Window Into the Life of an Ethiopian Immigrant Family

Dalia Betolin-Sherman is the first writer to succeed in giving readers a glimpse of the private world of an Ethiopian family in Israel, and of the maturation process undergone by one of its daughters.

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“Ekh Sheha’olam Neheyah Lavan” ‏(“How the World Turned White”‏), by Dalia Betolin-Sherman. Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, 141 pages, NIS 88

“How the world turned white and the streets filled with people and there were sidewalks and they paved roads instead of dirt and sand. And we saw cars and hardly any animals. And pale women strolled in short pants and men ate standing up and plastic bags were thrown away or blew in the wind instead of sand and the air was full of the smell of gasoline instead of the buzz of flies. And the house was in the air and the neighborhood was more than just one building and they came and scattered the peddlers with signs and gathered up the market and surrounded it with a chain-link fence and added stones and glass windows and polished it with marble and collected the heat and put it together with the food into a cooling air conditioner and gradually the rains stopped and there was a lot of food and they arranged a lot of parking places and they called the place Super, and my sister worked the evening shift there in the commercial zone and I sat and waited for her at the bus stop with sunglasses and we didn’t see each other and it was already late by the time I decided to ride alone.”
− “How The World Turned White”

Ethiopian Exodus: the last chapter

Dalia Betolin-Sherman’s moving and gripping book tells the story of Esther, a daughter of an Ethiopian family that immigrated to Israel, and it is narrated from her perspective. The book opens a small window into the world of a young girl, later an adolescent, whose maturation is accompanied by a distressing feeling of alienation. It is a universal Israeli story of sharp transitions − between different worlds, between the home and the outside, between Ethiopia and Israel, between old and new, between school and the neighborhood, and between personal beliefs and social ones.

Betolin-Sherman’s writing is courageous and unabashed, from the moment she reveals the family’s economic situation to the point at which we are exposed to Esther’s relations with her mother. The responsibility delegated to Esther is less than the responsibility that would have been her lot as the eldest sister in a village in Ethiopia, but in Israel this responsibility is huge compared to that borne by children from a different socioeconomic class.

With her mother, she has a complex hierarchal relationship that becomes reversed in adolescence. On the one hand, her mother is deserving of the respect all well brought-up children have for their mother, but on the other hand, the mother is illiterate and at a certain stage she is unemployed and almost somnambulant; her daughter wrangles and even competes with her.

These passages exemplify what happens in the transition from one country to another and how, without strong parents, the gaps between parents and their children expand until they cannot be bridged. This happens, of course, between parents and children everywhere, in particular when they are immigrants.

Betolin-Sherman succeeds in insisting on her own unique voice and on giving the reader the sense that he or she is privy to Esther’s thoughts. Reading the book, and especially the first chapter, brings the reader into a situation of overload reminiscent of wartime: It is laden with information, contrasts, petty thoughts and sublime questions fired like a round of bullets. Considerable parts of the book gave me the feeling I was reading a long, sweeping and unstoppable poem. Yet, even if I sometimes encountered baffling sentences, they only sharpened the sense that I was a part of this, inside a flow of thoughts and feelings that cannot be written down. Betolin-Sherman is able to transmit the sense that this is bigger than words and can be felt only in one’s gut.

“A voice cut us off and we hear ‘kushit’ [an archaic word for “black,” considered derogatory in modern Hebrew] from afar. On the other side of the street stood a girl and my sister yelled at her: ‘I am not a kushit − I am brown,’ but the girl hurried away and we ran after her and pushed her to the side, against the wall, and I firmly told her to whisper the right color and we didn’t go until I saw her face change and my sister watched her from up close and shouted, ‘Liar, you are not white.’”

“How the World Turned White” is not only the story of a growing girl but also of a challenged, racist and unequal society. In the third chapter, we are exposed to Esther’s peers in school and in the neighborhood. Her class breaks down into three main groups: the queen of the class and her posse, called “Adva and the Bees”; the group of “regular girls”; and finally Esther and her “nappyhead” friends. Esther is angry when the teacher makes her group, the least popular − and one that in its own way succeeded in creating a safe space for itself within a sense of a common fate − play with Tamar, who is considered a group of her own. Tamar is a total reject, a girl with a runny nose and lice in her hair, who laughs at everything.

As Esther and her friends jump rope with a long piece of elastic, the teacher, Haya, who is on playground duty, decides to see that justice will be done at their expense, and demands that they let Tamar join them, though it’s clear to Esther that the teacher would not have dared to have demanded this of “Adva and the Bees.”

Esther gets annoyed when Adva tells about how her parents were shalichim in Philadelphia, and she and her friends really want something bad to happen to her. In her best friend’s notebook, Esther finds her dreams in writing: “I would like to cut off her chestnut-brown hair with the braid, undo the dark blue lace-up string on her pale blue shirt and her Bnei Akiva enthusiasm ... and I am just keeping my fingers crossed that when this happens from God, the queen of the class will fall.”

