Despite intense prodding by a friend, Yityish Aynaw almost turned around and walked away from her chance to be crowned Miss Israel.
“I saw tons of blonde girls, and I was the only black,” recalled the current Miss Israel, who made aliyah from Ethiopia when she was 13 years old. By that time, she had already lost both her parents. Her father died in her native country’s war with Eritrea, and her mother died of a painful illness. Now, this very beautiful, very tall and very poised women of 22 will compete in November in Moscow for the title of Miss Universe.
She spent about 90 minutes Sept. 17 at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, telling her life’s story and urging everyone to learn Hebrew and come to Israel.
Aynaw is quick to point out she wasn’t always self-confident. For many years, she teetered back and forth between her Ethiopian roots and her new country.
“In Ethiopia, I was Jewish. In Israel, I am Ethiopian,” she said.
She left Ethiopia with her brother and grandparents “not due to anti-Semitism or hatred against Jews. We felt because of Zionism that we wanted to go live in Israel and die in Israel, in Jerusalem,” she said through a translator. (She speaks English but explained she didn’t feel comfortable enough to address a crowd in anything but Hebrew.)
Upon arrival in Israel, Aynaw began school as the only student who had made aliyah from Ethiopia. “I remember I was sitting in class. It was so frustrating to me. The kids sitting next to me, they got the higher grades, because they knew the language.”
She began skimming lots of children’s books, checking the pictures and then going over the words.
Finally things started coming together for her. She joined the track team. “After all, I am an Ethiopian,” she said. She began collecting trophies, and then was chosen head of the student council. Meanwhile, a friend kept nagging her to try out for the Miss Israel pageant, telling her how beautiful she was and adding they could share the car that the winner receives.
But Aynaw wasn’t ready, and anyway it was time to join the Israel Defense Force. She soon found herself with the military police. Two weeks after boot camp, she was told to report for a commander’s course immediately. She did so well, she soon found herself in charge of a unit of 50 female soldiers. “I was only 18, and I had to take care of everything. I was the mom. I was the dad.”
Several times, when a soldier came to her with a problem, she had flash backs of life in Ethiopia and life with her mother. “They made me remember stories I had erased,” she said.
Not long after that, she was awoken in the middle of the night and told to report for officer training classes. “It wasn’t easy,” she recalled. What kept her going was that everything she was doing was a first for an Ethiopian woman in the IDF. “I was always representing the Ethiopian community.”
She ended up serving a year in the West Bank, in charge of an all-male group. “I was young. I never smiled. They never saw a smile. When they saw me in the Miss Israel competition, in a bathing suit, they were shocked,” she laughed.
Three years after joining the IDF, she knew it was time to go but she didn’t know to where. “On the one hand, I was very scared to leave the army and go out and get a job. There was no one to take care of me. I went out into the real world. I always made my decisions for myself,” she said, pointing back to how young she was when both her parents died.
She found work, including a stint as a sales clerk in a clothing store, and then decided to fly to Ethiopia and reexamine her early life. She went to her mother’s grave, a place she had never been, and experienced “a moment of insight. It was like shock treatment for me.”
She became stronger, more confident. “I felt there was nothing in the world that could stop me.”
She returned to Israel and started modeling and soon found herself as one of 2,000 girls at the Miss Israel competition. “I almost backed out. They were really, really beautiful.” She also was dismayed to learn that competition was a four month obligation.
“I wasn’t sure if Israelis were open enough to have a beauty queen who is Ethiopian. “Suprisingly they were,” proclaimed Aynaw.
When asked about the negativity surrounding the recent crowning of Miss America, who is of Indian heritage but many presumed she was from the Middle East, Aynaw replied, “It’s beneath me. I don’t even want to be with a person like that.”
Since her victory in February, she has been working on social projects and going on speaking tours, including this current 10-day visit through America.
At her visit to the JCC in Fairfax, Aynaw addressed a mixed crowd of center regulars, Ethiopian admirers and young girls hoping one day to be Miss America. She urged them all to be open minded and do whatever it takes to pursue their dreams. Also, be content within yourself, she said.
That contentment came to her once she realized she was a Jewish Ethiopian who could cook and eat food from both countries and speak both languages.
“To me personally, to be Jewish is to be an Israeli, to spend holidays in Israel and celebrate them.”
Some of her heart still resides in Ethiopia, where she is determined to work to allow Israel to once again open its borders to Ethiopian immigrants. “Right now, it’s closed. It’s sealed. It’s hard for me to deal with that. There are Jews there, and we cannot leave them.”