Family Affair The Avrahams

Hodayot Youth Village

  • The cast: Melesah (52), Tehoneh (32), Nitzan (almost 15), Elyashiv-Eli (12.5), Or (5).

  • The home: Jewish Agency structure, spindly, red-roofed with plaster peeling, in the section of the staff residences next to the "seniors' club," amid cypresses. It's an approximately 80-square-meter building with a living room-kitchen and three bedrooms, to which the family moved a year and a half ago, after nine years in Meir Shfeya Youth Village near Haifa.

  • Short Friday: The children aren't yet back from school, Tehoneh hasn't yet finished cooking, Melesah isn't yet done teaching, and we are already here, after a pleasant wait in the verdant foothills below Kibbutz Lavie.

  • Entering: On the other side of the front door is a large, well-equipped aquarium; now without occupants, it's awaiting a new supply of goldfish (Melesah: "They'll be here in two weeks"). From here you can turn left into the living room or right into the two children's rooms or keep walking straight ahead to the master bedroom. We turn leftward.

  • Leftward: In the small space, which is plastered in white, are two black leather sofas, a matching armchair and a low table opposite a bureau with a television and a round-cornered glass cupboard, which holds a coffee set ("It's all gifts"). On the walls are pictures of Swiss landscapes. They received them all from friends. "If they brought it, I am obliged to hang it up," Melesah says. "Someone has gone out of his way for you." We head for the kitchen.

  • The kitchen: This is actually a kitchenette whose space opens into the living room. Two pots and a frying pan are perched on the gas burners. One pot contains segott (lamb stew), in the other is dolet (internal parts of the lamb with vegetables); in the frying pan is alecha (potatoes, carrots and cabbage). Tehoneh serves hot bereketei, a long Sabbath challah that she baked herself ("The saffron makes it yellow"). We move on to the bedrooms.

  • The bedrooms: Nitzan has a "bed and a half" opposite a computer and under a poster of Ronaldo; next to Eli's bunk bed are bookshelves holding all the volumes of the Yavneh Encyclopedia, "One Palestine, Complete" (by Tom Segev, Hebrew version), a book by the literary critic Dan Meron, Josephus' "History of the Jewish War" and many books on education. Or doesn't have a room; every evening he chooses someone to sleep with. A peek into Melesah and Tehoneh's room reveals a yellow floral bedspread on their double bed. Adjacent is a table with cosmetics.

  • Livelihoods and occupations: Melesah teaches English and Amharic in the village school four days a week and is also the coordinator of an education project that aims to enrich the curriculum during after-school hours ("Sometimes we study at night, too"). One day a week he goes to the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he is working on his M.A. (on "family and community"). He takes the No. 934 bus ("NIS 80 return trip").

  • Amharic: A matriculation subject. Together with a friend he edited a reader that includes works by two Ethiopian writers. Amharic is understood in the Avraham home, but the children no longer speak it.

  • Tehoneh's livelihood: For the past 14 months she has been in charge of the village's dining room, working a six-day week (from 6:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M.), overseeing order and cleanliness and being responsible for those on duty. She's there for breakfast and lunch, but in the evening she returns to her own private kitchen.

  • The children: Nitzan is a ninth-grade student in the Tiberias branch of the ORT vocational school network (in this case a high-school yeshiva), traveling back and forth in transportation provided by the regional council (15 minutes each way). In the afternoon he takes part in a Capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) group and also plays soccer. He used to play for the youth team of the Hof Carmel (Carmel Coast) Regional Council ("When we lived in Shfeya"). Eli is in sixth grade at a school located on Kibbutz Lavie. He gets a lift there in the morning in his dad's 1992 Subaru (Melesah: "I'm not selling"). In the afternoon he plays guitar, both electric and acoustic ("We bought it for him"). He dreams of attending an arts school - and doesn't rule out residence in Tel Aviv (Melesah: "We'll find him a place to sleep"). Or is in kindergarten on Lavie, going back and forth with Dad or with the parents of friends ("We organized it"). Melesah also has a daughter from his first marriage, named Etenesh .

  • Etenesh: 23, immigrated to Israel three years ago, studies industrial engineering at the ORT branch in Carmiel, and lives in the dorms (not in the photo).

  • Melesah's bio: Born in a village in the Gondar region to a farmer father and potter mother. Their home was made of straw and mud, and they brought water from the village well. Until he was 16 he shepherded the family's herd and was illiterate. In the mid-1970s, following the revolution fomented by Mengistu Haile Mariam (a socialist), courses were opened for adults "under the tree," and he began to attend them. Driven by a powerful thirst for knowledge, he enrolled in first grade in a regular school ("with children in first grade") and started to learn at a rate of "two weeks per grade" until he completed third grade and moved to Gojjam province, where he was skipped to sixth grade and passed all the tests. He completed English on his own in the summer ("I bought a book and studied") and then was drafted into the army.

