Sunday 7 August 2011

Being Uplifted From a Most Unlikely Place

I am sure you all know the feeling when a seemingly insignificant event or comment has a marked impact on your spirits. This is exactly what happened to me last week. I had a particularly exhausting week through a combination of increased pressure at work and the effects of the summer heat. I went along to the supermarket late one evening with my wife and son to pick up a few items of groceries. Once my wife had found all that she needed (and more), we headed to the checkout counter.

In Israeli supermarkets, the checkout counter is usually a place to increase your tension levels. Queues are long, other shoppers are rude and inconsiderate and the checkout clerks usually slow and uncaring. On this occasion, our checkout clerk was an Ethiopian lady with a big welcoming smile. We recognised her from a few weeks ago when she also checked us out, and we immediately got chatting. She remarked on how tired I looked (I guess that she figured this out from the fact that I sat down on the chair of the next checkout counter that was not in operation, and let my wife and son get on with bagging our goods). She was interested in the fact that we spoke English amongst ourselves, and asked where we came from. I told her that we originate from South Africa, and she remarked that we are cousins by virtue of our common African heritage. I asked how long she has been in Israel, and she told me that she came on aliyah from Ethiopia 27 years ago in 1984. This means that she has lived in Israel for most of her life, and probably came as part of Operation Moses that airlifted some 8,000 Jews from the Gondar region of Ethiopia.

I asked about life in Ethiopia. She said that now, life in Ethiopia is not too bad. This is in contrast to the starvation that was being experienced at the time of her immigration in the mid 80's. Despite the improvements in the situation in Ethiopia, she said that life there is not good for the Jews. Tongue in cheek, I responded by saying that life in Israel is also not good for the Jews. My comment was a throw-away line which referred mainly to the massive demonstrations against economic hardships. I knew that she would almost certainly not have things easy. The immigrants from Ethiopia have been forced to endure a great deal of hardship during their time in Israel. Many of them were not recognised as Jews and were not extended the rights available to Jews under Israel's Law of Return when they arrived. A great number have been forced to convert to Judaism to be recognised as Jews by Israel's Ministry of the Interior. Their gentle character and system of respect has been taken advantage of in the aggressive rough-and-tumble that is prevalent in Israel. The fact that so many of the Ethiopian immigrants have been through the Israeli education system, completed their army service and integrated themselves fully into Israeli society is a huge achievement. I was also aware that this lady, as a checkout clerk, is probably earning the minimum wage of approximately 24 Shekels an hour. If people earning twice this amount are camped out in tent cities across Israel protesting economic hardships, how much more somebody like her. My expectation was that she would simply agree with my comment that things are not easy.

Instead, she looked at me, smiled and said, "but this is our country". She told me how good she feels that she can identify freely as a Jew in Israel, and eat kosher food without worrying about who may be watching her. Despite having lived in Israel for so many years, she clearly still values and appreciates the freedom that she has a Jew in the Jewish homeland. I left the supermarket still feeling tired, but really uplifted from my short conversation. In the space of a few sentences, the Ethiopian lady had really made me appreciate again what it is to be a Jew in Israel despite all the hardships. The truth is that I am usually aware of this fact, and how privileged I am to be able to live as a Jew in a Jewish country. One only has to go back one generation, to the time of my parents, to know how Jews were forced to live "under the radar" in order to survive. With anti-Semitism rife in many countries, this is still the case today in some parts of the world. The checkout clerk helped to remind me of this at a time that I was thinking more about how tired I felt, and about the economic hardships that people are feeling in Israel at the current time. She somehow managed to focus on the half full part of the glass, rather than the half empty.

Life is certainly not easy these days for many of Israel's citizens. Many people are working hard simply to stay on the bread line. Thousands of people are camped in tent cities across Israel protesting against economic hardships. The fact that fully 5% of the population were involved last nght in demonstrations against the economic situation in Israel, is evidence of the hardships being experienced by so many. Despite all of this, our Ethiopian checkout lady was able to keep smiling, and radiate her positive energy in a way that really lifted my spirits. On my next visit to the supermarket, I will definitely lookiout for my Ethiopian friend.


Anonymous said...

good story

Anthony Reich said...

Thanks for the feedback.