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Beauty and the feast

The first black Miss Israel meets the first black U.S. president

Author Debra Kamin Illustration Peter Oumanski


JERUSALEM – At the entryway of a mansion in Jerusalem, 21-year-old Titi Aynaw steps gingerly from a car, tottering slightly in 6-inch heels. She smoothes her black lace gown and pats her hair, which is woven into an elaborate bun atop her head. Before her, chattering in the moonlight, stand some of the most powerful men and women in Israel.

Aynaw has only recently completed her service as a lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces, so it’s a shock when Benny Gantz, the IDF chief of staff, saunters up to her and smiles. “Shalom,” he says.

“Like we are two friends at a bar,” she marvels afterward. “Is this really happening? Seriously, where am I?”

Born in Ethiopia, Aynaw came to Israel at age 12 after her mother died. (Her father had died a decade earlier.) She was raised by her grandparents, and though a high achiever in school, she was not prepared for the trajectory her life would take this year after she became the first black woman to win the title of Miss Israel.

Aynaw often describes her journey as a Cinderella story, but she seems to be having difficulty with the bit where she goes to the ball. She is here tonight at the personal invitation of Israeli President Shimon Peres, and will dine with dignitaries including Barack Obama. She spots the U.S. president through the crowd—with the extra height her heels add to her nearly 6-foot-tall frame, she towers above everyone—and her lovely face looks stricken.

“When should I walk up to him?” she asks, taking a few deep breaths. “I have to at least say hello.”

As the banquet commences, Aynaw picks at the first and second courses, waiting for the right moment. Then, just before dessert, Peres brings the president to her. “This is our beauty queen, our modern Queen of Sheba,” the 89-year-old statesman tells Obama.

“You really are beautiful,” Obama says, “and very tall!”

Later, Aynaw will gushingly describe the president as a “world-class hunk.” But right now, she is at a loss for words, staring into a plate of fruit and dark chocolate that, for the remainder of the evening, will go untouched.

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