Israeli beauty queen Yityish “Titi” Aynaw seemed completely at ease as she mingled with the assembled guests on Tuesday evening on the penthouse balcony with breathtaking views of south Manhattan. Dozens of handsome and stylish Jewish twenty to forty somethings hovered around her, trying to get her attention, whisper in her ear, take a photo with her, touch the stardust that seemed to surround her.
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Aynaw willingly shakes the outstretched hands, laughs at the offered jokes and attempted one-liners, touches people’s shoulders, even hugs them, when they make a move. She conducts herself with a poise and self-confidence that belies the fact that she is in America for the first time in her life.
“I am not putting on an act,” she says, “I was head of the student council in my high school, I commanded over 90 soldiers in the army. You get a lot of experience, and with the experience comes the self-confidence."
It is this self-confidence – along with her statuesque beauty, her direct, no-nonsense talk, and her extraordinary life story – that makes Aynaw a potential hasbara blockbuster, a potent projection of Israel’s good side, that far outstrips anything that any Israeli politician or diplomat can come up with.
“I know that I project a good image of Israel,” she says, “but I don’t ‘do’ hasbara. I tell my story, what my life has been like, that’s all.”
Aynaw was the guest at a reception of the Young Leadership division of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) – which also organized last week’s Celebrate Israel Parade – and is fundraising for “the Netanya Foundation” which is dedicated to improving her home town. Foundation CEO Shlomi Waroner says that Aynaw has her own pet project, aimed at financing extracurricular activities for “idle and frustrated Ethiopian kids,” as she puts it.
The evening’s host is Ari Ackerman, an Internet entrepreneur who is also the grandson of well-known Israeli financier Meshulam Riklis. Introducing Aynaw, Ackerman quotes a favorite saying of his mother Mona, who passed away a few months ago: “She said that style without substance is silly, and substance without style is boring.” And Aynaw, as everyone realizes, has quite a lot of both.
She speaks decent English, but prefers to tell the story of her amazing voyage in Hebrew, through a volunteer interpreter, and does so with candor and grace: from her poor but often happy childhood in Gondar Province in Ethiopia, her father’s death when she was two, her mother’s when she was ten, her aliyah to Israel at the age of 12 with her grandparents, honors graduate from high school, lieutenant in the IDF Military Police, then, in February, Israel’s first Ethiopian beauty queen. She plans to study international relations at Netanya College next year and to pursue a modeling career, she tells me.
“I could have stayed on the dark side of my life,” she tells her audience, “but I am an optimistic person. I have more than just beauty.”
For the kind of sophisticated up and coming young Jews of New York, Titi – as they call her in embarrassed titters – represents the kind of welcoming and egalitarian Israel that they would like to see, rather than the one they read and hear about more often. The well-heeled, well-educated, well-placed men and women look at Aynaw with what seems to be a mix of awe and even envy: despite the almost inconceivable gap in their socioeconomic status, it is she who is looking tonight like a million dollars.
Aynaw does not speak to this crowd about discrimination and racism directed at her fellow Ethiopians in Israel, but she says that this is because no one asked her. In an earlier meeting with local Israelis, Aynaw elaborates more on the hardships awaiting Ethiopian newcomers, and “moves her audience close to tears,” according to Oren Heiman, a managing partner at the New York branch of the Shiboleth law firm and recently elected chairman of the new formed Moatza Mekomit New York, which aims to unite local expat Israel organizations. “Her achievements inspired pride and emotion.”
“Of course we face racism,” she says, “but other groups do as well. Homosexuals face discrimination, and previous immigrants, such as the Yemenites, faced similar hurdles. But I’m not accusing anyone. Israel is the only country that accepts such a disparate collection of communities. I’m sure we’ll find our place in the end.”
And just so there aren’t any misunderstandings, she adds: “Of course I love Israel. It is my home.”
Aynaw is photographed alongside African-American Fox News presenter Harris Faulkner, and Martin Luther King was the man she chose to list as “her most admired personality” in the pre-beauty pageant questionnaire that she filled out. So I ask her whether she feels that in New York her skin color carries extra resonance. At first she peers at me to detect a slight or insult, but then tells me gushingly of her “amazing” experience at the Bethel Gospel Church in Harlem, to which Israeli photographer Shahar Azran took her.
“They brought me up to the pulpit,” she says, “and people touched me and blessed me and prayed for my success in the upcoming Miss Universe contest. They were so kind and pleasant. I didn’t believe it was happening to me. I was so happy to be surrounded by so many people who look like me.”
Then she says that she went to Harlem because she had “seen it in the movies," but she is happy that “black people by now are completely integrated into American society.” I only made a faint effort to tell her that that dream of Martin Luther King hasn’t really come true yet, fifty years on.