Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Finding My Lost Tribes

Growing up on Manhattan's Upper East Side in the 1970s, all the Jews I knew were secular Ashkenazis. We looked alike, were raised in affluent homes, shared similar values and spoke the same language. I assumed that all Jews were like us.

My first trip to Israel, eight years ago on a UJA singles mission, did little to change my mindset. Although I saw black Jews, Jews who looked like Arabs and Jews wearing black hats and long black coats, they were mostly viewed through the windows of a tour bus. Their distance made them easy to write off as an aberration, allowing my idea of Jewish nationhood to remain secular, Ashkenazi and white.

Last month, I visited Israel for the second time. I was on a mission with UJA's Caring Commission, to see the programs they were funding. While most of the people on the mission looked like me, most of the Israelis we met did not.

One of our stops was in Sderot, a poverty-stricken town that is home to many Ethiopian, or Falasha, Jews. We met with a mother and father who recently lost two children during a rocket attack launched from nearby Gaza.

Seeing these parents was heartbreaking. "They were our flowers," the father said through an interpreter, choking back tears. Still, I couldn't relate to the Falashas as Jews. To me they seemed no different from the black people in New York.

We ate in Sderot with a group of people helping terror victims. I sat next to Mulualem, a social worker who emigrated from Ethiopia in 1982. He spoke excellent English, was slightly built, had charcoal-black skin, and an easy smile. Unlike the many Ethiopians I saw who wore a kipa, Mulualem’s short-cropped hair was uncovered.

He told me that most Falashas were spiritually content, having fulfilled their dream of seeing Jerusalem. But there is little economic opportunity for them, and culturally the transition to Israeli society has been difficult.

"In Ethiopia we didn't have pressures like mortgages," Mulualem explained. "If you needed a house, you built a house."

The Jewish Week

Fear is a common word in Sderot, a small industrial town some 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Tel Aviv. It’s a 90-minute drive from Jerusalem down modern highways, which pass through farms, vineyards and groves of citrus trees.

But it is barely one kilometre away from the Gaza strip, the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gaza and its refugee camps are ringed with barbed wire, Israeli army watchtowers and security zones.


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