This blog post was written by Brandon Roberts, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in Rishon LeZion.
Walk the streets of Ramat Eliyahu and you will see there is no shortage of Ethiopian Israelis. In fact, this neighborhood has absorbed every wave of immigration to Israel dating back to bereaved holocaust survivors. Ramat Eliyahu newcomers bring their native languages. Little children can be heard speaking Russian with their parents or amongst themselves, including signage and shops catering to people from the Former Soviet Union. Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, is conspicuous mostly by absence. A 2000 year old Semitic language that belongs in the same family as Hebrew and Arabic.
It took my roommate pointing out a sign in Amharic at Ben-Gurion Airport (miles from this community) to realize that there isn’t a lot of space granted to read, learn or just behold the Amharic language in our neighborhood. I receive second-hand embarrassment when Ethiopian Israelis shrink back after being asked if they know Amharic. They tell me that they’d feel almost “embarrassed” to speak it on buses or at school as the Russian Israelis do. But, I digress. This isn’t meant to be an indictment against Ethiopian Israelis that never were taught or went the extra mile to learn Amharic. The chief goal, afterall, is to fit in— be Israeli. I’ve spoken to single mothers in Gan Menashe park who agree that crippling racial discrimination contributes to the lack of economic opportunities which lead to the breakdown of family cohesion. A recipe for poor focus, failing grades and, frankly, no energy or time to keep certain traditions like preserving a language.
Rather, this is a love letter to Amharic. To the elderly gentlemen shouting in Amharic while playing card games in the park. To my barber who gossips with clients in Amharic. To my Ethiopian host mother Zehava that welcomes me with Buna (Traditional Ethiopian ceremonial coffee) and reads her Siddur in Hebrew with an Amharic concordance. I’d spent a lazy Shabbat afternoon learning some Amharic with her and her family. They love that my Hebrew has improved, but beamed with even greater pride that I was able to repeat phrases in their mother tongue. What’s more, is that I’ve come to belong to this neighborhood too, now. I swelled with a bit of pride when I noticed a huge sign was erected promoting an Ethiopian Israeli real estate agent in Amharic. I still don’t know whether it’s my place to feel proud or not. It seems like a big milestone for the community but increases Ethiopian visibility—- the antithesis of “fitting in”.