Supermodel Titi Aynaw, the first black woman to ever win the Miss Israel pageant, spoke about her experiences as a Jewish Ethiopian immigrant in Israel at a talk last Monday.
Aynaw described her life as being composed of drastically different chapters. Her speech was the beginning of a week-long celebration to honor the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, organized by Hillel and Rochester Student for Israel (RSI).
“I wanted to bring something about Israel that is less talked about,” said Tal Hadad, an Israeli Fellow with Hillel who helped bring Aynaw to campus, adding, “Not a lot of people actually know that there is a black Jewish community in Israel.”
Aynaw never entered the beauty contest for herself. Instead, she said, her main goal was to win the final prize of a car for her best friend. But as she began to pass rounds, her love for a challenge and — as it turned out — photoshoots encouraged her to press on until the end.
For Aynaw, her experiences as an Ethiopian-Jewish immigrant distinguished her from from the other contestants.
When asked by the judges why she was there, she recalled saying: “We have already chosen an Arabic Miss Israel, a Russian Miss Israel, Yemen. This is the time to choose a black Miss Israel, me.”
Aynaw remarked on the surreality of rising to celebrity status from such humble beginnings.
“As an immigrant, to have the opportunity to win in the new country I dream about, it’s really much more,” she said.
The supermodel made light of her Ethiopian heritage, describing her younger self as “the female Tarzan” in a childhood wild and carefree as she was “running in the woods of Ethiopia […] having the best time.”
But that simple life was soon interrupted by the sobering effect of her mother’s death when she was 9. At the same time, her family began to “make aliyah” — a Hebrew term that means to migrate to Israel.
“I dreamed to move to Israel the way other girls dream of being princesses,” Aynaw said, describing her time as she waited to secure passage.
Laughingly, Aynaw remembered thinking Israel would look like a literal land of milk and honey, as described in the Bible, and recalled her surprise at finding modern-looking, “huge monster buildings” upon arrival.
Her mother’s death left her determined to take control of her life. Aynaw said she adapted quickly, learning Hebrew in as little as three months. This would not have been possible, she noted, without the help of her classmates in elementary school. They informally started “Project Titi,” each taking turns to teach her a few Hebrew words each day. She reflected that this acceptance was in part because of how diverse Israel is.
“We were from all over the world [so] it was not weird not to know Hebrew, it was not weird not to be like everyone,” she said.
This acceptance continued when Aynaw joined the army after high school, and rose to the rank of lieutenant, eventually being responsible for training at least 100 soldiers in an all-male platoon.
“I was the tough lieutenant,” Aynaw said. “I never laughed in front of my soldiers, I was so professional because I never wanted them to think something else because I was female.”
Students found her speech relatable and motivating.
“It was definitely inspiring to see her drive to learn and overcome adversity,” said sophomore Anthony Pericolo, who felt a personal connection to her story since his parents migrated from Italy to the United States.
As this chapter of Aynaw’s life closes, she plans for her next chapter to focus on her modeling career. She is also considering acting.
“I’d like to be something strong — Superwoman or Wonder Woman,” Aynaw said.
Clarification (4/29/18): Originally, the article stated that Israel week was just organized by Hillel, however, Israel week was organized by Hillel and Rochester Student for Israel (RSI).