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The security personnel of El Al Airlines descended upon me at Newark International Airport like a flock of vultures. There were five of them, in uniform, blockading the check-in counter. They looked old enough to have finished their obligatory service in the Israel Defense Forces but not old enough to have finished college, which put them beneath me in age. I was prepared for their initial question, “What are you?” which I’ve been asked my entire life, and, though it chafed me, I knew the canned answer that would satisfy: “I look the way I do because my mother is white and my father is black.” This time the usual reply wasn’t good enough. This time the interrogation was tribal.
“What do you mean black? Where are you from?”
“Why are you going to Israel?”
“To visit a friend.”
“What is your friend?”
“She’s a Cancer.”
“She has cancer?”
“No, no. I’m kidding. She’s healthy.”
“How do you know her?”
“We grew up together.”
“Do you speak Hebrew?”
“Shalom,” I began. “Barukh atah Adonai . . .” I couldn’t remember the rest, so I finished with a word I remembered for its perfect onomatopoetic rendering of the sound of liquid being poured from the narrow neck of a vessel: “Bakbuk.”
It means bottle. I must have sounded to them like a babbling idiot.
“That’s all I know,” I said. I felt ashamed somehow, but also pissed off at them for making me feel that way.
“Where is your father from?”
“No.” By now they were exasperated. “Where are your people from?”
“The United States.”
“Before that. Your ancestors. Where did they come from?”
They looked doubtful. “What kind of name is this?” They pointed at my opened passport.
“A surname,” I joked.
“How do you say it?”
“Don’t ask me. It’s French.”
“No, I told you. I’m American.”
“This!” They stabbed at my middle name, which is Ishem. “What is the meaning of this name?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, honestly. I was named after my father’s great-aunt, Emily Ishem, who died of cancer long before I was born. I have no idea where the name came from. Possibly it’s a slave name.
“It sounds Arabic.”
“Do you speak Arabic?”
“I know better than to try.”
“What do you mean?”
“No, I don’t speak Arabic.”
“What are your origins?”
I felt caught in a loop of that Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on first?” There was no place for me inside their rhetoric. I didn’t have the right vocabulary. I didn’t have the right pedigree. This is what my mixed race has made me: a perpetual unanswered question. This is what the Atlantic slave trade has made me: a mongrel and a threat.
“Ms. Raboteau. Do you want to get on that plane?”
I was beginning to wonder.
“Answer the question then! What are your origins?”
What else was I supposed to say?
“A sperm and an egg,” I snapped.
That’s when they grabbed my luggage, whisked me to the basement, stripped off my clothes and probed every orifice of my body for explosives. When they didn’t find any, they focused on my tattoo, a Japanese character which means different, precious, unique. I was completely naked, and the room was cold. My nipples were hard. I tried to cover myself with my hands. I remember feeling incredibly thirsty. One of them flicked my left shoulder with a latex glove. “What does it mean?” he asked. This was the first time I’d ever been racially profiled, not that the experience would have been any less humiliating had it been my five hundredth. “It means Fuck you,” I wanted to say, not because they’d stripped me of my dignity, but because they’d shoved my face into my own rootlessness. I have never felt more black in my life than I did when I was mistaken for an Arab.
• • •
I was going to visit Tamar Cohen, my best friend from childhood. We loved each other with the fierce infatuation particular to friendships between preadolescent girls—a love that found its form in bike rides along the towpath, notes written in lemon juice, and pantomimed tea parties at the bottom of swimming pools. Looking back on the years we spent growing up in the privileged, picturesque, and predominantly white town of Princeton, New Jersey, where both of our fathers were history professors, I can see that what grounded our friendship was a shared sense of being different. She was Jewish. I was black. Well, I was half black, but in a land where one must be one thing or the other, that was enough to set me apart.
Being different was, for both of us, a source of pride and, I’m ashamed to say, enabled us to hold everyone else in slight disdain (especially if they happened to play field hockey or football). Tamar and I were a unified front against conformity. We stood next to each other in navy blue robes in the first row of the soprano section of the high school choir like two petite soldiers, sharing a folder of sheet music between us with a synchronicity of spirit that could trick a listener into believing that we possessed a single voice. When I received my confirmation in Christ, I wore Tamar’s bat mitzvah dress.
We were bookish girls, intense and watchful. Our afternoons were spent sprawled out on my living room rug doing algebra homework while listening to my dad’s old Aretha Franklin records. Our Friday nights were spent eating Shabbat dinner at her house around the corner on Murray Place. I felt proud being able to recite the Hebrew blessing with her family after the sun went down and the candles were lit: “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam . . .” The solemn ritual made me feel as though I belonged to something larger than myself.
Perhaps stemming from that warm feeling, much to my father’s chagrin, I started to keep kosher, daintily picking the shrimp and crab legs out of his Mississippi jambalaya until all that remained on my plate was a muck of soupy rice. It was her father’s turn to be chagrinned when we turned eighteen and got matching tattoos on our left shoulder blades. The Torah forbids tattooing (Leviticus 19:28). Tamar’s might someday disqualify her from burial in a Jewish cemetery, but we relished the idea that, no matter where in the world we might end up, no matter how much time might pass, even when we were old and ugly and gray, we would always be able to recognize each other.
Tamar’s father was an expert in medieval Jewish history, while mine specialized in antebellum African American Christianity. Both men made careers of retrieving and reconstructing the rich histories of ingloriously interrupted peoples. Both were quietly angry men, and Tamar and I were sensitive to their anger, which was at once historical and personal. I was acutely aware of the grandfather I had lost to a racially motivated hate crime under Jim Crow, though my father didn’t discuss the murder with me. He didn’t need o give words to my grandfather’s absence anymore than Tamar’s father had to give words to the Holocaust. There were ghosts in our houses.
Both of us knew at a relatively young age what the word diaspora meant—though to this day that word makes me visualize the white Afro-puff of a dandelion spore being blown by my lips into a series of wishes across our old backyard: to be known, to be loved, to belong. I didn’t fit in. I looked different from the white kids, though I didn’t exactly look black. Tamar didn’t fit in either. In her case, the “otherness” was cultural: her summers were spent in Israel; her Saturdays at synagogue; and, up until the seventh grade, she attended a Jewish day school. I didn’t see Tamar as white any more than I did my own mother. Consequently, it didn’t confuse or surprise me when Tamar suddenly turned to me in choir practice one snowy morning and proclaimed, “I’m not white.”
We had been rehearsing the French composer Jean L’Héritier’s sonorous, sacred motet, “Nigra sum sed formosa,” whose Latin text is taken from the Song of Songs, and reads:
Nigra sum sed formosa filiae Jherusalem
I am black but comely, daughters of Jerusalem
Ideo dilexit me rex
Therefore have I pleased the Lord
Et introduxit me in cubiculum suum.
And he hath brought me into his chamber.
I thought I understood why she made her proclamation at that particular moment in choir practice. “Nigra sum sed formosa” is a heartbreakingly succulent song, one that brought tears to my father’s eyes when we sang it a few weeks later at the winter concert. It was a song you wanted to be about yourself.
• • •
Tamar felt the same way about the freedom songs being broadcast at an exhibit held by the Jewish Museum in New York in collaboration with the NAACP, an exhibit linking Jewish and African American experience. My father brought the two of us there a few years after the Crown Heights Riot, during what must have been Passover, because I can remember nibbling on matzoh bread and leaving a trail of unleavened crumbs. Klezmer music played in a room showcasing a silver candlestick bent by a bullet in a Russian pogrom. The adjacent room displayed photographs of lynched black men. In each of those men’s tortured faces I saw my grandfather, and I found myself on the verge of tears, more from anger than from sadness. “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go!)” issued from the speakers:
When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let My people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let My people go!
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh
To let My people go!
“I like this music better than klezmer,” Tamar admitted. I trained my ears on the lyrics I knew so well, and they soothed me in my anger, just as they are meant to do.
“This is a liberation song,” my father explained. “Do you girls know where Canaan is?”
“Israel,” Tamar answered.
“In a sense. But that’s not the place this song is about. Look.” He pointed to a picture of Frederick Douglass with an attending quotation which read: “We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.” My father continued talking to us that afternoon about how pivotal the Old Testament story of Exodus and the Promised Land was for African slaves in America, whose early involvement with the Christian tradition was born out of a feeling of kinship with the Hebrew slaves. They found redemptive hope in the scripture about Moses, the trials and tribulations of the Israelites, and their journey from bondage into Canaan. “I’ll meet you in de mornin’, when you reach de promised land: On de oder side of Jordan, For I’m boun’ for de promised land . . .”
“Maybe that’s why you like this music, Tamar,” my father finished. “When we sang freedom songs about the ancient Israelites, we linked ourselves to you. Our people have a lot in common.”
• • •
Tamar and I had promised to stay in touch when we parted ways for college. But while I was busy reading Hurston, Ellison, Wright, and Fanon, she was busy writing her thesis on Jewish history and practicing her Hebrew with foreign students from Israel. We called each other less and less. Shortly after we graduated, she moved to Israel and became a citizen under the Law of Return. I hadn’t heard from her in months when she phoned at the start of the Second Intifada to ask me to visit. The desperation in her voice surprised me—it nearly had the quality of begging. I decided to go.
