They say that you should commute to work, not to your social life. But these wise words make no mention of where your spiritual life fits into the equation. Sarah Weil lives in Jerusalem because it “nurtures my religious identity. But it offers no expression for my lesbian identity.”
Tired of commuting an hour each way to Tel Aviv to enjoy the frequent lesbian parties there, Weil created Women’s Gatherings Jerusalem to bring her social life a little closer. Since the first gathering in November 2011, which brought together about 50 women – twice what Weil expected – the popularity of the regular gatherings have grown significantly. Clearly, she tapped into a need.
This Saturday, April 13, Women’s Gatherings takes another big step, launching E.V.E., its first dance party. And while it may be focused on the female, Weil is adamant that all are invited. “I’m not trying to create a gay ghetto,” she says. Gay, straight and men are all welcome. But behind the turntables, it’s a women’s world.
Women, women-identified and queer DJs are the stars of E.V.E., which aims to “to provide an open, loving and celebratory queer space and to encourage women’s club music.”
It’s more radical than it sounds, both because the world of DJs and club music is so heavily male-dominated and also because, in Israel, its so Tel Aviv-centric.
“I want to bridge these two cities,” says Weil. “I’m trying to create a DJ scene in Jerusalem.”
Though not a DJ herself, she does enjoy a good dance party. E.V.E. will feature a local DJ as an opening act, followed by a more established woman DJ brought in from Tel Aviv. Weil hopes the sisterhood of the traveling DJs will encourage those in the holy city to up their game.
As Madonna famously sang, “Hey Mr. DJ, put a record on, I want to dance with my baby” and, a few lines later, “Music brings the people together.” Such is Weil’s intention.
“In Jerusalem, there’s such incredible diversity,” she says; politically, religiously, and culturally speaking. “I want to create a space for all that diversity to flourish.”
In the process, Women’s Gatherings is injecting some new energy into Jerusalem, giving “expression to restless creativity, answering some unrequited longings” (as their mission statement says) and, for those who previously had to trek to Tel Aviv for a vibrant nightlight, cutting their commute by quite a bit.
E.V.E.: Saturday, April 13 / Bass Club
Hahistadrut 1, Jerusalem
Doors open 8 P.M.
Ten years later Aynaw, 22, is the first Ethiopian-Israeli to be crowned Miss Israel — a title she hopes to use to showcase Israel’s diversity.
“Israel really accepts everybody,” she told JTA. “That I was chosen proves it.”
Ethiopian and other African-Israelis have historically struggled with poverty and integration. But recently, several African-Israeli women have made a pop culture splash.
Along with Aynaw, Ethiopian-Israeli actress Ester Rada, 28, has just released her first solo rock record to positive reviews. And Ahtaliyah Pierce, a 17-year-old Black Hebrew Israeli, reached the semifinals on Israel’s edition of “The Voice,” a reality show in which emerging singers compete.
Though their personal stories diverge, each woman has experienced challenges as an African immigrant and wants to use her fame to help other African immigrants better integrate into Israeli society.
“It’s hard for Ethiopians to adapt, but they should be who they are, be the best that they can be,” said Rada, who was born in Jerusalem to Ethiopian parents who spoke Amharic at home. “Don’t let others keep you down or make you feel like we don’t belong.”
Rada’s parents stayed close to their Ethiopian roots, eating traditional foods and listening to traditional music. But Rada rebelled. She refused to speak Amharic and failed to understand why she should feel tied to a country she had never seen and did not understand.
In recent years, the resistance has softened. Ethiopian culture “is a part of me and I can’t run away from it,” Rada said. “I decided to embrace it. And it’s helped me define who I am, in my culture and in my music.”
Aynaw says it’s important for Israelis to see the positive side of the Ethiopian community. She compares the effect of her winning Miss Israel to Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States. The two met at the Israeli president’s residence during Obama’s recent trip to the region.
“There are wonderful things about the [Ethiopian] community, and it’s important that [Israelis] see it,” she told JTA. “Israel is a multicultural state. We’re diverse and we come from different countries, so we need to show that outwardly.”
Rada and Pierce report incidents of racism directed at them because of their skin color. A woman once accused Rada of coming to Israel only for the money. And Pierce says in her hometown of Dimona, she used to be called “kushi,” a Hebrew pejorative used to describe blacks.
“There are many stigmas about the community, and unfortunate stories,” said Hava Tizazu, an Ethiopian-Israeli actress who works with at-risk African youth. “Now there are new personalities who are beautiful and positive. It helps to change the image, but it’s just one step in a longer process.”
Since she advanced to the semifinals on “The Voice,” Pierce says the slurs have all but stopped. She was voted off the show in March, but like Rada she hopes to keep performing after her army service.
“I want to be on stage,” Pierce said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m modeling, singing or acting. I have to be on stage.”
Aynaw also hopes to model and act, and to support youth arts clubs during her year as Miss Israel. She will represent Israel at the Miss World competition in September in Indonesia.
