A few years ago, I spent the night on a layover in the Addis Ababa airport. In the gate next to mine, a group of 40 Ethiopians sat, waiting for their flight to Israel to board. The group ranged from babies to elders, and they stood out to me (a Canadian, dressed down for flying in comfortable pants and t-shirt) not just for their formal clothing, bright colours on white, but because a current of anxious energy ran through the group. I learned that not only were they all making aliyah, but that this would be a first plane ride for each of them. The thrumming emotion I witnessed was fear, loss, sadness, joy, and excitement.
Even though these Ethiopian olim weren’t making a literal transition from slavery to freedom, their leaving behind the oppressive familiar to embrace expansive hope struck a chord in me. Whenever a group of Jews leaves a country that has curtailed their religious, social, and political freedoms, I think it offers Jews around the world a new lens through which to consider our ancient Exodus.
Passover offers us the chance to revive and relive the first aliyah experience, reading ourselves into the biblical text. During the seder, we narrate the details of our oppression and our liberation, and then sing Dayenu, cycling through the many wonders lavished on us by God. We presume a happily-ever-after after liberation, and conclude the seder with ‘Be’Shanah Ha’Ba’ah Be’Yerushalayim’. And we forget to ask what life is like in the holy land, once next year has folded over into this one.
That evening in Addis Ababa, the olim boarded their flight to Tel Aviv and I boarded mine, on my way to Kampala, Uganda. Several weeks later, I passed through the Addis Ababa airport again, this time on my own flight to Israel to spend a few weeks with the Ethiopian community of Kiryat Moshe. There, I met Ethiopian Jews who had made aliyah in years past. These immigrants had had time to integrate into Israeli society, but in many cases, time was not what they needed. I heard stories from Ethiopian teenagers – themselves born in Israel, as it was their parents who had made aliyah – who, because of their skin colour, were mocked and bullied and told to ‘go home’. I learned from them about the variegated racism and discrimination that many immigrants of colour to Israel experience, as they struggle to find home in a Jewish society that shares the same religious identity, but often very different ways of seeing and performing Judaism.
There is a clear frustration with otherness in Israel, and a perception of encroachment on a geography that is open homeland to some but less to others. Is this simply racism? Or are some of us hesitant to welcome a community that carries with it the stains of a recent liberation?
It is a difficult reality that immigrants who move to a new home are still, in many ways, chained to the past; sometimes they are chained to trauma, sometimes to tradition, and sometimes these chains also ensure a comforting and necessary connection to past and present native communities. The rabbis of the Talmud recognized the weightiness of chains; they expressed the belief that the children of Israel were made to wander in the desert for forty years after the Exodus in order that the enslaved generation would have time to die off. The generation that would actually enter Israel would thus theoretically be free from the chains and memories of slavery.
What does the newly-arrived ‘other’ evoke? An echo of trauma in our own past that’s not long-buried? A reminder that we were all chained once, and that in many ways, many of us are still weighted down?
This year, sitting down in community together at the Passover seder, I hope for the clarity to examine the constraints of my own and others’ freedom, the bravery to ask what happens after, and the strength to hold myself accountable to the answers.
Ora Nitkin-Kaner grew up in Toronto, Ontario. After receiving her BA and MA in Religion from the University of Toronto, she moved to New Orleans to participate in AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, working with wrongfully incarcerated and exonerated men. In 2011, Ora moved to Philadelphia to begin rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. This past summer, she led a college service-learning program to India, and she currently spends Fridays working as a chaplain-in-training at an elders’ residence in New Jersey.