Through the deserts of Africa to the hallowed earth of Israel and Ground Zero, meet an Ethiopian Jew with a truly incredible life story.
Sipping chai among a sea of baby strollers and Times readers at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on a Sunday morning in spring, Avishai Mekonen is your prototypical Upper West Side dad, clad in a weathered baseball cap, crisp polo shirt and a five o’clock shadow. The only thing remotely unordinary about this slight, cheery 39-year-old emerges when he smiles—revealing an unusually-late-in-life set of shiny braces—and when he speaks, softly and carefully, with a faint accent that is difficult to place.
But the story of how Mekonen came to be a Manhattan father is not shared by many of his neighbors. It begins one quiet, pitch-black night in 1983 in a mountainous village of northern Ethiopia, when Mekonen’s parents woke him and his siblings suddenly, announcing that it was time to depart for the Holy Land.
Casually leaning back in his chair, Mekonen recounts his tale with a wide-eyed sense of wonder, as if he’s telling someone else’s story, not his own.
“That night I just remember running,” says Mekonen, who was ten at the time. “No time to catch your breath, just running, because you want to be gone from the village before the sun comes up.”
Unlike the millions of New York immigrants who have come here fleeing tragedy or persecution, though, Mekonen and his family weren’t running away; they were running toward something, making good on a promise to fulfill an age-old prophecy.
They were among a population of fewer than 100,000 black Jews living in Ethiopia’s remote Wegera region, in the country’s northwest, where their ancestors had resided since biblical times. While there is significant debate about how and when Jews first came to Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community, as it is known, dates to at least the early first millennium and has been genetically linked to Jews elsewhere in the Middle East.
Following World War II, a handful of Ethiopian Jews managed to emigrate to Israel. They began lobbying the government there to officially recognize the Beta Israel as Jews so that others could join them under Israel’s Law of Return, which allows anyone of Jewish ancestry to emigrate.
That right was granted by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1975, and the news trickled toward Sant Tacom just as a new communist military-led government was making life for Ethiopian Jews increasingly difficult. Anti-Semitism was on the rise, a policy of forced cooperatives resulted in much of their farmland being confiscated, and many young boys were taken from their families and conscripted into the army. The government made it hard for anyone to leave the country at that time, and Arab allies compelled officials to prevent Jews from departing for Israel.
After considerable debate about the Ethiopians’ authenticity as Jews, Israel had finally laid out the welcome mat—and that was all the encouragement that scores of Beta Israel needed. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, thousands of families began moving in secret toward the Sudanese border—a rumored fast-track to the Promised Land. The journey to Sudan, though, was four hundred miles long. Entire families, like the Mekonens, covered that distance on foot, crossing through barren deserts, thick forests and over craggy unforgiving earth, silently slipping out of a land they were not permitted to leave.
* * *
Gleefully stuffing a pastry into his face, Mekonen talks about “my journey” with the enthusiasm of a child recounting a storybook tale. Grinning and gesticulating even while relating frightening details, it’s clear that for him this is not a story of horror, but adventure.
“If you ask me how the journey was, the only memory I have is the dark,” he says. “When I’m talking about dark, I mean you can’t see anything. It’s jungle and we had no lights. We came from the village; we didn’t know what flashlights were. You’re just walking by hearing.”
Mekonen’s father, his pregnant mother, three brothers, and grandparents traveled with a group of one hundred Jews from surrounding villages. Reminiscent of the Underground Railroad, they stopped at friendly homes by day and navigated the jungle by night, guided by rebel fighters who had an intimate knowledge of the land from their years-long battle with the government there.
The rebels, however, were working for financial incentive only, and had little tolerance for those who would slow them down or put the group at risk. As they navigated the treacherous terrain, walkers slowed and at times even fell from mountain cliffs.
“There’s no talking,” Mekonen remembers. “We can’t even ask what’s going on, we just have to listen to them. If there was a baby crying, they would stuff something in his mouth. If one of our animals made noise they would shoot it. Sometimes at night someone would fall and there’s no time for stopping. You hear people screaming; then you would just hear someone yell to stop the screaming—you don’t know which family. Each morning before we go to sleep, they would count the people, and we would see the number shrinking.”