I fell in love with Jerusalem. How could I not? I was expecting to land in a desert place, hostile and khaki and hard as a tank, because that’s what I’d seen on TV, and that’s how El Al’s security had behaved at Newark International Airport—hostile and hard. But when Tamar led me through that ancient city of soft hills and olive trees, its white stone going rosy in the sunset, when we entered the mouth of Lion’s Gate and walked along the Via Dolorosa, when I smelled the peach tobacco smoke from a narghile pipe, when I saw the red wool of the Bedouin rugs on display in the Old City, when I heard the calls to prayer from a hundred mosques at dusk, my heart swelled round as the Dome of the Rock with a sense of holy longing, and I halfway understood why men would fight rock over stick, hand over fist, bomb over gun, in order to call this place their home. There is no real word in the Hebrew language for home. Yet Tamar had chosen to expatriate and make this place hers. As problematic as that choice was, no matter at whose expense, I felt enormously jealous of her ability to make it, and not a little rejected that she had.
As a consequence of growing up half black in a nation divided along unhealthy racial lines, I had never felt at home in the United States. I identified with the line James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time about the experience of black GIs returning from war only to discover the democracy they’d risked their lives to defend abroad continued to elude them at home: “Home! The very word begins to have a despairing and diabolical ring.”
Tamar, on the other hand, now had a divine Promised Land, a place to belong, and a people who embraced her. Here she was in Zion. It was a real place: a providential, politically sanctioned place, with roots and dirt she could hold in her hand. This wasn’t the imagined heaven that black slaves (and their descendents) had to look forward to in the afterlife once they had reached the North, realized its spiritual bankruptcy, rubbed their eyes, and asked each other, “Where’s de milk an’ honey at? An’ de streets all paved wit gold?” No, this was the real deal. Jerusalem seemed to me a place where the very air was gold—I swear the light had that imperial quality against my skin. It was a place I could lust after and visit, where my price of admission was a slight degradation, and where Tamar could have a physical address. Her beautiful old Arab house had tile floors, arched doorways, and room enough for a piano. It was situated in a dusty alley in the German Colony off Emek Refaim, a street name meaning “valley of the ghosts.”
One of the ghosts was a woman named Hala Sakanini. She once lived a few doors down at no. 10 Emek Refaim, but left her home along with her family to escape mortar attacks during the Arab-Israeli War. That was in 1948, the year the State of Israel was proclaimed. Over 700,000 Palestinian refugees fled at that time. Their houses were quickly expropriated by Holocaust survivors and Jewish immigrants from Arab lands. Many Palestinians, including Hala Sakanini, expected to return. They refer to their exodus as the Nakba, or “cataclysm.” In her memoir, Jerusalem and I (1987), there is a photo of Hala Sakanini in her living room, shortly before Nakba. She sits in an armchair before a large ornate radio, in the light of a gooseneck floor lamp, unsmiling, with a hard set to her jaw. She describes the painful experience of revisiting her occupied home years later:
We knocked on the door. Two ladies appeared. . . . We tried to explain: “this is our house. We used to live here before 1948 . . .” The elderly lady was apparently moved but she immediately began telling us that she too had lost a house in Poland, as though we personally or the Arabs in general were to blame for that. We saw it was no use arguing with her. We went through all the house room by room—our parents bedroom, our bedroom, Aunt Melia’s bedroom, the sitting room and the library . . . the dining room, the kitchen . . . everything was so different. It was no more home . . . we stood there as in a daze looking across the street and the square at our neighbour’s houses. . . . It is people that make up a neighbourhood and when they are gone it will never be the same again. We left . . . with a sense of emptiness, with a feeling of deep disappointment and frustration.
Reconciliation over property ownership remains a controversy between Israel and Palestine.
Who used to own the house Tamar had usurped? Where was that displaced person now? What kind of Zion was this, superimposed on top of another nation? What kind of screwed-up Canaan has an intifada? I was pondering these kinds of questions when Tamar’s boyfriend, Yonatan, laid Lady Sings the Blues on the turntable, told me he loved Billie Holiday with all his might and asked me in earnest if I thought he understood her as well as I did. “Of course you don’t,” I scoffed, because my broken, darling Billie was singing “God Bless the Child” in her ripped-satin voice, and what could he possibly be thinking? He could have his Canaan land, but Lady Day belonged to me.
Once upon a time, Tamar had been a part of my tribe, but a shadow wall had crept up between us. I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that, in spite of her leftist stance—which was about as far left as she could stand without falling off the edge into the unknown—she was complicit in an unjust occupation. It didn’t matter that the State of Israel was declared, in large part, in reparation for the Holocaust. Palestine was under its colonial thumb. It didn’t matter that Tamar didn’t live in a settlement, or that she participated in peace protests and rallies, or that she rolled her eyes at the slogans in her neighbors’ windows (“Golan Heights is Ours!”). They were still her neighbors, and she’d chosen to leave me in order to live among them. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t the one who shined a flashlight between my legs to look for a bomb. I couldn’t shake the feeling that her choice to be Israeli had turned my best friend white.
• • •
We were floating. Our twin tattoos were on display, but there were no living fish in the Dead Sea to look up at our naked backs and notice. It was nighttime at the nadir, literally the lowest point on the planet. Home was halfway around the world, and we were floating in the still, still water, whose salt lifted us up like hands. The lights of Jordan twinkled on the distant shore, and above us wheeled a soup of stars thick enough to stir with a spoon.
“It’s so good to see you again,” she whispered.
“You too. I’m glad I came here,” I answered, “but I miss black people.”
I was surprised to hear myself say it, but I realized it was true. With the exception of Maine, I’d never traveled to a place without black people.
“There are black people here, silly,” Tamar said. “You’re not the only one.”
“Where are they?”
“Really?” Where were they hiding? I hadn’t seen them.
“Sure. The Falashas.”
“Beta Israel. The Ethiopian Jews. And there’s a bunch of black Americans squatting in the desert—the Black Hebrews. I think they’re from Chicago.”
“What are they doing here?”
“Why don’t you ask them? They’re not far away. Israel’s only the size of New Jersey, remember?” She splashed me. “If you really want to see ‘your people’ that badly, we can find them.”
“I’d like to, but I’m leaving in two days.”
Tamar sighed. “I wish you didn’t have to go.”
There is such a thing as a black Jew. I rotated the thought in my mind. I’d always considered the two groups to be mutually exclusive. A light wind rippled the water. I shivered. I closed my eyes and perceived the imperceptible tilt of the earth on its axis. The pigeonholes I knew were collapsing. It was a delightful feeling.
• • •
Six months later, from my rooftop in Brooklyn, I witnessed the Twin Towers collapse. Two weeks after that, Tamar was in the States for Rosh Hashanah. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and found ourselves in the quiet ash at the foot of a twisted twenty-foot waffle of metal at Ground Zero. I gagged on the smell of burnt wire and flesh. Sickened and stunned, I said what we all said then: “It feels like a movie.” Tamar looked at me sideways. “You know,” she said, “in most of the world, this kind of thing goes on all the time.”
She was right, of course. How could I have been so quick to judge her status as an Israeli without judging my own status as an American? She, at least, lived with the daily consequences of her nation’s bullying; lived with the ruptures, the bombs, the protests. She had to confront this strife and examine her place within it.
I had to do the same. I began to see how globally hated my government was and, by extension, the citizens of my country. It didn’t matter that my black friends and I hated our government too, or that we didn’t support it. In my travels, I began to feel ashamed. If someone asked me where I was from, I said “New York” rather than “the United States.”
When Hurricane Katrina set her wrath upon the Gulf of Mexico, I sat glued to the TV screen in a state of near paralysis, scanning the black bodies abandoned in the Superdome and marooned on the rooftops of those spoiled houses for the faces of my relatives, who lived in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, a beach town sixty miles from New Orleans now under fifteen feet of water. My grief didn’t protect my cousins from the deluge, nor did it bring them to dry land. My outrage at the infrastructure that had failed my family didn’t serve them either. Even in this age of information, it took months for us to locate them in their great dispersal. This was another diaspora. But what did my sense of loss matter to my homeless Mississippi aunties as I sat in a yoga class or walked my dog?
I published a book and was made a professor, like my father. I moved to Harlem to be closer to the university that employed me. Harlem was shifting. It didn’t matter that I belonged halfway to the race being slowly squeezed out of Manhattan’s final frontier of affordable real estate. As much as I hated to watch the sad, slow effects of gentrification spill over the stately brownstones of Sugar Hill and Strivers’ Row, home of Madam C. J. Walker and Langston Hughes and all those wild jazzmen I loved so much, I couldn’t pretend, with my Ivy League degree, that I wasn’t a member of the gentry. I myself was not disinherited. Recognizing this, I began to feel my terrible whiteness, and I was ashamed. Avoiding my reflection in storefront windows, I meandered through Harlem and beyond: northward to the Cloisters of Fort Tryon Park, eastward to the movable Macombs Dam Bridge and into the Bronx, westward over the Washington Bridge across the dirty Hudson, southward down the long finger of Manhattan. On one of these rambles, in the shadow of the elevated subway tracks off 125th Street, I stumbled upon a short stretch of alleyway, Old Broadway. And there, in the middle of the alley, stood a small, sweet shul with a dirty façade and bricked-up windows. Here was Harlem’s last remaining synagogue, a remnant from the neighborhood’s former days of Yiddish theaters and crowded Jewish tenements. I stopped in front of it and cocked my head. Why did I feel I’d been there before? It was Friday night and the sun was setting. Slowly I pushed open the heavy wooden door.
