Out of Africa: Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Young have become acculturated, often leaving their parents behind. ISRAELI BLACKS
TEN years ago the Ethiopian Jews were a persecuted, impoverished, and almost forgotten remnant. They lived in remote mountain villages in Ethiopia, practicing a strict form of Judaism, unchanged since biblical days. In 1984 and '85 about half the existing tribe, threatened by extinction, was brought to Israel in ``Operation Moses,'' one of the most daring rescue efforts ever attempted. More than 10,000 black Jews were secretly flown from Sudan, where they had migrated on foot, to Tel Aviv. Almost nothing seemed to faze the Ethiopians in Israel, though many had never seen a flush toilet or a light switch or a gas heater before arriving here. In Ethiopia most were tenant farmers, blacksmiths, potters, and weavers. Here they aspire to work in factories, and many already do.
Teen-age boys, just a few months out of Africa, learned to use computers, repair autos, and practice carpentry. Literacy and vocational training are the goals for both boys and girls. Israeli teachers say the Ethiopians are exceptional students. They'd study all night if allowed.
It is common for an Ethiopian woman, wearing Western clothes, to have a necklace of welts tattooed around her neck. Numerous young Ethiopian girls have crosses tattooed onto their foreheads. This was done by parents to protect them from attack, just as during the Holocaust some Jewish parents hung crosses around their children's necks.
Today in an apartment outside Jerusalem lives Asilef, an imposing Ethiopian Jew of perhaps 40. She wears a head cloth - her Jewish orthodoxy, if not her African custom, demands it. Like other Ethiopian women here, she has reversed the ancient roles and supports her five children alone.
But if Israel means emancipation for Ethiopian women, it often means unaccustomed dependence for the men, whose influence has waned as literacy and job skills hold increased importance.
Asilef and two friends weave baskets as they did in Ethiopia, laughing and gossiping. But it is cold in Jerusalem, and there is no place to sit outdoors. They wear sweat suits under their mumus, and Adidases on their feet. In the background they hear African music interspersed with modern rock from a ``ghetto blaster.'' On the wall is a poster of Michael Jackson; on the table, a TV set.
Children come and go with a constant chatter - in Hebrew. How quickly the young become acculturated, often leaving their parents behind. Their rapid adaptation is a source of pride and conflict for parents.
Gentle laughter erupts. One of the women announces that she is pregnant. Innocently she's asked, ``How many children do you have?''
Someone murmurs, ``Don't ask. Some of her children died on the way to Sudan. We don't know how she counts them now.''
During the trek to Sudan, nearly everyone lost family members to bandits, disease, starvation, or torture. Some 1,500 Ethiopian children arrived in Israel orphaned or detached. They now live in Youth Aliyah schools.
Many are emotionally distraught, languishing for family. Their letters home are returned unopened. The Marxist regime will not deliver them.
Asilef suddenly begins to chant and nod in frustration over the intricacies of computer billing. In her tukel (hut) she was self-reliant. Now she is dependent on others to clear up her confusion.
Confusing, too, is the heterogeneity of modern Israel. The Ethiopians were stunned to discover that many Jews here do not observe the Sabbath or keep kosher. And they are disappointed that all the world's Jews are not gathered here.
Early on, they felt betrayed by the chief rabbis, who demanded that before marrying, the Ethiopians undergo a purification ceremony - just in case during their African sojourn some marital irregularities occurred. Many Ethiopians were insulted. The issue remains unresolved. Most hope it will simply fade away.
Ordinarily shy, the new immigrants quickly learned the art of democratic dissent - they took to the streets with placards in protest.
Insufficient housing creates another problem. Some Ethiopians still live in ``temporary'' absorption centers. A few, like Avraham and Leah, a professional couple in Ramot, own an apartment, bought for them by the government.
Housing agencies walk a fine line: They must not create ghettos, nor should the Ethiopians be isolated. There are constant challenges between assimilation and preservation of the specific values and beauty of Ethiopian customs. One sees this in religious worship, in art, music, education, and personal interaction.
Anthropologists are working overtime to delve into this phenomenal convergence of cultures.
Meanwhile, life goes on - with the constant prayers that those left behind in Ethiopia may somehow attain ``next year in Jerusalem.''