Visu­al Arts

Trans­for­ma­tions: From Ethiopia to Israel

Ric­ki Rosen; with an essay by Micha Odenheimer
  • Review
March 26, 2012

The log­ic behind pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ric­ki Rosen’s cap­ti­vat­ing new book, Trans­for­ma­tions: From Ethiopia to Israel, is one of contrasts. 

Rosen, a pho­to­jour­nal­ist who fol­lowed the Ethiopi­an immi­gra­tion to Israel for the past two decades, divides each one of the book’s spreads into two parts: On the left-hand page, she por­trays Ethiopia’s Jews short­ly before, dur­ing, or after their moment of immi­gra­tion dur­ing Oper­a­tion Solomon in 1990; on the right, the same peo­ple, a decade and a half lat­er. On the left is Ethiopia, its earth­en-brown arid land­scapes a per­fect back­drop for the shim­mer­ing white of the tra­di­tion­al Ethiopi­an robes; on the right, Israel, a mod­ern, West­ern coun­try illu­mi­nat­ed by a panoply of colors. 

The con­trasts are often stark. Woovs­rah and Hai­monot Kalem­wort, for exam­ple, appear on the left page as two young girls, wrapped in tra­di­tion­al garb. Pho­tographed as they dis­em­barked from the plane that car­ried them from Ethiopia to Israel, the two stare at the cam­era with fright­ened, haunt­ing looks; although they are walk­ing down the stairs to the airport’s run­way, they appear frozen with dread. But there they are again on the right page, this time as young Israeli women, stu­dents of nuclear physics no less. One of them is wear­ing a pale pink top and a bub­blegum-col­ored scarf, the oth­er a kha­ki skirt and a but­ton-down shirt. In the back­ground, a well-man­i­cured lawn gives rise to an ultra­mod­ern building. 

As the eye hops from one end of the spread to the oth­er, from the air­port scene in 1990 to the cam­pus idyll in 2004, a strong and clear emo­tion gush­es up the throat, one of instinc­tu­al, trib­al pride. This, after all, is the strongest imag­in­able visu­al­iza­tion of the idea of Israel as the Promised Land: A shel­ter that could take in a pair of scared chil­dren, dri­ven out of their native coun­try by per­se­cu­tion, and give them the fer­tile ground they need to thrive and be happy. 

But the true strength of Trans­for­ma­tions lies in its refusal to suc­cumb to such rosy, uncom­pli­cat­ed, and, ulti­mate­ly, false views of the Ethiopi­an exo­dus. As Rosen under­stands only too well, immi­gra­tion — any immi­gra­tion — is a painful and thorny process, one that fre­quent­ly fails and, even when it suc­ceeds, exacts a cost­ly price. 

That price is reflect­ed in the face of Tagenya Kabadeh; pic­tured in a ser­pen­tine line out­side the Israeli embassy in Addis Aba­ba in 1990, Kabadeh’s sunken eyes are dim, his expres­sion one of pro­found sad­ness. He looks like a man with­out joy, with­out luck, with­out hope. Four­teen years lat­er, he is pho­tographed stand­ing out­side a mall in Rehovot, Israel. He is hold­ing shop­ping bags in his hand, a plain brown shirt hav­ing replaced the white robe. But his expres­sion remains the same. Kabadeh, one sens­es, is now dri­ven to despair not by Ethiopia’s exis­ten­tial dan­gers but by Israel’s more mun­dane but equal­ly press­ing hard­ships, its fast-paced com­mer­cial­ism and esca­lat­ing cost of liv­ing. As he stands next to a col­or­ful bill­board, Kabadeh’s strug­gle is silent but inescapable. 

And this, pre­cise­ly, is the virtue of Rosen’s book: From its very first pages — a series of haunt­ing can­did shots doc­u­ment­ing the actu­al immi­gra­tion process, accom­pa­nied by an insight­ful and illu­mi­nat­ing essay by Rab­bi Micha Oden­heimer — Rosen com­bines the artist’s pierc­ing eye with the journalist’s unmit­i­gat­ed hon­esty, giv­ing us a panoram­ic view — at times inspir­ing, at oth­ers heart­break­ing — of one of the most sem­i­nal moments in con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish life.

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