The Art of Living

How Ethiopian Israelis became Masters of Living on Less

There is an art to living on 2500 shekels a month, and many within the Ethiopian community in Israel are masters of it, virtuoso artists of the miniature. “The average Ethiopian family?” says Shula Mola, chairman of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. “They’re economic geniuses!”

The first rule of the art: absolute clarity. Know exactly what you have, what you owe, and what you need—and, whatever the price, don’t go into debt. When the first of the month rolls around, every bill must be paid: the mortgage, the electricity, the water, and the gas. Never leave bills until later. Why should there be any more money later than there is now? Later there will only be the knock on the door from the bureau of reclamation.

After the bills, there is one more sum that must be set aside: money for wedding gifts and to contribute to the expense mourning gatherings. This is the fee for keeping up one’s membership in good standing in the Ethiopian community where attendance and financial participation in the life cycle events of a wide circle of extended family and friends is not an option, but a necessity.

Only after all this comes the time to think about food. Here, the most essential purchase is the Ethiopian community’s secret weapon: Teff. “The whole community lives from Teff”, says Wonde Akale, a 41 year old community activist who works for the office of Yedid in Ashdod. “Without Teff, we wouldn’t be able to make it. We’d be going hungry in the streets.”

Teff is a grain—high in protein and in iron-- that grows only in Ethiopia. Ground into flour, fermented, and baked into a sourdough, pancake-shaped bread called injera, it is the staple food. Over the past five or six years, teff has become increasingly available in Israel, brought over by several dozen Ethiopian-Israeli entrepreneurs. Virtually the entire adult Ethiopian community eats teff-flour injera at just about every meal. “We buy a sixty kilo sack for three hundred shekels and that can last for a month or two, ” says Yosef Tezazu, a handsome, mustachioed Kiryat Malachi resident who came to Israel 23 years ago.

The rest of the food budget is allocated next. Meat is often procured collectively. Ten or fifteen families pitch in a few hundred shekel and a cow is bought and slaughtered by a rabbi or Ethiopian kes. Every adult Ethiopian knows how to butcher an animal “better than the most expert surgeons”, Tezzazu tells me. “The meat we get for a few hundred shekel would cost a thousand in the supermarket, and half of it would be ice.”

There is one more major food expense: that of the children. Ethiopian-Israeli children, as a rule, don’t eat the injera that allows their parents to survive here—their mothers run a children’s kitchen with a separate, and very limited menu—pita with chocolate spread or humus, and the occasional frozen schnitzel.

Clothes? Bought in the shuk, almost never in a store. Telephone? 60 to 70 percent of Ethiopian families, it is estimated, pay a small monthly phone fee that leaves the phone working only for incoming calls. Electricity? Appliances are turned on only at night, when rates are cheaper. There is pride in the accomplishment of surviving in Israel, like learning to swim, discovering exactly which motions will propel you successfully towards the next month. “ A lot of life-wisdom is involved,” says Tazzazu. “If our attitude towards money were those of the average Israeli, we wouldn’t last a week.”

“Sociologists talk about the culture of poverty,” says David Meherat, a Kiryat Gat resident and an advisor to the Minister of Education on Ethiopian affairs. “There is no culture of poverty among those who grew up in Ethiopia. If you ask most Ethiopians, even those getting by on 2500 or 3000 shekels a month, if they think of themselves as poor, they’ll say ‘By no means’. And the day they answer yes? That will be catastrophic.” “Ethiopians here will not say I am poor, because in Ethiopia that meant: I have nothing,” says Akale. I have given up on my honor and am ready to be a beggar. You have to be in danger of dying of hunger before that happens.”

Here, people are not dying of hunger, and yet despite their resistance to labels, many in the Ethiopian community are finding ways to define the price of economic conditions here in Israel. “In Ethiopia, poverty was felt in the belly,” says Akale, “Here, poverty affects primarly the head.”

“In an Ethiopian village you might not have anything to eat, but your mind is clear and free. You don’t have to worry about the reclamation bureau. Maybe you didn’t eat, but nobody is going to throw you out of your home. You have neighbors who can give you a loan, without interest. Or you can bring something from the village to the city and sell it. This leaves people with fewer worries. Suicides and divorces over money—I didn’t see any over there. Here, your mind becomes filled with strain and nervous tension. I’ve seen a lot of suicides and broken families that are the result of these pressures.”

“The economic situation creates a lot of pressure,” agrees Shula Mola. “People are in terror of being thrown out of their apartment, of having the electricity or the water turned off. And when the slightest thing goes wrong—say the refrigerator breaks down—it’s tragic. A 200 shekel repair job is like a hole that is impossible to fill.

Poverty that finds its most immediate expression in the mind eventually affects the body as well. Dr. Anat Yaffe, an endocrinologist and one of the founders of “Tene”, an organization dedicated to raising the standards of health care for Ethiopians in Israel, recently finished a major study of health conditions among the Ethiopian population. Although Ethiopian immigrants had virtually no incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol when they arrived in Israel today these conditions are rampant—in the case of diabetes and high blood pressure, 2 to 3 times higher than for the rest of the Israeli population. Ethiopians also experience a substantially higher rate of asthma and of depression than the general population.

