State of the Union / When Shalom Met Yaffa

A beautiful Ethiopian and the ambitious son of Algerian immigrants find love at an Irish pub in Jerusalem. Two years and a viral wedding video later, they welcome their first child.

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Walking toward Israel

Beletesh Talla was born 34 years ago in a small village in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, into a Jewish family of corn and rice farmers. Her father never finished high school. Her mother, one of 17 children, left school at 14 to get married and was illiterate.

At the age of two, Beletesh’s family left home to walk across Sudan toward the promised land of Israel. They spent over two years en route, living in a refugee camp along the way, before being airlifted out of the desert in 1982.  

The new country was more of a shock than they had expected and Afula, where they settled, did not feel much like a place of milk and honey. The simplest of things were confounding, from toilets to doorbells to the neighborhood supermarket. Beletesh’s mom found work in a chicken coop and then in a hospital kitchen. Her dad was given a job at an electronic factory but did not fit in. “He was connected to the land,” Beletesh says. “This was not a lifestyle he was used toI mean, who knew anything about technology?” He too went to ulpan, but soon gave up.  When the family was told they were not officially Jewish and would have to convert, her dad was sad, she recalls. “It was humiliating.”

They all had their names changed, too.

“When we first arrived, the Jewish agency people were like: ‘Ok. Now you over there – you will be Aviva. And you- you get to be Chana.” Beletesh became Yaffa. She was a little upset about it, she admits. “The thing is, in Ethiopia, they give a lot of thought to our names. Beletesh means ‘hard working and remarkable.’ My great grandfather gave me that name and I liked it,” she says, biting her short, painted fingernails.

All things considered, Yaffa, which means ‘pretty’ in Hebrew, wasn’t the worst choice, pipes in a bespeckled 35-year-old named Shalom Zarbiv. “It too suits her well,” he says.

The development town

Shalom, the eldest son of Algerian immigrants, grew up in the development town of Netivot, crowded into the two-room apartment with his three brothers and three sisters. Shalom’s parents were both born in Constantine but met in France where their respective families had immigrated after the Algerian Civil War. His parents were Zionists, Shalom explains, and that’s what brought them to Israel, where they were soon settled, by the government, in Netivot. 

Home to a predominantly Moroccan immigrant community, Netivot is not the most diverse of places. And everyone Shalom grew up with was, basically, sort of like him. “In Netivot there was only one kind of people,” he says, “religious and family oriented and North African.” Everyone kept Shabbat. Everyone’s moms would yell at them in Moroccan-Arabic or French, and everyone ate spicy fish and couscous for Friday dinner.

“We never really left Netivot,” Shalom says. “We would go over to each other’s homes and hang out. Or, on Shabbat, when everything was closed, we would walk up and down the empty main street until 3am.” The furthest away they ever ventured, as kids, was maybe to Be'er Sheva, to go to the movies. “I guess it’s fair to say our perspective on the world was a little limited,” he allows.

The first time Shalom ever saw a “black kid,” as he describes it, was when he was 12. That’s when some new Ethiopian immigrants moved to Netivot and came along to the absorption center to play ball. “We saw all these black kids, but we had no idea where they were coming from. I remember they had balls made out of socks,” says Shalom. “The only word we had to communicate between us was ‘Maradona,’” referring to the great Argentinean soccer player.

Soon, the soccer players became friends, and when Shalom went over to visit, he was served up “Injera” – thin, spongy Ethiopian bread – by their moms. That was the first hint for him that not everyone was alike.

His suspicions were confirmed when he turned 18 and went off to join the combat engineering corps. “The army was a complete eye opener,” Shalom says. “I felt I had moved to another country.” He met Israelis from kibbutzim and from Tel Aviv. He made friends who knew how to ski, and other friends who ate on Yom Kippur and had never been to synagogue.

When he got out of the army, he moved to Jerusalem, working as a security guard and thinking about what to do next. “I wanted to get out of Netivot,” he admits. “On all levels.”  Almost none of his friends from home were planning on going to college, and he himself did not have particularly stellar grades – but he had a feeling education was a good ticket to better places, so applied to Hebrew University to study political science.

 “I came in under an affirmative action program for those from the periphery,” he says.  “I had a lot to catch up on. It was hard.” But he kept at it, and he liked it. When he finished his BA he went on to do an MA there, finishing top of his class. Today, he is a political science PhD candidate, focusing on immigration policy in Europe. His dad, who worked his whole life in a cable factory near Netivot, was, “of course,” says Shalom, “very proud. Very.”

Toward Jerusalem

It took Beletesh, now Yaffa, years to make friends in Afula, she says. The girls at her religious school were mean at first. They called her “Kushit,” a derogatory term for blacks, and did not invite her to birthday parties. Her parents could not help her with her homework.

By the time she got to high school, things were looking better. Operations Moses and Solomon had brought tens of thousands more Ethiopians to Israel, and Yaffa was now the veritable old timer. She had sabra friends, performed with the neighborhood jazz dance group, and started a mini revolution at school by wearing pants under her long black skirt, much to her religious parents and teachers’ distress. A beautiful girl, with jet black hair, bangs in her eyes, and a contagious, easy laugh, Yaffa was queen of Afula. Almost.

“There were two queens of the class,” she says. “and I was one of them.”

After graduation, she insisted on going to the army– another battle with her parents, but one that, luckily for her, an older sister had already fought and won. Like Shalom, she found her army years transformative. She joined the education corps and became a teacher for new immigrant soldiers. “I felt things had come full circle,” she says. “And I also found what I loved to do.”

