In 1992, I found myself, a Jewish-American photojournalist with Tourette syndrome, at New York’s Kennedy Airport, twitching and waiting for a plane bound for Israel. My final destination was Ethiopia. It was to be my first trip to Israel and Ethiopia, where I covered the first free elections in
Addis Ababa for the international edition of Newsweek. My project overall would be the documentation, during a period of decades, of an Ethiopian Jewish family’s struggle to flee a civil war with Eretria and establish themselves in a new homeland, Israel. After my initial trip, the photographs were published in Hadassah magazine.
Since the 15th century, the Jews of Ethiopia had become falasha, a pejorative term meaning “landless stranger.” Denied the right to own property or land, they lived as outcasts in their own country for centuries. In 1991, during the civil war, as the Ethiopian Jews’ lives were imperiled, the State of Israel instituted Operation Solomon, airlifting tens of thousands to a new home in Israel. In this maelstrom, I found the opportunity to document the lives of the Besufekad family, a father and mother,
Shimeless and Terefu, and their seven children. When I met them, they were living in a tent in a refugee camp in Teda, in the northern Ethiopian province of Gondar. The seventh child, Moshe, was born after I arrived and I photographed his birth. (Airline regulations required that the baby be born before the family could fly. By the time of the birth, most Ethiopian Jews had already left for Israel.)
In Israel, Ethiopian Jews and other groups, immigrant and native born, face each other at a cultural crossroads. Differences of race, religion, and economics are the fulcrums upon which the future of Israeli society is balanced. How can a country as small as Israel solve problems arising from disparate people living together, each with thousands of years of sometimes-contentious history? This project will be a small insight, a window into this question.
During ten weeks with the Besufekad family that summer of 1992, I formed a lasting friendship with them. I showed their pilgrimage from Teda to Addis Ababa and finally to Ofakim, a small immigrant town in the Israeli desert. When we first met, it was not obvious what we had in common. We could barely communicate, but through an interpreter we learned to understand each other. Many hours passed as I photographed and spoke with them. I realized that we had more in common than not.
What bound us together was not so much our Jewishness, though that surely established a bond of trust, but our humanity. My history as someone with Tourette syndrome has given me perspective on the experience of the outsider, the mystified sojourner traveling between cultures.
At the refugee camp in Ethiopia, I found shelter in the only structure there, a minimal barracks where Dr. Rick Hodes, of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, lived and cared for the refugees’ medical and spiritual needs. He introduced me to the family. Rick is an unorthodox Orthodox Jew, who has devoted his life to Ethiopian culture and, specifically, to the well-being of the Ethiopian Jews. During the rest of my stay in Ethiopia, I was Rick’s houseguest in his Addis apartment. (In
2010, Rick was the subject of an HBO television documentary, “Making the Crooked Straight.”)
When I left them after that first visit, the Besufekad family had settled safely in Israel and were all facing new challenges. The Jewish Agency, anorganization that helps with housing and other services for Ethiopians, provided for their immediate needs. But Shimeless worried about the family’s long-term needs: permanent employment and housing. In a letter dated December 1992, he suggested to me that
the family was assimilating. “We working now,” Shimeless wrote, “Now we are learning about the language of Hebrew.” Shimeless had reason to worry. Socially, Ethiopian Jews in Israel (some 140,000 have settled there to date) are regarded by more established Israelis as ranking somewhere behind the last wave of Russian immigrants. Most live below the poverty line as defined by the Israeli government. Their children often fail to succeed in school and are more likely to drop out than their native Israeli peers. Juvenile delinquency is growing, even among eight and nine-year-old children, according to numerous news reports.
Israeli citizens now, Terefu and her family have done comparably well. They were living in the Tel Aviv suburb of Yavne when we reconnected in the summer of 2014, and then again during the summer of 2015. I took more photographs and, with a cinematographer, began creating a narrative film about their lives, using stills from the 1992 journey with voice-overs. One of the daughters, Dikla, in her late twenties, had contacted me on Facebook after hearing her mother speak about their journey. Dikla was by her mother’s side and a baby when I first photographed them. She asked me to call her in Israel. When we spoke, she told me that her father had died of cancer in 2008.