When Yityish Aynaw immigrated from Ethiopia to Israel at age 12, she was thrust into an Israeli classroom. An orphan lacking Hebrew skills, Aynaw says she relied on other kids and her own sheer ambition to get through.
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.”