I added The Jewish Channel on my cable system and spent a week sampling after I watched the one movie that I wanted to see: Black Over White
which followed Idan Raichel’s band as they traveled to Ethiopia. It was interesting to contrast that one with one of the other shows that featured Ethiopian Jews: The Name My Mother Gave Me .
To a large extent, films are created by the director/editor, so I had a chance to see two similar viewpoints of the integration of Ethiopians in Israeli life.
There is a difference in age groups. I am assuming the band is composed of 20-somethings to 30-somethings. The second film follows young men in a leadership program that precedes military service. The U.S. doesn’t have a similar program, except maybe ROTC. (I am guessing here. We met kids in a similar program in Rosh HaAyin
a couple of years ago.) Both films had reunion scenes. In the first, a band member is reunited with his grandmother. In the second film, one of the young men is reunited with his mother who he has not seen in fourteen years. There were no doubt other reunions—the Israeli guide in a later scene mentions making many detours—but the filmmaker has probably chosen the most dramatic. The young man jumps out of the still moving van and runs weeping to his mother and other relatives. Later, surrounded by his comrades he tells them how his family was divided.
Both films have occasions when I cringed at the dialog of the Israelis. Oh, you have heard the same type of paternalistic, imperialistic drivel from Americans. Straight out of the eighteen-century’s ideas of the noble savage. “Oh, they are so simple. Oh, they are so innocent.” Both filmmakers find a way to ameliorate those words. In “Black Over White”, the members of the Idan Raichel Project meet a group of Ethiopians who are making aliyah
to Israel within weeks. The filmmakers catch up with the group of olim
later. As the old men of the group look over the tenements that will become their new home, you cannot but compare the wide-open spaces, the neat homes of their former land with the apartments that they assigned. You understand why the singers who had been pressed to address the immigrants are hesitant cheerleaders. I looked at the old men and wished that Israel could be like Mecca for them: a holy place to visit and then return home from.
In the second film, “The Name my Mother Gave Me”, the Ethiopian kids make similar comments. But as time goes on, they become excited to realize that their old tongue of Amharic still lies within them. They look at a wire frame car that village kids have made and realize that they had the same type of toys growing up. One pulls off his shoes, rolls up his pants and says this is how I used to be and he has pride in his voice. Those who don’t remember their country because they were too young look out and speak about finally understanding their parents’ stories about their old life. The second film includes the reaction of the Russian members of the leadership training session. One of them says that he had not wanted to come; he did not believe that there were Jews in Ethiopia. However, the trip has detoured to the village where one young man grew up. The synagogue is still there, locked up because all of the Jews are gone. Still on the shelf are the Hebrew siddurs used by the former residents. The site is awe-inspiring for all of them. After cleaning the place, the entire group breaks into song and dance. The adult leader rushes off to the side of the building to break into tears at seeing his young group of Russians and Ethiopians become one group of Israelis.
The two films speak to each other certainly. “The Name My Mother Gave Me” feels more hopeful. None of the Ethiopian kids say that they would go back to Ethiopia. The family that was divided—father and son in Israel, mother remaining in Ethiopia—was divided because the Jews in the village were persecuted. The film ends with both the graduation of these 18-20 year old men and the announcement from the young man who found his mother again that he was returning to his Ethiopian name. In word and body language, the group of Russian and Ethiopian men is a team.
I’ve already mentioned the closing shot of “Black Over White”; I have to mention that names come up in that film also. Idan Raichel introduces his band using both their Hebrew Israeli name and their Ethiopian name with the wry comment that someone must have thought that the original name wasn’t good enough. (But of course, many immigrants to Israel changed their name, including Golda Meir.) I get the impression that new names are suggested to the immigrant as a symbol of their status change.
The Idan Raichel Project is absolutely one on stage. They are joyful and there are scenes of them dancing with the audience. However, off stage, one of the members remembers shopping for the trip and being told by a shopkeeper that she didn’t serve “their kind” in her store. She says that another customer was aghast, but her pain is evident at the insult. Therefore, all of the joy of the performance has this pain hanging over it. What would the band members tell the soldiers—that the unity of the IDF is one thing, but life after the army is another? Or would the soldiers say that was your
experience—living in the period of transition—the future will be different?