OneWorld Magazine presents

Translating Culture

by Dr.Ruth Westheimer and
Dr.Steven Kaplan

Ethiopian Falasha

"Sooner or later everyone who works with Ethiopian Jews in Israel is referred to Dr. Chaim Rosen. If they're lucky, it's sooner rather than later. American born and educated, Rosen spent four years in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps and collecting data for his University of Chicago doctorate. He is therefore the only person in Israel who brings both academic training and first-hand experience in Ethiopia to his work with Ethiopian Jews. Soft-spoken and unassuming, Rosen eschews politics and bureaucratic infighting in order to reach as many people as possible. Although officially employed by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, he makes his expertise available to anyone who works with Ethiopians."

Rosen's message is essentially a simple one: Only by learning the categories and terms that Ethiopian Jews use to understand the world can we begin to make sense of their behavior in Israel. Only through an appreciation of how they believe a child should be raised, a youth should behave, and an adult must act will we be able to comprehend the conflicts they face and work with them toward solutions. Under the sponsorship of Hadassah Women's Council, Rosen has developed and disseminated his ideas in a series of papers and articles. He rapidly became the Dear Abby (or should we say the Dr. Ruth?) of those working with Ethiopian immigrants, answering questions on almost every aspect of Ethiopian life: What's the best way to phrase an invitation? Why do they seem to have so many names? Why do they accept apartments in one city, but not in another?

Throughout his writings and lectures Rosen explores the manner in which key elements of Beta Israel culture can be applied to the design and implementation of successful absorption programs. Understanding Ethiopian culture does not require us to either idealize it or artificially preserve it. It does, however, demand both careful study and imaginative application of old concepts to new situations.

Rosen notes, for example, the centrality of the Amharic concept gobez. "Smart, brilliant, clever, strong, brave, and, finally, quite a fellow. Every Ethiopian boy (and in her own way, girl) desires more than anything else to be considered gobez." In Ethiopia, someone who was gobez might beat an opponent in battle, endure a long fast, show great skill and determination at a difficult job. People had to be gobez to survive their long trek to the Sudan and the many hardships they encountered.

The trick is, of course, to translate this central value into a meaningful part of Ethiopian life in Israel: to make it gobez to learn well in school, to serve with honor in the army, to act in a way that benefits yourself, your family, and your community. Not without reason did Rosen entitle an information booklet about sexually transmitted diseases prepared in cooperation with Dr. Daniel Chemtov of Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, Be "Gobez" to Stay Healthy. In it they write, "As the gobez farmer in Ethiopia will stop monkeys and baboons [from attacking his crops] by building a strong fence and being a good shot, so the gobez individual in Israel (both man and woman) will know when and how to use a condom."

In some cases, the information provided by Rosen has been the catalyst for major changes in programs involving Ethiopian Jews. Following Operation Moses, for example, a course was established at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School to train Ethiopian women as dental assistants. Almost from the outset the course was in trouble, as the Ethiopian students struggled to master the theoretical background necessary for their practical training. Some instructors estimated that the course might have to be extended to three times its normal length for them to complete it. Even then their success was in doubt.

During the search for answers, the director of the course, Dr. Yonatan Mann, met with Chaim Rosen, who explained the importance of the Amharic term tabib. Although translated literally as "wisdom," tabib, like its equivalent in Biblical Hebrew, hochma, refers to both intellectual erudition and practical skill. In Ethiopia the Beta Israel were often proficient craftsmen. As such they were frequently derided as tabiban by their neighbors, who envied and even feared their "wizardry" with their hands. Many Beta Israel, however, took great pride in their skill as blacksmiths, weavers, and potters. Rosen also explained the "hands-on" approach that characterized traditional education in Ethiopia. When a woman wished to teach her daughter to make pots, she didn't sit her down for a lecture on the history of clay or the theory of pottery. Rather, she gave her different types of clay and water, and taught by example, through a slow process of trial and error.

Dr. Mann decided to gamble and follow the "traditional" method. Theoretical classes were deferred to the end of the course, and the students were moved immediately into the practical side. Results improved almost immediately as the Ethiopian women quickly grasped the mechanical side of their new professions. Moreover, when they moved back into the classroom to complete the material that had been deferred, their progress was much easier. In the end, with only a minimal extension of the course, the majority of Ethiopian students completed it successfully. Most began to work at their new professions, and some continued their studies in the more advanced dental hygienist course.

Return to Ethiopia Index | 1. Surviving Salvation | 2. Inventing Tradition?
3. Old Virgins to Soldiers | 4. Translating Culture | 5. Book & PBS Doco


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