“Welcome!” cried an old black man in a kippah. “Good Shabbos.” He adjusted the tallit on his shoulders and took my hands in his. “This is wonderful,” he smiled, revealing the whitest teeth. “Another wandering Jew has found their way home.” Home! Either as a result of his kindness or as a result of his mistake, I was afraid I might begin to weep.
• • •
Somehow six years went by. Tamar had settled down with an Argentinian Jew who shared her last name, and together they bore a daughter. I returned to Israel in order to visit them and also to find those black folks. Did they think they were home? Did Tamar?
On the flight, I worked on the patchwork quilt I was nearly done sewing for Tamar’s baby, Nina, who had just celebrated her first birthday, and whose first steps I was hoping to witness. I labored over this quilt. It was hand stitched in strips, chromatically schemed like a rainbow. The last step was to finish the border, now fastened by forty little pins, ten on each side. I was worried that security would mistake the pins for tiny explosive devices. I was worried that they wouldn’t let me bring my gift into their country. But they didn’t take the baby’s quilt. They didn’t strip search me in the basement. Instead, they brought me behind a heavy black curtain, rifled through my luggage, and confiscated my iPod.
Without my music to comfort me, I grew restless on the long flight to Tel Aviv. The plane was almost empty. Israel was in its sixth day of war with Lebanon, exchanging escalating fire with the Hezbollah militia. It was a grossly lopsided exchange—Beirut was being steadily, smolderingly, mercilessly destroyed—but northern Israel was not a safe place either. My mother had begged me to postpone my trip. I was flying headlong into a war zone.
• • •
The first place I went looking for black folks was a reggae club on Tel Aviv’s Harakevet Street. the rasta was painted in block letters on a pan-African green, gold, and red sign hanging above a chain-locked doorway being guarded by a stocky Russian Jew in a leather jacket.
“You don’t want to go in there,” he warned me.
A fighter plane roared above us, and then another, flying north.
“Oh, yes I do.”
“No.” He crossed his arms.
“Isn’t there a show tonight?” I looked at my watch. A band called “Tony Ray and the Amjah” was supposed to play at ten. It was now rounding midnight.
“It’s not for you. Karaoke is next door.”
“But I came for this.”
“You won’t like it. Believe me. They get drunk and fight like animals. It’s messy.”
“Look,” I said. “I came all the way from New York for this.”
“It’s not safe.”
“Are you going to let me in or not?”
The guard sighed with annoyance, got down from his stool, unlocked the door, and called for the club owner—none other than Tony Ray himself—a tall man in his early fifties from Jamaica by way of England. He had a head of graying beaded dreadlocks, a gold tooth, and an easy manner.
“Don’t pay that bald-head guard no mind. You’re just early, little daughter. We on colored-people time,” he said, leading me to the bar and pouring me a liberal shot of cheap rum. Behind the bar hung an embossed picture of Haile Selassie, a small felt banner of the Lion of Judah, and a poster of Bob Marley. On the shelf with all the liquor bottles sat a glow-in-the-dark plastic alien smoking ganja.
As a Rastafarian, Tony Ray believes that he is ancestrally tied to Ethiopia; that his captive forebears originated from that homeland; that the messiah has come and gone in the form of Ethiopia’s last emperor, the Conquering Lion of Judah—formerly known as Ras Tafari/Haile Selassie (who claimed to descend directly from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba); and that Ethiopia is the Promised Land.
“How’d you wind up here instead of Addis Ababa?” I asked him, thinking of Marcus Garvey’s nationalist “Back to Africa” repatriation platform.
He explained that he’d come for a three-month tour with his band as a young man, “And I tell you, I din like it one bit. Israeli folk are rude and out of order. Yuh see me?”
“Then I return to London, where they act so civilized, but underneath their smile they want to kick their boot inside I and I mouth. I start miss Israel. My gut was craving for figs! So I came back, and now it’s thirty years gone. I and I is a natty Nazarite now. Is my place this.” He spanked the bar with a wet rag for emphasis, and began wiping it down.
The door burst open and a young man sauntered in with an electric bass. “Jamaican-boy!” he cried.
“Etiopian-bwoy!” Tony Ray answered, embracing him. “You ready to make music, my brethren?”
By three in the morning, in my beer-soaked haze, I thought I may as well have been in Addis Ababa. The Rasta was packed shoulder to shoulder with Ethiopians stirring it up to the reggae of Tony Ray, backed by the Amjah on trombone, bass, drums, and krar. Hardly anyone in the crowd spoke English, but they all knew the lyrics of the Bob Marley covers: “Redemption Song,” “Buffalo Soldier,” and the rest. So we danced and sang “I’m gonna be Iron like a Lion in Zion” until somebody opened the door allowing a shock of July sunlight to land in a trapezoidal wedge on the edge of the dance floor, and I realized it was morning. The guard was snoring on his stool in the entryway, slumped like an overstuffed rag doll. Out on the sidewalk of Harakevet Street, it took me a full minute to remember where I was. I blinked. The fighter jets were still droning overhead.
• • •
The second place I went looking for black folks was an absorption center in the northern port city of Haifa, roughly thirty miles from the Lebanese border.
“What exactly is an absorption center?” I asked Tamar’s friend Yitzhak on the taxi drive from Tel Aviv up the coastal highway. I couldn’t help noticing that all the cars were traveling in the opposite direction. I would rather have put my question to Yizthak’s friend Abate, who actually lived in an absorption center when he made aliyah from Ethiopia in 1999, but Abate’s English was limited. He sat in the front seat, cradling the beat-up case of his soprano saxophone as if it were a baby. I watched his face in the rearview mirror. He had a pencil-thin mustache, a slightly receding hairline, and preternaturally large eyes—Louis Armstrong eyes—through which he looked out at the passing road signs in studied silence.
Abate’s integration into Israel was a painful one. While he’d enjoyed a successful jazz career in Addis Ababa and had toured Europe several times over, he wasn’t recognized as a musician in Israel, he didn’t speak Hebrew, and he had to work several menial jobs in order to support his family. One was washing dishes in a restaurant; another was at a chemical factory. He worked nights as a security guard. A grant from the Ethiopian Jewry Heritage organization eventually enabled him to quit all but the night job, leaving him enough time to practice his instrument during the day, but not before the chemicals and dishwater had damaged his hands. He had to wait a long, long time for his fingers to heal.
Tamar had introduced me to Yitzhak, a serious, bespectacled composer in his thirties who described his sound as “third-stream jazz.” Yitzhak had two things on his lap in the backseat of the taxicab that day: an electric keyboard and a rolled-up marriage license that had just been rejected by the Rabbinate Council on the grounds that it didn’t conform to their standards.
“What did you say?” he asked me. He seemed distracted.
“An absorption center,” I repeated, “what is it?”
Before he could answer, his cell phone rang. It was his fiancée.
“Don’t go to Haifa!” she screamed, loud enough for me to hear.
Yitzhak pacified her in Hebrew. I’m guessing he told her the same thing he’d told me in English, which was that, as an army reservist, it was his civic duty to go. It was the will of ha-Sokhnut, the Jewish Agency. This bureaucratic arm of Israeli government facilitates immigrant absorption into Israel. Tamar later described it to me as “floundering” and “inept.” The Jewish Agency had ordered Yitzhak to play music for the Falashas. A USO sort of thing.
In the ancient ecclesiastical language Ge’ez, the word falasha means “landless one” and, by association, “wanderer,” “exile,” “stranger.” It is used to describe the Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews whose tradition holds that they descend from the line of Moses himself—specifically from the lost tribe of Dan—though the origin of their Judaism remains contested by scholars (unlike the Lemba, a South African tribe of black Jews whose DNA has linked them to ancient Judea). Many scholars theorize that Ethiopian Jews converted from the Christian faith during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Ethiopisant Ephraim Isaac, on the other hand, believes that the Jewish presence in Ethiopia dates back to the period of the First Temple. He points out that the Bible mentions Ethiopia more than fifty times, “but Poland, not once.” One thing is certain: the Beta Israel have longed for Jerusalem for centuries. Maybe for millennia.
The Israeli Rabbinate recognized the status of Ethiopian Jewry in the mid-seventies and, in so doing, paved the way for a mass exodus under the Law of Return. Coming mostly from the mountainous northern Gondar region, where they made up only a small minority of Ethiopia’s population and were denied the right to inherit land unless they converted to Christianity, their number in the State of Israel is now approaching one hundred thousand. This is thanks in large part to two massive, highly publicized “rescue” efforts, Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991), which airlifted the Beta Israel by the planeload from Africa. Falasha is decreasingly used in Israel to describe Ethiopian Jews like Abate, because they themselves prefer that the term not be used. It has a pejorative tinge, like the Hebrew word kushi (darkie) but is not as strong a word as nigger in the United States.
