Ethiopian Jews act out their journey to Israel
'Roots Theater’ gives voice to the women of the epic flight.
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“Israeli society hears these stories but still doesn’t fully understand what is behind it,” says Lea Kacen, a professor of social work at Ben Gurion University in the Negev who has done extensive work on the Ethiopian community. “These immigrants went through a real trauma on their way here. They were robbed and raped and killed in the Sudan – and this trauma has affected not only the first generation but the children too.”Skip to next paragraph
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And moreover, she continues, few immigrant groups to Israel have had to make such a wrenching adjustment or had to deal with the collapse of so many of their traditional family and community structures. “They went from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. This is a story we know, but don’t give enough weight to.”
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Argaman, who grew up going to the theater and did some acting herself, always believed in the power of performance to convey a story. So, it was only natural that, when it was suggested she run a class for new Ethiopian immigrants in a development town near her kibbutz, she immediately put up a sign-up sheet for a drama club.
It was not all smooth sailing. Twenty women signed up – but then none, actually, showed up. “No matter what time I called class for, no one would arrive until an hour or two later,” recalls Argaman. “I realized that I could not come in and impose my way of doing things. I had to let things flow according to their pace.”
Doing things their way included accepting that time – and, significantly, being on time – had a different urgency than it does in Israeli society. Meanwhile ,over half the group soon dropped out after their husbands protested. Argaman’s friends all wondered why she kept at it.
But, while most other initiatives started by veteran Israelis at the community center did fold after a month or two, Argaman, a tough-talking, red-haired, divorced mother of two, is not the giving-up sort.
“We come in with good energy but then it gets sapped. The cultural codes are so different and things fall apart,” she admits. “But I believed something special would come out of it if I kept going. And I was right.”
Argaman sat with each of the women, heard her story, took notes and, sitting home at night in her house at the kibbutz, wove their personal stories into one longer ensemble piece about that historic journey to Israel.
In the piece, one woman tells of her baby brother dying in her arms in the desert. An aunt stuffed a blanket in her mouth, she recalls, so she would not cry out and risk being found by Sudanese soldiers. Another woman relays how the community would all cook on the sabbath, despite the Jewish law prohibiting it, just so the other refugees in the camps would not suspect they were different.
There are tales of bandits and rapists and elderly left behind. But here are also stories of success and accomplishments, big and small. A young girl, toward the end of the play, stands up an speaks about making her first Israeli friend in school.
The women all learned their lines slowly – through repetition, as most of the performers are illiterate – and the play evolved. The result, Argaman judged, was worthy of an audience.
“I told them we would put on a real show, with lighting and sound system and everything – but they did not believe me. They just thought, ‘Here is another white person with promises.’ They were not very trusting, and it was hard.”
Almu, who has taken on a lead role in the production, and today dreams of also having her own TV talk show someday, blushes. “True,” she admits. “But then things changed. We began to feel like we were capable of doing something – of standing and talking in front of a crowd. Talia recognized we had strengths we did not know of.”
“These are not actresses; they all came out of the kitchen and none have any formal education,” says Argaman. “But we convey an important message with the play, which is, ‘Look, we have something to say, too. We have voices and stories too ... and we are part of this country too.’ ”