Chances are, unless you’re a burrowing rodent, you’ve heard stories of Holocaust survivors escaping to Palestine. But raise your hand if you know jack about the breakaway sagas of the Ethiopian Jews. This year’s Ring Family Wesleyan Israel Film Festival seeks to wrest this staggering history from undeserved oblivion with its screening of Live and Become, an epic drama directed by Radu Mihaileanu.
The film is about an Ethiopian boy, Shlomo, whose mother shoves him out of a wretched Sudanese refugee camp, where he’ll surely die, and onto the 1984 Operation Moses airlift to Israel, where he’s to do as the film title says. He spends the rest of the turbulent 80s and 90s concealing his unkosher secret that he’s Christian and not a descendent of the Beta Israel tribe, lest he be deported.
The adult Shlomo was played by Sirak M. Sabahat, who was among the 15,000 Ethiopian Jews spirited to Israel in 1991’s covert Operation Solomon, a mission spanning 35 flights in 36 hours. Sabahat’s uneasy story of acculturation in his adopted homeland partly informed Mihaileanu’s narrative. He also served as casting director and interpreter for the Ethiopian actors, and his starring turn earned him a nomination for an Israeli Oscar—the first actor of color to enjoy that distinction.
I met with the 25-year-old recent émigré to Manhattan over traditional Middle Eastern mezza, and quickly got why the Ethiopian community venerates him as a prince.
Q: The film took two prizes at the 2005 Berlinale and a French César Award in 2006–how did it play in Israel?
SS: Well the movie never had a chance to see too much of an audience. It did well, but not as it was supposed to.
Q: And among those who saw it, what was the response?
SS: People were fascinated because they never knew anything about the Ethiopian Jews. They thought that we were the people who came from the past to save our lives and escape from starvation and diseases. People never understood the true mission of this journey. So when they saw this film I think the one thing it captured was the spirituality and how much we were willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to be in that land. Then the question came up of, Oh, you are Jews. And the history of the Ethiopian Jews is not just the history of tracking down by Operation Moses and Solomon. There is a history of 2,000 years. So step by step people were trying to figure out, and trying to understand, Who is this dark-skinned person who is claiming that he is a Jew? I think it was provoking questions, so it’s good.
Q: Just as the Ethiopian Jews had wondered before, “Who is this light-skinned person who is claiming that he is Jew?” Tell us about your encounter with Israelis during Operation Solomon.
SS: It’s hard to describe the (political atmosphere leading up to) Operation Solomon. We felt tension would explode by the minute; The Eritrean resistance was closing (in on Addis Ababa) by the minute. (Mossad operatives) took us by busses, supposedly to take us away from the conflict—that’s what we thought. But we had a problem. The person who announced this had a problem—he was white. We thought he was sick.
Q: You had never seen a white Jew before?
SS: No. And I had not seen a plane. When we saw the planes for the first time, I was trying to have some kind of communication. It was quite impossible to achieve that.
Q: You thought the plane was a bird?
SS: And in the inside, I was still trying to find a way with it. I asked myself, Who is keeping the plane in the air? Then we landed in Israel. There we saw a million of white people. This disease is spreading so fast! We thought it was an epidemic. We thought we had to do something about it.
Q: So what did you do?
SS: We had to trust that we were in the Land of God, and trust that God….We had to have faith without any questions. “I will sacrifice my Isaac for you…” Black was the majority where we came from; now it was the minority. People drove and didn’t observe Shabbat. In the Land of God, driving? So where are we? And what is the interpretation of this metaphysic idea of the Holy Land? Why don’t people see the land in the way that God promised to Abraham? Like all the stars.
Q: The origins of the Beta Israel are anyone’s guess—and there are a lot of guesses. Descendents of the Israelite Tribe of Dan? Of Judah and Levi? Of the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon and the fruit of their union, Menelik I? Which among the many swirling theories do you think is most accurate?
SS: I believe that if you claim we are the descendents of Menelik and Queen Sheba, I can go back to Ethiopia and claim the throne for myself. So that is a very complicated issue. We don’t see ourselves as part of that heritage, the way that Haile Selassi saw himself, as the true emperor and the only Jew. We have so many theories, but I can’t conclude immediately from which tribe we are coming. But I know that the Dan tribe is the biggest idea for the Ethiopian Jews to conclude that we are actually coming from that tribe. There is the Judah tribe and also the descendents of Moses.
Q: You mean of his brother Aaron, whose relatives left Israel for Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC?
SS: Tzipora, not Aaron. Moses’s wife Tzipora was from Cush…Ethiopia.
