Kim Salzman, Israel and overseas director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, spent more than 13 years writing her debut novel, Straddling Black and White, which she published earlier this year.
“I gave birth to three children, and they are my ultimate pride and joy. This novel is my fourth baby, and I similarly take great pride in the final product,” she wrote on LinkedIn.
The work of historical fiction is based on “Operation Moses,” which was responsible for the mass immigration of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel beginning in 1984. This is the sort of thing about which Salzman, who honeymooned in Ethiopia and who served for more than five-and-a-half years as a protection associate of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, knows a thing or two.
Salzman discussed her book and Jewish nonprofit experience with JNS. Responses have been lightly edited for style.
Q: When did you decide to write this book, and what are some of the ways your concept changed during the process?
A: I made aliyah to Israel in 2006 and ever since, I have been intrigued by the stories of other olim (“new immigrants”) to Israel, whether they come from Morocco, Ukraine, the United States or Ethiopia.
All of us olim have something in common—leaving behind our culture, language, family and more to start a new life in the Jewish homeland.
After making aliyah in 2006, I started working for Tebeka, an organization advocating for the legal rights of Ethiopian-Israelis, and there I learned from my colleagues about their personal aliyah stories from Ethiopia. I became fascinated by Ethiopian aliyah and their tremendous longing to return to Jerusalem and the sacrifices they made along the way to make that possible.
I then traveled to Ethiopia for my honeymoon and spent time in the Gondar region, the northern region in Ethiopia from where most Ethiopian Jews hailed. I returned to Israel more inspired than ever and started writing what eventually became my novel.
The more I researched, the more I realized that there was little to no literature written in English about Ethiopian aliyah. This was especially the case for historical fiction novels, which have the ability to bring to life their stories through compelling storytelling. My motivation grew to tell their story, and to tell it in a compassionate and moving manner.
Q: Why did you choose to write it as historical fiction, and what are some of the things you hope readers will take away from it?
A: I didn’t really see any other option but telling the story as a historical fiction novel, given that it is based on the events that took place before, during and after “Operation Moses.” Yet the individual characters throughout the story are entirely fictional.
I hope readers will deepen their understanding about Ethiopian Jewry and the many sacrifices they made in their immigration to Israel. I hope the book will also shed light on the immigrant experience generally and the challenges associated with it.
More than anything, though, I hope readers of the book will walk away with a sense of pride in the State of Israel for bringing Ethiopian Jews home to Israel. There were many mistakes made along the way, and the book doesn’t shy away from them, but ultimately, I hope the book reminds readers of the strength and unity of the Jewish people.
Q: How did you come to honeymoon in Ethiopia?
A: I am an American-Israeli and have lived in Israel for most of my adult life. When it came time to choose a location for our honeymoon, Ethiopia seemed like the obvious choice for me.
I had worked for an Ethiopian-Israeli organization and learned a great deal about the country through my colleagues, and the food, the music, the clothing, the landscapes and the history of Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewry) all intrigued me.
I was also looking to do something off the beaten track, as well as something that would challenge both me and my husband, and expand our horizons. All that combined with relatively affordable plane tickets from Israel made it an easy decision.
Q: What are some of the things that readers who haven’t visited Ethiopia and don’t know much about its history ought to know about the country and its Jewish history?
A: I find that most readers know very little about Ethiopian Jewry and aliyah, but even those who have a strong knowledge base tell me that they gained a deeper understanding about Ethiopian Jewry and the many obstacles they overcame.
Readers likely don’t know how for thousands of years Ethiopian Jews deeply yearned to return to Jerusalem, nor are most readers aware of the treacherous journey to Sudan and the inhumane conditions in the refugee camps there upon arrival.
Many readers are also unaware of the challenges Ethiopian Jews faced in their integration into Israeli society, some an unfortunate result of mistakes made by the Israeli government.
Through the different characters in my book, I really tried to delve deep into the rich history of Ethiopian Jewry, as well as the challenges and successes related to their aliyah to Israel and their integration into Israeli society.
They also don’t know how Ethiopian Jews were isolated from the rest of the Jewish world for thousands of years and believed that they were the only Jews that survived the destruction of the First Temple.
Q: How did you come to work in Israel for the Pittsburgh Federation?
A: My husband began his postdoctoral work in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University in 2016, and I was lucky to get a job at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh doing work I love as the Israel and overseas director.
Q: Many of our readers have a lot of concerns about antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments at the United Nations. What do you think they ought to know on those fronts, as someone who has so much U.N. experience?
A: I worked for UNHCR for five years. I worked in the legal department helping to provide protection according to international refugee law to asylum seekers and refugees, many from Eritrea and Sudan.
UNHCR is a different organization from the U.N. Human Rights Council and as such, I did not experience any antisemitism working for this arm of the United Nations.