Thursday, April 4, 2013

Miss Israel and Mr. America

On February 27th, Yityish Aynaw was crowned Miss Israel in a pageant held in the city of Haifa. An Ethiopian Jew, she is the first black Miss Israel.  According to a Time magazine article written by Sorcha Pollak,

Aynaw was born in the town of Gondar in northwest Ethiopia. When she was 1 year old her father died, and 10 years later, after her mother died, she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents, who had immigrated to Israel. Growing up, she heard stories of Israel — the land of “milk and honey” — but life in a new country, learning a new language, was a huge challenge for the 12-year-old. “It wasn’t easy because I couldn’t speak the language and I was put into a regular class without any help,” Aynaw told the BBC.

During the 2013 Miss Israel competition, Aynaw told the judges that the time had come for a black woman to wear the crown. “It’s important that a member of the Ethiopian community win the competition for the first time,” she told the panel. “There are many different communities of many different colors in Israel, and it’s important to show that to the world,” she added, according to the Guardian.

She also decided to take part in the competition using her real Ethiopian name. When the Miss Israel contest first began, some contestants chose to use “pure” Hebrew names over their ethic identities, notes online magazine Tablet, whereas Aynaw was determined to use her birth name. “I was born sick, but my mom believed I had a future,” she says. Yitayish is Amharic for look, or as Aynaw explains it, “looking toward the future.”

Only a few weeks after her coronation, Barack Obama, during his recent visit to the Holy Land, invited her to a state dinner held at the home of Shimon Peres, Israel's president.  According to the article, Aynaw said, 

“I was influenced and inspired by Obama,” she told the BBC. “Like him, I was also raised by my grandmother … and I also had to work very hard and long to achieve things in my life. To this day, he inspires me just as he inspires the rest of the world.” According to Aynaw, she has more in common with the U.S. President than one would imagine: “I’m the first black Miss Israel to be chosen and [Obama] is the first black American President. These go together,” she told the Jerusalem Post. 

Here is a photograph of President Obama being introduced to Yityish Aynaw by Shimon Peres:  

In a Jewish Daily Forward article by Renee Ghert-Zand, we are told,

Peres had the pleasure of introducing Aynaw to the president. “President Peres is an amazing man,” she said. “It was a great honor to be at a dinner at his residence, and he introduced me to President Obama in the most honorable and exciting way. I’ll never forget it.”

“She’s our queen,” Peres said as he introduced her. “In our Jewish tradition, we have already had an Ethiopian queen. [Titi] is our modern Queen of Sheba.”

Obama responded by saying to Aynaw, “You are very beautiful. Michelle would be very happy to be your height.” The high heels must have thrown the president’s estimation of Aynaw’s height off, because the First Lady is merely half an inch shorter than the beauty queen.

“He’s an exciting man, a world class hunk, charming and an outstanding gentleman,” is how Aynaw described the president, whom she had previously said was a role model and hero for her.

The article also reports that, "all eyes were on her as she mingled among the other guests in an elegant black lace dress and high-heeled shoes that added another 5 inches to her 5’11 ½ ” height."

And here is a Jewish News One interview with Aynaw about her preparations for meeting with the  President of the United States:

Our newest Miss Israel says a great deal about the diversity and openness of Israeli society, but of course there is always room for improvement. According to Pollak,

There are an estimated 120,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and they frequently complain of being discriminated against, reports the BBC. Indeed, some have reportedly taken to calling Aynaw “toffee queen,” instead of yoffee (Hebrew for beauty) queen. Nevertheless, Semai Elias, a spiritual leader in the Ethiopian-Jewish community, is optimistic that Israeli people will come around. “There is hope that Israeli society has gotten a little bit more open,” he told Tablet.

The Tablet article, written by Daniel Estrin, notes that the Miss Israel pageant has been held uninterrupted for the past 63 years, and that

you can learn a lot about the face Israeli society has tried to put forward by the faces its judges choose each year. In 1952, at the height of tensions between Israel’s European veterans and Middle-Eastern Jewish newcomers, Yemen-born Ora Vered became the first Miss Israel of Middle-Eastern Jewish descent. In 1993, in the midst of Israel’s tidal wave of Soviet immigration, Kiev-born Jana Khodriker won, and in 1999, the peak of Israel’s optimism that Arab-Israeli peace was imminent, judges crowned Rana Raslan the first Arab Miss Israel.

Estrin also notes that despite the problems the persist in Israeli society,

these past few years have been trailblazing ones for Ethiopian-born Israeli women. In 2011, Hagit Yaso was the first Ethiopian-born winner of the Israeli version of American Idol. In 2012, Belaynesh Zevadia was appointed Israel’s first Ethiopian-born ambassador, sent to represent the Jewish state in her native Addis Ababa. And in January, Pnina Tamano-Shata became the first Ethiopian-born woman to be elected to parliament. “There is hope that Israeli society has gotten a little bit more open,” said Semai Elias, a spiritual leader in the Ethiopian Jewish community, about their accomplishments. “The community has been given a chance.”

Whatever the difficulties that exist in Israel, they are nothing compared to what we have gone through in the United States, and we can be confident that the soon will be resolved. And we know that Jews all around the world take great pride in our kinship with the beautiful new Miss Israel!

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