Q: The Old Testament mentions the Queen of Sheba’s 10th-century BC visit to King Solomon of Israel, but the elaborated legend, from the Medieval Ethiopian Book of the Glory of Kings, you say holds little currency among the Beta Israel…
SS: We truly believe that the Ethiopian Jews arrived to the mountains of the Kundar after the kingdom people divided into two parts. So when the 12 tribes disappeared among the world population, people arrived to Egypt, to Yemen, and we can expect that the Jews would move from that place and go to Africa. So we see ourselves as descendents of the Dan tribe. But although I don’t have that much proof to show it, what I can say about it is that for 2,000 years we were living by the idea of Judaism and by the Five Books of Moses. Because this was before the Talmudic traditions, because of this remove, there were so many years of discrimination until the recognition of the (Israeli) rabbis.
Q: One of the most powerful moments in the movie shows the Chief Rabbinate’s symbolic conversion of the Ethiopian arrivals (whose Jewish purity they questioned), when the father whisks the younger you out of the clinic where he’s about to have a drop of ritual blood extracted. But clarify something: Is he already circumcised?
SS: He might be. It’s open to the audience to decide.
Q: Why would a Christian Ethiopian have been circumcised?
SS: Some are. But when you’re talking about this specific case you’re talking about Shlomo. And Shlomo is going to tell us how hard it is to be a Jew from the perspective of a non-Jew. We don’t know anything about this character before his arriving to the screen, but we know his past according to his future. So his mother is saying to him, Now you must take a false identity and become someone that you are not. And from there we’re going to examine your life based on the experience you’re going to have.
Q: As Shlomo struggles with his identity, this injunction to “live and become” becomes a growing source of confusion. Was the irony intended?
SS: We can say that. There is a broader message here, to Israel.
Q: So like Shlomo, Israel must decide what its identity is, and what kind of State it wants to become…
SS: Yes, exactly. I always believe that when you are questioning your identity you must question the identity of those around you in order to find a better perspective for your own voice. In this particular case with Shlomo, we have to have the humanity touch; we have to have solidarity in our hearts and to understand that you are not just reflecting one problem. For example, when you are doing a journey, like we did after leaving our village in Ethiopia, if you will not find good people along the way, those to who like to reach even half of humanity, you will die. Because there are two things that are leading you to do this journey: first the faith in God, that is the most important thing; second, people made this journey before you, your relatives. So those who survive are the proof and witness for fulfilling the dream to be in the Holy Land. So when you are walking from a village to whatever place you are walking in order to be in the Holy Land, you will do it in small groups.
Q: How many?
SS: Two families.
Q: For how long?
SS: It was about a year of moving from Walita, in the southern part of Ethiopia, to Addis Ababa.
Q: Give a sense of what that was like.
SS: I will just say that I have experienced many things in my life with my family. I have seen many different images. When we started to walk from our village, we knew it was our time. And we truly believe that If Moses took his men of Israel from Egypt and they wandered for 40 years because they have sinned in the eyes of God–and those who were pure enough will be at the end of the day in that land–we felt the same too. So when I started this journey I wasn’t concerned about how am I going to handle this journey, or how my family is going to handle this journey, because when we started this journey we weren’t starving. But we had to leave everything like we were just going to visit.
Q: Because you couldn’t arouse suspicion?
SS: Exactly. So when people are seeing us walking—“Where are you going? We are going to visit a family in another village, and it’s about a five-day walk.” So people kept their ideas to themselves. Because since the day the Jews arrived in Ethiopia we have so many problems. Because once we were a major force, like an empire. Aksum was built by the Jews, and the story of Judas–and people tried to take many of the Ethiopian Jews’ history books and burn them and so many things were lost.
Q: Just to clarify the history, are you referring to the 17th century defeat at the hands of the Christians, when Ethiopian Jews faced conversion or exile as Falashas?
SS: Yeah. So when we did this we weren’t afraid of starvation, but we had faith in ourselves. And those who were pure enough would be at the end of the day at the Holy Land. So we walked days and nights. And you can imagine sometimes you’re walking in a very sunny day and sometimes you’re walking in a very cold day. And sometimes you have nothing to support your body, so you have to improvise things on your way. But it must be something very kosher.
Q: As if it wasn’t hard enough.
SS: Everything was hard. And one of the important things is that we stopped for Shabbat because we never walked at Shabbat.
Q: So you would hide under the bushes…
SS: Bushes, yeah.
Q: And you wouldn’t do anything from sunset to sunset?
SS: We would pray.
Q: What’s an example of something that wasn’t kosher, and what did you to make it kosher?
SS: We never had those things, but the only thing I know is that I had much more leaves as I could on my way. So this salad here is just a little reflection of my past. (Laughter.)
SS: So in this story the only thing that I remember is that my mother was a very extraordinary person, and her abilities were something that I could not understand, even to these days.
Q: For instance?
