It was December 1984 and I was lounging around in my “double” dira (apartment) at the World Union of Jewish Students compound, an absorption center housing over a hundred of us post-college Jews who were doing what is now called a “gap year” experience in Israel.
I heard a knock on the door. It was Koby, the head of WUJS, coming to tell me I needed to vacate my apartment immediately and move to a quad. My response: “You could have given me some notice – like telling me at dinner!” My roommate Pola, from the Bronx, was not so restrained. “We are not moving out at this time of night!”
“But you must, and right now,” said Koby.
Weighted down with “Sachnut” or Jewish Agency- issue orange plates and plaid sofa cushions, I was confounded by this urgent need to vacate my ‘luxurious’ double for a quad down the hall and split from my roommate Pola as well.
At six a.m. the next morning, another knock on the door. It was Koby.
“What is it now?” I asked.
“Come, take these bags and meet your new friends.”
In a haze I walked downstairs carrying baggies of cosmetic items and had to focus and reframe the scene in front of me. A bus had emerged along with the sun. The sun I recognized. The people in the bus I did not.
“These are your Jewish brothers and sisters,” said Koby. Images of “We are the World” and the famine in Africa emerged but collided with my notion of what a Jew looked like.
Disembarking were the bountiful progeny of our Ethiopian brethren who had spent the night in bewilderment upon a metallic bird – or El Al cargo plane. These children were gleaming and I felt a spark of excitement and hope about the emergence of a new peoplehood of Jews from this caravan.
This spark was quickly extinguished as I witnessed the generations pour off the bus: the parents, laden with sparse sacks of their worldly items, and then the grandparents, feeble and emaciated.
It was their eyes that caught me off guard – eyes of lost souls, literally -a reunion of the lost tribes of Israel; eyes of lost souls figuratively as I could see that this Israeli Air Force secret airlift – Operation Solomon – had broken much more than the sound barrier. It had broken the spirit of a people who had wandered miles, days, months into the forests of Sudan with the leap of faith too large for them to integrate.
I understood at that moment that my ‘job’ now was to lead a constellation of twelve family members up the Absorption Center stairs one step at a time (they had never climbed stairs) who had now emerged from Africa thousands of years after our People’s exile- to return, just as I had, to the desert and the forest and the streams of our collective land.
“Follow me,” I said, like Nachshon who boldly jumped into the Red Sea to implore our people to follow.
I understood that more importantly my job was to help rejuvenate the souls of this new Jewish family, to fill the empty eyes with moments of joy and to rekindle a spark of hope.
With the flick of a switch I illuminated a new world complete with the trappings of the last Millennium – light bulbs, showers and refrigerators. This apartment I had begrudgingly vacated had the night before hosted posters by Andy Warhol and Madonna cassettes and would now be filled with wooden bowls, woven shawls and pages of our Hebrew scripture which made the journey home in safekeeping.
It was nearly Hanukkah and the illumination of the Menorah in the coming week by my Ethiopian ‘family’ in the window of my apartment, now lit by a people who had exiled the Land of Israel before this ‘Modern’ festival, rekindled my own spark for the power of Peoplehood and the influx of exiles, all of us on a journey, from America, from Europe, from the Far East, from Africa, coming home.
The eyes of the Ethiopian elders still haunt me today and inspire me in my own travels to do what I can to help myself, my family, and Jews throughout the places I have called home to feel ‘at home’ in our homeland and in the far corners of the Diaspora. The eyes of these elders, the Pioneers of the Ethiopian immigration, now gone and buried in the land of Israel, haunted me when I visit Kiryat Malachi, the Partnership 2000 city of the West Coast states of Arizona and California, where I lived, and hear the pleading of the principal of an elementary school ask for money to pay for a new Xerox machine so she can spend her budget on feeding the Ethiopian students dinner while they waited for their parents to come get them. And the eyes inspire me when I sit among Ethiopian elders who form a ‘bet din’ or judicial panel to guide and legislate with wisdom gleaned through the generations. The eyes are what I remembered when I brought Ethiopian teens together with their assimilated Israel peers to California for a convergence of cultures and emergence of Jewish heritage. And the eyes are what motivate me when I myself feel discouraged. For my son, who is a bit overwhelmed by moving to Virginia from his comfortable home in St. Louis, I play this song “Bo’ee,” by Israeli musician Idan Raichel and his Ethiopian lead singer who many say resembles the Queen of Sheeba.
For my son, who is a bit overwhelmed by moving to Virginia from his comfortable home in St. Louis, I play this song “Bo’ee,” by Israeli musician Idan Raichel and his Ethiopian lead singer who many say resembles the Queen of Sheeba.
Give me your hand and we’ll walk,
Don’t ask me where.
Don’t ask me about happiness.
Maybe it will come.
When it comes,
It will come down on us like rain.”
And I remind myself that indeed we are all on a journey home.