Presenting Ethiopians

Immigrants from the African nation face challenges to integrating into Israeli society, but their differences enrich the Jewish State.

Presenting Ethiopians (photo credit: Dudu Salem)
Presenting Ethiopians
(photo credit: Dudu Salem)
As immigrants, we have each taken our own path to finding our way in our new country. For some, it has been an almost idyllic, trouble-free journey to something akin to the proverbial Promised Land – although one suspects they are in a minority. Others have come here fired by Zionist or other fervor, only to have their wide-eyed enthusiasm rudely cooled by having to pick their way through all manner of social and cultural minefields, not to mention the seemingly insurmountable prerequisite bureaucratic obstacles that provided fertile ground for the works of satirist Ephraim Kishon.
Some, indeed, have found the cultural transition too much to take and have returned to whence they came or sought new pastures. But the majority have, over time, taken in the playing field topography and have fused with the constantly shifting ebb and flow of the Israeli cultural melting pot and have become bona fide Israelis.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy for this little country of ours, besides all its own existential challenges, to cope with wave after wave of immigrants, providing them with a roof over their heads, gainful employment and as smooth an entry as possible into local society. And, it must be said, mistakes have been made. The road to a happy aliya and integration is still bumpy.
But, as Pini Glinkewitz notes, it is gradually becoming a little smoother and more oleh-friendly.
As director of Jerusalem’s Municipal Absorption Authority’s Community Services Administration, Glinkewitz is ideally placed to pass professional judgment on how we are doing in the immigrant embracing stakes. We met a few days before the start of the third 10- day edition of the annual Oleh Week festivities in Jerusalem, which ends on November 28. The event is designed to highlight the contribution made by immigrant artists to the country’s cultural fabric. It features successful musicians and other artists who have made aliya from all parts of the globe, including a sizable contingent from Ethiopia.
Glinkewitz is keenly aware of the unique challenges faced by the latter group.
“Jerusalem absorbs more olim than any other place in Israel, but the Ethiopian aliya is a bit more complex,” he states.
The difficulties, he says, start even before the African olim get the chance to kiss the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport.
“People who make aliya from, say, England, the United States or Russia just get on a plane and fly over here and set their sights on the part of the country where they want to live.
They still have plenty of problems, even olim who come here from Fifth Avenue in New York or from the center of Paris. But things are far more difficult for Ethiopians. It is connected to the place they come from, their code of conduct and their culture and their employment and educational background. They come here and have to become accustomed to life in the Western world in the 21st century. It is not easy.”
Yossi Marsha knows all about that.
The 36-year-old Rishon Lezion-based singer and keyboardist is in the Oleh Week program as a member of a band that includes Israeli jazz saxophonist Nadav Haber. The saxophonist has incorporated Ethiopian musical textures into his work for more than a decade and has collaborated with a large number of musicians from the community.
Although the Ethiopian-born Marsha has been here since he was quite young (he made aliya in 1991), he says that in terms of his artistic output, he is very much still in Ethiopia.
“I have spent most of my life living in Israel, and I am influenced by the life here and the things I hear, but my art completely feeds off Ethiopian music.
In musical and cultural terms, I feel I am more in Ethiopia than in Israel,” he says.
Marsha may be more musically African than Israeli, but there is an increasing number of cultural events here that help to provide artists from the Ethiopian community with a stage and an opportunity to show the rest of the country what they have to offer.
Marsha feels that endeavor is a step in the right direction but would like to see more of it.
“Yes, events like the Hologeb Festival [an annual Ethiopian cultural event produced by the Jerusalembased Confederation House and its director Effie Benaya] are a good thing, but there is no continuity to these activities,” he says. “Hologeb is fine, Immigrants from the African nation face challenges to integrating into Israeli society, but their differences enrich the Jewish State Efie Bnaya, the director of Confederation House. (Omri Barel) The upcoming Hologeb Festival will feature a performance by Beyne Getahon. (Omri Barel) COVERbut even that is not really Ethiopian.
You get, for example, Ethiopian actors on a stage, but they speak in Hebrew.