By the time the diminished group approached the Sudanese border, after several months of walking, at least a quarter of them were gone and the excitement of heading to Jerusalem had devolved into disease and desperation.
“The rebels wanted to take advantage of us before we got to Sudan,” Mekonen remembers, explaining that the guides gradually fleeced the travelers of their remaining goods and money before leaving them at the border.
“They said, ‘You don’t have any choice. You go back to the village, you’re going to go to jail.’ So when we reached the Sudan border we had nothing, because the rebels took everything. They just said, ‘This is the border,’ and left. We were alone in the desert. We didn’t have a plan about Sudan—we just had the plan to get to the Holy Land.”
* * *
Today, there are fewer than a thousand Ethiopian Jews in New York, according to Beejhy Barhany, a friend of Mekonen’s and a fellow Beta Israel who emigrated to New York fourteen years ago. Barhany, who shares Mekonen’s cheery, casual demeanor, runs the Beta Israel of North America Cultural Foundation, a nonprofit that provides assistance to Ethiopian Jews in the U.S. and organizes cultural events to foster understanding of the community.
One thousand people may not sound insignificant, but when thought about on a New York scale, it’s miniscule. In a city of 160,000 Romanian-Americans, 53,000 Bangladeshis, and 40,000 Scots, there are precious few New Yorkers who can say they only share a background with a few hundred others here.
What’s more, for people with such a distinct story, there is no tight-knit community of Ethiopian Jews in New York. “We’re spread out across the five boroughs,” says Barhany, who left Ethiopia with her own family when she was four. “And most of the Ethiopian Jews who come here are young—they don’t have whole extended families here. In Israel, we are a very close, united community. When you have a wedding there, you’re not going to have a hundred or two hundred people show up—you’re going to have a thousand or even more.”
In fact, Ethiopian Jews like Mekonen and Barhany are accustomed to a community so insular that pre-wedding tradition among the Beta Israel holds that families must count back seven generations to ensure that the two parties aren’t related.
“I love New York, but it’s impossible not to miss that community,” admits Mekonen, who is married to a non-Ethiopian Jew and now has two young children.
Barhany’s foundation and a few others organize observations for holidays such as Sigd, an autumn festival that is unique to Ethiopian Jews. But for the most part, the Beta Israel here don’t enjoy the type of community support available to other immigrant New Yorkers.
For Mekonen that missing connection is just one more burden atop the constant struggle of getting by in New York.
* * *
The weary, diminished group of refugees waited and waited until, finally, a platoon of Sudanese soldiers arrived and herded them into a truck. Only about seventy of the original one hundred travelers in Mekonen’s group remained when they crossed the border into Sudan.
The young Mekonen, still mesmerized by the arduous journey, was delighted when he saw their destination slowly form on the horizon: a vast pool of blue water, drinkable and surely cool. But the lake, it turned out, was a mere hallucination, fueled by hunger, thirst and the unstoppable desert heat.
Instead, the Mekonens and other families were paraded into a Red Cross refugee camp, its sea of white tents already overcrowded with those from other parts of Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere in Sudan. Malaria, starvation and other disease were rampant. Unable to leave, the penniless Beta Israel began to wonder why they had abandoned their homes and relative comfort of life in Ethiopia in the first place.
Eventually, Mekonen’s father was able to sell some of the clothes the family had brought from Ethiopia and pay a truck driver to smuggle the family into a less squalid camp near the northern Sudanese city of Qadarif. There, a small network of Ethiopian Jews who had left the country earlier were now working secretly with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence force, to identify Jews in the camps and help transport them to Israel. Dressed in traditional Sudanese clothing, the Ethiopian-Israeli agents delivered medicine to the Jewish families under the cloak of darkness, promising that they would help them reach Jerusalem.
