Jewish, Jewish, Everywhere, & not a drop to drink
Thursday, December 04, 2003
AN ESKIMO BECOMES A JEW...IN ISRAEL !
An Eskimo in the IDF
By David Ratner
Tomorrow morning, Meir and Dafna Ben Sira, residents of the village of Nir Etzion south of Haifa, will take their oldest daughter Eva to an induction center and, like all the other proud parents, will watch her get on the bus to commence two years of army service.
Eva is headed for a squad commanders' course, somewhere in the south. The Ben Siras realize that, during her service, Eva is in for some astonished questioning; after all, the smiling, quiet young woman with the long black hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes looks a little different from the average Israeli female conscript.
Eva was born in Alaska to a Yupik Eskimo mother and a Cherokee Native American father. A check of the archives of the army's Bamahane magazine, which for years has tried to track soldiers who come to Israel from remote places, indicates that she is evidently the Israel Defense Forces' first Eskimo soldier.
"A few weeks ago, I was at an IDF base, at a preliminary meeting of candidates for the squad commanders' course," relates Eva. "We sat in a group and everyone had to introduce himself. I decided to forestall the curious questions, so I said, `My name is Eva, and I'm not Chinese.'"
Eva says that at the induction center she was asked to retell the story of her life and that of her twin brother Jimmy several times (Jimmy will be inducted next year after he finishes his studies), to make sure they had the details right.
Meir Ben Sira was born in Nir Etzion, a religious cooperative farming village affiliated with the National Religious Party. His father was one of only four men to survive the hard fighting in Gush Etzion in 1948. Dafna Ben Sira was born at the Ein Hod artists' village, the daughter of artists Margot and Norman Lewis, a Swiss Catholic and an American Jew. The geographic proximity between Nir Etzion and Ein Hod overcame the differences in their respective worldviews, and Meir and Dafna were married.
In 1989, when Dafna's mother relocated to Alaska, she settled in the capital city of Anchorage and worked at her career as a painter. The newlyweds traveled there to visit her. Eva's and Jimmy's mother lived next door; she was a young Inuit woman named Minnie who, like many families in the Yupik tribe, had been harmed by the encounter between traditional Western Alaska hunting culture and American progress. The twins' father, a Cherokee wanderer, disappeared immediately after the birth, and the young mother, alone and without funds, was forced to give up the twins, who were then two years old. The Alaskan social welfare authorities sent the children to live with their grandmother in a distant city. Because the grandmother was having a hard time caring for them, Meir and Dafna decided to adopt the twins, who were already five years old.
"Among the Intuit people, giving children to whites for adoption is absolutely forbidden," says Dafna. "Only after one of the tribe checked us out and decided that the extended Jewish family inculcates values similar to those of the Inuit, did they agree to it, and the tribe gave its consent." The local Chabad rabbi in Alaska also gave his blessing. The American judge wept when she signed the papers finalizing the adoption.
When the twins were nine, the Ben Sira family returned to Israel. The twins were converted, and the couple had another three daughters. The first photograph of the twins in Israel was taken at the Western Wall. Eva and Jimmy found a place for themselves in the local state religious school. At first, they were put back to second grade, and afterward rejoined the other children their age. They also integrated into local religious life, including regular synagogue attendance, bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, membership in the Bnei Akiva youth movement, and study at a religious high school.
"It's too bad the twins lost their wonderful English," says their Aunt Yasmin, and Eva says that she regrets having forgotten the little bit of Yupik she spoke until age five.
Eva is set on doing her army service and pursuing an ordinary existence at Nir Etzion. "I have a good life in Israel and I don't feel the need to dig into the past and know where I came from," she explains. Jimmy is the one who dreams of a journey to his roots in Alaska and the Cherokees, to learn more about the genetic heritage he bears.
He spends long hours on the Internet collecting material on Eskimos and Indians, and his room is decorated with Indian motifs. "I'll travel around, I'll learn where I came from," he says, "and then I'll decide where I want to settle down."
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