Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Ethiopia Dreamin'

Yesterday was really special. The Lipton family of Greenwich, CT sponsored a Bat Mitzvah party and day-trip for girls in the Merchavya Absorption Center (in Afula), and I got to escort them. It was a group of 18 Ethiopian girls, ages 12-15, their parents, a few babies, and a few staff members of the Jewish Agency. The Jewish community in Ethiopia does not celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties at all -- they may have an idea that 12 or 13 is the age at which one is religiously obligated to fulfill Torah commandments, but they definitely do not mark the occassion with any special sort of ceremony. Then the families make Aliyah, and the kids experience the lavish Israeli (though not nearly as lavish as the Americans') bar and bat mitzvah parties, and they feel very left out. So this was an opportunity to give them something to lift their spirits and make them feel more like "normal" Israelis.

We're talking about an immigrant population that arrive in Israel with pretty much nothing but the clothes on their backs (well, actually, I learned yesterday that they have three sets of clothes: One for weekdays, one for Shabbat, and one that had been passed down from generation to generation, not to be worn until the return to Israel. Those are the outfits they wear on the plane to Tel Aviv.) They are completely untouched by Western culture or technology: They have to be taught that a toilet is not a local water well; that it is OK to turn on a fire in the house by igniting the gas stove, but it is not OK to turn the gas flame off by blowing it out; what a lightswitch does and how to change a lightbulb; how to effectively use a shower. A few weeks ago I was at another Absorption Center taking photos of children with my print camera, and they were stymied about the fact they couldn't immediately see a digital photo in the back: since they never had seen a camera before moving to Israel in the last year, they assumed that all cameras are digital ones. They'd never seen any other kind.

We started the day piling into a bus -- I should note that they played Ethiopian music over the loudspeaker, and it was "different" for me but very rhythmic and cool-- and going to Arbel, up in the Galilee, where we ate a scrumptious breakfast of hot pitas, salad, tea, and cookies in a Bedouin-style tent. Interestingly, the women and men ate in separate parts of the tent without being asked to do so. With the mothers wearing their traditional Ethiopian Shabbat clothes (all dressed in white, white being the traditional Ethiopian color worn on festive occassions such as this Bat Mitzvah party) and the men sitting across from them, in a Bedouin-style tent, I had a feeling that I'd just stepped into another country entirely.

I want to add here that an amazing thing happened when we got to the breakfast site. The family who was sponsoring the event had not yet arrived, and there was some discussion among the staff about whether we should wait for them before starting to eat. Now, what do you think happens when you have a large group of Jews, a table of food, and people in charge who speak a foreign language? I took it as a given that they would storm the food table. It's not as if there was any obvious reason for them to wait. What Jews could resist a table full of food? Well, not so with the Ethiopians, who waited patiently until the staff formally told them they could go ahead and enjoy themselves. They are that polite.

From the breakfast site, the girls each got to saddle themselves onto a donkey, and to the sounds of 18 girls squealing and laughing, we took a donkey ride to the Arbel Cliff, which has a stunning view of the Galilee. (One of the fathers told me that in Ethiopia, he'd used a donkey every day to haul merchandise from the city to his village, where he sold his wares. But most of the girls obviously had never ridden a donkey themselves.) All along, the tour guide connected sites we were seeing with Biblical history - such as the fact that a mountain we passed on the bus, Mount Tabor, was the very one from which Devorah the Judge had made her prophesies.

After the donkey ride, we rode to Safed, where the parents had a little history lesson in a park while the girls changed into their new outfits. The sponsors had paid for each girl to receive a new blouse and skirt (all in festive white), underclothes, and shoes. The parents returned to the bus to find their daughters lined up in a row, their sparkling white blouses setting off their beautiful dark-brown skin. Everyone clapped for the young ladies, who giggled with embarrassment, and the staff members took lots of pictures of the princesses. It was a beautiful moment for people who are so rarely made such a fuss over.

We had a walking tour of the artists' colony in Safed, as well as the synagogue of the Ar"i (Rabbi Isaac Luria, a major figure in Kabbalah and subject of a recent song by Madonna). The girls also made Shabbat candles at the Chabad Center and learned about how Torah Scrolls are made and inscribed. Then we entered the Rimonim hotel, where a three-piece band welcomed the girls with festive Israeli songs, and where we had a scrumptious lunch while the band played "dinner music." (I'm pretty sure the Ethiopians found the Western music as "different" as I'd found theirs.) It was really something to see these new immigrants, who were so impoverished and had never experienced such a thing, being fawned over by waiters for the first time in their lives. I saw some of the girls glancing at staff members and then, in imitation, putting their linen napkins on their laps.

Oh, and, by the way, when a hotel representative announced that the buffet was in another room and we were all welcome to make our way there and take what we want, what do you think the Ethiopians did? Get up and rush to the buffet, like normal Jews? No. They sat still and waited, until a Jewish Agency staff person realized that they were waiting for the staff (the absorption center administration, etc) to go take food first. It was only after their social workers, translators, and program directors got food that they themselves got up to eat. I really like these people. They have manners.

After everyone had eaten, the sponsors wished the families Mazal Tov and gave each girl a Bat Mitzvah gift of silver candlesticks and an intricate Star of David necklace charm. Mr. Lipton said something very beautiful about their having sponsored the event because "we're all one family. Though we've been scattered to Africa, America, Europe, and all over the Middle East and the world, we've always looked to Israel as our home, and now we are back together again after being separated for 2,000 years." His speech, like everything else said on the trip, was translated twice- once into Hebrew and once into Amharic. (Things said in Hebrew were translated into Amharic for the newer immigrants and English for the Liptons.) One of the girls, who made aliyah three years ago and already speaks wonderful Hebrew, gave a short speech thanking the Liptons and speaking of her and her friends' happiness at passing through childhood and reaching the adult stage of their lives.

Then someone turned on more Ethiopian music, and we got into a crowded circle and clapped and watched some of the parents dance in the middle. We tried to get the girls to dance but, being 12-15 year-old Ethiopian girls, they were too shy. I discovered that Ethiopian dancing is all in the shoulders. To me it looked, at first, more like shrugging or the chicken dance, but one of the fathers got really into it and I wished I could move my shoulders that way!

By 5:30 all the girls and parents were back at their Absoption Center, changing back into their regular clothes and getting ready for their 6 pm English class. I left them feeling really happy that, in addition to all the nourishment these immigrants need in terms of knowledge and skills and clothing and food, that someone had also thought to give them something to feed their hearts.

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