The Mekonen family’s ordeal in Sudan, however, was far from over. Of all the memories he shares, all the hardships he endured, there is one that finally wipes the boyish grin from Mekonen’s face. He speaks almost inaudibly as he explains the ordeal, an unresolved layer of anguish clearly evident on his suddenly somber face.
In an episode he does not fully remember, or perhaps one he chooses to forget, Mekonen was kidnapped and taken to another camp. He remains hazy on the details, likely because he was drugged by his mysterious captors, who seemed intent on selling Mekonen and the other children there as slaves. Mekonen remembers watching in horror from behind a gate as a young girl attempted to escape the camp but was caught and torn to pieces by guard dogs.
“I didn’t know where I was or who had taken us there,” recalls Mekonen, whose family later told him that he had been missing for three weeks.
“There were kids all around me crying,” he says. “There were boys and girls. Kids from all different countries. I thought my parents were dead, that everyone had died.”
“The only thing I had to think about was the village I grew up in,” he continues. “There was a prayer my grandfather used to say every morning, thanking God for keeping us peaceful all night. So I would say that prayer to remember who I was.”
To this day, Mekonen cannot remember how he escaped from the camp. What he does know is that one of the Mossad agents found him disoriented on the streets of Qadarif and reunited him with his family.
By this point, in November of 1984, Israel had secured the cooperation of the Sudanese government—in secret, so as not to antagonize their Arab allies—to begin Operation Moses. Eventually, eight thousand Ethiopian Jews were airlifted out of the refugee camps and delivered safely to Israel.
One night, the Mossad agents told the Mekonen family to leave the refugee camp and meet them out in the desert.
“It reminded me of that moment that we started the journey,” says Mekonen. “I thought we were going to do another journey of months. I said, ‘Oh my God, I need the power, because I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”
Instead, what followed was unlike anything Mekonen and his family could have imagined, as an Israeli-piloted passenger aircraft—the first plane most of the refugees had ever seen—lit up the sky and descended onto the desert floor.
“At first I thought, ‘This is the light in the darkness,’” says Mekonen. “But then it became a scary moment. I had never in my life seen something like this airplane. So much noise, so many different lights. And then they want us to go into this giant thing. People were screaming; people were running away. Nobody knew what was going on.”
The sight of other Mossad agents on board—and these ones white-skinned—didn’t do much to ease the pandemonium.
“In my village, we thought we were the only Jews left in the world,” Mekonen explains. “And we had never heard of people with white skin. I didn’t know who they were or why they wanted us to get inside this monster. I thought I was in a dream.”
Mekonen’s fears slowly subsided as the Israelis began handing out water and food, while a doctor attended to those in need of medical assistance.
Suddenly, someone announced in Amharic, the Beta Israel’s native tongue: “We are going to be in Jerusalem in ten minutes.”
Mekonen’s face lights up at the memory, the moment still seared in his mind, twenty-five years later.
“Ohhhh man,” he exclaims. “Then it was so amazing. People are crying and laughing, and they don’t stop singing.”
“When we got out of the airplane, that’s the moment that’s going to stay in my mind forever,” Mekonen says. “Nobody rushed. People took their time, and they opened their eyes and breathed in the air. I remember people bending down, kissing the land.”
Mekonen, though, was confused.
“Me, I’m standing there looking around and thinking, ‘Where is the gold they talk about? Where is the honey, the milk?’ But it’s just dark, with lots of little lights scattered around. First the white skin, and now the lights. I had never seen electric lights like this before. Then, there are people taking photos with flashbulbs. It’s shiny and we don’t know what’s going on. They start singing, the people welcoming us, singing “benu shalom aleichem”—“welcome in peace”—but we don’t know Hebrew and can’t understand.”
* * *
The Mekonens’ story of assimilation in Israel is similar to that of scores of immigrants around the globe. It was difficult for the adults, while the new language and culture came relatively easy to Avishai and his siblings.
Mekonen says he soon became “a typical Israeli,” despite the fact that many of his fellow Ethiopians felt segregated in an Israeli society that was often significantly less welcoming than those airport singers who had first greeted them.
He finished high school and joined the army, serving in the Special Forces in Lebanon during a time of repeated escalation between the two countries in the early ’90s.
