Nurit Shilo

Stork, Stork, How Is Our Land?

This presentation will tell a story, a true story that happened in real history: the story of the Ethiopian Jews that immigrated to Israel in recent decades. The first thousands arrived during "Operation Moses," in the 1980s, walking from Ethiopia through the Sudan desert, and then another wave of 15,000 were airlifted in the dramatic "Operation Solomon" which took place during one night in May 1991.

I will tell the story from different points of view: through the eyes of the children, who drew their experiences; through the pen held in the hand of the authors and illustrators, who presented the stories in children’s books; and through the mouths of the elderly, who told their stories as folk tales.

But let us begin at the beginning. First of all where is Ethiopia, and how far is it from Israel. There are many theories about the origins of Beta Israel, which is the name the Jews of Ethiopia call themselves. The most common one is that they are descendants of the tribe of Dan, which is one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. There are also many legends in the oral and visual history of the Ethiopian Jews, the main one being the story of the beautiful Queen of Sheba  who heard about the wisdom of King Solomon and came to visit him in Jerusalem. When she returned home she found out she was pregnant, and later prince Menelich was born. She sent the young boy to his father to learn from his wisdom, and when he returned to Ethiopia as a young adult, he brought with him 12,000 men, 1000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, as well as King Solomon's seal, bearing the lion of Judah, which became the emblem of the Ethiopian kingdom until the days of Halle Selassie, the last monarch, who was the 225th King descending from Menelich, son of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. The legend also relates that he took with him the arc with the tablets of the law, which gave rise to numerous treasure hunting stories and Indiana Jones movies, but I will not go into that.

For many many years Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia, longed to come back to Jerusalem, to the land of Zion. They prayed, dreamt, yearned, and sang about it. "Stork, Stork, How Is Our Land?", which is the title of my talk, comes from a children's song asking the migrating birds who fly from Europe over Israel to Africa about the land of Zion, which they just passed on their way south. And I quote:

Stork, stork, how is our land?
Stork, stork, how is Jerusalem?
Stork, stork, give us the word!


This quote from the children's song is also the title of a book which I published in 1991 in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which includes drawings and paintings made by the newly arrived Ethiopian children who came during “Operation Solomon” (and now, after hearing about the legend of King Solomon, you understand why this name was given to the operation), when 14,600 people were flown overnight from their homeland to their dream land. The book also includes sayings and stories told by the elders, as well as ethnographic photographs.

Bearing paper, pencils, crayons, and plasticene, artists and teachers from the Israel Museum’s Youth Wing came to the centers in which the newly arrived immigrants were temporarily housed, using art, a non-verbal form of communication, to help the children bridge the language barrier and ease the first period of cultural shock.

Over a period of ten weeks, until they left their temporary housing, the children depicted their exciting experiences. At first they drew airplanes and birds and bird-plane hybrids (maybe a mixture between the song they used to sing and what actually happened to them overnight, when they were flown in those huge birds they had never seen before in their lives), They also drew Israeli and Ethiopian Flags, and Hebrew words and their symbols drawn from the Hebrew primers they were shown in the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa while waiting for their departure to Israel. After a few days little signs of homesickness for the world they left behind began to emerge: They drew  the cows in the fields, the oxen plowing the village scene with, the farmyard animals and livestock, the daily life of the family, cooking and eating their special bread, or mothers and their new born babies in the special huts for giving birth, and  the lion, the traditional Ethiopian emblem.

The story of the absorption of the immigrants was not, and still is not, an easy one, even 20 years on. Life in Israel and in Ethiopia is very different, and many mistakes were made with the new immigrants. The rural population was settled in cities, many of the children were sent to religious boarding schools, the family structure was dismantled, the children learned Hebrew, the new language, and the ways of the new place much faster than their parents, unsettling the traditional hierarchy of Ethiopian society, and as a result the elderly lost their authority, and there was also a lot of discrimination within Israeli society.

Children's books  telling the story of Beta Israel began to be published in the early '90s, as well as books for teens and folk stories of the elders. The first books for children were written by Israeli authors, such as Dorit Orgad and Naomi Shmuel, an anthropologist and book illustrator and writer who is married to an Ethiopian Jew. Theses books told the stories of the miraculous arrival to Israel, whether by plane, as in Operation Solomon, or by crossing the desert, as in Operation Moses. They also talked about Ethiopia, everyday life in the village, These subjects are very similar to the ones drawn by the children when they just arrived, as I showed earlier in my talk, here you can see the same hut for giving birth. These early books also introduced Ethiopian names and words into the local vocabulary, and the legends.

In later years some of the books talked about creating friendships and about the fact that the color of the skin does not matter, for example Chocolate Kid illustrated by Christina Kadmon, or The Red Motorbike written by Shoshi Wolman. The fact that they talk in a naïve way about how real friendships can be created and how all children are the same regardless of their skin color indicates that in actual fact they are not believed to be, and that there is a problem of discrimination. In recent years there are also books for teenagers or young adults telling stories about growing up in a new culture on the background of the old culture, and the conflicts between the two. An example of such a book is The Rainbow Child by Naomi Shmuel, which won an IBBY award in 2002. These books are more realistic, they do not paint a rosy picture, but they are also not too dark, they tell stories of failure and of success. Some of the authors are of Israeli origin and some came from Ethiopia, such as Asher Elias or Abraham Adadja.

The stories recorded from the elderly in Israel are still the traditional folk tales that for centuries were passed down from one generation to the next, about animals, wisdom, foolishness, heroism etc. There are no folk stories yet about the immigration or about life in Israel. I think this is due to the fact that it takes much more time for new stories to be added to the oral tradition, but maybe also to the fact that the position and authority of the elderly was much weakened in Israel, as I mentioned earlier.

In summery: we have seen the Ethiopian story told by children, writers and illustrators, and the elders. They all talk about the same subjects: the miraculous arrival to Israel, missing the village life in Ethiopia and the life in the new country.

I would like to end with a humoristic story told by one of the elders, Israel Picado, about a shepherdess and a farmer, which demonstrates that misunderstanding between people or between cultures can lead to injustice. And I quote:

In one village there were two deaf people: a shepherdess and a farmer. One day they were both in the fields, and as the shepherdess was going back home she saw that some of her goats were missing. She asked the farmer if he had seen where the goats went. He thought she asked him where was the field he plowed and pointed in that direction. She told him that if she would find the goats she would give him one as a reward. She did find the goats and gave him one as she had promised. That goat had a broken leg. The farmer thought she was blaming him for the broken leg and argued that he did not break it, and she replied that the goat was a gift to him. They could not settle the argument and went to a judge. They repeated their story in front of him. The judge was also deaf. He thought they were talking about the broken leg of the baby the woman was carrying on her back. The judge shouted at the farmer and told him that the baby was his and he would have to pay alimony.

Nurit Shilo Cohen

Senior Curator-at-Large for Museum Education and Curator of Children's Book Illustration, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

IBBY World Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 2008