As Yitzhak finished placating his fiancée, Oz, the taxi driver, directed my attention to a sprawl of modest white houses around Hadera. Oz was in his early fifties and looked like he spent the better part of his time lifting barbells in a gym. “Look at their ugly houses!” he spat. “They’re not like us. They have ten, twelve children, and they don’t take care of them. They’re like cockroaches.” He was speaking, of course, about a community of Palestinians. I wondered if Abate could understand Oz’s speech and, if so, whether it made him as uncomfortable as it made me. I wondered if his allegiance was torn, if the return to the Promised Land, whose government had “saved” him from the Dark Continent, was worth the harsh decline in his status as a musician. I wanted to ask him if this was home.
“Are you American?” Oz asked me.
“I’m from New York,” I said.
“Israel is the America of the Middle East!” He meant modernity.
“I know.” I meant the malignancy of Manifest Destiny.
“Do you have children?” Oz asked me.
“No,” I replied as coldly as possible, having summarily dismissed him as a racist. I was trying to figure out how to discourage further conversation when he tightened his greasy ponytail and started talking again.
“Me? I have four children. Two of them are mine, and two of them I adopted from my best buddy. He was killed when we were soldiers in Lebanon, so this war is nothing new to me. Maybe you heard about the missile that hit a car in Haifa yesterday? Don’t worry, Miss. You can be comfortable in my cab because I know what to do. If we hear a siren, I will park, and we will find a safe place.”
Oz offered me a piece of hard candy, which I refused. Then he fisted his right hand to flex a muscle in his forearm, which was marred by an ugly keloid scar. “You see that? I got that in ’82 from the bullet that went into my buddy’s face.”
I was horrified.
“These people are animals,” he reasoned. “They want to kill us.”
“What a coincidence!” said Yitzhak, who had shut off his phone by this point. “Abate! Show them your scar.”
Abate rolled up the long sleeve of his button-down shirt.
“He got that in an Ethiopian war.”
The scar on Abate’s left arm looked just like the one on Oz’s right. The two of them clasped hands in the front seat in a gesture of solidarity. I’d seen this symbol before, a white hand holding a black one. In my lexicon, it was supposed to mean Peace.
Yitzhak gave me a loaded look over the top of his spectacles. “You see?” he asked. “We have a lot in common.”
Abate lowered his sleeve.
“We have a lot to learn from the Ethiopians in this country,” Yitzhak continued. Do you know the word chutzpah? We have a lot of chutzpah in our personality. It makes us prickly. But the Ethiopians are a gentle people.”
I’d heard the Beta Israel characterized as gentle before. In my experience, they tend to be talked about in two contradictory, yet equally patronizing ways by the Alphas of the greater society: either in terms of docility—humble, peaceful, quiet, soft—or with regard to their inability to hold their liquor—drunk, messy, sloppy, loud.
“I wasn’t interested in playing music with Abate at first,” Yitzhak revealed. “I don’t like world music, but I’ve really learned a lot from him. He’s an amazing musician. Do you want to hear a song he wrote for the Ethiopian radio station? Put on that CD, Abate. . . . That’s Abate singing. You’ll hear him sing later today, too. It’s in Amharic. I don’t know what he’s saying. Hey, Abate, what do the words mean?”
Abate carefully translated the lyrics into Hebrew. Oz laughed and slapped his thigh. Then he corrected Abate’s pronunciation.
Yitzhak translated into English for my benefit: “Abate is singing, ‘The fool who tries to crush the State of Israel will himself be crushed.’”
• • •
Haifa was a ghost town. The beach was empty. The streets were empty. The stores were closed. The absorption center was an ugly four-story building complex with a Star of David and the Lion of Judah painted on the wall next to the front door. Almost all immigrants from Ethiopia move through way stations like this on their path to Israeli citizenship.
This particular center housed three hundred Beta Israel, some of whom had immigrated as recently as two weeks before—others who had already lived there for as long as eight months—in overcrowded rooms crammed with bunk beds and fold-up cots. In the kitchen, foil-wrapped trays of unappetizing food (anemic-looking vegetables and congealing globs of macaroni and cheese) were rationed out to the head of each household. There was no berbere spice in the kitchen. There were not enough bathrooms in the building. In a classroom furnished with child-sized desks, both adults and children were given lessons in dietary laws, Hebrew, and hygiene. A picture of Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, hung on the wall.
In such rooms, the Beta Israel are halfheartedly assimilated before being shunted to the ghettos of Netanya, Rehovot, and Ashdod. They are not given proper job-skills training nor oriented to the shock of Western society. Instead, they are given Orthodox lessons in how to pray and eat. While some of the Beta Israel express gratitude for these lessons, others find them humiliating. They can’t be granted full Jewish status or marry religiously unless they undergo formal conversion by immersion in a mikveh. People like the Kessim (Jewish priests) who led the spiritual community back in Ethiopia don’t want their brand of Judaism converted to mainline Israeli Rabbinate standards. The Kessim’s status in the community has dropped precipitously as a consequence of the conversion efforts made in classrooms like these. This is where they begin to lose institutional power.
In a concrete lot behind the absorption center, two uniformed female Israeli soldiers corralled dozens of Ethiopian kids into a moonbounce, one of those air-inflated nylon pleasure-houses you might find at a carnival. A third soldier, with a rifle strapped to his chest, was busily spinning cotton candy onto cardboard wands and distributing them to the kids, who stuffed the sugar into their mouths with sticky fingers. These kids looked dirty, like they hadn’t had a bath in a good long while.
I wondered if they would grow up and join “the lost generation.” Israeli schools make few allowances for cultural difference. As a result, twenty thousand Ethiopian teenagers have fallen behind, grown disaffected, and dropped out, with no plans to join the army or go to college. This generation identifies less with Ethiopian or Israeli culture than with the black pride, oppositional politics, and the message of self-reliance found in the music of rap artists like Tupac Shakur and in reggae clubs like The Rasta. This is a weird circularity. The Jamaican searches for Ethiopia. The Ethiopian searches for Israel, arrives, then searches for Jamaica. And me, the African American searching for what, exactly? The Promised Land seems always out of reach, somewhere on the other side of the planet. Maybe Jamaica will turn into the Promised Land for those bouncing doe-eyed children someday. Maybe America will.
In the meantime, these children were walking on the moon. Their parents looked afraid. A rocket had ripped into the building across the street the day before. This was the landscape of their new home. I suspected that today’s concert and candy were meant to keep the Ethiopians quiet.
“You don’t see this on the news,” said Oz, “but you should. You see what we do for these people, because we are Jews? This,” he indicated the bright moonbounce, “is Israel.”
Assuming he was right, I wondered what the hell those children were doing there. Everyone else in the city with the means to leave had left. Why wasn’t this in the news? Tamar had shown me an article in the Haaretz Daily newspaper about the pets that got left behind by evacuees:
More than 8,000 dogs and cats have been abandoned in the north by owners who have fled south. These include street cats who lost their food supply. . . . “Numerous abandoned dogs are roaming the streets in the Galilee,” says veterinarian Gil Shavit of Yesod Hama’ala. . . . “There is no excuse to abandon a dog. This is a very sensitive creature that is adversely affected by being deserted.”
Where was the article about the Ethiopians? Where does one even find a cotton candy machine in the middle of a war? I thought of Katrina—the dispossessed being left behind in the face of disaster. Then I tried to put things in perspective. It seemed an Ethiopian Jew in Israel had less value than a dog—but not too much less, since the Ethiopian was being taught Hebrew and fed candy. Still, an Ethiopian was worth far more than an Arab, whose value was only that of a cockroach.
Of course, it was ridiculous for me to identify Ethiopian Jews as my kinsmen just because their skin appeared to be black, and for me to think they were black just because they appeared to be second-class citizens. Actually, several groups in Israel can lay claim to “blackness” as far as marginalization, disenfranchisement, and second-class citizenship are concerned.
When Sephardic Jews began immigrating to Israel in the 1950s from the Arab nations of North Africa and the Middle East, they met with poverty, low-paying jobs, life in the slums, and widespread discrimination by the European Ashkenazi Jews who preceded them. In 1970, an anti-establishment group of Sephardic youth organized to struggle for their civil rights. What did they call themselves? The Black Panthers. Later waves of aliyot brought Mizrahi and Russian Jews who met with a similar fate.
One of the overtaxed workers at the absorption center in Haifa told me, “We have never dealt well with immigrants. Maybe it’s worse for the Falashas because they’re black, but it’s always been hard for immigrants here. We haven’t learned from our mistakes.” She shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose between her forefingers, as if trying to relieve herself of a migraine headache. Then she said, “You have to realize how hard this is. Imagine if the United States had to absorb all of Mexico. Can you imagine? Where would you put all those people?”
I’m not sure that she intended this as a rhetorical question, but I’m afraid I treated it as one. “These people don’t like to be called Falashas,” I said, somewhat possessively, still clinging to my association, as if it mattered at all.
The Beta Israel don’t even think of themselves as black—at least they didn’t while they were in Africa. They thought of themselves as queyy—red or brown, a harmonious shade that God finally got right after botching his palette on white and black people. Furthermore, they distinguished themselves racially from their black African slaves. Like non-Jewish Ethiopians, Beta Israel are separated into a master caste, the chewa, and a slave caste, the barya. This hierarchical relationship has not been dismantled through the process of immigration because the chewa have had the good sense to keep quiet about their slaves in Israel. The chewa justify their slave ownership by maintaining that the barya have different bones and descend from the cursed line of Ham. It was a slap in the face for the chewa to arrive in Israel along with their chattel and be referred to as kushis, or blacks.
