Yuvi's exodus story

An inspirational retelling of an Ethiopian’s dramatic journey to Israel – for kids.

exodus story 521 (photo credit: David Kalman)
exodus story 521
(photo credit: David Kalman)
At first sight, one can’t be blamed for wondering what Lesley Simpson, a Canadian writer of Jewish children’s books, has in common with Ethiopianborn Yuvi Tashome, 33. And the truth is, when they first met at a talk in 2009 given by Tashome about her work for Friends by Nature, an organization that works for betterment of Ethiopian Israelis, neither of them could have imagined that one sunny February afternoon less than two years later, they would be launching a book written by Simpson about Tashome.
It was only after the talk, at a private interview requested by Simpson, who also works as a journalist, that it struck her that “there was a powerful children’s book in her story.” Although Yuvi’s Candy Tree was to be her fourth book, it was the first to be based on a true story.
Significantly, they met during the festival of Pessah.
“An exodus is an abstract concept,” Simpson says. “When you meet someone who has embarked on a journey like this, it literally takes your breath away.”
Five-year-old Yuvi narrates her dramatic exodus from Ethiopia to Israel. She was among thousands of Ethiopian Jews to be relocated, secretly at first, during the 1980s and ’90s as part of operations Moses and Solomon.
Simpson and illustrator Janice Lee Porter (US) convey the hardships faced by Yuvi, her relatives and the other refugees (they are robbed three times), while providing reassurance in the form of references to the group’s unshakable faith in their escape, and swooping, tableau-like paintings rendered in a comforting palette of desert yellows and cool blues, which were originally painted using acrylic on canvas.
“We have angels with us. We’ll fly home,” Yuvi’s grandmother repeatedly tells her. The candy trees Yuvi dreams of seeing in the Promised Land represent the confidence instilled in Yuvi that a better life awaits her, and she comes to believe that the orange trees that line the road in Israel are indeed the candy trees she has dreamed of.
THE BOOK is aimed at five- to nineyear- old readers who should finish it with a strong sense of faith and determination.
Simpson, who is affiliated with a “ritually traditional but politically egalitarian” synagogue in Toronto, likes to think that in some way, her book can be incorporated into a traditional Pessah Seder.
“These days, families like to adopt a more interactive type of Seder, with each family member contributing on his or her own level. Perhaps older children, inspired by Yuvi’s journey, can retell the story to their younger siblings.” She feels that Yuvi’s story resonates with kids when they discover it’s true.
“I love stories, and in particular, the miniature world of picture books,” Simpson says. “There is a discipline I enjoy in writing a big story in a small space. I’d never met anyone like Yuvi before. When she told me her story, I was transported to another place in another time. It’s a feeling you get when you get caught up listening to a great piece of music or when you watch a powerful play in the theater.”
Among her published novels, The Hug (1985) was translated into French, became a Canadian best-seller and sold more than 250,000 copies.
Simpson has two degrees in English from the University of Toronto. She has worked as a reporter for Canadian daily newspapers for 20 years. Currently, she is concentrating on writing children’s books and creating courses in creative writing at Ryerson University, Canada, entitled “Writing for Fun,” which she describes as a “workout without the treadmill.” She is also the founder of the World’s Smallest Jewish Fiction Club at her local synagogue.
Simpson didn’t see a need to “test drive” Yuvi’s Candy Tree. “The story is intact. It needs to be told and shared.
Sometimes in the Ethiopian community, adults will talk about the suffering they endured on their journey through the Sudan, but it’s powerful for children to hear a non-patronizing, plucky kid’s story told in the first person.”
THE FRIENDS by Nature organization boasts six branches in various cities. An active member of the Ethiopian community in Beit Shemesh, Leora Samuel is the director of Garin Gojo, whose chief aim is to bridge the cultural divide between the neighboring Ethiopian and largely Anglo communities of Nofei Aviv in Beit Shemesh. “Over the last two years, Garin Gojo has seen a 90 percent improvement in relations between the two communities. Multicultural events deepen understanding and appreciation for each others’ history, gradually resulting in mutual respect.”
It was Simpson’s imminent trip to visit her stepson, who made aliya in October with Habonim Dror, that spurred the launch of Yuvi’s Candy Tree in Beit Shemesh. It was to an enthralled crowd of more than 100 children and parents of Ethiopian, Anglo and Israeli origin that Simpson expressively read her book in English, and was simultaneously translated into Hebrew by Tashome, to whom the book is dedicated. The two communicated effortlessly throughout the reading and co-signed copies of the book.
The event was followed by a singalong, led by entertainer Barbara Brown, who added a few lines about her own aliya story, so strikingly contrasting to the Ethiopian experience. The children then participated in a craft project, in which they created their own “candy trees.”
Simpson expressed her emotion at launching Yuvi’s Candy Tree in Israel. Her next challenge is to get the book published in Hebrew. “This is a dream come true,” she enthuses. “I’ve brought the story back to where it belongs.”