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Interview: Dina Elenbogen

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 | Permalink

by Howard Schwartz

Jewish Book Council sat down with Dina Elenbogen, poet and author of Drawn from Water: An American Poet, An Ethiopian Family, An Israeli Story, to talk about her experience of writing the book, living in Israel, and witnessing history.

Howard Schwartz: You kept a detailed journal for many years. At what point did you decide to write Drawn from Water, and how many years did it take?

Dina Elenbogen: It is difficult to say how long it took, because in between visits to Israel and drafts of the book I was also writing other things, teaching, raising children, and waiting for my next return. I had been keeping a journal for a long time, particularly while living in Israel, when I was constantly inspired by daily life and writing down my impressions of and encounters with the Ethiopian community. I had received a grant to return to Israel to see how the community was faring five years after Operation Moses, and my assignment was to report on my findings, so on all of my return visits I was both reporting and writing personal impressions. It wasn't until the Nineties, the aftermath of Operation Solomon, that I realized that my personal relationship with Israel, poetry, and the Ethiopian Jewish community were meant to be part of the same narrative.

HS: As a poet, you naturally brought a poet's perspective to your experiences. How did this impact your life in Ma'alot?

DE: I felt everything deeply. I saw both the beauty and the ugliness. I listened to people's words and silences. I understood the nuances. I also struggled with the fact that I was a poet and not an anthropologist: there were times when I wanted to be more of an anthropologist, to have a more objective and theoretical understanding of the absorption process. It wasn't until I was far into the book that I came to peace with the fact that what I had to offer was the story as told from a poet. When I found an editor who asked me to revise with my poet's hat on, I knew my task was almost complete.

HS: What was your impression of most Israeli’s attitude towards the Ethiopians? Did the immigrants feel welcome, despite their difficulties?

DE: There was and continues to be a mixed response to the Ethiopian community in Israel. In the aftermath of Operation Solomon in 1991, Israelis of all kinds were so moved by the sight of 15,000 Jews brought to Israel over one Shabbat in such a heroic effort. Though many of these new citizens proved to be good soldiers, workers, and students, Operation Solomon coincided with a huge aliyah—a wave immigration to Israel—from Russia, as well as the aftermath of the Gulf War, and Israelis were faced with the challenges of all of these events all at once. There were many who welcomed them, brought clothes and goods and tried to make them feel at home; but there are those who feared and discriminated against them, and continue to now.

HS: Drawn from Water not only chronicles the Ethiopian aliyah, but also the changes you experienced. How did your romantic view of Israel evolve into a more realistic attitude?

DE: I witnessed the evolution of racism against Ethiopian Israelis. I was there at the beginning and saw the potential of this community to contribute so much to Israeli society. At first it seemed that Israeli children throwing stones and adults referring to them as barbaric would pass. However, some of the racist attitudes have become institutionalized: teachers give up on Ethiopian students for being behind and don't look for creative ways to help them; the more recent offenses of police brutality are incomprehensible, extremely concerning and disillusioning. I try to hold onto the dream to a certain degree, but I have become more of an advocate than a dreamer. Fortunately this next generation of Ethiopian Jews, born in Israel, is standing up for itself, protesting in a louder voice. Hopefully it will be heard.

HS: You made the difficult decision not to make aliyah and to return to your life in the United States. Do you ever wonder about your alternate destiny if you had remained in Israel?

DE: I do. I would have to have made aliyah when I was still young and idealistic. The country has changed profoundly over the past thirty years and I have become less tolerant of Israel, particularly current policies. I have built a wonderful life with my family in America. Yet even now, when I walk for a day on Israeli soil, visit with my friends throughout the country—particularly with the Ethiopian families I befriended—something is still moved in me. The dreamer returns and I remember what I love about the country and how in some inexplicable way it feels more like home to me than anywhere else in the world.

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