As for their participation in the Israel Defense Forces, the Beta Israel soldiers are known for being fearless, for fighting as though they have something to prove—which they probably do. They often volunteer for the most dangerous posts, like border patrol, where their duty is to frisk and humiliate Arabs, while letting Israelis pass. They might be “black” to white Israelis, and the object of some race prejudice, but the most consistently profiled racial group in Israel is the Arabs—the truest niggers of the holy land.
Before I could peel my notion of blackness off of Beta Israel and paste it onto Palestine, Yitzhak yanked me away from the moonbounce by the elbow and told me a story.
“I don’t agree with everything Oz said in the cab. I don’t think all Arabs are inhuman. I even went to protest the building of the separation wall. It’s true. I marched on their side because it was too much like apartheid for my taste. The Israeli soldiers came to stop us. One of them pointed a M16 at my chest. He was Ethiopian. I thought, ‘He could kill me. I might die today. What am I dying for? Which side am I on?’ Do you know what the Palestinian standing next to me said? ‘Look at that filthy kushi who wants to shoot us. I can’t believe it’s come to this. My homeland is being run by monkeys.’ I was scared the Arab would yell ‘Go back to Africa!’ and the soldier would open fire. It gets so confusing here sometimes.”
“I see what you mean,” I said.
Then a siren wailed and the whole lot of us—children, soldiers, masters, slaves, black, white, and queyy—flew down into the basement. The basement was set up for the concert with folding chairs. The soldiers walked around the dank periphery, spraying bottles of perfume, presumably to mask the fetid odor of sweat. Something cracked outside. It sounded like the scratch of a needle on a record followed by a low boom. “Was that a katuba rocket?” I asked.
“No,” said Yitzhak, laughing at my poor Hebrew. He held up his marriage license like a baton. This is a katuba. That was a katyusha.” I didn’t think it was a funny joke, but right on cue to spike the punch line, a second explosion sounded. I had to pee suddenly, but there was nowhere to go. Instead, I helped Yitzhak set up his keyboard while Abate warmed up the crowd. I wondered what he was telling them. I wondered what I was doing there. And then they began to play the blues.
Let me be precise. It was unbearably hot. The women sat on the left. They wore colorful head wraps and Jewish-star necklaces, seemingly at odds with the Coptic crosses tattooed on their foreheads, though these are less a symbol of Christianity than a phylactery protective charm against evil. The men sat on the right. They wore kippahs. The children sat on the floor, holding hands. The room reeked of perfume. Everyone was very still. Everyone was watching Abate. Abate had his saxophone strapped around his neck. When he closed his eyes and opened his mouth, the basement widened into a vast space. He sang in Amharic, backed by Yitzhak on stride piano, and when his voice grew jagged, he wet the reed of his horn and transformed the line of the Ethiopian song into indefinable flights of improvised jazz. Then Abate circled back to the plaintive root of his own voice.
The two-man band played in a minor pentatonic scale, one mode of which is called tezeta. The word means nostalgia. I looked at the delicate faces of the women, some of whom were nursing babies. Some of the women were beginning to smile. I could sense that they recognized Abate’s song. Tezeta is the mode in which the Jews in Ethiopia express their longing for Jerusalem, but that’s not what Abate was singing about. This song expressed his longing for Ethiopia. I recognized it as the mode of the blues—a sound that goes straight to the heart, the sound of the Negro spirituals, the sound of “Amazing Grace.” It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the words. Everyone in that basement understood the song, including me. It was a sorrow song about homesickness, and it soothed us in our fear, just as it was meant to do. While it was being sung, the war outside went away. I realized then that I had done Billie Holiday a great disservice when I told Yonatan that he couldn’t comprehend her depth.
• • •
Tezeta was also the name of the woman I talked to at the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews. The IAEJ office was inside a Jerusalem shopping mall and decorated with children’s artwork that portrayed the dramatic exodus of the Beta Israel from Africa in sequential order, like the Stations of the Cross. I was particularly taken by a tempera painting of a fat blue propeller plane with white stars on its wings. It flew above several brown-faced figures in a yellow desert landscape. All but one of these figures held the Torah in their upraised hands. The one who didn’t belong stood in the lower right-hand corner holding a red umbrella, as if she knew it was going to rain.
“Why are you interested in us?” Tezeta asked with suspicion. She was a fiercely determined and articulate woman in her late twenties with a wild, natural hairdo, kohl-rimmed eyes, and a direct stare. She had recently quit her job as anchorwoman on the Ethiopian cable access channel in favor of championing basic civil rights for Beta Israel. Her organization is primarily sponsored by American Jews, as are the majority of Ethiopian causes in Israel. In fact, Jews in America financially support Ethiopians above all other Israeli immigrant groups. What is behind this charitable giving? I don’t mean to diminish their acts of much-needed generosity, but I do believe that guilt is a factor—guilt over race relations in America and fear that such relations might take hold in Zion. Tezeta herself had an American sponsor for a while. This benefactor sent her five hundred shekels a month, but abruptly withdrew funding when Tezeta went backpacking through Europe and forgot to send him the personal letters he’d come to expect about how grateful she was for his money. Understandably, she was suspicious of me.
A postcard of Martin Luther King, Jr., was tacked to the wall by Tezeta’s desk. I pointed at his picture. “I’m interested in you because his dream is important to me,” I said.
And then, because I was still thinking about the meaning of her name and the transformative power of Abate’s music, I asked Tezeta what she thought of Idan Raichel. Raichel is a white Israeli musician whose eponymous debut album, Idan Raichel Project, went triple platinum when it was released in 2002, and won him such national accolades as “artist of the year,” “album of the year,” and “song of the year.” His success was due in large part to the Ethiopian folk music sampled in his songs. Idan Raichel has toured the United States during Black History Month and has been described as the “Israeli Bob Marley.” Since he doesn’t play reggae, I can only assume he’s called this on account of his waist-length dreadlocks. He is widely lauded for exposing Israel to both Amharic music and the gift of diversity that Beta Israel has delivered.
“I know Idan Raichel,” said Tezeta. “You want to talk to him?”
“I’m more interested in talking to one of the Ethiopians he exploited by neglecting to pay them for his success,” I said.
Tezeta laughed and leaned toward me conspiratorially. “My best friend sings in one of the hit songs—‘Bo’i.’ She’s really mad. He doesn’t give her any money, and do you know how much money he has from her voice? His pockets are fat from our music. Ever since Idan Raichel made it big, I want to run and see what kind of car he drives because I can remember when he drove a jalopy.”
“Maybe he’s a necessary evil,” I suggested. I told her about how much Abate’s music moved me. Then I told her about The Rasta, how its door had been guarded, effectively segregating the club. “Maybe it takes someone like Idan Raichel to get Israel to open its ears to what you have to offer. Maybe he’s a cultural bridge.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Ethiopian music can only make it in Israel if it has white in the middle. If you take away the white, they don’t want it. I know Abate. He is saying something deep. For Israeli listeners, they will be amazed to hear him play the sax. He will give them something rich they don’t know. But they are deaf and blind to him. We all hear Idan Raichel on the radio. He sounds like cheap popcorn. He doesn’t have anything new to give to an Ethiopian.”
I tried to extend the implied metaphor about unfair trade to her own experience by asking Tezeta what she’d given Israel and what Israel had given her in return, but she was reluctant to talk about her service in the army and dismissive about her journey from Ethiopia during Operation Solomon fifteen years before. Maybe these personal topics were too painful to discuss.
“I’m supposed to be grateful to Israel for saving me,” was all she would say.
This is the image the world has, that a fleet of planes swooped down like a flock of angels, scooped up the endangered black Jews in the knick of time, and delivered them from starvation into Israel’s bosom. It’s true that Operation Solomon rescued the Beta Israel from violence in Addis Ababa during a civil war, but their journey to Jerusalem began long before that. At the start of their journey, they weren’t at risk, they weren’t starving, and they weren’t particularly impoverished. Jerusalem was a magnet, and the force of its pull was stronger than the force of Ethiopia’s push. What prompted tens of thousands of the Beta Israel to abandon their relatively safe and comfortable lives to risk everything by migrating to the point where those planes would pick them up? Perhaps opportunism was a factor, but more than that, the pull was their longing for Zion.
I pointed again at Dr. King’s picture. “He said he went to the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land. I’m guessing this isn’t it?”
Tezeta snorted. “I’m not a Zionist. Zionism was a bad idea. Israel wants to be a melting pot for all the world’s Jews to make them one thing. She is very sexy. She has what every strong nation wants—a stable economy and an atom bomb. But we don’t have any tolerance.”
“Are you saying multiculturalism can’t exist here?”
“I am saying this does not exist in Israel.”
“And absorption is the price of Zionism? Everybody must conform?”
“Yes. You are right. Maybe we embrace Ethiopian music when a white man brings it on a plate, but they cannot see them as a full human. They want them to be white.”
I pointed out Tezeta’s pronoun confusion. She alternated between we, they, us, them, ours, and theirs to talk about both Israelis and Ethiopians, and I didn’t think it was because English was her third language. Which did she feel she was: Israeli or Ethiopian?