Of course, I realize that, for example, for Israeli audiences to understand Ethiopian theater it is easier for them if it is in Hebrew. But I feel that to properly portray Ethiopian culture, it should be done in Amharic.”
Glinkewitz says that as the majority of Ethiopian Jews came from rural areas, the transition to urban Israel was also a shock to the system.
“Like all immigrant groups after they left the absorption centers, the Ethiopians generally moved to socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and that left them – particularly the youngsters – prone to bad influences from other youth who got into things like substance abuse and violence,” he says.
And there was also the shock to the family system.
“In Ethiopia, the father was the head of the household and dictated family life,” continues Glinkewitz, “but in Israel, the older men generally found it more difficult to make the adjustment. Their wives were more flexible and found work, as cleaners and carers, and they brought in wages.
That undermined the standing of the father-husband and led to problems within the families. Today, we don’t come to Ethiopians and offer them solutions based on our understanding and our Israeli mentality. We come to them to listen, to learn about their needs and then try to cater to them.”
Marsha feels that the Israeli absorption authorities made some basic errors with Ethiopian Jews, particularly with regard to places of residence.
“It is a problem when you put people from rural backgrounds straight into urban neighborhoods,” he says. “That leads to all sorts of problems.”
According to Marsha, one way of presenting authentic Ethiopian culture to Israeli audiences is to bring top Ethiopian artists over here. He cites the upcoming concert by iconic singer Mahmoud Ahmed as a welcome case in point. The 72-year-old singer is arguably the most prominent Ethiopian artist in the world today and will perform in the Hologeb Festival opener at the Jerusalem Theater on December 19. For the occasion, he will join forces with nine local musicians, including several from the Ethiopian community, principally jazz saxophonist-vocalist Abate Barihun, our best-known Ethiopian musician who worked with Ahmed before making aliya in 1999.
Barihun was an established star on the Ethiopian jazz scene and toured Europe several times a year with his own band but went through a tough absorption process here. Language difficulties and other obstacles prevented him from conducting a smooth transition into the Israeli music circuit and, for a while, he ended up eking out a living as a security officer and a dish washer. For a while, due to the detergents he used, the latter job impinged on the sensitivity of his fingers and his dexterity, and he was unable to play the saxophone at all. Thankfully, Moshe Bar-Yuda, head of the Ethiopian Jewish Heritage and Culture Association, helped Barihun to resume his musical career here, and he soon hooked up with composer pianist Yitzhak Yedid to form the highly popular Ras Deshen duo, as well as with a string of other jazz and ethnic music artists.
But, of course, as time goes on and new generations come up, veteran Israelis become more accustomed to having Ethiopians around, and there have been some striking success stories.
In the last general elections, Pnina Tamano-Shata became the country’s first female Knesset member from the Ethiopian community, and she was preceded to our legislative body by Shlomo Molla.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Ethiopian artists are making it through the talent-spotting morass to center stage. Ester Rada is now a major crowd puller in the national pop sector and, much more recently, 23-year-old singer Rudi Bainesay made the final of The Voice musical reality TV show, ultimately placing third.
While delighted with her success, Bainesay feels there is still a long way to go before Ethiopian Jews are fully accepted into the Israeli fold.
“I think we are very far away from that. I think it is a work in progress, but we are still are far away from fully fitting into Israeli society,” she says.
Compared with Marsha and other Ethiopian Jews who came here in their teens and adulthood, Bainesay has several factors in her favor. She came to Israel as a toddler, so she did not experience any language problems, and she says her parents were always unusually liberal and accepting. Even so, there were some minefields to be navigated.
“In primary school, there were kids in my class who said all sorts of bad things about me, the color of my skin and that sort of thing, but I quickly realized that that sort of behavior comes from ignorance, and I got over it quickly,” she recalls with a smile.
Bainesay notes that, paradoxically, some of the community’s absorption problems are self-made.
“On The Voice, people did not relate to me as an Ethiopian. That came from within the community itself. I was a sort of Cinderella story on The Voice, but I could just as easily have been a Romanian or Russian Cinderella. My Ethiopian background did not come into it.”
Unlike Marsha, Bainesay performs mainstream Western material and is looking forward to becoming a successful fixture on the Israeli entertainment circuit.