  • The army: After serving for half a year he was suspected of being a "regime opponent" and was thrown into jail. At a horrific moment, when his turn had almost come to be given "treatment" from which one does not emerge alive, he was suddenly released by one of the prison officers. He doesn't know why. Delighted with the life that was given him as a gift, he resumed his studies, completed 12th grade (at the age of 30), went on to teachers' college in Gondar, worked as a teacher for five years, became a school headmaster ("and chairman of the regional teachers' organization"), and went to Addis Ababa (1990), where he got a job teaching at the Israeli embassy school. A year later he immigrated to Israel in Operation Solomon with Tehoneh, whom he had just married. They were in the last bus, he says, and on the last flight, the one that broke the world record for occupancy (1,087 passengers in a Boeing 747, according to Wikipedia).

  • Tehoneh's bio: Born in a village in Gojjam province. Her father was a kes (an Ethiopian spiritual leader) who made a living from farming and weaving, and her mother made ceramic household utensils. As a girl she did household chores, which included carrying home cans of water on her head from the well every day. She attended six grades and at the age of 10 moved with her family to Addis Ababa, where she attended the Israeli embassy school. Her teacher was Melesah, but she never imagined that one day he would also be her husband.

  • The meeting: "It wasn't a meeting, it was an arranged match" (Tehoneh). He was a 35-year-old teacher, she was a 15-year-old student. Until then they had never spoken. The connection was formed when his father met her uncle and from there things unfolded rapidly ("On Monday his father arrived, on Thursday we were married").

  • The wedding: Until the ceremony she didn't know who the groom was. She didn't want to get married. When she saw the man who entered the room she was flabbergasted ("Suddenly I saw my teacher"). Later, when he tried to put the ring on her finger she pulled her hand away and there was major embarrassment all around. Finally she agreed to cooperate and the ceremony was completed. "There were three kesim there and I didn't want to mess up" (Tehoneh). As it turned out, her husband, a gentle man, wanted her to go on studying and to improve herself. She gave birth to their first child, Nitzan, in Israel when she was 18.

  • Daily routine: Melesah gets up at 5 A.M., checks out what's happening in the house, recites the morning prayers, has a cup of instant coffee (one sugar) and makes sandwiches for the children to take to school. Tehoneh gets up at a quarter to six, washes and dresses, applies moisturizer, perfume and deodorant, and without eating or drinking anything heads for the dining room. It's 6:25. Melesah and the boys are now eating breakfast (he brings rolls and makes omelets), after which they will go to their modes of transportation.

  • Lunch: Whoever is in the village goes to the dining room ("We have coupons"). Melesah usually eats with his students at the same table. Sometimes Nitzan and Eli will go straight home and heat up schnitzels in the microwave ("They are independent").

  • Schnitzels: Tehoneh first tasted schnitzel in Jerusalem in 1992 ("at Givat Hamatos" - a rundown project on the city's southern edge, populated by Ethiopians and homeless Israelis) and then was taught by a friend how to prepare them ("I liked them straight off.")

  • Supper: At home, always together. Or goes to sleep at 8; the bigger boys stretch out the day until 10.

  • Television: Tehoneh and Melesah watch the news only (on Channels 1 and 2) - "Nothing else interests me" (Melesah). Tehoneh has laundry and cleaning up to do ("The only time I have to organize things is in the evening").

  • Division of labor: Nitzan, the firstborn, washes the floors with Melesah.

  • Going out: If at all, to a mall (in Tiberias or Netanya). They like Kapulsky's cafe chain.

  • Music: Nitzan listens to Puff Daddy (rap) and Gusai (an Ethiopian singer); Ali likes "Asher from Atlanta." Both of them are fans of Synergia, an Israeli band, and they definitely appreciate Idan Raichel (whose first CD was based on traditional Ethiopian music).

  • The children's childhood: "I wish I had been as fortunate as they are" (Tehoneh). "They are actually losing a lot," Melesah says. "I was given responsibility at the age of seven, but here they are still children at 16."

  • Discrimination: Melesah vehemently denies that it exists. "There are instances," he says, "but a person has to take responsibility for himself."

  • Moshe Katsav, Haim Ramon: "We no longer have any leaders."

  • Dreams: Eli - to study music; Nitzan - to play basketball in the NBA, for Cleveland; Melesah - to have a working dairy; Tehoneh - to open an Ethiopian-Israeli restaurant in the center of the country; Or - to raise a lion.

  • Happiness quotient (scale of 1-10): Melesah - 8-9, Tehoneh - 7, all the children - 10.

    The place

    Hodayot - Youth village in Lower Galilee, near Kibbutz Lavie, belongs to the national-religious stream and was established 1950. It has 211 students (boys and girls), most of them of Ethiopian origin, a few from the former Soviet Union and some native born.