via Sudan, and eight years before the world watched in awe as over 14,000 were evacuated as part of Operation Solomon.
KIDS IN SCHOOL MADE FUN OF the new immigrants, telling them they had only come in order to escape the famine. Shoshana didn’t know what they were talking about. Her home had been one of plenty and they hadn’t lacked for anything, but in Israel, they felt hunger for everything they knew. They couldn’t even make injera, the staple based on teff, a derivative of lovegrass native to the northern Ethiopian highlands and rich in fiber, protein and calcium.
Two years later, at the age of 12, she was taken away to a religious boarding school near Haifa, without any consultation with her parents. “Ha’asimon nafal,” she says in a conversation in her Hadera home, wind chimes blowing in the doorway, using Israeli slang for “the penny dropped,” when she realized that the only white kids at the boarding school were from broken homes or had parents with drug addictions.
But she excelled in school, and when it came time to graduate, she checked off that she wanted to go to the army. The head of the boarding school told her he was sure she’d meant to choose sherut leumi, or national service, more fitting for religious girls. Her parents were oblivious to her challenges; they had someone in mind for her to marry after she finished high school.
“I had to make all my decisions on my own,” she recalls. “My parents didn’t even know where we were studying.”
She insisted on the army and was one of the first two Ethiopian women to be recruited into the education corps. “At that time there were almost no Ethiopian women soldiers,” she says. “The idea was very foreign to my father. But later he was extremely proud of me.”
She went on to Bar-Ilan University, earning a degree in social work. Then she did the signature things that young Israelis do, including a trip to India. Afterwards she moved to Jerusalem and worked with youth at risk.
Success followed success – until her life was turned upside down. In 2002, she was in a devastating car accident that left her hospitalized for months. It took three years of full-time rehabilitation until she was able to walk on her own again, against some of the doctors’ predictions. Still in pain and facing additional surgeries, the most crushing realization was that she would never be able to go trekking again in nature, would never be able to run after the children she hopes to have, when she finds the right man.
“Until the accident, I was leading a perfect Israeli life. I was a social worker and loved what I did. I had it all,” she explains.
Looking to rebuild, she began a “spiritual journey,” one that has come to define her life since and which recently led her to return to the village in Ethiopia where she was born and raised.
JUST WHEN SHE HAD BEGUN TO build herself back up again, she was hit with a string of family tragedies.
One brother died of a serious illness in 2007, another died in a car accident in 2008. The losses left her searching for answers. “How do I thank God for the gift of my life?” she asked. At the same time, she says, she was angry with God. “I was feeling like every time I get up, I’m getting knocked down again.”
Her searching led her to rabbis, mystics and therapists. One of the latter told her she was like an Ashkenazi from Savyon (a wealthy Tel Aviv-area suburb) caught in an Ethiopian body. “I was very angry with her, but when I went home and wrote that down and gave it some thought, I realized maybe she’s right.” Another teacher asked her questions that made her realize “how far I am from my roots.”
And then she really started writing. She wrote “morning pages,” as instructed by Julia Cameron in her famous book, “The Artist’s Way.” She started writing letters from herself, Shoshana, to herself, Yeshitu.
“Yeshitu is this girl who stayed in exile, a girl who was left in the village, and I found that I’m vacillating between these two parts of me. I realized that I needed to go back and raise up Yeshitu, because only then I’ll be a full person.”
And so this January, she set out for a roots trip to Ethiopia, accompanied by a close friend. Before she left, Shmuel went to the Interior Ministry and formally, permanently changed her first name so that it would appear on her passport: Yeshitu Shmuel. Although Shoshana had stopped speaking Amharic long ago – at home the kids heard it but answered their parents in Hebrew – upon arrival it came out of Yeshitu’s mouth fluently.
In their month-long journey, the two friends went to Wofdar, the Gondar-area village where Yeshitu grew up. There, locals escorted Yeshitu on horseback like she was a princess, bringing her to the Jewish cemetery where her beloved grandfather, Cabrata Samuel, is buried. And then they took her to the place that was the heart of her village, which sat between two rivers, a popular location for Jews because it allowed them to uphold the mitzva of mikve, or ritual immersion. A dried-out tree hung over the spot where their synagogue once stood. To Yeshitu’s surprise, she remembered the exact place where her house had once been.
“It was the moment when all my identities finally merged,” she says. “I stood on that land, took a step and said, now I’m making aliya. Not because my mother brought me, but because I choose to. I was born here but I’m no longer tied to here.
The people of Ethiopia are wonderful and it’s a good land, but I have a home now and it’s in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).
And now I feel like I’ve come home for real.” ✡