One of the wildest rescue stories in Israel’s history took a decade and a half to carry out. From 1977 to 1991, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews left their country of origin for Israel. The government of Israel, in collaboration with various worldwide organizations, carried out this effort in a series of dramatic airlifts and clandestine operations, literally searching for the Jewish refugees amidst the seas of people waiting in the Sudanese desert to be saved from hunger and thirst. Operation Solomon, in 1991, was conducted in collaboration with Mengistu Haile Mariam, the ruthless dictator who ruled Ethiopia at the time. Earlier iterations had to be carried out with less help. In the ‘80s, thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean Jews walked thousands of miles across the desert to Israel, risking encounters with rogue groups of murderous bandits or wild animals, like mountain lions. Many died along the way.
Kim Salzman’s new novel, Straddling Black and White, follows a single family’s journey to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) from a small village in Ethiopia. Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Salzman’s novel is told from a variety of perspectives. By inviting the various members of the family to speak, the author is able to capture a variety of experiences, expertly sidestepping the temptation to flatten the Beta Israel community to a monolith. It’s clear that, despite not being a member of this community, Salzman has taken the time to examine the historical context of their aliyah, as well as the shared customs particular to the time and region.
Salzman herself is American, born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. She didn’t really envision herself moving to another country until, as a young adult, she spent some time working on a kibbutz in Israel. It was during that time that the young Salzman, a self-described “proud Zionist,” fell in love with life in the Jewish State. Soon after she made aliyah, she found herself fascinated by the myriad stories of people from around the world who had gone to incredible lengths to live in Israel. She was particularly moved by the treacherous path taken by Ethiopian and Eritrean Jews, even deciding to travel to the North African country on her honeymoon. That experience clinched it — she knew she had to write about these heroic travelers.
Kebede, the patriarch, is the first of the family to make his way to Israel. He leaves behind a tense relationship with his pregnant wife, Tigest, and five children. One of his children, Azmera, will be the next to leave; Kebede’s brother Solomon takes it upon himself to lead her across the desert to a Sudanese refugee camp, narrowly escaping many deadly encounters, where a plane may or may not take them to Israel. Such is the power of their faith in the holy land and their fear of persecution at the hands of their neighbors. It’s better to risk death by thirst or mauling then remain in the desperation of the village.
Meanwhile, Tigest is in the village with her estranged sister-in-law, caring for the children left behind. She has no idea if her daughter and brother-in-law are alive. Kebede, who made it to Israel through a combination of luck and grit, is facing discrimination in an absorption center for new immigrants in Dimona. On one field trip with his Hebrew teacher, he overhears a guide complain that Ethiopian immigrants should “shower and wear deodorant before coming [on a tour],” adding that he “thought [he] would die, they smelled so bad!” This is just one example of the racism — both casual and institutional — he encounters, alone in the obscure town of Dimona, set apart from white Israeli society. The humiliation leads Kebede to start drinking. Increasingly, he loses his faith and his sense of self.
Will Tigest and the kids make it to Israel? Will they figure out how to find Azmera, Solomon, and Kebede? Will Kebede figure out how to dig himself out of his depression and alcoholism? All of these are questions braided throughout the novel, as Salzman keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. I found myself reading late into the night — I had to know if the characters would be OK!
Another question, though, looms even larger. Will Israeli society figure out its racism in a way that allows all immigrants to feel at home in the country? This has a more complicated answer. After all, racism and its legacies are not something one can simply wipe away. And there are a lot of legacies. To be sure, great strides have been made at exposing the worst of the discrimination. Policies like secretly throwing away the blood donated by Ethiopian-Israelis, forcing Ethiopian men to be re-circumcised, or giving Ethiopian women contraceptives without their knowledge or consent are no longer in practice. Still, as recently as August 2023, Israeli citizens were marching in the streets of Tel-Aviv to protest both civilian racism and police brutality against Ethiopian-Israelis.
Salzman reckons with this quandary by providing different outcomes for her various narrators. This is a clever way to approach the problem of multiple contradictory truths. Her characters all encounter societal challenges in different ways, chance encounters with strangers lead to different outcomes. And they all deal with the challenges in their own way. After all, each one comes with a lifetime of experiences and identity that inform how they’ll react when faced with the wild newness of a mixed-up society, still figuring itself out, like the one they find in Israel. I appreciated that she didn’t try to solve the problem. She left it messy, which it is, while still guiding us through the tales of her heroes.
“The more I researched, the more I realized how the story of Ethiopian aliyah to Israel, particularly Operations Moses and Solomon, had not been captured in an English-language novel,” Salzman writes in a recent essay for The Algemeiner, “As I wrote, I struggled with whether I had the right to tell this story, given that it wasn’t my own. At the same time, this story is such an important chapter in the history of the Jewish people that I concluded that someone needed to illuminate it. If that person is me, and if my writing can give their story the true justice it deserves, it doesn’t matter what color my skin is or where I came from.”
Straddling Black and White takes on a tricky narrative, full of contradictions and conflicting ideas about home and belonging. This would be a tall order for anyone to deliver on; for a debut novelist, it’s downright impressive. I hope this is the first of many books from Salzman, and that her work inspires other writers to tell this important, heroic, and fascinating story.