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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

"Ethnic Night"

I just found this post that I'd written several years ago for the Livnot newsletter -- I like what I wrote, so am reprinting it.
Monday night was "Ethnic Night" at my daughter's school. The 5th and 6th grade girls had been preparing this evening for weeks, and every time it was scheduled, something conflicted, and it had been called off. But finally, there was no special Memorial Days, no celebrations which would clog the streets in town, and the girls were ready to celebrate the "Kibbutz Galuyot - The Ingathering of the Exiles." We were supposed to represent our ethnic roots, so my husband dug up his "Humphrey for President" campaign buttons, I found my old girl scout pins, stuck on a baseball cap, and we were off.
Yochi attends a local religious public school. The make-up of Tzfat is mostly Sephardic, and in her class of 21 girls, she and one other friend are the only Ashkenazic representatives. Yet it didn't stop them from dressing up in Tunisian caftans, and putting on heavy Moroccan accents to portray immigrants from the east. Girls with olive skin of the Middle East became American, Russian, and French immigrants for their class play, and the Ethiopian member of the class joined in with an accent which seemed to be a cross between a Persian and a Spaniard. After the singing and ethnic dances, immigrant mothers were invited to the podium to speak of their experiences as immigrants. Yochi's teacher beckoned to me, but I shook my head - after hearing about the hardships of immigrants from Soviet, North African and Middle Eastern countries, and especially Ethiopia, I couldn't very well tell them that for me, immigrating to Israel was like slipping into an old, comfortable slipper. Having a university degree and enough financial resources to begin my life in Israel, my aliyah had none of the difficulty or frustration that many of these parents, and their parents, had experienced.
As the evening progressed, however, I thought more and more about what I would have said, had I had a second opportunity. That we all found ourselves in the same room that evening because of our common heritage. That people came to Israel from throughout the world, whether to visit or to live, because of their desire to connect with other Jews, and tie their lives to those of their fellow Jews. That, had I not been Jewish, I would have had nothing in common with these people whom I sat with that night, gently teasing each other over each other's customs ("good thing you didn't make gefilte fish, none of us Sepharadim would have been able to eat it!", etc.). But because of our Judaism, we were singing, eating, dancing, and talking together. Our daughters had been studying together since 1st grade, and most of them would continue to study together through 12th. When they study the Jewish laws and traditions, they study each other's customs for the different holidays and mitzvot, yet they celebrate the differences, and the commonality of all these traditions being Jewish traditions.
Finally, I wanted to say that while a handful of pessimistic historians talk about "post-Zionism," many simple Jews from all over the world, from the poorest of countries to the richest of countries, continue to tie their destinies to Israel. For many, it is a permanent change, and for others it remains a long-distance, spiritual connection. It saddens us to hear about Jews who aren't coming these days because of the "situation." Many of the people who sat in the room with me that evening have been feeling the pinch, as their livelihood depends on tourism. But we try to concentrate on those Jews who do come; those, like the Livnoters, past and present, who bring their enthusiasm and love of their heritage to Israel, to be "as one."
The moment for speaking, however, had passed. So we went out the corridor, where I ate spicy Moroccan couscous, Yemenite jachnon, Tunisian salads, and Ethiopian injara, while my fellow revelers tried American apple and peach pie. And I hope that by the time my next child has an "ethnic evening," our unity will be so evident that no one will have to speak of it.

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