Hagit Yaso is an Israeli icon. She won the ninth season of “Kochav Nolad,” Israel’s version of “American Idol,” in 2011. And at only 24 years old, she is considered a role model for young Ethiopian girls.
Yaso, who was in town earlier this week for performances through Jewish National Fund at the University of Maryland, Towson University, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, the Urban Pathways Charter School and Carnegie Mellon University, told the JT that when she comes to perform in the United States she feels right at home — especially when singing for other Jews.
“It feels warm,” she said. “I like that they know the songs.”
In Israel, Yaso was the first Ethiopian woman to win a “Kochav Nolad” competition, and she said as she was going through the rounds of the contest, her peers — and really Ethiopians across the country — were saying, “Good job! Continue! Now we have someone who is from Ethiopia who is going to be a role model.”
Yaso, shortly after her win, embarked on a speaking tour to schools throughout Israel. At those, she spoke about her journey to stardom and the challenges she had — the times she fell and how she got up and continued.
“It has been hard to get to where I am, I tell them,” said Yaso. “I connect with the youth and tell them to continue [working hard].”
Yaso said that while there have been improvements in the lives of the Ethiopian population in Israel, racism still exists in Israel.
“Whenever I think it is behind us, there is an article or an incident — something happens, and we take steps back,” she said, noting that she was fortunate to grow up in a mixed neighbor, one filled with immigrants from all across the world, so she personally had little experience with racism.
It has been a pioneering couple of years for Ethiopian-born Israelis. In 2013, Israel elected its first Ethiopian-born Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw. Last year, Israel appointed its first Ethiopian-born ambassador. And this year, Israel elected its first Ethiopian-born woman to parliament.
This is the third concert series Yaso has performed on behalf of JNF, an organization she said she feels is “developing the State of Israel.” She told the JT that she became acquainted with JNF in 2008 while in the army; JNF had donated a rec room in Sderot, and she had gone there to sing for the children of Sderot. She was blown away by the warmth of the JNF professionals and connected with them via social media. When she won “Kochav Nolad,” JNF staff in Israel invited her to perform benefit concerts on its behalf. Yaso called JNF her extended family.
How does the young Yaso handle the status she has achieved?
“It’s fun,” she said. “I want to sing for all the Jews here [in the United States] and in Israel and all over the world. I want to have concerts and make people happy and fulfilled.”
Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — firstname.lastname@example.org