Film to document plight of Ethiopian Jews

Local filmmaker Aileen LeBlanc is directing the saga of oppressed black Jews going to the Promised Land, Israel.

‘Take Us Home” is a film-in-progress by local producer/director Aileen LeBlanc that documents the airlift of Ethiopian Jews from their native land to the Promised Land.

“Their black Jewish culture goes back thousands of years when they were forced into the mountains of Gondar,” LeBlanc explains on the ”Take Us Home” trailer. “They were not allowed to own land. They were called Falasha, strangers, hyena people. They were Jewish.

“They were told that a conversion to Christianity meant a better life, but the promises vanished like vapor. Their hope now lies in Israel, and they are returning to the faith of their birth. But how can they go from the mud huts of Gondar to Western civilization?”

For centuries, rumors of a lost society of black Jews were just that. Rumors. No reliable documentation was available and little was done to uncoil the mystery of this inscrutable tribe.

Ethiopian Jews trace their lineage back to the biblical Queen of Sheba. But Ethiopian Jewry didn’t interface with the Western world until 1868. Since then, the Falasha have essentially remained invisible while epidemic, famine, and war have ravaged the population.

In 2006, Karen Levin, executive director of Dayton’s Levin Family Foundation, was asked to fund a project to assist this estranged Hebraic community. Before giving it the green light, Levin went to see for herself.

“I spent five days in Ethiopia and learned about the people and the project,” Levin said. “When I came back, I wanted to know more. There were books out there but no comprehensive movie that told the whole story.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful for me and the rest of the world to see this entire story from their discovery in Ethiopia to their relocation in Israel?’ ”

Enter filmmaker LeBlanc.

LeBlanc, former news director at WYSO-FM, was producer/director of the award-winning documentary ”Dayton Codebreakers.”

“I didn’t know anything about Ethiopia until the Levin Foundation called me,” LeBlanc said. “I started doing research with one book, Asher Niam’s ”Saving the Lost Tribe.” Now I have an entire library.”

LeBlanc has since taken several trips to Ethiopia and Israel. She explained that the initial airlifts ? called Operation Solomon ? delivered more than 16,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 30 hours.

“In 1991 rebel forces were trying to overtake the government,” she said. “At the same time, Jews from Gondar and other regions found out that they would be welcomed in Israel. Before long, thousands of people descended on Ethiopia’s capital seeking a better life in the Promised Land. It became a huge humanitarian effort.

“What we are documenting now is the end of this saga. The end of culture. When these people are gone, the whole culture of Jews in Ethiopia also will be gone.”

Life in Israel for Ethiopian Jews

Israel’s Law of Return grants every Jew worldwide the right to automatically acquire Israeli citizenship. Ethiopian Jews, in addition to owning the same rights and privileges as any Israeli citizen, have their education paid for.

But the transition from subsistence living into a lifestyle of modern conveniences hasn’t been seamless.

“Some are getting along very well and some are doing fantastic,” LeBlanc said. “The Israelis, having the model of American culture, decided they didn’t want to have a black underclass. This doesn’t mean everything is perfect. There is still some discrimination, as you would expect.”

The most vexing problem transplanted Ethiopian families are facing is domestic violence.

“There is a disproportionately high level of spousal abuse,” LeBlanc said. “They have resulted in suicides and homicides. In Ethiopia, men are dominant, women submissive. Their roles go through drastic changes when they collide with Western culture.”

Levin compared the exodus of the Falasha to dropping Dorothy into the land of Oz.

“They’re going from primitive third-world conditions where they don’t even know how to use a toilet,” Levin said. “They were starting fires in their apartments when they got to Israel because they didn’t know about ovens. It was fascinating to see not only the sociological impact on the Israeli population but also the sociological implications for the Ethiopians.”

Peter Wells, Levin Foundation trustee and former director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton, has been working with the rescue and return of Jews for more than 30 years.

“This is another page in that book,” Wells said. “This is a very compelling story. Israel is a redeemer. It redeems people wherever they are in the world. This is a saga about going from an oppressed situation in Africa to freedom in Israel. It’s historical in that respect.”

”Take Us Home” is projected to wrap sometime in 2008. WCET in Cincinnati will be the presenting station.

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