Although she is still completing her analysis, Yaffe sees the Ethiopian population’s health crisis as directly related to their economic situation. Diabetes and high blood pressure are chronic conditions typical of poor populations living in western urban societies, where a high carbohydrate diet, lack of exercise, and continuous economic worries combine to push blood sugar and pressure levels out of whack. Yaffe is sure that the combination of high incidence of chronic illnesses and deficient treatment will eventually take its toll on Ethiopian immigrants in terms of blindness, stroke, heart disease, and mortality rates.

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When Ethiopian olim compare their economic situation in Israel to the one they left behind in Ethiopia, they often site two major advantages to life in Ethiopia: the independence they had, and the social solidarity that provided them with a substantial cushion against poverty.

“Even if you think we had nothing, I tell you we were our own masters,” is a refrain heard repeatedly. Everyone—except the victims of war, drought or natural disaster--had readily available shelter, access to land and to water, and at least a few oxen, sheep or goats. The families’ own resources provided nearly everything they needed. If you failed in one area, it was fairly easy to pull yourself up and move to another area, where land was readily available.

Here in Israel, many Ethiopians report feeling like “Oxen in a yoke”, stuck in jobs that pay minimum wage, with bosses who think nothing of humiliating them. For unskilled or semi-skilled workers with no savings, economic conditions mean that you have to keep working lest your belongings be repossessed, but at the same time, you have no job security. “In Africa, everyone had his own life, his own land, his own will”, says Legasa Tezazu, 74 years old from Kiryat Gat, who played a key role in opening up the route to Israel via Sudan. “No one sat on your head. People were sensitive to each other’s honor. In Ethiopia, our brains had a role. Now, if we do work, we just wait for someone to tell us what to do.”

In Ethiopia, social solidarity networks supported the kind of independence that people now look back on so nostalgically. These circles of support were so real that they “made you feel as if you had what you needed even if you didn’t”, says Yosef Tazazzu. As in many rural societies, neighbors or extended family would periodically devote a day of work to each other’s needs—all the neighbors gathering in one person’s fields for weeding, plowing, or harvesting one day, and at another neighbor’s house the next day. If a family needed housing, a group of relatives or friends would band together and help them build one. Nearly every act of work or consumption had an element of social solidarity in it. “I remember that every time we slaughtered an animal, we gave a quarter of the meat to our neighbors,” says David Meherat. “There was no such thing as eating alone.”

Here in Israel, help from the extended family can be expected in times of extreme crisis—a house burns down, a kidney transplant is needed. Ethiopians know how to respond to emergencies: when the extent of the famine in parts of Ethiopia became known two years ago in Israel, the community, in all its poverty, quickly raised over 300,000 shekels in contributions of 10 or 20 shekels a person. But on the day- to- day level of economic hardship, few are in position to help others with the continuous march of bills. Still, organizations modeled after patterns of self-help that existed in Ethiopia--everything from free loan societies to neighborhood watch groups--are beginning to emerge in Israel. “Self help groups were out of fashion for a long time,” says Shula Mola, “because they were considered to belong to there. Now they are coming back into vogue, as is everything Ethiopian.”

If family connections remain at least a symbolic source of strength for the Ethiopian community in Israel, the link between generations is their greatest source of vulnerability. The younger generation of Ethiopians, those growing up in Israel, don’t share their parents pride in knowing how to make do with little. What parents see as survival tactics, children interpret as miserliness. “The children have completely Israeli eyes,” says Tezazu. “They want what their friends have, what they see on television. What hurts most is when I can’t give my children what I know they should have—money for a school outing, for extracurricular activities, to buy a computer or connect to the Internet”

“In Ethiopia, your economic situation did not affect your children’s ability to develop, to learn, to have a future. Here it does. That is a most significant difference between Israel and Ethiopia,” says Meheret. “Ethiopian children who realize that they are not getting what they should, what other children are getting, feel alienated from society.” “They attribute not having what they see that other children have to being Ethiopian,” adds Mola.

Having spent some time in Ethiopia myself, I think that it is entirely possible that Ethiopians in Israel are exaggerating the ease and pleasure of life in the Ethiopian village. “Where were people healthier?” I ask Lagasa Tezazu, his cousin Yosef, and Yosef’s wife Tefato, “In Ethiopia,” they all agree emphatically, “ people were as healthy as oxen. “But weren’t there infectious diseases that killed you there?” I insist. “Yes, there were,” answers Tefata. “But if you died, you died, and if you lived, you lived and were healthy. There weren’t people who lived all the time on medicines, like half of the Ethiopians here, with high blood pressure and cholesterol and diabetes.”

“And famine?” Here I turned towards Lagasa, the eldest of the group. “Weren’t their times of drought and terrible famine?”

“Not where the Jews lived,” he insisted, implying that the mere presence of Jews brought blessing to the region. “Wherever the Jews lived there was always enough rain.”

Eskimos, the linguists tell us, have 50 words for snow that describe all the subtleties of textures and settings. We have a poverty of language about poverty. As streams of immigrants arrive from distant lands, as jobs that were once necessary become outdated, and money is horded and monopolized in new ways, we need to develop a vocabulary through which we can recognize the situations and conditions that are created. We need a word that describes people who pay all their bills on time because they are afraid of having their possessions taken away. We need a special word for those who survive with dignity on 2500 shekels a month. We need one that means “nostalgia for the independence and togetherness of the rural village”. And we need a word for people who don’t consider themselves poor—until they think about their children.