BOOKMARK In ‘Cry of the Giraffe', writer Judie Oron touches upon the plight of Ethiopian Jews through the true story of a girl trying to escape from Ethiopia to the ‘Holy Land'
Tales of struggle are tricky ones to tell. How does one illustrate suffering without glorifying it? In “Cry of the Giraffe” (Om Books International), Judie Oron tells the story of a nine-year-old girl, Wuditu (names have been changed) as she attempts to flee to Israel from the persecution that Jews in Ethiopia faced. Based on a true story, it's a deeply personal tale for both author and protagonist; Judie was the one who rescued Wuditu from the Ethiopian town of Amba Giorgis, where Wuditu worked at an ‘arakie beit' (beer hall), and reunited her with her family in Israel.
Wuditu's story spans seven years — starting off with disturbances that crept into a relatively happy childhood with parents and siblings in Ethiopia, the family's escape to Sudan from where Israeli refugees used to be illegally airlifted to their homeland, the dismal conditions at the refugee camps in Sudan, subsequent separation from her family and years in slave-like conditions in Ethiopia and her final rescue.
Told through Wuditu's voice, the book also becomes a story of the ‘Beta Israel' (meaning ‘House of Israel', as the Jews in Ethiopia used to call themselves).
In an email interview, Judie, who lives in Toronto, answers questions relating to a story in which she played so crucial a part, in taking forward and narrating. Edited excerpts:
The story of Wuditu is one spanning seven years, starting from 1985 and going up to 1992. What was the biggest challenge you faced in narrating her tale? Also, what did you have in mind when you started writing her story in the first place?
When I first started writing “Cry of the Giraffe”, I realised that, because of the nature of Wuditu's experience, the book would essentially become the diary of a slave. By then, Wuditu had become a daughter to me, and the word ‘slave' was such a powerful, ugly one that at first I couldn't actually write it down. I suppose I'd never really understood that what I'd taken part in was a slave trade.
How did you first come in contact with Wuditu's family and what was it that prompted you to take the risk and rescue her?
When I was in Ethiopia in 1990, an Israeli Embassy worker there brought me a little girl, Lewteh, who'd somehow become separated from her family in Sudan. They'd gone to Sudan hoping to be airlifted to Israel in an ongoing, secret rescue operation and Lewteh's family had already been flown to Israel. I was asked to look after the child until she could rejoin her parents.
Back in Israel, Lewteh's father Berihun told me that another daughter had also gone missing. He was ill, so he paid another man to go to Ethiopia to look for Wuditu. The man reported that she had died and when he heard this, Berihun's health deteriorated. He asked me to take Lewteh into my family, which I did.
Two years later, Lewteh told me that she didn't believe Wuditu was dead. She said that ‘she could still feel her sister breathing.' I thought it was worth taking a chance to go look for Wuditu, and thank heavens I did!
How did your interest in the Beta Israel begin, and has this prompted an interest in researching the plight of displaced and captive communities in other parts of the world?
In 1985 I was acting as the Director of ‘The Jerusalem Post' newspaper's charitable funds. The Ethiopian Jews were fleeing from a vicious Marxist regime to Sudan, a country that considered Israel an enemy. After languishing in Sudan's refugee camps, many Jews became ill and destitute before Israel could rescue them. When I learned about this, I began to fund some of their most urgent needs.
This experience gave me some insight into the life of a refugee. Later, my relationship with Wuditu taught me so much about the life of a slave. Her experience was typical of what other children are going through in other parts of the world.
In what way does the attitude towards ‘falashas' in Ethiopia stand in relation to the anti-Semitism that characterised the early part of the 20th Century and eras before that?
The word ‘falasha' means a stranger, someone who doesn't belong in Ethiopia and therefore has limited rights. When Wuditu's family was living there, just as in many European nations during the time you're speaking of, Jews were not allowed to own land and were therefore forced to pay high rents to the landowners. With drought and famine being endemic in Ethiopia, these rents endangered the community's survival.
According to you, there are 130,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. Are there difficulties that they face while integrating into society there?
As is often the case with waves of immigration, the younger people have a much easier time integrating than their parents and grandparents. In addition, moving to a modern nation from a backward, predominantly agrarian one has added other difficulties.
But taking all that into consideration and remembering the suffering caused by decades of war and famine and the high death rate on the march to Sudan, this community has shown strengths and talents that are coming to the fore. I believe we will see great accomplishments coming from the Beta Israel.