I was busy this morning preparing one of my zimmers for guests. When my doorbell rang I answered it, thinking to myself, “I better look through the peephole to see who’s there.” Not because I was afraid, but because I wanted to gauge how long I would be tied up with the person at the door. I should have been cautious in light of the tension that has gripped my country the last few weeks. But I forgot to be afraid because of my rose-colored glasses.
I’ve been told by those who know me the longest (my siblings to be exact) that I tend to live in an idealist world. A world in which broken bridges can be mended over coffee with kind words and a smile. Where I don’t have to worry about my safety living in Israel because God wants me to be here. Where recognizing the good in people is enough for them to change. Gazing out through my rose-colored glasses, they say, has me living in a somewhat make believe world.
So looking through the eyehole in the door, I saw a young black man in a white t-shirt with a red logo, cradling a clip board in his bent arm. “Oh good”, I thought. “This won’t take long. I’ll give him 5 shekels for the charity he represents and send him on his way.”
“Hi, what can I do for you?”, I asked in my ‘immigrant’ sounding Hebrew, swinging the door open in what I hoped was a welcoming gesture.
“I’m representing Ezer M’Tzion”, he answered in his own pretty heavily accented Hebrew. And then went on speaking far too quickly for me to understand much, short of a word or two.
“My Hebrew isn’t so good. Could you please speak more slowly?”
“I can speak in English if it’s better for you”, he said. I don’t know why I was surprised that he spoke English. I guess I had stereotyped him and being multilingual wasn’t in the picture I had formed in my head.
He drank the cold water I offered and we spoke about Ezer M’Tzion in both languages.
Then in my effort to make him feel that I acknowledged him as a person in his own right, not just an Ezer M’tzion rep, I asked his name and how long he had been here. Then I asked what he thought the differences were between Ethiopia and Israel. I fully expected him to tell me that life was so hard in Ethiopia and he was so happy to be living in his homeland fulfilling the dream our common ancestors had for over 3000 years.
What he told me ripped those rose colored glasses right off my face and left me standing in awe of his perception, his wisdom and his eloquence. And my blindness.
His name is Yermi. Short for Yermiyahu. He came to Israel on one of those big air rescue transports from Ethiopia. He was three years old so he doesn’t remember much about life there and he only has a few pictures. But he was raised in his Ethiopian culture and he says it is very different from the Israeli culture.
He said, “Ethiopia was good, Israel not so good.”
“In my culture, everything has value. We take good care of the things we own, making sure they last a long time. And if something is broken, we don’t run to replace it. We fix it.”
“Family comes first. I look to see if my brother needs something and I am there to help him. If my father needs my help I am there without him having to ask. And I know my brother and father are there for me.”
“And if a person is broken, we don’t throw him away and get a new one, we try to fix him.”
“But Israeli society? Everyone needs a phone in each pocket, many cars, many or big houses. And when something breaks they throw it away. There is too much of all of those things and they have lost their value.”
“And because of this they feel the same way about people. If someone doesn’t serve ‘my’ purpose I don’t need him. He just stands in my way. In a disposable society, when you throw something away that is still good, it’s easy to throw people away too.”
“In Israel there are all little groups that keep to themselves and view everyone else as their own little group. The French. The Chareidim. The Russians. The Ethiopians. The Americans. The Secular. It seems that only the Holocaust unites us. Everyone can stand behind that.”
“When the Ethiopian community demonstrates in front of the government to help us solve some of the issues facing our community we are so few in number and we stand alone. How much attention do they have to pay to a few hundred people? But if society realized that the problems of some us are the problems of all of us, we would all stand together and be noticed and the government would have no choice but to fix things.’
“The same for The Russians and all the other groups. Aren’t we all family?”
Yermi concluded with a sad smile. “Helping is not just giving money or saying kol hakvod. Helping is recognizing each other and being involved in each other’s lives. Family first.”