When it comes to the Ethiopian experience in Israel, anthropologist and writer Naomi Shmuel has a unique perspective, as a British-born Israeli married to an Ethiopian-born husband, Emmanuel Shmuel, for the last 34 years.
“I’m a little bit of an insider, and a little bit of an outsider,” said Shmuel. “It gives me more of an insight into what’s happening with the Ethiopian community.”
Shmuel will speak about her connection to the Ethiopian community on Monday, November 16, as part of Beit Avi Chai’s digital celebration of Sigd, the Ethiopian Jewish holiday, marked through November 18 on the cultural institution’s website.
Beit Avi Chai’s menu of online events, which are free of charge, include performances of Ethiopian Israeli music, and by spoken word artist Orit Tashoma, as well as a children’s workshop, and recipes of traditional food served at Sigd.
Sigd, which is marked 50 days after Yom Kippur, was established as a national holiday by the Knesset in 2008, and is celebrated on the Jewish date of the 29th of Heshvan.
Shmuel was 21 and a recent anthropology graduate when she came to Israel from England in 1983, and went to volunteer at the Kiryat Gat absorption center during the same month as Emmanuel Shmuel, a young Ethiopian man who had recently immigrated to Israel.
The two became friends and married in 1986.
“We were welcomed everywhere in Kiryat Gat,” said Shmuel. “The whole absorption center made our wedding for us.”
The couple moved to the Jerusalem area and had four children, which brought Shmuel to writing children’s books featuring “brown children,” she said, the first books in Israel to represent children of color. She ended up writing 15 more, 13 for kids and three for adults.
Her children’s experiences created the impetus for Shmuel to create the picture books for them, inspired by their own experiences with prejudice and racism.
Eventually, Shmuel found her way back to anthropology, earning a PhD in intergenerational relations and transfer of culture and cultural heritage, which included conducting research about the Ethiopian community, and the struggles Ethiopian immigrants have in Israel. She also trained as a parental counselor for the Ethiopian community, part of her commitment to giving back and helping the community that she has been part of for nearly 40 years.
“It took me a very long time to feel comfortable conducting the research in the Ethiopian community, but I became more aware of the intergenerational split in the community,” said Shmuel. “I wanted to understand more about it.”