“I don’t know. I have my feet in two lands. I don’t know what I am.”
“I understand what that’s like,” I said. “Tezeta, are you black?”
“There is a lot of blacks here. The Mizrahi is black, the Bedouin is black, the Yemenite is black, the Moroccan is black, and the Ethiopian is the most black, because we came to Israel last. The next to come will be more black than us. It doesn’t matter the color of their skin.”
“Are the Palestinians black?”
“No. They are not playing in the game. We don’t absorb them.”
• • •
The next day, Tezeta and her boyfriend, Tsuri, brought me and Tamar to Mt. Herzl National Memorial Park. Tamar described the park as “the heart of the Zionist commemoration machine.” The Holocaust memorial complex, Yad Vashem, is there, as are the military cemetery, the burial sites of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, and the construction site of a brand new memorial whose design Tsuri consulted on. It is being erected to commemorate the thousands of Beta Israel who died trying to reach Israel. Tsuri showed me the architectural design for the memorial, which included four round thatch-roofed huts. Tamar served as translator: “He says those are what their houses looked like in Gondar.”
Tsuri pointed to a part of the construction site where a backhoe was lazily kicking up yellow dust. Tamar tried to keep up with his torrent of words. “He says the huts will go there in a diamond. One, two, three, four. . . . The idea was for each house to have text on the walls, a monologue about the exodus by four different Ethiopian characters . . . a mother, a child, a father who leads the family, and a holy man. He wanted visitors to be able to go inside their houses and read their stories.”
Tsuri seemed angry.
“What’s he saying?” I asked. Tamar struggled to keep up with his tirade. “He’s saying that the Jewish Agency didn’t approve the design.”
“He says they were afraid the Falashas would go in there to drink and do drugs. . . . Sorry, he’s talking really fast. They’re allowed to have the structures, but they have to be closed.”
“So nobody can go inside,” I clarified.
“That’s right,” Tamar translated. “No doors. You can only see the huts from the outside.”
“But that’s ridiculous,” I said. “If the story remains hidden, then this is a memorial with no memory.”
“I told you,” Tezeta interrupted, gesticulating wildly. “They do not want what is in our heart. They only want what is in her heart.” She meant Tamar. “For us they only want to pat themselves on their backs. Do you think they asked Tsuri to work for this memorial?”
She turned to her boyfriend and spoke animatedly at him. It took me a moment to realize her torrent of words was Amharic. Amharic is a softer-sounding language than Hebrew, but she was speaking it hard.
Tsuri sighed and tucked the blueprints into his bag. Then he said something brief and looked with resignation at the backhoe. “He says they didn’t ask him,” Tamar translated. “He heard they were building the memorial, and he fought to be included on the steering committee.”
“He is the only Ethiopian making this. They think they know better than us how to make it,” Tezeta hissed.
On our way through the cypress trees down the mountain, Tamar admitted that when she’d come to Israel for summer camp in her youth, she’d felt the land belonged to her, and she to it. “The counselors instilled a sense of ownership in us,” she said. “I thought the Falashas were foreigners, but I didn’t think of myself as a foreigner. It’s ironic, isn’t it? They were living here. I was only visiting.”
“It is not ironic,” said Tezeta. Chutzpah. That is the word for how she said this: “Israel does belong to you. Not to us.”
“Do you guys think of this place as your homeland?” I asked the young couple.
Tsuri was tight-lipped. Tezeta was fed up. “I have told you! I’m not a Zionist! The Ethiopians dream of Zion as a place that our grandfathers dreamed. But they need to wake up from that dream and see how this Zion treats us. That dream is not real. The day we say our dream is just a dream is the day we will stand up for our rights. But the Ethiopians want to stay asleep. They say, ‘I dreamed to be here. I am a Zionist and I belong to Zion.’ Israel doesn’t want them. She only wants them if they play the game by her rules, pray the way she tells us, think the way she tells us, be the Jew she wants. It was not my dream to be a citizen of Israel. If you want to listen to that kind of talk, you should go and see my boss.”
• • •
Dany Admasu was a chain-smoking, poetic man in his early thirties who looked like he hadn’t slept in months. He had been airlifted in from Sudan during Operation Moses in 1984, an era I remember for Live-Aid, Hands-Across-America, the hit song “We Are the World,” and starving Ethiopians on the cover of Time magazine. Having been in Israel longer than Tezeta, Dany’s English was more assured.
“I wrote this,” he said, pulling a yellowed clipping of an article from the Jerusalem Post off the bulletin board in his office. “It gives you an idea of my politics.” The headline read: “Which Way for Ethiopian Israelis?” The article focused on discrimination against the Beta Israel in the school system, the civil service, the private sector, and the housing market, as well as their lack of representation in government and all other centers of power.
“What about the Ethiopian on The Ambassador?” I teased, referring to the reality show that pitted fourteen young Israelis against each other in tasks designed to boost Israel’s disintegrating world image. “And wasn’t there an Ethiopian singer represented on Israeli Idol?”
“They didn’t win,” he said. “They were just window dressing to complete Israel’s cultural menagerie.”
“What about Addisu Messele?” I asked about the former lone Ethiopian-born member of the one hundred and twenty person Knesset. “Window dressing?”
“More or less.”
“I bet your article got you in trouble,” I guessed. “You called the Ministry of Absorption a disgrace. That’s pretty bold.”
“I am bold—I’m an Israeli. We know how to shout to get our point across. But you’re right. The government doesn’t like me because I’m speaking the truth. My goal is to change their idea that we’re not worthy. They don’t understand. They think Jewish means white.”
He offered me a cigarette, which I declined.
“They want you to think they love us because we’re all Jews, but they don’t think we have the same bones and blood.”
“I heard about how they dumped all the Beta Israel blood out of the blood bank because they thought it was infected with AIDS.”
“How did you hear about that?”
“I read about it.”
“Are you American?”
“I’m from New York.”
“Americans have a tendency to talk about the ethos of the community, and not of the individual. You think this war is between Israel and Lebanon, for example. You think about who is right and wrong, but you don’t think about the experience of the soldier.”
I thought about what he said, and how quickly I’d written Oz off. He was a man who had seen his best friend’s face blown away. Who would I have turned against, if I had witnessed the same thing done to Tamar?
“I will tell you my individual story,” Dany offered. “Imagine you are me. You are a little Jewish boy in Gondar, where you shepherd goats. Every morning you drink fresh milk from the goats you tend. But the real food in your life as you grow up is the dream of Jerusalem. This dream is in everything you do—the way you pray, the blessing, all the Jewish ceremonies. In every sentence the word Jerusalem comes up.”
He stopped to ash his cigarette.
“One day, your father says to you, ‘We’re going to Jerusalem.’ Imagine your surprise. You didn’t know it was a real place. You thought it was a dream as far away as the moon. Your father has sold your goats and everything else but the donkey to carry the food. You begin walking with everyone else from your village. You’re doing what Moses did to get to Israel. Every father in the village is a Moses.
“They knew there would be sacrifice. Somebody was going to die along the way. They were willing to pay whatever it cost to get to Jerusalem. Looking back, it was crazy. The government regime did not allow emigration. They arrested us along the way and sent us back to the village. So we began again. We walked at night and hid in the day. My sister was arrested three times, and she bore a kid in jail.
“Imagine you are walking. You walk from Ethiopia to Sudan. It takes two months. The weak ones didn’t make it this far. You made it, but you have to stop walking because you ran out of food and water. You are so thirsty you would gladly drink your own urine, only you are too dehydrated to urinate.
You live in a refugee camp, and it is hell. Sometimes the Red Cross brings medicine, but forty to sixty people die there every day from starvation and snakebites. Israel finally hears about you, but they don’t think you’re a Jew because you’re black. You yourself didn’t know there were white Jews. You have never seen a white person before.
“America is putting pressure on Israel to save you. A big safari truck comes to pick you up and drives you for three hours with your father to a big airplane. You have never seen an airplane, so you don’t know it’s strange that they ripped out the seats to fit more of you inside. On the airplane they feed you bananas. You eat so many you get sick. When you arrive in Israel your father is crying because he thinks he’s in heaven. You made it. You know you are home.
“That is my story. The story the world knows is how Israel endangered herself to bring poor people from Africa. That’s a big lie. I started my way to this land that I knew from the stomach of my mother without their help. My father put me in danger for this dream. He made it come true. I don’t need permission from anyone to prove I’m Jewish. Israel doesn’t need to feed me lies to turn me into an Orthodox Jew. I was Jewish before I was born.”
Dany lit another cigarette, leaned back, took a long drag, and exhaled a slow rhapsodic haze of smoke. I noticed that he finished the narrative of his amazing journey homeward at the exact spot where spiritual Zion butts heads with political Zion. I am sure the euphoria of his arrival must have worn away painfully fast, perhaps beginning right when he stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and, along with everyone else on board, was bestowed a Hebrew name. Or did he like to be called Daniel? I wondered what his name used to be, the one his father gave him. I wondered when exactly the word home began to take on a “diabolical ring” for him and his father, but I didn’t ask Dany about the second half of his journey. I understood that, along with his activism, the dream was what kept him alive. It didn’t matter if home was a myth he was still walking toward. Maybe it mattered that he was walking on other people’s backs to get there, but I don’t think Dany thought about that. It only mattered to him that he hadn’t stopped walking.