After a BA in education, a few more years living at home teaching children with educational disabilities, Yaffa made the big move to Jerusalem, where she had been accepted at Hebrew University for a Masters in educational counseling.

She was the first and only Ethiopian in the whole department, she says. And her parents, of course, were proud -- but this did not stop them from driving her crazy about you-know-what. “It started when I turned 20,” says Yaffa. “Every conversation we had was about my getting married. I would go home for Shabbat and that’s all we would discuss.”

It’s not like she didn’t date. She did. A lot. A kibbutznik ten years her senior wanted to marry her she never brought him home for fear her parents would like him so much they would never give her peace. She did bring home a sabra art student but he failed to impress mom. And there was that sweet Russian immigrant from Eilat who wanted her to move there, but she just couldn’t.

First sighting in Dublin

They met in a pub, an Irish pub called “Dublin” on Shamai Street in Jerusalem. They had each travelled a long distance to get there, but from then on, it was all very simple.

Shalom had just ended a four year relationship with a fellow student from Russia. She had been part of his family, and his parents had liked her a lot. The break up had been hard, but he was enjoying his newfound bachelorhood, as evidenced by the fact that he was at Dublin, nursing a Heineken at 2 A.M.

It was a Thursday night and Yaffa was there with a younger sister, with whom she was living, and another friend, drinking wine and eating tortillas, which, for reasons unknown, are this Irish pub’s specialty. When the DJ put on Shlomi Shabat’s “Margarita” – one of Yaffa’s favorites – she set out for the dance floor. She stretched out her hand to her sister – no luck. The friend shook her head. And that is when Yaffa put out her hand to Shalom, a complete stranger who two and a half years later would become her husband.

“I thought, Why not?” says Shalom, who hopped off the bar and took the captivating girl for a whirl. They stayed for the next dance. Then the following one. Yaffa’s sister and friend left, the sister giving a “He looks OK” look on her way out. They were still out on the dance floor at 4 A.M. when the pub turned on the lights and told everyone to go home.

“It wasn’t just a flirtation,” says Yaffa. “There was depth there. We did not touch or anything. And we switched to Coca Cola.” Shalom told her about going fishing with his grandfather, who had recently died. She told him about her five siblings and her family’s stress about her being single. When they left the pub, they started walking aimlessly around the city, just walking and talking. Finally Shalom invited her back to his dorm room for breakfast. “I had never gone off with a guy like that – someone I met at a bar,” says Yaffa “But it felt right.”

He made them omelets and a salad. “She was impressed by my salad,” he says. “It was a real connection. A click. It felt like we were very different – but also exactly the same,” she says. “I guess it was love at first sight,” he says.

Love and Shabbat dinner

A few days later, she invited him to come over for dinner. Yaffa had gone all out: Moroccan style hamburgers and hummus, boiled carrots, rice, several kinds of salad and a parve chocolate cake for desert. “We were students. I thought maybe she would make a soup,” says Shalom. “I was shocked. It was so romantic. She had set the table with candles and put on music.”

Shalom knew, from his previous relationship, that sometimes good things just don’t work out at the end. He was worried about being hurt again. He was worried about hurting Yaffa. He was even worried about hurting his ex-girlfriend. But Yaffa was not worried at all. “From the very first moment, I knew we would get married. It’s impossible to explain, but I did. It was like he entered my heart and never left.”

Two months later, Yaffa took Shalom home for Shabbat. She was nervous, but need not have been. “My parents were in heaven,” she smiles. Shalom’s parents were equally pleased when the couple headed to their Shabbat table a few weeks later.

“My parents are religious, and if I had brought home a non-Jew, they would not have accepted it,” Shalom says. “But race makes no difference to them.”

 “A masterpiece of aesthetics and complexity”

Their parents, says Yaffa, were breathing down their necks. “They are traditional. They did not like us being together without being married. They don’t understand that is the norm in Israel,” she says.

The collective sigh of relief was heard over Passover 2010. That’s when Jaffa and Shalom went down to Sinai for holiday, and Shalom led Yaffa over to a small cove, where, in the sand, he had written up “Will you Marry Me?” He had a ring. He got down on his knee. “I had trouble getting the words out. I had dreamed of something like this,” she says.  

“I am not a man to parachute in from an airplane with a ring or something grandiose like that,” says Shalom. “But I did plan it.”

They were married less than a year later, in Netivot, with a Moroccan rabbi and a band that alternated between Ethiopian, North Africa and Israeli favorites.

“I don’t want to live in Netivot, but it was a good place for a wedding,” says Shalom, whose brother knew the wedding hall owners and scored a good deal there. They invited 400 guests - a tiny wedding by Ethiopian standards, says Yaffa – and wore white traditional Ethiopian gowns over their wedding clothes. A video they put up on YouTube, featuring the mix of colors, costumes and music at the event, went viral with 107,000 views. “Crazy, huh?” says Shalom. “But we know it was a special union.”

This week, the couple welcomed their first child, a baby named Shir, which means song, in Hebrew. “Because a ‘shir’ is a masterpiece of aesthetics and complexity,” explains the happy, sleepless father, “just like our daughter.”

Shalom and Yaffa met in an Irish pub called 'Dublin' on Shamai Street in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman
When Yaffa took Shalom home for a Shabbat, she was nervous, but didn't need to be.Credit: Emil Salman
'It wasn’t just a flirtation,' says Yaffa. 'There was depth there.'Credit: Emil Salman

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