|Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw, talks to middle-schoolers at the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County as its head, Ruth Gafni, looks on. Jerry Szubin|
It is hard not to notice Miss Israel.
Yityish Aynaw would be 6 feet, 2 inches if she were barefoot, which she is not; she is wearing heels that appear to be at least 4 inches high.
She is slim and appears to be composed entirely of sculpted muscle. She is, objectively speaking, gorgeous. Her burnished dark-brown skin glows against an electric-blue sleeveless dress; her long, wavy, bouncy dark hair frames a high-cheekboned, elegant, lovely face.
Her voice is husky and musical.
Despite her glamour – perhaps in part because she is only 21 – she seems wholesome rather than seductive, somehow almost demure.
She has entirely entranced a roomful of middle-schoolers and educators at the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County. This is a group that is rarely to be found goggling at beauty queens.
Needless to say, Yityish Aynaw is no ordinary beauty queen.
Aynaw – Titi to her friends, and kudos to the Schechter kids for not giggling when they heard it, but clearly they were too awed – is the first African Israeli to win the title. She spent the first half of her life in Ethiopia’s Gondar province, living in what are called third world conditions. Her father died when she was an infant, and her mother when she was 10 years old. Her future seemed to hold no promise.
But her grandparents had made aliyah to Israel in 2000, so in 2003 Aynaw and her brother went to live with them. They moved to Netanya.
Aynaw told some of her story to the Schechter students. They asked questions in Hebrew and then repeated them in English. Aynaw understands English and speaks it fairly well, but is far more comfortable in Hebrew, so an interpreter – the school’s head, Ruth Gafni – translated for her.
The family always had been strongly Zionist, as most Jews in Ethiopia tended to be, Aynaw said. “Jerusalem is always in the heart of every Jew.
“I was eager to get there, but because of my mother’s death it was rushed.”
Once she and her brother got there, “it was a crash course in acculturation. We were sent to a regular classroom without knowing the language.” It was sink or swim, she said; they bobbed to the surface.
“It was very challenging,” she said.
Her Hebrew now is fluent and unaccented. Acquiring it, she said, was overcoming the highest hurdle on the path to assimilation into Israeli culture. “Now that I know Hebrew, I am in control of my own destiny,” she said. “Everything is possible.”
After high school, Aynaw, like most Israelis her age, joined the Israel Defense Forces. Mandated to serve for two years, she stayed for a third, becoming a second lieutenant training the soldiers who staff border crossings.
“I highly recommend that when you grow up, you consider joining the IDF,” she told the Schechter students. “Not only do you serve your homeland, it is a huge opportunity for personal growth.”
Now, Gafni said, paraphrasing more than translating, “she has supervised officers, and faced so many challenges that she has overcome. She feels that she can tackle anything – it all has made her stronger.”
Aynaw has always wanted to be a model, she said, but she did not think of beauty pageants as a possible career path; in fact, the Miss Israel contest is the only one she ever entered. A friend pushed her to enter it – “and I did. At first, I thought it was a joke, but then I won.” The friend, Aynaw said, knew that she would win, and coveted the car that went to the winner.
The job of being Miss Israel has responsibilities, Aynaw said; in fact, there are so many that she is busy all day every day. She sees her role as being an ambassador for Israel. That is true for each young woman who wins that job, but it is even more so for her, literally embodying diversity as she does. “It is a very big responsibility, and I take it seriously,” she said.
Her feelings for Israel are deep and strong. “I was welcomed and loved and offered every opportunity,” she said. “I could be whoever I wanted to be. In Ethiopia, I would have been in a small village, without education, with dreams that could not have carried me remotely as far as I have gone.”
Among her many other adventures, including trips such as this one, Aynaw met President Barack Obama, who, as a successful black politician, had been her role model, she said. “He was impressed by my height,” she said. “He told me Michelle would have liked to meet me.”
She enjoyed seeing New York City, which she compared to Disneyland. As an Israeli, used to the sprawling illogic of its cities, she was most struck by Manhattan’s orderliness and regularity – a concept unlikely to occur to most of its natives. “I like that the streets are in numbered order,” she said.
Now, Aynaw will enter her second beauty pageant – the Miss Universe contest, which is set for London in December. “Of course, I hope I win,” she said.
She has dedicated this visit to New Jersey and New York to raising funds for the Netanya Foundation. Her part of the project is to build a center for children, a place they can go after school to play, learn, and grow. Information about the Netanya Project is at www.netanyafoundation.org.