Like most young Israelis, Mekonen followed his military service by traveling. But, understandably tired of long, meandering journeys, he skipped the backpacking routes many young Israelis choose, going only as far as London. It was there that Mekonen developed a love for American movies. He went on to film school—much to the chagrin of his mother, who was gunning for him to become a doctor—and moved to Tel Aviv, where he freelanced as a sound-man and camera operator. He also made a film of his own: a documentary about two Ethiopian-Israeli comedians that touches on the dichotomous feelings of assimilation and rejection that many Beta Israel of his generation share. Mekonen’s mother took to nicknaming him “Ashkenazi” because the friends and co-workers he brought home were all white, Israeli-born Jews.
One of them was Shari Rothfarb, a young American filmmaker who had come to Tel Aviv to work on a movie. Despite the language barrier—she spoke little Hebrew and he no English—the pair fell for each other quickly and Mekonen later visited her in New York.
After the initial shock of seeing snow, Mekonen’s first impression of the city was one that might surprise most New Yorkers.
“It was so calm. So very calm,” he recalls. “In Tel Aviv, we were in a time of war. The suicide bombings, the ambulances, the screaming, they don’t stop. Everything you read in the newspaper, everything you hear on the radio is about suicide bombings. When I came to New York, it was just so peaceful. Even in the subway. It was so calming, so quiet.”
The idea of leaving the land his ancestors had dreamed of for millennia—that same land that he had literally walked across a country to reach—had once seemed unthinkable to Mekonen. Now, the allure of a new love was enough to change his mind. He moved to New York in 2001, the couple married and Mekonen began piecing together a career as a freelance filmmaker, shooting projects for other people, and making low-budget films of his own.
As he struggled to learn English and adapt to American culture, Mekonen developed a newfound respect for the hardships his parents had gone through when immigrating.
“As children, we thought it was so easy. I used to complain to my parents for many years—‘Why you don’t speak Hebrew?’” he says defiantly, his voice rising as he mimics the obstinate teenager he once was.
“But now I understand them. My son is better at English than me. It’s so much harder as an adult. I realize that my parents in Israel had the most difficult life ever, but they didn’t complain. They’re heroes.”
New York’s immigrant fabric offered Mekonen comfort, as he found himself constantly gawking in amazement at the impossible array of ethnicities packed into a single subway car. But this diversity also served as a constant reminder of just how much of an oddity he remains here, even today. In a city where most people wouldn’t glance twice at a transvestite prostitute or a Muslim woman in full hijab, Mekonen’s existence here has been largely defined by his race and religion—by having to explain to people that, yes, there is such a thing as an African Jew.
* * *
Mekonen was on the subway, headed to a medical check-up in Lower Manhattan—another step in the lengthy immigration process—when the first plane hit the North Tower.
Exiting with a crush of confused passengers at Canal Street, he heard ambulance sirens louder than any he recalled from Tel Aviv. Black smoke swirled north from the World Trade Center, but Mekonen was still too uncomfortable in his English to ask anyone what was going on. Terrified of missing yet another important immigration appointment, he continued on toward the C.I.S. office.
“And then—boom—another one. I completely lost where I was going and what I was doing,” Mekonen recalls.
“At the moment that it went down, that’s the moment that I said, ‘My life is ending here, that’s it.’ I never said that before, not on my journey [to Sudan] or in Lebanon or in Tel Aviv. But when I saw those towers come down, I said, ‘My life is ending.’”
While most others were headed in the opposite direction, Mekonen found himself walking toward the World Trade Center, the beautiful sunny day instantly transformed into night.
“I didn’t know what time it was anymore or even where I was,” he remembers. “I didn’t even think it was New York City. I thought it was a different planet. It was so covered with dust and so dark.” Trained as a rescuer in the Israeli army, Mekonen spent close to four hours at Ground Zero, helping firefighters carry hoses and lift people out, bringing water and juice to rescue workers. At one point, he picked up a firefighter who had emerged from a smoking train station and passed out, and carried him toward an ambulance.
