Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A basket of history

Going to fight the throngs at Universal Studio's Island of Adventures today. What we do in the name of parenthood! Have a great day... I will probably not post again until Friday. Until then, be well and enjoy Boxing Day!

Telling Our Story

A number of Ethiopian Israeli potters, embroiderers and basket weavers continue creating their ancient crafts, defying acculturation and lack of respect by other Ethiopians. But how long can they sustain their distinctive art when they’ve lost their traditional way of life?
by Ruth Mason

In and around her village of Burgmaski in Ethiopia, Tasmaj Mengistu was well-known for the strong and beautiful clay pots she made. They fetched higher than usual prices from villagers for miles around who use clay vessels for cooking and storage. Like all rural Ethiopian Jewish women, Mengistu dug and made her own clay in a laborious, muddy process and fired the pots herself in an outdoor pit. But unlike most of them, in addition to using the pots she made for her daily needs, she earned her living -- and fed her 15 children -- from her craft.

Mengistu learned how to make pottery by watching her mother and grandmother, as did Ethiopian Jewish women for centuries before her. When she was a girl, Mengistu says: “My mother would make a pot without the neck and leave it to go to the market. When she came back, I would have shaped the neck and finished it.”

When she came to Israel with her family during operation Moses in 1985, Mengistu was lucky to be assigned a ground floor apartment in the absorption center in Mevasseret Zion. There, she could sit on the ground, as was her custom in her native land, and shape and fire her pots. She found that in Israel, the best clay could be dug in the ground of the Negev desert. Her small bedroom in the absorption center overflowed with clay jars, jugs, pots and pitchers. She sold some of her work when the immigrants first arrived and interest was high. Then sales plummeted. But Mengistu kept working. It was what she knew and what she loved.

Three years ago, Mengistu’s family moved to an apartment on a higher floor in Petach Tikvah. While she still embroiders, weaves baskets and does other crafts with what one Israeli ceramicist calls her “magic hands,” Mengistu no longer has access to the outdoor environment she needs to practice her ancient craft.

Like Mengistu’s pottery, traditional Ethiopian Jewish women’s arts and crafts -- clay household utensils (jugs, pots) as well as decorative and sculptural pottery; intricate, colorful embroidery, and colorful woven baskets -- are on the verge of extinction. Almost the entire population of Ethiopian Jews is now in Israel and many factors contribute to the dwindling of traditional crafts. While there are small heroic efforts nurtured by a few passionate people around the country, and while there have been many museum exhibits, most Ethiopian women no longer practice the crafts that were so much a part of their lives in Ethiopia.

Many factors contribute to the dwindling of traditional crafts. Observers say it is a complex subject, fraught with ambivalence.

In Ethiopia, every Jewish woman who lived in a village, as most of them did, practiced some craft out of necessity. Jewish men in Ethiopia were also the ones in the society who did skilled handwork: church paintings, soldering, weaving, and blacksmithing. It was because of their association with fire and ash, that the Jews were called buda, and were feared and hated. It’s not surprising then, that most Beta Yisrael, as the Ethiopian Jews call themselves, have mixed feelings about their traditional crafts.

“In Ethiopia this wasn’t seen as art or even as craft,” says Shula Mola, a young Ethiopian Israeli leader. “It wasn’t for art’s sake; it was for household use and to earn a living.” Mola remembers having to wake up early to prepare the clay for her mother before she went to school. “It was looked down upon,” she says. “There was a stigma attached to it. It was the work of Jews. Working the land was work of a high status, but most Jews in Ethiopia didn’t own land. That’s why they were forced to work in crafts which the non-Jews wouldn’t touch.”

What we think of as folk art was not done for self-expression, Mola explains. “Women expressed themselves in other ways, either as wise women who were looked up to and sought out for advice to solve problems, or as traditional spiritual healers,” she says.

