March 22, 2007
New books chronicle new exodus—Ethiopians’ journey and its aftermath
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Instead, Lyons interviewed leaders in the army, including one heroic soldier who survived a suicide bombing; the law and politics, including the first-ever Ethiopian Knesset member; the rabbinate and among kessim, the traditional spiritual leaders of Ethiopian Jews; and even in the creative arts.
Although some interviewees speak of a degree of racism in Israel, all indicate that they are much better off living in the Jewish state than in Ethiopia. As actor Yossi Wassa says, "In the United States, blacks and white people won't curse each other, but they sit separately. In Israel, blacks and white people curse each other, but then they will sit next to each other. So I think it's easier to solve the race problem in Israel."
There is no denying some of the negative statistics that point to a growing underclass among the Beta Yisrael, the most severe of which are that roughly 60 percent of them live in poverty and roughly 60 percent are unemployed. Perhaps, as a result, some young Ethiopian Jews identify with African Americans and rap icons.
One of Ilan Ossendryver's photographs in the book shows four Beta Yisrael teens -- two of them shirtless, wearing bandannas and gesticulating with their fingers like rap posse members, and the other two wearing T-shirts, one honoring 2Pac Shakur, the other with the words "New York" on it.
Despite this seeming hip-hop influence, social worker Simcha Getahune says in the book, "I'd say that the researchers are exaggerating this phenomenon."
Sirak Sabahat, another actor, says of living in Israel, "You have advantages.
When you wake up in the morning, you don't have to wonder how you will find food to eat, how you will survive to the next day. You don't have to worry that people are trying to kill you. You will see that the complaints you have in life are not that much compared to other people."
Lyons echoes that positive view. Over the phone, he points out the strengths of the Beta Yisrael and what they can contribute to Israeli culture -- compassion, courage and respect. He notes that Ethiopians speak softly out of such respect for others. "If you think of an orchestra, they have a different timbre, a different sound, a different voice in the symphony of Israel."
For a jazz pianist and his photographer, Lyons and Osssendryver showed perfect pitch in concluding the book with a photo of three preteen boys wearing backpacks and yarmulkes. On the left is a dark-haired, tan boy, possibly of Sephardic descent; on the right, a redheaded Ashkenazi Jew who could pass for Irish; and in the middle with the redhead's arm on his shoulder, an Ethiopian boy, dressed in a sports-themed windbreaker.
The boys look like best friends.
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