Working alongside two F.B.I. agents, Mekonen helped move rubble as they searched through Trinity Church Cemetery for bodies, all the while communicating through sign language and broken English. After several hours, one of the agents stopped and looked at Mekonen, demanding to know where he was from.
“I say, ‘Man-hat-ton,’” Mekonen says, mimicking his then-shaky English pronunciation. The agents became suspicious, repeatedly asking Mekonen where he was from and growing angry at his answer: “Man-hat-ton.”
“One of them comes over to me and starts holding me,” Mekonen recalls. “They look through my bag and find my passport. Then they ask why I have an Israeli passport. I’m explaining in sign language that I’m Israeli, that I came from Ethiopia on a plane, but then that’s confusing because of the plane that came into the World Trade Center.”
The agents continued to interrogate Mekonen, who eventually, in broken English, and frantic bits of Hebrew and sign language, was able to convince the agents that he wasn’t a terrorist.
“You have two seconds to leave,” one of the agents told him, not letting go of Mekonen’s passport.
“I wouldn’t leave,” Mekonen remembers. “Eventually I said ‘passport, passport, passport’ but he was just getting more angry at me. Finally he gave it back and I started running to get out of there.”
Mekonen walked all the way home to the Upper West Side, shaken and disturbed, but also angry with himself “for not having the language to explain who I am.” His wife, Shari, opened the door with tears in her eyes.
“I thought you were dead,” she told him, immediately questioning him about the smell of smoke that seemed to emanate from his skin.
But Mekonen could not talk about that day. And he was still in a state of shock when he picked up a copy of The New York Times later that week and saw himself in a photo on the cover. His short-sleeved shirt and flip-flops were covered in dust and ash as he surveyed an apocalyptic scene: the air thick with smoke, a fire truck turned half-white, emergency responders performing triage on a patient lying amid a street covered with garbage and debris.
“I’m shaking and I say, ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’ But I couldn’t understand because there were no cameras there. It was a dark place. There was no one there but the firemen and the rescue people. To this day I can’t understand how they got this photo.”
* * *
The following year was “one of the hardest I have ever had,” Mekonen says, his cheery face growing forlorn once again. He fell into a depression that lasted several years. The horrors he had witnessed at Ground Zero stayed with him, but he also couldn’t shake the offsetting incident with the suspicious agents.
It embodied Mekonen’s lifelong frustration of not being able to fully explain his identity. As a child in Ethiopia he was ostracized for his Jewishness, called a falasha, an outsider, and gawked at for looking different and worshiping differently. In Israel, his family found a prosperous life in the country they had risked everything to reach, but they were also regarded by many as not truly Jewish enough.
Then, Mekonen fell in love with both a New Yorker and the city of New York, but he found that here, too, people were unfamiliar with and skeptical about the existence of a dark-skinned Jew.
It was largely these questions of identity that led Mekonen to embark on a film project of a personal nature for the first time. His self-narrated documentary, “400 Miles to Freedom,” made with his wife, Shari, tells the story of his personal journey, from Ethiopia to Israel to New York, while also exploring the larger world of non-white Jews and their struggle for acceptance.
“It can’t be that I’m the only person in the world who is Jewish and has dark skin,” he says rhetorically. “So I started doing this documentary. It opened my eyes. I learned about Asian Jews, Latin Jews.”
But he didn’t stop there, crisscrossing the country as he interviewed African-American Jews, Nigerian Jews, Korean Jews and Indian Jews, helping him discover a new level of comfort with his own identity. Mekonen has found audiences, too, particularly Jewish-American ones, largely accepting of the idea of an Ethiopian Jew, even if they had never before heard of one.
“400 Miles to Freedom” premiered at the New York Jewish Film Festival this year, and continues to play the festival circuit. (It plays in Stamford, Connecticut on November 3.) During a recent screening at the Park Avenue Synagogue, the only condemnation from the visibly moved crowd was reserved for an orthodox rabbi who insinuates in the film that Mekonen may not be sufficiently Jewish. The film, shot on a low budget and devoid of any Hollywood flourish, has a resulting air of authenticity; which helps solidify Mekonen’s message that his personal journey is not unlike so many other real, complex stories of the Jewish Diaspora. “Five years ago I was confused myself when anyone would ask about what I was,” he says. “Today, if someone says, ‘How can you be both black and Jewish?’ I just laugh.”