We were quiet for awhile. Then I asked, “Do you know who James Baldwin is?”
“You’d like him. He’s a black American writer. He said, ‘I criticize my home because I love it.’ Or something like that. This paragraph in your article made me think of him.” I read it aloud:
More than two decades have passed since the first significant wave of Jewish immigration from Ethiopia to the promised “Land of Milk and Honey” began. While coming on aliyah and being physically present in Israel fulfilled half of the dream, the intolerance towards their language, culture and color, which they have encountered in every aspect of life since their arrival in Israel, has buried the other half of Ethiopian Jewry’s dream. Today we can speak more aptly in terms of the crushed dream.
Dany nodded. “I love Jerusalem. I am speaking the truth.”
• • •
“I am speaking the truth,” said the priest. I was at a Sabbath service in the multipurpose room at the Kingdom of Yah, home of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, and I was wearing a white head wrap and a loose black dress that came down to my sandaled feet. The room was lit by a dozen menorahs. I sat between my hosts, Crowned Dr. Khazriel, head of the School of the Prophets, and one of his many wives, Sister Aturah. She had lent me the dress because the clothes I showed up in were immodest.
The priest was reading from the book of their prophet, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, a former foundry worker from Chicago, born Ben Carter, whom the African Hebrew Israelites call “Abba” and believe to be the messiah. In 1966, he claims to have had a forty-five second vision from an angel who told him it was time for him and the rest of his lost tribe to return to Jerusalem. Their tradition holds that they were exiled from the Holy Land during the Roman Invasion nearly two thousand years ago, migrated southward, down the Nile, through the centuries, and westward to the coast of Africa, where a great number of them were captured and shipped into modern Babylon as a curse for sinning against God’s law. They distinguish their progenitor from Judah, the Jewish father. Their father is Adam, the original man. They distinguish their curse (referred to in Leviticus and Deuteronomy as a great dispersal and a voyage into captivity by boat) from the eternal curse of Ham, which was used by white slave owners to justify slavery. While Ham’s curse cannot be redressed, the African Hebrew Israelites believe their curse can be, by living according to certain principles, including a vegan diet.
This is a seductive idea for people who have grown up in inner-city slums, who can only reach four hundred years into their history and then bump against a wall. Being a charismatic leader, Ben Ammi convinced thirty black folks of his angelic vision. First, they traveled to Liberia to cleanse themselves of their slave mentality. In 1969, they showed up in Israel and were told by the Rabbinate that they were not Jews. But the African Hebrew Israelites saw themselves as the original Jews. They refused to convert, calling the Israelis “heathens” and publicly threatening to run them into the sea.
The priest read some more scripture from Ben Ammi’s holy book—God, The Black Man and Truth—and then launched into a sermon, much of which I agreed with. Up to a point.
“You can’t get to freedom on an airplane.”
“An airplane won’t take you there. Brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you, freedom is a place in your mind.”
“Back there we were sick.”
“I was dying!”
“Sickness, perversion, and death abound in the land of Great Captivity, but our greatest sickness there was of our spirit. We didn’t choose to live there.”
“They took us in chains! That place of wickedness was not our home. Theirs was not our way. Why would you want a house for your car when your brother was homeless? Because you were sick. You were thinking like them. Why would you poison your body with cigarettes, knowing they would kill you?”
“Because I was sick!”
“You were thinking like them. Why would you believe the earth moves around the sun? Does that make sense?”
“No. The earth is the center of the universe. Jerusalem is the center of the earth. If the earth moved around the sun, then how could the sun rise and set every day? You didn’t use your mind. You listened to their lies. You let them tell you Jesus was white, Adam was white. Jesus wasn’t white. Neither was Adam. They were black men with wooly hair.”
“Why would you let your child play with a toy gun? If you let your child shoot water, he will grow up and think it’s a game to shoot a bullet! Why would you allow him to shoot a brother over a pair of hundred-dollar sneakers or a vial of crack? Because you were sick. Our bodies weren’t in shackles, but our minds were. They told us we were nothing, and we believed them, but we’re not at the bottom of their boat no more. They told us we couldn’t do it, but we did. We built the boat. We drive the boat.”
“They want you to believe we’re a cult. Say the whole word!”
I started to feel a little uneasy. I wasn’t sure if it was the sermon or the head scarf—Sister Aturah had wrapped mine too tight, and I was afraid I might pass out.
“You don’t go to Japan and say, ‘That’s a cult.’ That’s a culture. We’re a culture. They say we’re a weird sect. Say the whole word. We’re a section of the Hebrew Israelite nation living in Dimona, Israel, Northeast Africa. If you conform to our vision, you will not be sick. You will not need a medicine chest. Diabetes—what’s that? Cancer—what’s that? Depression—what’s that? Can I get a witness?”
“I haven’t been sick since I came to the Kingdom nineteen years ago—not once!”
“The Torah speaks of people who lived nine hundred years, so why can’t we? This is possible, people. Nine hundred years is a blink of Yah’s eye and we are his chosen people. We don’t have to die. Heaven is possible in the mind and body, and we are living proof. We don’t use the word death around our children. Our children don’t know the meaning of that word. We are making new people, with new minds, befitting of this new world.”
After the service was over, Dr. Khazriel and Sister Aturah walked me through the Village of Peace to the guesthouse where I was staying in a room decorated with generic Afrocentric prints, a tall wooden giraffe and a two-by-three foot poster of Ben Ammi’s benevolent face. Aturah was quiet in her husband’s presence. I learned that they’d been married only a few weeks before, and that none of his fourteen children was hers. I imagine that being middle-aged and childless was hard for her in a community that forbids birth control and puts a high premium on a woman’s ability to bear children.
All of the women I met in the Village of Peace introduced themselves to me in terms of their motherhood, as in, “I’m Sister Zehorah, mother of eight.” They told me that a man’s wife is a piece of him just as Adam’s rib is a piece of him, and that while Man keeps his hands in the hands of Yah, Woman keeps her hands in the hands of Man.
Aturah walked a few steps behind her new husband and me, her head bowed. I turned to ask her if the priest was using a metaphor when he spoke about immortality.
“Oh, no,” she said.
“You don’t believe in death?”
“We call it transitioning,” she said softly.
I thought it would be gauche to ask where they put their dead people. “Do you celebrate funerals?” I asked.
Dr. Khazriel gave her a look.
“Everything we do promotes life and healing,” she said. “What we put in our bodies, what we put into the earth, how we sing. We don’t sing the blues anymore.”
Dr. Khazriel had a slight lisp. He waved at the crooked little tar-papered shacks that make up the Kingdom of Yah with his cane. “None of this was here when I came,” he said, fingering his gray beard. Although he is not one of the founders of the kingdom, Dr. Khazriel arrived a few short years after its inception. He was seventeen years old when he came to join his aunt and the swelling number of other African Americans who’d settled in the Negev Desert near a nuclear reactor, where the State of Israel had allowed them to squat. Now there are an estimated 2,500 members of their community living in Israel, where they have recently gained permanent residency status. Their population has grown thanks to the practice of polygamy and to widespread proselytizing efforts in “the provinces,” which include Baltimore, Houston, Detroit, Atlanta, and New York. In fact, the African Hebrew Israelites make up the largest community of African Americans living outside the United States and, Dr. Khazriel told me, “the only progressive one—a historic fact in itself. We built this nation with our own hands.”
At first, the sprawling shantytown didn’t look like much to me, but then I considered the amazing accomplishment. My hosts pointed out their school, their sewing center, their bakery, their gym, their library, their “House of Life” (there is no need for a hospital in a land without sickness)—all of this was built from scratch in thirty-some-odd years. These people make their own clothes, grow most of their own food, and, most importantly, govern themselves.
Where the Beta Israel represent the bitterness, disorientation, and disillusionment of Zionism’s dream deferred, members of the African Hebrew Israelite community believe, or are indoctrinated to believe, that they have fully arrived in Canaan. Because the Israeli Rabbinate has never acknowledged them as Jews, they’ve never enjoyed any of the rights of citizenship that Israel has to offer. This rejection has forced them to fashion their own Zion. Because they’ve never been forced to assimilate to dominant Orthodox Judaism, they’ve managed to maintain and forge their own unique Judaic identity. Theirs is truly a fully operable, self-sustained nation-inside-a-nation, with one interesting concession—about seventy African Hebrew Israelite youth are enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces.
I asked Dr. Khazriel if their participation in the IDF conflicted with the African Hebrew Israelite’s governing practice of promoting life. “The priest said it was sick for a child to play with a toy gun, but some of your young people are handling real guns right now in Lebanon. What are they fighting for?”
“That’s a good question, Sister Emily. I see you have a sharp mind. What you see surrounding you is our spiritual home but it’s also a physical realm. We have to protect our village. We’re a spiritual entity in a secular world with social realities. Those scuds and rockets are real. Outside of a war atmosphere, killing is not acceptable, but we live in a punishing atmosphere of war. We’re not disconnected from greater Israel,” Dr. Khazriel reasoned. “We live here, and so we have to show solidarity. But our involvement in the army is only transitional.”
