Ethiopian Jews act out their journey to Israel

'Roots Theater’ gives voice to the women of the epic flight.

Danna Harman
From desert caravan to the stage: Hava Almu left Ethiopia for Israel as a 12-year-old. She and other Ethiopian Jewish women act in play about their lives on stage in Israel.

Beit Shean, Israel

She spent the first few days weaving in and out of the crowd, ducking here, hiding there. By the time her parents, back home in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, realized their 12-year-old-daughter had joined the caravan of Jews leaving for Israel, she was far away in the Sudanese desert.

Hava Almu spent 12 days and nights crossing Sudan on foot, in extreme conditions, and a year in a squalid refugee camp outside Khartoum, before she was airlifted to a new life in Israel.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s close to 100,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought here as part of major operations – code-named “Moses” and “Solomon” – in line with Israel’s law of return which guarantees citizenship for all Jews. Their immigration is often depicted as a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of gathering all Jews to Zion, and their arrival was accompanied by excitement and celebration. But their journey has not been simple.

Over 4,000 of them died en route. And many of these immigrants, who came from remote, poor villages, have since struggled to adapt to the industrialized, multiethnic society that adopted them.
Even today, 23 years later, in her Beit Shean home, where she and her policeman husband are raising a brood of Hebrew-blabbering children, the anxieties of that journey out of Africa, the years of longing for her family, and the difficulties of taking first steps in Israel haunt Ms. Almu.

They haunt her, but she’d never spoken of them – until the day six years ago that Talia Argaman came along and opened a free women’s drama class at the local community center. “In our community you keep things in the belly,” Almu had explained patiently to Ms. Argaman, a newly minted community social worker from a nearby kibbutz in the Jordan Valley.

But that was then.

Now, the little drama club has turned into a unique amateur Ethiopian women’s theater troupe – the “Roots Theater” — that performs a play about that journey to Israel and the absorption process at small venues around the country. It gives audiences a rare peek into the often closed world of the Ethiopian community here and has also given the women of the troupe an improved sense of self.

“I want people to come out of the play knowing that we made real efforts to come here,” says Almu today, fixing her rhinestone-decorated baseball cap and kicking off her strappy gold sandals. “Most Israelis don’t understand this. It’s not like we came here because we had nothing in Ethiopia and it’s not like we were just airlifted out and that’s that.”

“We are often portrayed as people who were so poor and gentle that we would have gone anywhere. But it’s not true. We did this because we yearned for this country our whole lives and because we belong here in the land of our forefathers.”

• • •

This summer, the Israeli government announced it was ending large-scale immigration from Ethiopia and that all further requests would be considered case by case. This policy leaves an estimated 8,500 so-called Falash Mura – Ethiopians who claim Jewish roots, the majority of whom have family in Israel – still clamoring for their collective right to immigrate.

The decision and the subsequent media coverage of the Falash Mura’s demands to be brought to Israel have reignited a sober public discussion here of this immigrant group and their complex integration.

Almost 65 percent of the community are on some kind of welfare assistance, according to a June report of the State Comptroller’s Office, And, while Ethiopians make up only 1.5 percent of the population, 11 percent of those in battered women’s shelters are Ethiopian. Last year, five of the 16 women murdered in domestic disputes were Ethiopian immigrants. Drug and alcohol problems among these immigrants are growing, too.

“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.”

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.”

• • •

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.’ ”

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