Tenat Awaka, one of the most highly regarded Ethiopian potters in Israel, feels the lack of status and respect in her own life. While she has been encouraged and supported by Israelis and American Jews who value her work, most Ethiopians don’t appreciate it. “They say: ‘It wasn’t enough she got herself dirty in Ethiopia, she has to get herself dirty here, too?’ It’s seen as shameful, as low status. But I love it. I’ve exhibited in places where I’ve been the one Ethiopian out of 15 Israelis.

I get honor from my work -- but not from Ethiopians.”

Awaka, who ran away from her husband’s home after she was married at age seven, was raised by her grandparents. She learned to make pottery by watching her grandmother. “I would steal clay from her and take it outside where she wouldn’t see me,” she recalls. “I made a sheep, then a monkey, then a woman nursing a baby and sold them to tourists. I didn’t show her the money. When I finally told her what I was up to, I said I wanted to go to school half-time and work half-time and she said O.K.”

Awaka is unusual in that she taught pottery in Ethiopia, first at an ORT school and later in a non-Jewish Ethiopian school. The vast majority of Jewish women did not work outside the home. The principal of the latter school so valued her work that he did not give her the letters that arrived from home saying her family was preparing to go to Sudan so they could be taken to Israel. When she came home and found no one there, she nearly went crazy, she says. She tried to follow them to the Sudan, walking 14 days to get there, but when she arrived, she found her family had been flown to Israel the day before. Awaka went back to Ethiopia and eventually married and had a child, spending nearly two years in Addis Ababa before being able to join her family in Israel.

Today, Awaka is one of several Ethiopian women around the country doing clay sculpture. Like most of them, she sculpts scenes from the Bible or from her life in Ethiopia, scenes that serve to both express her ties to her past and to illustrate to Israelis and others what Ethiopian Jewish life was like. Sometimes, Awaka says, she likes to sculpt her dreams. Her charming male and female figurines, solitary and interacting in groups, are based on a cylindrical body upon which a large head rests. Her large jugs are decorated with simple etched geometric patterns and some of the lidded pots are topped with sculptured bird figures (symbolizing the longing for Jerusalem). Like the other artists, Awaka works with low-fire clay that remains unglazed. Unlike the others, she uses a modern potter’s wheel. She also weaves baskets.

Esti Rozman, an artist who headed a American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) project to encourage Ethiopian artists after Operation Solomon, says Ethiopian Jewish art transmits a lot of information about their culture and values. It’s a way to understand a people who came from a completely different world. She refers to Awaka’s sculpture of a cow with a full udder and under it a calf and a human baby. “Children in Ethiopia would go to the cow and take a shluk,” she says. “When there’s a cow at home, there is everything.”

Rozman is typical of the handful of Israeli women who have made it their life’s work to preserve and encourage Ethiopian art in Israel. She feels a deep attraction for the Ethiopians and their culture. “There’s something about them that is so beautiful, so basic; it arouses feelings of longing,” she says.

Awaka is part of a group of eight talented women potters represented by Dorit Katzir from the village of Klil in northern Israel. Katzir fell in love with Ethiopian Jewish folk art when she worked at a gallery and studio established in Chatzrot Yassaf, the biggest of the caravan (trailer home) sites set up for the initial absorption of the large Ethiopian aliyah. When the caravan site closed down, Katzir took eight potters under her wing and looked high and low for support for them to continue their work. When all her attempts to find funds and sponsors failed, she used her last two months’ salary from a teaching job to open a small gallery in her home.

Katzir travels throughout the north where the women now live -- bringing them clay, taking their work to be fired and marketing it. “I’m collapsing,” she says. “But the satisfaction is tremendous. The quality of their work is on an international level. There isn’t very much written about Ethiopian Jewish life. These women tell in clay the untold story of a community.” Like many who work with Ethiopians, Katzir has fallen in love. “We’re like soul sisters,” she says. “They call me ema (mother).”

Esther David, 28, is one of two younger Ethiopian women who make pottery in Israel today, and both she and her mother, Ude, are in Katzir’s group. With the move to Israel, Ethiopian women have stopped teaching their daughters pottery. Says Belaynesh Ferdu, a potter who lives in Lod: “I don’t want my kids to do it. I want them to study so they have a good future and can earn a living.”

