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With mud hut and chickens, an ancestral village heals generational divide

Why We Wrote This

For the children of immigrants, there’s often a detachment from older relatives as well as a physical distance from ancestral land. In Israel, a model Ethiopian village is bringing generations together.

Courtesy of Ziv Ababa
An Ethiopian Israeli woman harvests some of the vegetables she planted alongside students in a recreated African village in the foothills of Israel’s Mount Carmel.

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In the foothills of Israel’s Mount Carmel, teens and the older Ethiopians who visit this boarding school are tending to a model village they built together. Goats and chickens roam around the thatched huts and rows planted with teff – a staple grain in Ethiopia. They are also working on their generational divide. Once revered as the stable core of society in Ethiopia, the elders here in Israel have been seen as weak and dependent on a host society that was sometimes hostile to their customs and the color of their skin. Ziv Ababa teaches the history course on Ethiopian Jews at Meir Shfeya Youth Village and leads trips to Ethiopia. While meeting the Jewish community that remains there, the students get a deeper understanding of what was often a traumatic journey to Israel, particularly for those who traveled in the early 1980s through Sudan.  “It gives our Ethiopian students a feeling of belonging and connection and confidence in themselves that they have a proud history of over 2,000 years,” says Mr. Ababa. “And in this, too, we hope they will feel more connected to their parents.”

The teenagers scramble up a terraced hillside of their own creation, excited to show off one of the thatched round huts at the top that they also helped build.

In Ethiopia, it’s called a tukul, its cream-colored walls fashioned from straw and mud.

“This is our Ethiopian village,” says Yavletel Endergay, a high school senior, sweeping his hand over the view below: rows of corn, lettuce, coffee, sugar cane, and teff – a staple grain in Ethiopia. Nearby roam goats and chickens.

The young Mr. Endergay and his fellow Ethiopian-Israeli students planted the crops working side by side with older Ethiopian men and women who come every week to their school to tend this model village they built together in the foothills of Israel’s Mount Carmel.

The physical work, storytelling, and indigenous knowledge being passed down as the generations work together is an effort to address a crisis that has left the community’s youth estranged from their dislocated parents and grandparents, who came of age in a culture vastly different from the rough and tumble one they found waiting for them in Israel.

Endergay explains that it was in remote rural villages like this that his family and his friends’ families lived for generations in Ethiopia before immigrating to Israel.

The patch of land surrounding the tukul, he says, was cultivated cooperatively by relatives. That information about their communal farming way of life was new to Endergay, as was so much that has been taught to him by his elders.

“I was two when I came to Israel, and I don’t remember anything about Ethiopia,” says Endergay, one of some 135,000 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants and their descendants living in Israel. “It makes me want to go back there and learn as much as possible about what was,” he says.

The origins of these African Jews are debated, but one theory is that they are descendants of King Solomon or the lost tribe of Dan. The Ethiopian Jewish community, known as Beta Israel, arrived in Israel in waves, beginning with small numbers as far back as the 1930s, but most substantially in the 1980s and ’90s. Most recently, immigrants have come from the Falash Mura community. They say they are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago, but now they want to return to Judaism.

Intergenerational divides among immigrants are common, but among Ethiopian Israelis the break has been especially severe. In part it’s born of the older generation’s culture shock and struggle to acclimate in a modern, urban setting. But community members say the younger generation’s loss of respect for their elders is more profound: Once revered as the stable core of their society, the elders were seen as having become weak and dependent on a host society that was foreign and sometimes even hostile to their customs and the color of their skin.

For young Ethiopian Israelis, a feeling of otherness and even racism are indeed issues. A recent fatal police shooting of a knife-wielding Ethiopian Israeli has reignited community allegations of racism and police abuse, and Wednesday hundreds protested on a highway outside Tel Aviv, bringing rush hour traffic to a standstill.

‘Roots’ trips to Ethiopia

The educators at Meir Shfeya Youth Village – a boarding school for at-risk and immigrant youth supported by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America – who came up with the idea of the model village have also started offering a class on the history of Ethiopian Jews, the only course of its kind currently being taught in the Israeli school system. They have also led student “roots” trips to Ethiopia.

“This gives them a connection … to see where their parents came from,” says Ziv Ababa, a teacher at the school who has, along with the principal, spearheaded the Ethiopian generations bridge-building efforts. “It’s important because there is a total disconnect. They don’t know their history, and they go and see what it was like there, what their parents went through there to come here, and it helps connect them more closely to each other.”

The poverty many Ethiopian families experience in Israel exacerbates the shame and feelings of dislocation for both young and old. “What’s been created is a generation of kids born here without anything who see their parents as people neither in a position of leading or giving,” says Yuvi Tashome, an activist who immigrated as a child. She directs an organization called “Friends by Nature,” which works to empower Ethiopian-Israeli communities.

Ethiopian Israeli children, she argues, are raised more by Israeli institutions than by their parents, including boarding schools and after-school programs, and that the message the children receive is that their parents are not capable.

Mr. Ababa, who also designed and teaches the history course on Ethiopian Jews, came to Israel when he was 10, and on the trip to Ethiopia he takes students to his home village and arranges meetings for students who still have relatives there. While touring and meeting the Jewish community that remains, the students also get a deeper understanding of what was a traumatic journey to get to Israel, particularly for those who traveled in the early 1980s through Sudan. Thousands died along the way.

Ababa says of the class he teaches: “It gives our Ethiopian students a feeling of belonging and connection and confidence in themselves that they have a proud history of over 2,000 years, and shows that they too have a tradition and values. And in this, too, we hope they will feel more connected to their parents.”

Revelation in Gondar

Students are also charged with interviewing their parents to better understand them as people and the hardships they have endured. At the model village with the elders, the students are even taught how to conduct the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a central part of the cultural life of Ethiopian families, so they can conduct it at home with their parents – another path toward reconnection.

Zemini Aiano went on the trip to Ethiopia last year and describes it as a revelation. So many basic details of her parents’ life in Ethiopia had been a mystery to her. When she returned and showed them photos of a river in the province of Gondar where they grew up – and where the majority of Ethiopian Jews originate – her father recognized the scene as the stretch of the river that flowed right by his home village.  

“I was right near where family once lived, and I didn’t even realize it,” she says.

“Before I had felt so frustrated by our differences – what I was going through, and how I felt more connected to Israeli society and speak a language [Hebrew] they have trouble expressing themselves in,” she says of her relationship with her parents.

She knows only basic Amharic – “I cannot speak from my heart in Amharic” – and her 11-year-old brother does not speak it at all.

“I feel more connected to my roots now – and I’m very proud of my parents,” says Ms. Aiano. She mentions that she goes by her Amharic first name, a growing trend among younger Ethiopians. For years most went by Hebrew names given by immigration officials.

She says she likes the meaning of her name, Zemini: one who arrived on time.

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