This Year we are Free
Last Thursday night Avi married Tamar in Petach Tikvah (an Israeli city whose name means “opening towards hope”). It was a glorious wedding. I have known Avi’s family since he was only two or three years old and they were new immigrants from Ethiopia, nearly 25 years ago. Avi’s grandfather was one of the renowned leaders of his people, elderly and back bent from his troubles, who guided his extended family through the dark of night across deserts and battlefields when they left their village near Ambover in 1984. They didn’t leave because of famine or poverty like millions of other Ethiopians during those years, but because they had been told that from a refugee camp in Sudan they would be gathered to Irusalem, their ancient hope. It is easy now to be cynical about this legendary exodus. The path of Ethiopian-Israelis has not always been easy or kind. But during the summer in college that I lived with Avi’s family and for many years afterward I remember his grandfather sitting every morning with a white leather bound copy of Dawit or Psalms, the same one he had carried on a shoulder strap across the desert, singsonging his praises for the bounty of survival and redemption that had been granted to his loved ones.
I attended a few weddings that summer in the Galille. They were folksy affairs conducted in the big courtyard between low income housing units. All the immigrant women in the neighborhood brought heaping stacks of grey injera bread and there was usually a big pot of boiling stew at the center. Sometimes a neighbor brought a krar or some other Ethiopian stringed instrument and everyone sang their village songs, clapping in unison. There was a lot of anger during those years towards the Chief Rabbinate’s demand that new immigrants undergo “conversion for the sake of stringency” before they could be officially married by an Israeli rabbi, but people still managed to have a good time, and sometimes an immigrant Kes also came to bless the proceedings. Chief Rabbi Shlush of Netanya had ruled (like Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef) that no conversion was necessary, and the religious establishment adopted a pragmatic compromise by allowing him or his representatives to perform weddings anywhere in the country. By midnight neighbors would start complaining about the noise and sometimes tossing things from open windows and it became something of a local joke that any really good wedding would be broken up by the police eventually. The families I knew lived in development towns with no jobs and poor schools and it really was hard to imagine sometimes how they would get ahead.
It had been a good few years since I last saw Avi’s family, and I thought a lot about that first summer as I mingled with five hundred other guests and sampled fancy finger foods at their beautiful, stylish reception. It wasn’t just the relative economic success that held my attention though, but the joyous self-confidence and cultural creativity that the affair bespoke. Some of the old customs had been attenuated, it was true. No more clapping processions from the bride’s house to the groom’s and no long blessings in Amharic. The rabbi in his black coat and hat was a jovial Ethiopian immigrant who had studied at an Israeli yeshiva. And there was the typical Israeli kitsch of sparklers and smoke coming up from beneath the dance floor as the couple made their first appearance after the ceremony. An expensive DJ moved seamlessly between the latest hits from the Addis Ababa club scene and Israeli Mizrahi favorites like “We are Believers, Sons of Believers” and the occasional American love song. The Ethiopian shoulder dancing was raucous, and when I left around midnight there was no sign of the party slowing down—and no neighbors throwing tomatoes either.
For the next three days the family celebrated on a smaller scale at the local community center near their home, with catered Israeli schnitzel for the young people and homemade injera for their elders. Some of my friends have been back to Ethiopia for months at a time to visit, to do business or to seek traditional healing, and others have spent time in New York, Germany and Italy. But Israel is their home and they are entirely at home there in their skins and complicated identities. Avi’s cousin, one of my best friends in the world, is now a fire fighter who helped to battle the blaze in Carmel earlier this year. He speaks an easy Hebrew slang, but his children also grow up hearing plenty of Amharic.
It is characteristic in academic and journalistic circles to focus on problems and insoluble dilemmas, of which there are many. Some Israeli patriots find it hard to understand the continued and powerful attachment of Ethiopian-Israelis to the land of their birth. Some of my far-left colleagues in the US, by contrast, cling to the utterly implausible theory that Ethiopians were convinced to come to Israel out of some kind of Machiavellian plot to settle the West Bank or to become a cheap labor pool for Israel (neither of which has come to fruition). But the truth is both simpler and more complicated. It is more complicated because Ethiopian Jews like others today live in a globalized world of intimate connections across national and cultural boundaries in which it is difficult to pigeonhole anyone. It is more complicated because alongside the promise, Israel has also been a land of tremendous and ongoing challenges for Ethiopians and others who have made it their home. There is discrimination and impatience with difference, and the constant threat of violence or war. Another friend whose highschool class visited the “peace bridge” in Nahariyya lost several classmates to a terror attack during the 1990’s.
Yet there is also a simplicity here that deserves attention. The people who walked across the desert carrying little more than Psalms have found their own distinctive way into the Israeli pottage. They vote, serve in the army and struggle to save a few shekels like everyone else. This year they will sit with family at a Passover seder like everyone else and laugh or argue about whatever it is that big families laugh and argue about. But they will do it in the land that their grandparents only dreamed of.
The traditional Passover Haggadah begins with a passage written in Aramaic that was almost certainly composed after the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome and the exile of the Jewish people. “Let all who are hungry come and eat… This year we are here, next year in the Land of Israel. This year we are slaves, next year we will be free.” The Jewish people and the State of Israel confront massive and difficult challenges in the months and years ahead. But do we give ourselves the opportunity to celebrate what has already been accomplished, beyond anyone’s reasonable expectation? The simple opening of the Haggaddah has resonated with generations and still does. But as I sat last week at Avi’s wedding with those words echoing through my head I couldn’t help thinking: “This year. This year we are here. This year we are free.”