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Seven Generations is an artistic exploration of the assimilation of the Ethiopian Jewish population in Israel .  Through photos and videos, Avishai Mekonen creates a visual conversation between elders and youths about the past and future of their community. Seven Generations is at once a historical record, chronicling the knowledge and customs of Ethiopian Jewish ancestry, and also a catalyst that seeks to spark a desire for self-knowledge in a generation of Ethiopian Jews coming of age in Israel .

 The Elders

Nothing prepared newly emigrated Ethiopian Jews for the hard clash of assimilation in Israel . The elders in the community found their roles inverted: unable to speak Hebrew, they were reliant on the youth for explanation of simple daily tasks and for financial support. Such dramatic change collapsed much of what had been reliable in the traditional family structure and erased the necessity and context for many ancient Ethiopian traditions.

 The central metaphor for the Seven Generations project is the ancient tradition of counting generations in which the kessim (Ethiopian rabbis) and community elders name members of an individual’s ancestry.  Generation counting occurs most often before weddings to ensure no blood relation between potential bride and groom.  For a marriage to receive the blessings of the family and the community, the elders must count back seven generations before finding a familial relation.  Rooted in the spoken word, the custom of counting generations was preserved during the journey from Ethiopia to Israel .  But the very characteristic that allowed the custom to move to a new a land now threatens its future; a language barrier has developed between Amharic-speaking elders and Hebrew-fluent youths. 

 Avishai Mekonen’s grandfather was well known for counting, with a memory for the details of more than ten generations.  His fame followed him to Israel where his knowledge of the community’s ancestry served as a bridge between old and new homelands.  It was only after his grandfather’s passing that Avishai recognized the importance of counting the generations in maintaining a connection with his past.  The elders captured in video and photographs are his grandfather’s peers, many of whom now seek youthful predecessors to carry on the custom.


The Young Generation

The grandchildren and great grandchildren of the Ethiopian elders, many born in Israel , grow up unable to speak their ancestral language; dressed in both the clothing and cultural fashions of a modern country, they struggle to see their likeness in their parents and grandparents.   The portraits and video in this section of Seven Generations document the struggle to strike balance between the freedoms of their contemporary Israeli life with the expectations of their Ethiopian families. 

 When asked about traditional Ethiopian customs, like counting, this youthful generation often lacks the knowledge to form basic explanations.  But this question, “do you know how to count the generations?” encourages their deeper contemplation about identity, tradition and assimilation.

SEVEN GENERATIONS exhibition text written by Megan Whitman.

Prints are available in 11 x 14, 16 x 20, and other sizes.
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© 2008 - 2009 Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen