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New soil, old roots

Ethiopian-Israeli elders tend their own gardens

New soil, old roots photo 1 image
A farmer tilling his plot of land on the Hineni farm.

It looks like a pepper, but it's much more than that. It is the certain, extra-hot kind of pepper grown in Ethiopia, used in Ethiopian cooking. And if you want one, you're going to have to grow it yourself, just like you did in Ethiopia. Even if you are in Israel now. 

Of course, if you are going to grow that pepper -- and the other vegetables and herbs that also go in the recipe -- you're going to need some soil to grow it in.

Which is where Hineni comes in. Hineni -- Hebrew for "here I am" -- is an organization that helps Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. In this case, to JUF's Partnership Together region of Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir.

But they also noticed that their husbands, fathers, and grandfathers were not doing so well. Some, past the usual working age, were listless and bored. Back in Ethiopia, they had been able to provide for their families by farming. In industrialized Israel, they felt displaced and unnecessary.

So Hineni began a project called Shorashim (Hebrew for "roots") to give each of these elders a plot of land. Not a huge one, but big enough for them to grow enough food to help feed their families.

New soil, old roots photo 3

The effect was immediate, and tremendous. The men once again felt energized, useful, and honored. They had somewhere to go in the morning, and something to bring home in the evening -- heaping baskets of food, ready for the pot and the table.

"In Ethiopia, I was a farmer, I worked the land," said Shachar, a Shroashim participant. "When I joined Hineni -- and finally could feel the land of Israel after years of living here with no direction -- it was a dream. Finally, I found my destination. It gave me hope again."

The men planted the crops they knew from Ethiopia, including ferociously hot peppers. They began to bring their grandchildren along, too, to help and to learn.

While each had his own plot for pepper-growing, spices needed more specialized and delicate care. So, a greenhouse was built, for the sole purpose of growing these herbs.

New soil, old roots photo 2

Their techniques and tools were similar to those they used in Ethiopia. But some Israeli techniques, like drip irrigation, were added to their methods.

Inspired, the men kept going. They built round huts, called gojos, just as they had done in Ethiopia. They began to recreate their villages, both as a way of remembering their homes and to show their children -- and visitors to the community -- what their way of life had been.

Then they added a museum, showcasing the items they carried with them, and their handicrafts. Like all proper museums, it has guided tours and a gift shop. It also hosts workshops at which crucial ancient skills are handed down.

A plot of soil can grow vegetables, certainly. But it can also grow a sense of self-respect. Enough plots of soil can even grow a community.

Few things are as satisfying as eating the fruits -- or vegetables -- of one's own labors. It has been said that "hunger is the best spice." But maybe dignity is even more delicious.

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