“Don’t think I am just a beauty queen,” Yityish Aynaw, the 22-year-old Ethiopian-born beauty, declared from the bimah at Ohr HaTorah last Shabbat. With sass and a smile, she crowed, “I was a commander in the Israeli army.”
It comes as no surprise that the woman now known as “Miss Israel” is more than just a docile dish. “People who know me, they don’t see me only as a beauty queen, because they know who I am,” she said during an interview at her hotel on Sept. 29.
Aynaw (pronounced ay-NOW) was in Los Angeles as part of a four-city tour with the Rev. Ronald V. Myers, a doctor/preacher/jazz musician who created the National Juneteenth Observance movement, whose aim is to inaugurate an official legal holiday honoring the end of slavery. Myers told me he sees Juneteenth as a day of reconciliation and healing, “the African-American Yom Kippur.”
So imagine how agog he was when he discovered that Miss Israel is black. He invited her to the United States, he said, so he and fellow black Christians could “connect with their Hebrew roots.”
“She’s bringing us all together,” Myers said at the Little Ethiopia Cultural and Resource Center on Fairfax Avenue, one of the Sabbath day tour stops, this one honoring “Titi” — as Aynaw is known in Israel — with a traditional Ethiopian dance performance. “Many African-Americans do not know that there are black Jews, that we have a common history,” he added. When Myers first learned about Aynaw’s story, he was bothered that her plight was so private.
“Why doesn’t anybody know what Israel did to rescue Ethiopian Jews?” he wondered. “It’s like a secret.”
Even after Israel rescued thousands of Ethiopians in the 1980s and ’90s through Operations Moses and Solomon. Those who remained Jews still felt compelled to hide their Jewishness, Aynaw said. Born in Gondar, Ethiopia, to a single mother who died of cancer when Aynaw was 10, she never met her father but said didn’t miss him: “My mom was a strong woman,” she said. “She was like a mom, a dad — everything.” After her mother’s death, Aynaw and her older brother made aliyah to Netanya, where her maternal grandparents were living.
“As a child, I never felt Ethiopia was my home,” she admitted. “People would always call us ‘falasha’ ” — a derogatory term for Jews that means foreigner or exile — “and my mother all the time [would] tell us about Israel. We dreamed about Israel. We always wanted to make aliyah.”
She was 11 when she finally arrived in Israel, but there she discovered a very different country than the one she had imagined. The move from her tiny Ethiopian village to the thoroughly modern land-of-her-dreams was drastic and unsettling. “In my fantasy,” she said, struggling to communicate with her basic English, “I [would] go to Israel and everything — gold! Jerusalem of gold … everything gold. And we [would] have honey in every place. … And [then] I come to Israel, and I see elevators, lights, cars. … No gold.”
But she was still smitten. Aynaw quickly learned Hebrew and overcame her sense of otherness to become a well-integrated member of Israeli society. So much so, in fact, that she also joined the ranks of Israel’s privileged elite as a military commander, and, later, a lieutenant. Speaking in Hebrew, she told Ohr HaTorah — through the fluid translation of Meirav Finley — that the most valuable lesson of her service was one of paradox: As the presiding commander at an Israeli checkpoint, where she oversaw 90 or so officers, she insisted that passing Palestinians be treated with both decency and dignity, but also with a fair amount of suspicion, as serving higher ideals can demand holding opposite views with the same hands.
Now, the bold beauty queen is out to prove that she can morph from orphaned child to leading lady. “To represent Israel, it changes everything,” she said. “You want to do the right thing; you don’t want to disappoint. So I can’t act like I want to every time — I have to be perfect. I have responsibilities.”
One of those is developing her passion project, a community arts education center in Netanya for at-risk children, many of whom she has seen go from playing ball in the street to smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. “A lot of children in my neighborhood, after school, they have nothing to do,” she lamented.
Last March, during Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel as president, Titi was among the Knesset members and army generals trotted out to meet him.
“I knew everything about him,” she said, explaining that she had done a school project on the first black U.S. president. “I liked that all the time he dreamed.”
When Israeli President Shimon Peres introduced Aynaw to Obama, Peres presented her as “Israel’s queen,” referring to her biblical tie to King Solomon’s consort, the Queen of Sheba. “She is the modern Queen of Sheba,” Peres said.
“My heart leapt from my chest,” Aynaw admitted of meeting her idol. Standing in a room with so many luminaries gave her an idea of where to go with her studies in government at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center.
“Right now I need to model so I can make money for a campaign,” she said, laughing. “Because if you have a good campaign, it means you’ll be prime minister.”