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A Seat on the Sofa: My experience with an Ethiopian-Israeli Host Family in Ramat Eliyahu

Today's blogpost was written by Shira Zilberstein, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Rishon LeZion.

Beinchi tugs on Avishag’s hair. With her left hand, she crosses a one-inch strand over a one-inch strand in her right hand, smooths the lump with gel, then grabs the next clump. Nineteen-year-old Avishag sits on the speckled tile floor, while Beinchi sits on the green-wrap around sofa above her. Avishag watches videos on her phone, usually French and American rap musicians or summaries of the latest pop-culture news in English. Beinchi works in a rhythmic pattern, glancing up after every few strands to peer at her young children playing with dolls, blocks and rattles scattered around the living room.

Sometimes specific details in the scene will change: Moriah sits on the green couch and braids Judah’s hair, while the squirming 3-year old drools over the iPad. Avikelish elevates herself to the couch to braid Itayah’s hair while she tells me an intricate, imaginary Hebrew story complete with finger waving, song breaks and wafer cookies. Efrat reclines on the end of the sofa, combing through baby Noam’s hair, her eyes darting around the room.

From nine o’clock in the morning, until just past nine o’clock in the evening, 7 Zeitlin Street, the residency of my host family in Ramat Eliyahu, remains a women’s space. The women typically range in ages from seventeen to thirty, some with children under the age of 6. Everyone is a friend, sister, cousin or in-law of Beinchi, the springy twenty-six-year-old queen of the home. She lives in the two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with her husband and two young children. Our gatherings always occur around the green sofa, by far the largest piece of furniture in the house.

Itayah, Beinchi’s daughter, holding her younger brother B’nei Ya on the Green Couch

Exact activities range. There are cosmetic tasks: hair-braiding, eyebrow threading, the trading of techniques to wrap head scarves. Women lounge while they breast and bottle feed babies. There is singing and dancing, often prompted by children or presented as a show. There are always offers of Ethiopian-Buna coffee or nana (mint) Tea.

During my evenings on the green couch, the women have explained to me their significant life experiences, touching on many central topics of Yahel. They share their stories of immigrating from Ethiopia, getting married at age twenty, balancing familial and personal obligations, being a black Israeli in school, the workforce and the army. They talk about financial struggles, about having husbands that work and study twelve hour days six days a week. They express both criticism and praise of their neighborhood.

Conversations also brush on more intimate and trite aspects of daily life. There are announcements about every new sound and movement their babies accomplish, the pickiness of toddlers who only want to eat rice and ketchup, or the latest batch of injera that had to be thrown away because it did not ferment properly.

But, more than from their words, I have learned from their actions and the opportunity to be immersed in a different family. From my space on the green couch, I have felt the chaos of five children running through a small apartment. I have recognized the frustrations of maximizing one kitchen countertop to prepare and simmer pots for a dinner for eight. I have witnessed the silent, tender spooning of an extra scoop of lentils at dinner, set aside for when a father will come home.

I have joyfully participated in the family as best I could. I have built block castles, colored in princess-picture books and edited English essays. I relished the excitement when B’nai Ya crawled for the first time, when Itayah mastered a new word, when Avikelish started planning her wedding. I am touched by how my host family has let me in, unbashful, unashamed and unreserved. The welcoming seat on the green couch is always open, and I plan to return to it for years to come. I also hope that, one day, I get the privilege to welcome them to a seat on my sofa, in my future home, wherever that may be.

Shira with her host family and friends around the green couch. From left to right; Avikelish, Beinchi, B’nei Ya, Itayah, Efrat, Noam and Shira

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