David began working in clay a few years ago, after her children were born, in order to supplement the family’s income. “In Ethiopia, I did it as a game,” she says. “I copied my mother but I didn’t do it seriously. But after I started having children, I needed the money, so I sat with my mother and I began. I succeeded.”

David’s work depicts kessim (the Ethiopian equivalent of a rabbi), women giving birth (they kneel on the floor), men playing traditional musical instruments, women carrying water from the well, the special tukul (hut) used by menstruating women, and other scenes of Jewish village life in Ethiopia. “All are about life in Ethiopia,” she says.

She chooses these topics, she explains, because it does her good to show and express what she knows and what she experienced. “And also, people buy it because they want to know our story,” David says. “It represents our culture. With your tools and your skill, you can show people what [Ethiopian Jewish] life was like. If we don’t pass this on to our children, it will disappear. It’s really a shame.”

David says she and her mother work when there is clay, but it isn’t always available. “Dorit brings us clay when she has orders,” she says. “But today, it’s hard to sell. There are no tourists.”

Belaynesh Ferdu’s pieces also tell the story of Jewish life in Ethiopia -- a life that has just about vanished. She shows us a kes holding a Torah scroll, and a woman carrying a water jug. She also brings a ceramic “love box” or “Solomon’s box” (depicting King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba). When you take off the cover, you see a man and woman lying down and embracing. According to Ferdu, this little box has taken the place of the margam godjo (house of the curse), the menstruating hut. The box sits by the couple’s bed, she says, and is closed when the woman has her period and is left open when she doesn’t. (Others say the box can be used by couples to indicate if one of them wants to make love: If the offer is accepted the box is left open.) Ferdu creates three or four items a day and enjoys the work, she says, “because it’s traditional. I make things that show the way of life in Ethiopia so we don’t forget it.”

While making pottery and small clay figurines (which resemble archeological finds in ancient Israel and are seen as proof of the community’s direct link with their forbears) was a traditional art form for Jews in Ethiopia, the types of clay sculptures made by Ferdu began appearing with the first tourists to Jewish areas in the 1950s, when Ethiopian Jewish women realized they could use their talents to sell figurines depicting village life.

Tadfaleche Ayaleyu sits on a cushioned bench and embroiders tiny stitches in a strip she is working on that will be part of a tablecloth. While her work is tedious and meticulous, Ayaleyu has the serene and deeply calm look of many Ethiopian women. She is one of hundreds of women around the country (sometimes up to 1,000 when there is a big order) who embroider for Almaz, an Ethiopian handicrafts workshop that turns their traditional embroidery skills into a marketable commodity. Almaz, which means diamond in Amharic, Russian and Arabic, is the most enduring. Although it is struggling, perhaps the most successful of the handful of projects that encourage Ethiopian folk arts.

Begun 12 years ago by Mickey Shapiro, a woman with a mission, at its height, Almaz employed 20 full-time seamstresses. Now there are nine full-time workers making clothes and other items from the pieces embroidered by Ethiopian women in their homes. Ayaleyu usually works at home, but she comes to the Almaz workshop today with two other women – a potter and a weaver of the colorful woven baskets used by Ethiopians for storage -- to show their work to Na’amat Woman.

Ayaleyu, who is in her 60s, has been embroidering since the age of 20. She learned from a friend. Her mother had a different skill – she specialized in spinning cotton. In Ethiopia, she explains, embroidery was used to decorate bridal clothes, tablecloths and bedspreads. “Embroidery is knowledge and skill and I enjoy it,” she says through an interpreter. “It frees my mind and helps me think about other things.”

Aviva Rachamim, an Ethiopian staff member at Almaz who is interpreting for the women, says they do their crafts to keep tradition, to make money and “to teach a new culture about our ways.”

It was with these three goals in mind that fashion and fabric designer Shapiro founded Almaz after Operation Solomon. “It started with the fact that I love Ethiopians,” she says. “In 1992, I saw the new aliyah and it touched my heart. I saw an opportunity to fulfill my dream of starting an ethnic fashions project with Ethiopians. I foresaw the tragedy that could happen to these people if they didn’t have honorable work.” Almaz currently provides a livelihood for 100 Ethiopian families.

