Soul-searching memoir of the author’s visits to Israel and how she discovered an Ethiopian Jewish community in the process.
Elenbogen (Creative Writing/Univ. of Chicago Graham School; Apples of the Earth, 2005) chronicles the history of the Olim, Ethiopian Jews whose status was only confirmed by the Israeli rabbinate in 1973. However, since “the government was ambivalent about taking action to bring them to Israel,” their immigration did not begin until the airlifts between 1981 and 1991. The author does not focus on the stories of those who walked from Ethiopia to Sudan before being airlifted to Israel, and she offers little information about the lives of the Olim before they migrated. They are a reserved, quiet people, and since Elenbogen did not know their language, communication was strictly in Hebrew, which neither spoke well. She worked with the immigrants in what is called an absorption center, small enclaves where they are taught the ways of modernity and enriched in Israeli life. The author’s connection to one small group drives the memoir. They are separated from local populations, schools are underfunded and poorly staffed, and higher education is often unavailable. Though there is no specific suggestion of racism, they are black, and their ability to integrate is extremely difficult and not especially encouraged. There are those who blame them for their lack of drive, but they live in temporary housing with few jobs, poor leadership and no land. As Elenbogen’s friends grew, some found jobs or education; life is steadily improving but very slowly. The author’s poetic prose and descriptions of the country enhance the book, but it tends to be too self-orbiting.
Elenbogen occasionally illuminates important themes of identity, but there is much more to learn about these Ethiopian Jews. Perhaps one day one of them will tell the whole story; this is just an introduction.