SS: She saved our lives. She would improvise from the bushes. Leaves. She would…I would drink my personal thing, and I wouldn’t even know that I’m drinking my… Her clothes…She, she would put… (Gestures with his shirt.)
Q: She would take her clothes and strain your urine with leaves so it wouldn’t smell as strong?
SS: And sometimes she would give it to me to drink.
Q: Smart woman. Although it has a very high salt content.
SS: We needed that.
Q: So she disguised it so you wouldn’t recognize the taste.
SS: I was so weak.
Q: And so thirsty.
SS: So thirsty that the taste, the ability to smell, the ability to distinguish between taste doesn’t exist at all.
Q: It’s a luxury for the body to have a sense of smell. Can you remember it now, that smell?
SS: I do. It’s tasteless and just a little bit gross, I would say–understatement, of course.
Q: Survival. What’s another example?
SS: Another example would be that this journey took one year because you were a family, and if one of us got sick you had to wait.
Q: Did anyone die?
SS: A few. So we had to wait till that person got better. So it could take a month or two. So you are starting to understand that this journey could take five, six years because you never know who will be strong enough to carry on. And the decision to leave one person behind was not acceptable in any mind.
Q: What were some of the main dangers?
SS: People don’t know, but slavery still exists in Africa. And people have been kidnapped, and women have been sold as sex slaves–and men as forces, as slaves in many different countries. And human trade, it’s still going on at even this moment that we are having this conversation.
Q: And that was another fear?
SS: Oh my goodness, that was one of the major fears! They called them the “shivtah.” The shivtah, they would be in the woods. You can’t see them. But they will come in the middle of the night–someone will give them a tape. You will see a bunch of groups are walking on this side, on this way. So you know, it’s economy. So when people are chasing after their money, and their money has affected them as a human being, they will chase them like an animal. You will see bodies on your way. And also sometimes the animals of the night. They were so a disaster.
Q: You mean hyenas?
SS: I would say coyotes. They are the most disgusting animals.
Q: Besides hungry beasts, what about disease? Did you get sick?
SS: Yes I did. I almost lost my life three times. Everybody has.
Q: How old were you?
SS: I started when I was ten-years-old, and eleven years-old when I ended the journey and six months staying in Addis before I was lifted. But you know, when you were asking, “Give me an example of…,” you can’t compose suffering and difficulties of the body and the soul when you are in a very deserted place without any resources, only faith in your hand. People survive so many things in their life, the Holocaust even, for example. They’ve been crowded in one place, in one room, and after many years they still are standing on their two feet and starting to walk. And the human mind can’t accept and can’t understand that.
It’s not based on the difficulties you measure that you suffer per person. It is by your faith and your will to grab and to hold something. But you don’t notice that you have become to be close like the wind and you almost are going to disappear. You don’t see that. You know, you don’t see the difficulties. You see that as long as I have breath in my mouth and the sky to observe then He is there watching me and guiding my days.
When we arrived to Addis I was so thin and my family was so thin and we were so sick that everybody thought that we were going to die. Because it’s the weather conditions, it’s the starvation on the way, it’s diseases, it’s people that…
Q: Did you have shoes on your feet?
SS: No, of course not!
Q: And you walked how many hours a day?
SS: Depends. We walked sometimes five to ten hours a day. We tried to walk as much as we could.
Q: So a ten-year-old boy can be that steeped in faith at ten years of age?
SS: I was a shepherd before I made my life in the West. I was in agriculture. I was a hunter. So at that time I was pretty much a man and I had responsibilities.
Q: From what age?
SS: From age seven, I would say, six. Since that age that I came to my senses.
Q: That’s pretty impressive. We have such prolonged infancies here. We can’t conceive of a scene like the one in the movie, when the young Shlomo sees water being wasted in the shower and hysterically tries to collect it. Few of us have experienced that depth of guilt. What was your take on that scene, and what were some of the film’s most resonant themes for you?
SS: The most resonant thing for me is the water. Because water represents life. And the question is, How we can have life pass by without holding, without fighting, without doing everything in your power to possess that idea? Today Africa is starving because Africa doesn’t have any water. And the biggest problem in the future, as we know, will be water. People will go to the places where you have water, and new problems will start in those places. For the last 50 years, 60 years, Africa is in a very bad situation. And if you don’t have rain in Africa people will starve and die. But this way it’s proven that without rain people can still maintain their life and can even be successful and have progress. So when you see through this scene that the child, Shlomo, is trying to hold that water because that water can thousands of lives–and by taking a shower and wasting this much water it’s saying something about him, the character, that he’s not willing to forget those less fortunate than him. So the guilt part will come from very small places, to show that we have responsibility. So if I have for instance bread on my table I will think twice after I finish my dinner if I am willing to throw away that bread or I will keep it or I will try to take it someplace. It is something in the psychology.