Visiting Ethiopian Jews help bridge cultural divide

March 17, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

Students at Northwestern High School, a nearly all-black school in a heavily Jewish corner of Baltimore, have heard much about tensions between blacks and Jews.

But they viewed the matter yesterday from a new angle: They met three teen-agers who are both black and Jewish.

The visitors -- Gad Kebede, 19; Batsheva Mekonen, 18, and Nurit Tezazo, 16 -- are Ethiopian-Israelis. Their families conserved their Jewish religion for more than 2,500 years in a remote area of Ethiopia before fleeing in the early 1980s to escape war and famine.

Some 53,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today as a result of a steady trickle of immigration that began in the 1970s and culminated in major airlifts in 1984 and 1991. Israel's chief rabbis have recognized the Ethiopian Jews' religious credentials since 1975.

Now the three students, who have learned Hebrew and considerable English on top of their native Amharic, attend boarding school in central Israel. They are in the vanguard of Ethiopians' halting assimilation into Israeli society.

With their jeans and baggy clothes, the Ethiopians didn't look at all out of place in a Baltimore high school. They regaled four Northwestern classes with tales of dangerous treks across the desert to Sudan, their arrival in Israel during the secret 1984 airlift and their struggle to adapt to life in a new society.

"I don't know what I expected, but they're basically just like us -- very funny, very talkative," said Mykia Jefferson, 17, a Northwestern senior.

Just the concept of black Jews "would have shocked me," Mykia said, before her class studied the Ethiopian exodus to Israel in preparation for yesterday's visit. The program was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League in an effort to shatter stereotypes about Jews.

"Now it doesn't seem so strange," Mykia said. "When Malcolm X went to Mecca, he saw brothers and sisters of different races and cultures. He saw it's not just a black thing or a white thing. It's a together thing."

After the classes, Northwestern students crowded around the Ethiopian-Israeli teen-agers, asking questions, exchanging addresses and flirting a bit.

"The news and TV should come in and sit and watch this, and show we can get along," said Ralph Forrest, 19, a senior who said he was fascinated by Jewish history.

The Ethiopian-Israelis were surprised that Northwestern had so few non-black students. Their Kfar Batya boarding school is made up of native-born Israelis and immigrants from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, Morocco, Yemen and other countries.

Few tough questions

Accustomed to Middle East politics, they also expected tougher questioning about Israeli policies.

But no one mentioned the recent massacre of Palestinians worshipers by a Jewish settler at a West Bank mosque. Only one student asked about relations between Jews and Arabs.

"We want to live in peace with the Arabs," replied Ms. Mekonen, a young woman who lived for two years in a Sudanese refugee camp. "Some of them hate Jews, and some Jews hate Arabs. I think this is not good. We're all human beings."

One neatly dressed student, who identified himself as a member of the Nation of Islam, described the recent controversy between the black separatist group and Jewish organizations as his classmates squirmed. The Israeli visitors were clearly baffled by the dispute.

Walking across the desert

The Ethiopian-Israelis captivated the Baltimore students with stories of their two-month walks across the desert as small children. They recalled running short on water, being robbed by bandits and hiding their religion when they got to Muslim Sudan.

"Our grandfathers told us about Jerusalem," said Mr. Kebede, a young man with a winning smile. "This was our dream to arrive at Jerusalem, the promised land. They believed that Jerusalem was made of gold."

When they finally arrived in Israel, he said, the Ethiopians were just as surprised to see white Jews as the Israelis were to see black Jews.

Father feared dead

The Northwestern students grew somber when Batsheva said she had not seen her father for more than a decade. The family heard that he was arrested in Ethiopia on suspicion of being a rebel spy, she said, and they fear he is dead.

But much of the talk was strictly teen-ager to teen-ager.

Question: "Do you all have McDonald's over there?" Answer: "What is McDonald's?"

Q: "What kind of clothes do you all wear?" A: "I like Levi's."

Q: "Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?" A: "No."

Q: "Have you all been to the mall?" A: "Not yet." (The visitors arrived in Washington Monday night for a 10-day stay.)

Q: "Would you rather live in the U.S. or stay in Israel?" A: "Israel is a small country, and I think it's safer there. I hear that in the United States they fight with guns."

Disco moves

At lunch time, Sheree Dyer, 18, even checked out Mr. Kebede's disco moves.

"You ever heard of the Butterfly?" she asked, naming a dance.

"Maybe if you say it in Hebrew," he replied.

"What kind of music do you like?"

"I listen to rap," Mr. Kebede said.

"They have rap in Hebrew?"

"No, in English," he said. "You know, MC Hammer, Bobby Brown."

Thus was one religious and cultural barrier breached.

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