The Human Spirit: The Long Journey from Tukul to Bar
July 22, 2011
Barbara Sofer , THE
Given the opportunity and committed to working
hard, Eli Mantson realized his dream to become an Israeli lawyer.
According to the Israel Bar Association, 1,714
men and women passed the bar examination last month.
Among them was Eli Mantson of Hadera. The Bar Association doesn’t keep
records by ethnic group, but Mantson thinks he’s one of only two Ethiopian
Jews who made it through the exam.
He had wanted to be a lawyer since high school. Before that, he was a
school dropout, working in the Netanya market, hawking lentils. By the
time he returned to school, he shared classes with teens who had criminal
“We hope you succeed,” they told him.
“We’re going to need a lawyer one day.”
Mantson’s life journey began in a tukul, the mud-and-straw hut where the
Jews of rural Ethiopia lived. His parents, Berko and Tapach Mantson, were
farmers, but as famine struck and forced conscription at age 12 threatened
their sons, they left for the refugee camps in Sudan with their nine children
and Eli’s grandfather. Mantson doesn’t remember the details of that journey,
or the one that brought them to Israel. He was five or six – he’s not
sure – but recalls being frightened as highwaymen, disease and hunger
After the absorption center, they were assigned an apartment in Netanya.
Berko found occasional work cleaning or emptying garbage. Mantson’s siblings
were assigned to dorm schools, but he stayed home and started school in
In Ethiopia, there was no electricity, but there was also no electric
bill to pay. He wanted to help. By age eight, he was working in the open-air
“Mostly I carried fruit and vegetables,” he says. “ People take advantage
of child labor.
Sometimes they paid me, sometimes they lied and didn’t pay me. But when
I brought money home and helped my parents buy food, I felt very good.”
By the seventh grade, he dropped out of school to work full-time in the
market. Veteran Israelis knew it was illegal to hire children, but looked
the other way. Mostly he worked at a stall selling beans, lentils and
dried fruit. He could add up the bills in his head; he was good with customers.
“Customers would sometimes say it was a shame that a child with so much
potential was wasting his life,” he says. “No one did anything about it.”
When the children of the stall owners had trouble with their schoolwork,
Mantson’s bosses asked him to tutor them. “Here I was, the school dropout,
helping them. I looked with awe at their school backpacks, their school
supplies and their books. I was jealous, and decided to do something about
His parents weren’t going to take the initiative to get him back to school.
“We had a warm, happy household. When we were together, we slept head
to foot, enjoyed each other’s company. But my parents had already ceded
the decision-making to me.”
He went to the office of social services and introduced himself – a boy
who wanted to enter the ninth grade even though he hadn’t been in school
for two years. It would have to be a youth village, he insisted; “I knew
I needed a place where there was a clean bed, meals, school supplies,
and someone to take care of me.”
The country's remarkable youth villages were established pre-state as
agricultural living environments where teens had independence.
President Shimon Peres and his late wife, Sonya, both lived and studied
at Ben-Shemen, the first of these. When young people fled Europe under
the aegis of Youth Aliya, the villages became refuges for homeless teens.
They have remained so over the decades.
Scattered around Israel, there are still dozens of villages inhabited
by teenagers who live in no-frills dormitories, on green lawns. The kids
do village chores – often agricultural, like milking cows and gathering
eggs – and take part in village-wide social activities. There are swimming
pools, soccer fields and computer rooms.
Mantson was accepted at the Meir Shfeya Youth Village near Zichron Ya’acov,
an early one that had been given to Junior Hadassah by Baron Rothschild.
Orphans from the Kishinev pogroms and from Jerusalem’s Diskin Orphanage
had lived there.
“I loved it from the first minute. That’s where I told everyone I was
going to be a lawyer,” says Mantson, who changed the spelling of his parents’
name to make it easier in Hebrew.
“My classmates, some of whom had already had brushes with the law, invited
me to join them in smoking and stealing, but I knew what it meant to be
on the street and I wasn’t going back,” he adds.
The academic adviser suggested he start on a non-matriculation path, but
Mantson wanted the full matriculation program. He graduated on time. He
had a steady girlfriend from the village. He enlisted in the Border Police,
where he was picked for a command course.
It took him three years after military service to save the money for college.
He registered for the preparatory course in Kiryat Ono College, and then
went on to study law.
Last year, he graduated and married his girlfriend, Einat Levy. Her Moroccan
family “took a while to adjust to an Ethiopian sonin- law, but now my
mother loves him,” she says. She’s expecting their first child.
He works 240 hours a month in the population and immigration department
of Ben- Gurion Airport, but finds time for two volunteer activities. He
haunts the marketplaces for boys like him who have dropped out of school;
he’s already sent three to Meir Shfeya. And he works in an NGO that gives
free legal aid to Ethiopian immigrants.
But one goal escaped him. He graduated from law school, but didn’t have
the free time to prepare for the bar examination. “I convinced myself
that I could make peace with this,” he said.
So he told my friend and colleague Barbara Goldstein, a longtime Hadassah
activist who sits on the Meir Shfeya board.
“Simply put, she yelled at me,” he says.
Goldstein was indeed steaming. How could he give up now? A few of us listened
to her rant, and then figured out that the sum he needed to prepare –
three months of a very modest Israeli salary – wasn’t so great.
Goldstein made a few personal phone calls to American supporters, and
the money was guaranteed. She told Mantson to take a leave of absence.
“I was very moved, but scared to death,” says Mantson. “What if I failed
them now? I studied day and night. I couldn’t speak from tension sores
in my mouth.”
The secrets of his success? When pressed, he admits that he knew he had
inborn abilities, but gives most of the credit to his parents, who believed
in him; to the supportive staff at Meir Shfeya; and to the anonymous backers
in America who gave him a chance.
“I also understood what a dead end life on the street was. I was terrified
that I’d never have the life [I wanted], that I’d wind up there, far from
my dreams. Now my dreams have come true.”