The Human Spirit: The long journey from tukul to bar

Given the opportunity and committed to working hard, Eli Mantson realized his dream to become an Israeli lawyer.

Eli Mantson 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eli Mantson 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
According to the Israel Bar Association, 1,714 men and women passed the bar examination last month.
Among them was Eli Mantson of Hadera. The Bar Association doesn’t keep records by ethnic group, but Mantson thinks he’s one of only two Ethiopian Jews who made it through the exam.
He had wanted to be a lawyer since high school. Before that, he was a school dropout, working in the Netanya market, hawking lentils. By the time he returned to school, he shared classes with teens who had criminal records.
“We hope you succeed,” they told him.
“We’re going to need a lawyer one day.”
Mantson’s life journey began in a tukul, the mud-and-straw hut where the Jews of rural Ethiopia lived. His parents, Berko and Tapach Mantson, were farmers, but as famine struck and forced conscription at age 12 threatened their sons, they left for the refugee camps in Sudan with their nine children and Eli’s grandfather. Mantson doesn’t remember the details of that journey, or the one that brought them to Israel. He was five or six – he’s not sure – but recalls being frightened as highwaymen, disease and hunger stalked them.
After the absorption center, they were assigned an apartment in Netanya. Berko found occasional work cleaning or emptying garbage. Mantson’s siblings were assigned to dorm schools, but he stayed home and started school in second grade.
In Ethiopia, there was no electricity, but there was also no electric bill to pay. He wanted to help. By age eight, he was working in the open-air market.
“Mostly I carried fruit and vegetables,” he says. “ People take advantage of child labor.
Sometimes they paid me, sometimes they lied and didn’t pay me. But when I brought money home and helped my parents buy food, I felt very good.”
By the seventh grade, he dropped out of school to work full-time in the market. Veteran Israelis knew it was illegal to hire children, but looked the other way. Mostly he worked at a stall selling beans, lentils and dried fruit. He could add up the bills in his head; he was good with customers.
“Customers would sometimes say it was a shame that a child with so much potential was wasting his life,” he says. “No one did anything about it.”
When the children of the stall owners had trouble with their schoolwork, Mantson’s bosses asked him to tutor them. “Here I was, the school dropout, helping them. I looked with awe at their school backpacks, their school supplies and their books. I was jealous, and decided to do something about it.”
His parents weren’t going to take the initiative to get him back to school. “We had a warm, happy household. When we were together, we slept head to foot, enjoyed each other’s company. But my parents had already ceded the decision-making to me.”
He went to the office of social services and introduced himself – a boy who wanted to enter the ninth grade even though he hadn’t been in school for two years. It would have to be a youth village, he insisted; “I knew I needed a place where there was a clean bed, meals, school supplies, and someone to take care of me.”
The country's remarkable youth villages were established pre-state as agricultural living environments where teens had independence.
President Shimon Peres and his late wife, Sonya, both lived and studied at Ben-Shemen, the first of these. When young people fled Europe under the aegis of Youth Aliya, the villages became refuges for homeless teens. They have remained so over the decades.
Scattered around Israel, there are still dozens of villages inhabited by teenagers who live in no-frills dormitories, on green lawns. The kids do village chores – often agricultural, like milking cows and gathering eggs – and take part in village-wide social activities. There are swimming pools, soccer fields and computer rooms.
Mantson was accepted at the Meir Shfeya Youth Village near Zichron Ya’acov, an early one that had been given to Junior Hadassah by Baron Rothschild. Orphans from the Kishinev pogroms and from Jerusalem’s Diskin Orphanage had lived there.
“I loved it from the first minute. That’s where I told everyone I was going to be a lawyer,” says Mantson, who changed the spelling of his parents’ name to make it easier in Hebrew.
“My classmates, some of whom had already had brushes with the law, invited me to join them in smoking and stealing, but I knew what it meant to be on the street and I wasn’t going back,” he adds.
The academic adviser suggested he start on a non-matriculation path, but Mantson wanted the full matriculation program. He graduated on time. He had a steady girlfriend from the village. He enlisted in the Border Police, where he was picked for a command course.
It took him three years after military service to save the money for college. He registered for the preparatory course in Kiryat Ono College, and then went on to study law.
Last year, he graduated and married his girlfriend, Einat Levy. Her Moroccan family “took a while to adjust to an Ethiopian sonin- law, but now my mother loves him,” she says. She’s expecting their first child.
He works 240 hours a month in the population and immigration department of Ben- Gurion Airport, but finds time for two volunteer activities. He haunts the marketplaces for boys like him who have dropped out of school; he’s already sent three to Meir Shfeya. And he works in an NGO that gives free legal aid to Ethiopian immigrants.
But one goal escaped him. He graduated from law school, but didn’t have the free time to prepare for the bar examination. “I convinced myself that I could make peace with this,” he said.
So he told my friend and colleague Barbara Goldstein, a longtime Hadassah activist who sits on the Meir Shfeya board.
“Simply put, she yelled at me,” he says.
Goldstein was indeed steaming. How could he give up now? A few of us listened to her rant, and then figured out that the sum he needed to prepare – three months of a very modest Israeli salary – wasn’t so great.
Goldstein made a few personal phone calls to American supporters, and the money was guaranteed. She told Mantson to take a leave of absence.
“I was very moved, but scared to death,” says Mantson. “What if I failed them now? I studied day and night. I couldn’t speak from tension sores in my mouth.”
The secrets of his success? When pressed, he admits that he knew he had inborn abilities, but gives most of the credit to his parents, who believed in him; to the supportive staff at Meir Shfeya; and to the anonymous backers in America who gave him a chance.
“I also understood what a dead end life on the street was. I was terrified that I’d never have the life [I wanted], that I’d wind up there, far from my dreams. Now my dreams have come true.”
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.