Mekonen had not originally planned to discuss his kidnapping in Sudan as part of the film, but when he began investigating his own journey to Israel, he found this painful and incomplete memory unavoidable.
“I had never really talked to my wife about it,” he admits. “And my parents, I hadn’t talked to them about it for twenty years. I never got the details about what happened because I didn’t want to know. I was angry at my father, because I blamed him for letting me get kidnapped. I never knew that he had been looking for me the whole time, and working with the Israeli agents to try to find me.”
“I think it’s time for me to talk about what happened to me,” Mekonen goes on, “to talk about how I was a victim [of human trafficking], but only one of many, many children who are victims.”
* * *
Mekonen was in front of the bathroom mirror on a recent weekday morning, brushing his teeth, when he was suddenly interrupted by his seven-year-old son, Kove. His son strode past him and shut off the running faucet, angrily reprimanding his father for wasting water. This innocent environmental activism—picked up, no doubt, from teachers or peers at his progressive public school in East Harlem—was, for Mekonen, a poignant reminder of how starkly different his son’s life is from his own upbringing at that age.
“Like any immigrant parent, my main dream is my kids’ success,” he says, proudly. “I was so worried when he started school. It reminded me of when I was the only black person in my class. I worried that he would be left out of things.”
In fact, when Mekonen talks about his greatest desire—that his children won’t have to endure what he went through—he’s not referring to refugee camps or abduction or a four-hundred-mile walk through the desert. He’s talking about the indignity of having other people question his identity.
“I don’t think he deserves to have to explain his identity, to defend his identity,” says Mekonen. “I’m scared that each year as he’s growing up, he’ll have to deal more with the question of who he is. People will say, ‘You’re a little bit dark skinned—you’re Jewish?’ It’s not fair that he should have to defend who he is.”
Mekonen loves picking up his son from school and seeing him playing with other kids, their own families from every corner of the world. He beams as he recalls visiting the school and helping the class make a hundred paper cranes to send to children in post-Tsunami Japan.
“It’s like the United Nations there!” Mekonen says of the school.
For now, Mekonen continues to pursue his passion for film. He’s currently teaching himself new editing software and is kept busy with video projects—most recently one about an 85-year-old native New Yorker and retired Merchant Marine.
One of the most striking things about him, after all of his dramatic adventures, is that he is such a classic New Yorker, alternating between the roles of marveling newcomer and wizened urban crank. On the subway recently, he slid close to two young women whom he noticed were speaking Hebrew.
“They were talking so loud!” he says. “One lady was complaining about smoking, about how you can’t smoke anywhere in New York. ‘Crazy Americans,’ she says.”
Mekonen sat there and listened, growing increasingly angry at the young Israelis’ insolent attitude, and also well aware that they would never assume he could understand them.
“When I hear someone speaking Hebrew, I get up close and just listen, quietly.”
He continues: “I sat down next to her and said, ‘My sister, you cannot think like that when you are in another country. Americans are welcoming you, but you sit here and complain.’
“Of course, 95 percent of what I said, she didn’t understand,” he adds, “because she was sitting there with her mouth open, shocked that I was talking to her in Hebrew.”
Mekonen’s parents still hope he’ll join them in Israel again some day. But while he misses the culture and community intensely, he is content here, in this giant city of immigrants, where he is just another New Yorker.
“Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m here,” he says. “I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll just stop and say, ‘I’m on Broadway. I’m in Times Square.’ All that time I was walking without shoes, and I was thinking of one place—Jerusalem. What am I doing here?’”
He looks up with bemusement, almost as if he’s shocked to remember that New York is indeed where he lives.
“I wish those one hundred people who we met that first night to start the journey could be here so I could say, ‘Can you believe it?’”