'This is what we brought out of Africa'

Esti Roiter's path to opening an African art gallery in Jaffa began in New York with her parents.

Esti Roiter 88 248 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Esti Roiter 88 248
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
If you don't know Jaffa like the back of your hand, the Impala Ethnic Art Gallery is a little difficult to find. The old winding streets of the flea market, or shuk hapishpishim, can be a labyrinth for the unwary, often leading both hardened Israelis and befuddled-looking tourists around and around and back again. For those in the mood for something new and different, however, the Impala is worth the time and effort. As one enters the large shop at 4 Noam Street, just a few paces away from a convenient parking lot, one is suddenly surrounded by huge wooden African masks, ornate witch-doctors' hats, and imposing statues of tribal men and women - all actual size or larger - made out of everything from wood to banana skins. Colorful cloth and beadwork vie for the visitor's attention alongside carved wooden busts of traditionally adorned native women, wooden stools once used by tribal chiefs, and antique weapons and drums. Intricately painted ostrich eggs, illuminated with vivid designs, remind the somewhat overwhelmed viewer of the classic egg artwork of Faberge. Yet perhaps the most interesting feature of this almost-museum is its unlikely "curator." Esti Roiter, 45, is further proof that behind every face in Israel is a story - sometimes riveting, occasionally heroic and often sad. Roiter's story is largely about emotional strength, perseverance, and the drive to get up after being knocked down. "Both of my parents were Holocaust survivors," she says in a soft voice that one must sometimes strain to hear. "My father was from the Ukraine. He and two siblings survived. His mother told him to get on his bicycle and run. He did that and survived. He met my mother in Russia, and they were sent to work camps in Siberia. That's how they met and got married. My older sister was born after the war, in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. I was born in America, in New York, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. I grew up there until I was 12 years old." In the years just after World War II, the Lower East Side became a magnet for Holocaust survivors, who quickly formed a tight-knit, insular and closed community - a Jewish community within a Jewish community - on Delancey, Stanton, Rivington, and Orchard streets. Roiter recalls that they not only tended to congregate in their own synagogues, but that they formed a distinct subculture as well, apart from the surrounding post-war American-Jewish milieu. "For those of us growing up there, we didn't know there was anything other than Holocaust parents," Roiter says. "As far as we were aware, everybody's parents were Holocaust survivors, because in our neighborhood they were. My first language was Yiddish, and my parents learned English from me. "So for us second-generation Holocaust survivors, we really didn't have a childhood," she explains. "We were constantly having to do 'adult' things for our parents - calling the phone company, writing letters, paying bills and doing all of the things that parents normally do for their children. This was my childhood. I had one game, a Monopoly game, and one doll that my father gave me." The result of this, Roiter says, was that "I really didn't have parents. I was their parent. I had no one to confer with if I had a problem, because my problems were so minuscule compared to what they had gone through." Even harder were the emotional demands of being a Holocaust survivors' child. "My bedtime stories were about the war. They weren't about Goldilocks or Snow White. Some Holocaust parents never discussed these things with their kids, but I think my parents had a need to have their children know where they came from, and how lucky we were to be where we were." Still, Roiter recalls being generally happy. "It was a very warm community where people helped one another. They had to, because no one had any family left." When Roiter was 12, her family moved to Brooklyn, where she was exposed to a somewhat different way of life. "For the first time, I started to meet children whose parents were American-born. And I couldn't believe it - parents born in America? And mothers who worked? It was amazing. And those kids came to my house and couldn't believe that I had a mother who stayed home and cooked. So we had to adapt to the new world we were living in." For Roiter's parents, however, "adaptation" could only go so far. "My dream was to go to medical school," she recalls. "But Holocaust-survivor parents did not understand those dreams and wishes. What they wanted for their children was for them to get married, have a family, and have an 'intact' life. And going off to medical school was not included in that. You could go to college, but you had to get married. So I did." Roiter - who did eventually receive master's degrees in subjects ranging from occupational therapy to Jewish history from Brooklyn College, New York University, and Harvard - met her husband "on the streets of Jerusalem," where she had taken her mother for a vacation after her father's death. But her marriage soon became an ordeal. "He was totally abusive," she recalls. Roiter had two children with him; he had four children from a previous marriage. "After spending six years in a hellish situation, I decided to [grab] my children and take them back to the United States. So I took diapers, bottles and $100, and I left. A friend bought me an airline ticket on an El Al airplane, and I remember crying because I loved Israel and didn't think I would ever be back." After nine years, during which she ran a pediatric therapy clinic, Roiter and her two sons returned to Israel, drawn by an attachment to it that had remained strong during all their years of "exile." After a brief period selling real estate - which she admits she "hated every moment of" - she tried her hand unsuccessfully at venture capital. Then, good fortune finally came to Roiter's rescue. "Friends of ours sent us tickets to come to South Africa for a wedding. We went, and I fell in love with Africa. I fell in love with the people, their wonderful way of approaching life, their calmness and their civility. And then I met somebody who has 600 African ethnic art stores in different countries throughout Africa. We spoke about opening a place like that in Israel, and that's what I did. I took my two boys, we got a guide, we went to several countries for a few months and visited a lot of tribes. No wholesalers, no professional buyers. My two boys and I went directly into the villages, and we talked, learned and bought from the people themselves." Roiter makes a broad arc with her arm across the shop crowded with African artwork and says, "This is what we brought out of Africa." Among the tribal groups whose work is most heavily represented are the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Ashanti of Ghana, the Senufu of the Ivory Coast, the Fang of Cameroon, the Kuba of the Congo, the Dogon of Mali, the Masai and Samburu of Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele peoples of South Africa. Some items are more than 100 years old. Others, like much of the textile work of the Kuba people, took from one month to two years to complete. The Impala Gallery is a monument to the creativity and craftsmanship of the African artist, both past and present, and a testament to the personal strength and resilience of its owner. Roiter invites everyone to visit the gallery and experience the breathtaking world of African art - and to call her at 07-7460-4002 if you get lost trying to find the place. For further information, visit the Impala's Web site: www.impalaethnicart.com.