“I feel like a very important person,” Aynaw said. “I don’t usually get up and see myself on all of the TV channels. I’m definitely getting used to it.”
JTA’s Chavie Lieber contributed to this story.
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Most Christian Arabs live in the northern Israel, and the cities with the largest Christian populations are Nazareth, with 22,400; Haifa with 14,400; Jerusalem with 11,700; and Shfaram with 9,400.
The Christian population is also growing at a rate of 1.3%
The level of Christian education is notable, with 64% of Christian high school students earning a high school diploma, compared to 59% for Jewish Israelis and 48% for Muslims.
The average number of children for a Christian woman is 2.2, the lowest in the country among the different population sectors.
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At dawn on Tuesday morning, a large group gathered on a mountain in the Negev desert to reenact the moments leading up to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.
Dressed in robes and flowing dresses, these pilgrims prayed, sang spirituals and discarded the leftovers from their seder meals into the flames of a massive bonfire, in a scene that evoked comparisons to the film “The Ten Commandments.”
“It’s one thing to see Charlton Heston in a movie,” said Ahbir Ben Israel, who stoked the fire with kerosene. “But we know that the Exodus is not just a story, it’s our history.”
The burning of excess food from the seder meal is just one of the ways that the African Hebrew Israelites, also known as the Black Hebrews, try to “take that ancient reality and make it contemporary,” Ben Israel said. They also remain in their houses from midnight until daybreak – when the Angel of Death is believed to have passed over the Israelites’ houses – and, according to God’s instructions, sleep in their clothing in order to be able to flee at any moment.
“It reflects how serious we are about getting closer and closer to the Creator,” he said.
For a time, the Hebrews even slaughtered a lamb and smeared its blood on their doorposts, just as the Israelites did so that their first-born sons would be spared from death. They discontinued the practice after arriving in Israel in 1969 and adopting a vegan diet.
As African Americans who identify with the tribe of Judah and whose ancestors, they believe, endured two periods of enslavement – one in Egypt and in the United States – the Passover tale has special resonance for the Hebrews.
“Historically, we’re always inspired by the story of the people being led out of Egypt, and the many trials and tribulations that were experienced on that journey,” said Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda, a community spokesman. “We always felt like we were living it.”
He said he personally looks forward to the burning ceremony on the mountain because it allows him “to get rid of some of those characteristics, like doubt and fear, that you don’t want to carry into the next year.”
During this week of Passover, which they call the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Hebrews eat tortilla-like homemade matza and “fast” from Western music and movies. The Hebrews actually celebrate two Passovers; They commemorate their exodus from the United States, which they view as a modern-day Babylon, every May during a two-day festival known as New World Passover.
Their literal interpretation of the Torah extends beyond their observance of Passover to nearly every facet of their culture.
For example, they cite Genesis 1:29 as the reason for adopting a vegan diet: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” They point to Methuselah, who according to the same book of the Bible lived to the ripe old age of 969, as inspiration in their quest to achieve immortality.
Earlier this month, they celebrated Rosh Hashanah based on their interpretation of a verse in Exodus that identifies the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (called Aviv in the Torah) as the “beginning of months,” not Tishrei, which is when most Jews mark the new year. (Like Karaite Jews, the Hebrews reject the Oral Law – the Mishna and the Talmud.)
Karaliah Eshet Prince Gavriel Ha’Gadol left Chicago in 1967 with the founding members of the community, which now numbers about 2,500. She spent two and a half years in the jungles of Liberia before moving to Israel and said her favorite part of celebrating Passover is being with her family in a land where she feels “free to worship Yah” – the preferred Hebrew term for God in the community – “with nobody dictating to you how and when to do so.”
For Elkannon Ben Shaleakh, who was also part of the vanguard group, the significance of Passover is the opportunity it provides “to start over again.”
The walls of the bungalow he shares with his wife and several other families in the community’s compound in Dimona, called the Village of Peace, are decorated with photos of civil rights leaders, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as several portraits of Ben Ammi Ben Israel, the spiritual leader of the community, whom he called “a Moses-type figure.”
At his seder on Monday evening, there was no gefilte fish, brisket or matza ball soup. Instead, Ben Shaleahk and his family feasted on eggplant parmesan (with soy cheese), stuffing with gravy, kale greens, salad and soy ice cream for dessert.
He explained that the bitter herb that is traditionally eaten during the Passover seder represents “the 400 years of slavery and poverty in America.” The sweet charoset, meanwhile, represents the Hebrews’ joy of living as a free people in their homeland.
While his journey has not been easy – one of his children died in Liberia after falling into a well, and another son, Aharon, was killed by a Palestinian gunman while performing at a Bat Mitzvah in Hadera in 2002 – he said he and the rest of the Hebrews have sustained themselves through their adherence to the Bible.
“We were caught up in the Book, and we were trying to live it out,” Ben Yehuda said. “We’re still doing that.”