The front room of the two-room bungalow that serves as Almaz’s workshop in Lod is filled with wall hangings, embroidered mezuzot, racks of embroidered dresses and cubbies full of embroidered challah covers, shirts and tablecloths. Shapiro designs the items based on traditional Ethiopian Jewish patterns and they are sold by order (an order for 4,000 tablecloths has just come in from the workers’ committee of the Ports Authority for holiday gifts) at the plant and in their small store in Tel Aviv. Originally supported by the JDC, Almaz gets government funding and sells about a half a million shekels worth of goods a year.

“Most Ethiopian women who work get unskilled, low paying jobs,” says Shapiro. “We get the women out of the house, give them paying work that uses their talents -- and the children of these women do better in school. It was a struggle, because people tell the women that if they go out to work, they’ll lose their social benefits. But we give them something else: self-respect. In addition to providing salaries, we make them into better citizens.”

Along with Almaz and Dorit Katzir’s group, several other initiatives encourage Ethiopian traditional arts. In Beersheva, which has the largest Ethiopian population in Israel, the Taubel Community Center provides space and material for potters. Tova Mered, the director of this Ethiopian Jewish Handicrafts Workshop at Taubel, says that because of the stigma associated with it, it took a long time to even get the women to admit that they could do pottery. Today, they teach their traditional methods to Israelis. There is also a group of Ethiopian women potters in Netivot which sells their work to Almaz, among other places. Another is Esra, an organization of English-speaking immigrants in the center of the country.

NA’AMAT's Umanit School for Arts and Crafts in Karmiel, where there is a sizeable Ethiopian population, runs a workshop for 12 Ethiopian women. Here they work with clay and produce the typical Ethiopian figurines. "We also introduce them to different types of materials and techniques," says Edith Abaud, chairperson of Na'amat in Karmiel. "We feel it's important to preserve the activities they were used to doing in Ethiopia. We also include single mothers and we speak in Hebrew during the workshop. It's another attempt to ease their social integration." Na'amat also runs a support group for 15 Ethiopian single mothers that includes workshops in various art forms, she adds.

In general, these efforts get little support. And while the Israeli women behind them work tirelessly to advance and preserve an endangered art form, their efforts are a drop in the bucket.

One type of traditional Ethiopian craft has already disappeared. The small, crude figurines, which were featured in a Beersheva Museum exhibit in 1993 where they were compared with archeological finds from ancient Israel, are no longer being made, says Galia Gavish, who was the museum’s director and the curator of the exhibit.

But perhaps new hope is springing up in the form of young, Israeli-trained Ethiopian artists. While they don’t engage in the traditional folk arts, they feel powerfully tied to their tradition.

Zemen Gedamu, 24, who is a first-year student at Shenkar School of Fashion Design in Tel Aviv, explores Ethiopian themes in all her art work. Although she left Ethiopia at five, she has “sweet memories,” she says. “We are an amazing community that preserved itself for thousands of years and is now going to ruin. For me, drawing things I remember from life in Ethiopia and from the memories of the traumatic trek to and stay in Sudan is a kind of therapy. It’s what I have that’s unique and it always finds its way into my work. I am pulled by the beauty and by the pain.”

Does she think she will use Ethiopian Jewish themes in her fashion designs?

“I don’t think, I know, I will,” she says. “It’s my chance to bring out things from our culture that haven’t been seen.”

Gedamu and other young Ethiopian artists whose art depicts their roots are defying the forces of acculturation that, despite lip service paid to preserving a rich and ancient culture, push toward modernization.

“It’s taken the Moroccans and the Tunisians 50 years of being cut off from their rich and beautiful culture to go back and search for their roots,” says Tova Mered. “With the Ethiopians, we have an opportunity to circumvent that process. But I suppose we’re not yet mature enough as a culture to be able to create a bridge between the past and the future.”

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