Just before seventh grade, Esther sits in the classroom and listens to all the heavy words: anti-Semitism, pogroms, blood libels. “The teacher talks about the lives of the Jews who lived somewhere in the cold that goes down below zero. A lot of times they were poor, barely a loaf of bread for a holiday. Saints ... The teacher walks in a cramped way through the Pale of Settlement ... and makes sure I am paying attention, but she doesn’t need to at all because I know the story of our village − Mother has already told me and I only want to close my eyes for a few moments.”

After several years at the absorption center, Esther and her family move out of their apartment for another city. She thinks about the new immigrants who will come to the center: “They photograph them, too, as a family and take their smile to the Jewish Agency and from there to the entire world like a postcard from a faraway vacation. But I know how they will feel inside after we go. Cold and damp in the winter because the roof leaks and it’s necessary to set out a bucket and no one plans to fix it. The director of the site will say there is no need to worry, the winter is short and is over before it begins.

“And in the summer, it’s hot and suffocating and they hang wet sheets on the windows and shower with clothes on and think they are about to die like the flowers ... And they go to the site director again and he says the prefab is white in color and it reflects the rays. In the middle of the day he will go swimming at the pool in the nearby community where he lives and before he leaves he will tell them to stay indoors because outdoors there are mosquitoes and diseases and there is no shade and the rays are dangerous for everyone.”

Esther and her friends have to attend the “immigrants club” in the afternoons, and Esther wonders why Tamar, whose surname ‏(Stein‏) is like Adva’s and who, like Adva, has a powdering of freckles on her nose and blue eyes, is with them in the club. Once again she realizes that justice is being done at their expense. The critical reader is able to identify this phenomenon, which recurs at the governmental policy level, and on a national scale ‏(the asylum-seekers are systematically moved to south Tel Aviv; new immigrants − to weak communities; large budgets − to strong communities, and so on‏).

Esther and her friends decide to boycott the “club” on principle and do not eat the food served there: “Haya looms over us and makes faces at us, indicating we should be saying thank you that we even have this club ... She never lets us say that this food, thick bean soup in the middle of the ‏(warm‏) month of Iyar, disgusts us.” At the same time, Adva is on her way to a swimming class.

In this part of the book we are made aware of the illusion of integration in the schools. The thought that mixing black and white children will lead to integration is superficial and dishonest. They are separated once again in the after-school clubs, where the Ethiopians find themselves once again in special “reception classes” ‏(for new immigrants at the absorption center‏), and they go around in groups of their own. Even when the percentage of students of Ethiopian origins is low, equal opportunity is not enforced in a thorough way but only for the sake of appearances.

Esther’s story should be read at the Education Ministry so they will understand what is happening from a first-hand and reliable source. They should implement decisions based on a view of the good of the child, and not based on populist considerations − decisions that will focus on equal opportunity and not on superficial equality between colors.

To my regret, I have worked in such an after-school club, which did not provide for the needs of the students there. First, because some of them did not need help, and second, because separating them from the other students, and the fact that it was compulsory for them to show up at the club’s activities, created a gap between them and those who were not of Ethiopian origin. This led to the Ethiopian children perceiving themselves as unfortunate, as well as nurturing arrogance on the part of the white students, as Esther’s story shows.

Hitting is damaging

“How the world became white. Mother went to a gynecologist, took a pill, said we were enough for her, objected to Grandfather’s orders and hit us less and less because she told Grandfather that hitting is damaging to the child’s morale.”

Betolin-Sherman enables us to understand what immigration means, how this meaning is manifested in the everyday changes to which the immigrant must become accustomed, with respect to everything from world-view to technical matters, and the way these changes affect the family structure and the ability to live a normal life. She also succeeds in transmitting concretely the effects of immigration on the ability to adapt socially and economically, and the effects of unemployed parents on a child’s life.

We become aware of more and more elements in Esther’s reality, and even though she lives in Tel Aviv, the residual feeling is one of being in the periphery in every respect. It is possible to understand children and teens who apply what they have learned at home and on television and in everyday life, and to realize how racism doesn’t “come from nowhere,” and comprehend how all this lines up with Esther’s own personal beliefs in the face of the social truths around her.

Every child is different, but in the society in which we are living, the social norms and messages that are transmitted to us in general, and to children in particular, leave a mark on all of us − along with ways of thinking that are hard to shake off. In the book, it becomes clear how Esther explains this to herself when she becomes a grown woman.

Dalia Betolin-Sherman has done something that has never been done before in Israeli literature: She has succeeded in affording the reader a glimpse of the private world of an Ethiopian family in Israel and revealed a bit of the story of the maturation of an Ethiopian girl, with all that entails from the perspective of class, race, culture and gender.

The book makes it possible to learn something about the experience of immigration in general, and in particular about the culture and mentality of the waves of immigration from Ethiopia, whose members have become a part of the lower class in this country. There is a different kind of humor here that is both amusing and refreshing, along with curses ‏(Ethiopian‏) and the very worst thing a man can say to his wife.

Efrat Yarday is an editor and member of the Ra’av Publishing House.

Ethiopian Jews at an absorption center.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
Operation Solomon, 1991: Two-day airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office

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