Jews of Color have never been invisible yet whoever saw one? I suspect many of us have without realizing it. The invisible Jew is an old story, one I can speak to from personal experience.
I had never met a Jewish Ethiopian until I saw Yefet nonchalantly walking down a road in Eilat, Israel; the year was 1959. That was seven decades ago, a time when he was quite an anomaly in town, thereby affording him celebrity status.
Situated at the southernmost tip of Israel, Eilat was a proverbial one-camel town. There was just one hotel which was situated on the north end of the beach overlooking the Red Sea. It was appropriately named Malon Eilat (Hotel Eilat). The streets were unpaved, with not a single traffic light in sight. It was not unusual to see a camel or two pace their way across the runway of the town’s primitive airstrip, serviced only by Arkia Airlines. So, how did Yefet end up in that remote haven of sun and fun?
Here is the back story. Yefet was a Jewish Ethiopian who had made aliya from Sudan, which is referred to as Cush in the Torah. Unlike most of his newfound neighbors he was polyglot; he spoke Amharic, English, Arabic, Italian and French. He was amiable, unassuming, and reserved. When he spoke, he spoke softly and purposefully; his Hebrew and English carried a distinct Amharic accent. That along with his kindly demeanor, was just one of his many endearing qualities.
I cannot imagine what he must have felt like to have finally settled in the land of his ancestors after his kinsmen had been isolated from the greater Jewish communities of the Middle East and Europe during centuries in exile. He immigrated to Israel twenty-five years before the great aliya of Israel’s miraculous mission bringing Ethiopian Jews home in what is known as, ‘Operation Moses.’ The operation was carried out by IDF and Mossad operatives who rescued 8,000 of our Jewish brethren from the Republic of Sudan, whose newly formed government ushered in growing anti-Semitism.
I can still picture Yefet, strolling down the dusty streets of Eilat, having forsaken the traditional Gabi, for a white fedora, khaki slacks, and a white short sleeved shirt. His presence was a rare sight for vacationing European and American visitors seeking refuge from their harsh winters on the shores of the Red Sea. The beach, sand and sea had drawn them to the clear waters of Hof Almogim, (Coral Beach), a scuba diver’s paradise. But in a brief time, Yefet became just another one of the adventurous souls who hung out with all the other ‘regulars’ at the only gin-joint in town, Café Sof Olam, appropriately translated to The End of the World Café.
The last time I saw Yefet he was hanging out at the old seaport (HaNamal) waiting to pick up work as a stevedore or fisherman, I was never sure which one it was. It has been over 60 years and I can still see him, his hat, slacks, and white shirt, the first Ethiopian Jew, I had ever met. I wonder if Yefet would remember me today, as I was just one of many faces that blended into the prevailing culture. And given his background, having been born and raised in an Ethiopian Jewish community, I wonder when we first met if I appeared as an invisible Jew to him?
I do not know what happened to Yefet but this I do know: today there are over 125,000 Jews of Ethiopian lineages living in Israel, serving in every facet of Israeli society, and glad to have finally come home.