I told him I’d been witness to the hard transition Beta Israel was making into Zion. “It’s truly a shame what’s happening to them,” he said, shaking his head. “They’re African Hebrew Israelites too. We all descend from Judea, but when they returned home, they began to lose their original form.”
We arrived at the guest house. “There used to be a baseball diamond scratched in the sand right here,” Dr. Khazriel said. “The day I arrived, there was a pick-up game going on. My aunt said, ‘Boy, this is the kingdom of heaven, and these are the saints.’ I said, ‘If this is heaven, then where’s Jesus?’ She pointed at the pitcher and said, ‘Right there.’ Do you know who she was pointing at?”
“Abba?” I guessed.
“See that, Aturah? She’s sharp as a sword.” He laid his hand on my shoulder. “We could use a mind like yours in the Kingdom.”
• • •
Abba stood in a resplendent, canary-yellow robe, in the center of a large painting hanging above the table in the conference room of the School of the Prophets where Dr. Khazriel sat me down to instruct me further in his beliefs. Twelve other men figured in the painting, just like the apostles at the last supper. The other decorations of note in the classroom were a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a world map.
“Do you really believe Ben Ammi is the Messiah?” I asked.
Dr. Khazriel gestured at the painting. “Those men represent our governing body,” he began. “Our government must remain in a prophetic mode. Many men have had visions—Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney, Father Divine, Garvey, King, Malcolm— and all of their visions failed. Why? Because all black visionaries in America become martyrs. The man who can electrify and unify a black movement is an automatic target. We had to authenticate Ben Ammi’s vision by calling him the Messiah. That title gives him absolute authority.”
“As the son of God?”
“As the anointed leader of the Kingdom of Yah. He’s our ruler. We couldn’t be free until we had our own nation. ‘He who rules Jerusalem rules the world.’”
“Sounds like a crusade.”
“It is. All men have focused on Jerusalem since the dawn of mankind. Do you know why?”
“Your priest said Jerusalem is the center of the universe.”
“Good listening. Israel began with correct socialist aims, but you don’t see too many kibbutzim anymore. Jerusalem has fallen under the control of profane and perverted European empires. Their dominion has brought the world to darkness. Euro-gentiles have corrupted earth-centered concepts more than any other people. They have distorted the institutions of liberalism and democracy. You’d have to be blind not to recognize this as a fallen world.” Dr. Khazriel pushed up the loose sleeves of his dashiki and counted out a list of recent calamities on his fingers: tsunami, Katrina, global warming. . . . The list had more than ten items and it included the present war with Lebanon. He fisted and unfisted his hands.
“We’re at a time of transition. Those empowered to administrate the earth are about to have a rude awakening. Their time of rule is up.” He pounded the table with his fists. “Our purpose is to restore Jerusalem, Africa, and the earth. The diaspora cannot save Africa, but Africa can save the diaspora.”
“Can you repeat that?”
“There’s no spiritual impetus for the black diaspora to save Africa. With all its resources, scholars, and religious leaders, the black diaspora is out of focus. Sister Emily, let me ask you a question. Do you think of Africa as a prophetic or pathetic realm?”
“Um . . .”
“You can admit it.”
“Well, I’ve never been there.”
“You’re there right now! This is it. You’re in Africa.” He swiveled his chair and pointed a pen at little Israel on the world map, hanging off Egypt like an earlobe. “All that separates you from the mother continent is the Suez Canal. “The Kingdom of Yah is the New Jerusalem. We’re not built out of brick and mortar alone. We’re building a new mind beyond the shackles we once knew. We’ve recovered from chattel slavery. We’ve saved ourselves from stress and harm, trauma and drama, from the dialysis machine, hypertension and heart attack, from kidney failure, self-hatred, and jail. We’ve reversed all that impurity by restoring Hebraic concepts of interdependent community, love, and humanity. By doing that, we’re restoring Africa, which will in turn restore the earth populace. No brag, just fact.”
Dr. Khazriel held out his hand. “This hand is humble. This hand reaching out to save the earth is black. People don’t want to hold this hand. They are selective about salvation. Look at this mess.” He brought out a copy of the Economist and slapped it on the table. Bill Gates was on the cover, holding a black baby. “What does that say?”
“That man has thirty-four billion dollars. His impulse is greed, profit, big business, tax-deductible philanthropy. When is it enough? There is no possibility for contentment in the framework of capitalism. Do you know why they crucified him?”
Dr. Khazriel signaled the picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was the same image as the one in Tezeta’s office, only much bigger. “Because he was a Hebrew. Their edict was to stop the rise of the black messiah.”
“Yes, Sister. They got rid of him, of our king, because he spoke the powerful phrase ‘Promised Land.’ That’s a Hebrewism. It comes from Old Testament theology. Hebrewisms are the basis of all black protest social movements. Did you ever read about us in school? Had you ever heard of a black Jew?”
“No,” I admitted.
Dr. Khazriel shook his head, sadly. “We’ve been omitted from the annals of history. But I want you to see that we’re not a fringe. We’re not a myth blown out of a vacuum. I want you to read this,” he held up the holy book, “as a history text. Begin with Genesis. That’s our history.”
Sister Aturah, in a purple robe and a matching head wrap, entered the room quietly to serve us watermelon. “This was grown on our farm,” she whispered, setting it down. “It’s very sweet.”
“Thank you, Aturah,” said Dr. Khazriel. “Do you have something you want to tell Sister Emily on her search for truth?”
“Yes, I do.”
“This is an island of sanity. This is the place our soul was crying out for.”
“Aturah might also have said that we see ourselves as the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream,” Dr. Khazriel added. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” she answered, looking at her feet.
I began picking out the little black seeds from the fruit. Pathetic and prophetic. To me their world was both. “So this is Canaan Land?” I asked Dr. Khazriel. The reason I didn’t put my question to his wife was that I didn’t think she was at liberty to say “No.”
“I was born into a Detroit ghetto,” he answered, biting into a slice of watermelon. “If I wasn’t here, I would be dead.”
• • •
On my last day before leaving Israel, Tamar and I walked Nina through a mob of displaced Israeli settlers dressed in orange. It was Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, a holiday which observes the many tragedies that have stricken Jews throughout history, including the destruction of the first Temple, the second Temple, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. These settlers were using the day to mourn the loss of their homes in Palestinian territory. We hadn’t foreseen the march, and soon we were tangled in its masses. There were thousands of settlers, shouting, singing, waving the Israeli flag, flooding us in a rage of orange.
“I can’t believe these people,” Tamar said, plowing her way through the crowd with the stroller. “Move!”
We escaped behind the walls of the Old City, wended through the maze of its narrow, cobbled streets, bypassed all of its wares—the blue and white Armenian ceramics, the backgammon sets inlaid with mother of pearl, the beads, the baklava, the incense sticks, and doumbek drums. We wound up outside the compound of St. Anne’s Church. This compound contains the ruins of the curative Bethesda pool, where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus is said to have performed a miracle of faith. “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asked a lame man with useless legs. The man said, “Yes.” “Then get up and walk!” Christ commanded. Which is just what the invalid did.
“I want to show you something special,” said Tamar, leading me into the basilica. Except for two middle-aged French women sitting with their hands folded in the back pew, the church was empty. Tamar unstrapped Nina from her stroller. “This church has a fifteen-second echo,” she whispered. Nina squealed and her voice ballooned outward to fill the unadorned space, as high as the vaulted ceilings. She widened her eyes in wonder.
“Excusez-moi. Êtes-vous américaines?” asked the French woman with the paisley silk scarf at her throat.
“Sort of,” said Tamar.
“Ah!” clapped the woman, and her clap became a cannon’s boom. “Do you know how to sing?”
“Dites-leur de chanter ‘Amazing Grace,’” her friend suggested. The last word bloomed from her lipsticked mouth.
“J’aime cette chanson.”
We know it,” Tamar smiled.
We know it.
We know it.
We know it.
We do. We walked up the aisle side-by-side, sat Nina in the first pew with her quilt, took our places at the altar, looked at each other and began. We sang that mournful hymn composed by a white man who’d sailed the seas on slave ships, witnessed the shackled hold, and attempted to expiate the sin of his complicity through the act of composition.
We sang it in two-part harmony. Our voices cast out like fishing lines into the void where they unraveled. They unraveled into water and swam back to us, doubling and quadrupling in volume, backward and forward, a current running in all directions. This was our sweet sound. Wanting to be cradled in it, the baby scooted backwards off the pew and crawled toward us in her sagging diaper across the marble floor.
We transposed from major to minor key. Nina stopped three feet from us and stood. In the end, this is Zion: the song about our wretchedness lifting up to save us, our voices leashing us together, the child walking towards us on unsteady legs. Two steps. Her first. She will fall down, but right now our song holds her up like hands, and this is Zion, right here, in the moment before she does.
Emily Raboteau is an assistant professor in the English Department at the City College of New York. She has a MFA in Fiction from New York University, where she was a New York Times Fellow. Her short stories have appeared in Callaloo, the Missouri Review, the Gettysburg Review, Tin House, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories and elsewhere. She has received the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, a Pushcart Prize, a NY Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a Literature Fellowship from the NEA. Henry Holt published her first novel, The Professor’s Daughter, in 2005. She lives in Harlem.