Making Their Mark in the Arts

A small but growing number of Ethiopian Israelis are enriching the
performing arts with their traditions and talents.

When Abate Berihun arrived in Israel from Addis Ababa in 1999, it took him six months to convince people in the absorption center where he was living that he was really an accomplished jazz musician who had played the saxophone in a well-known quartet in Ethiopia and Europe.

“It was very difficult for them to understand and seemed very strange because here they were, with so many of the Ethiopian immigrants not even knowing what an airplane or refrigerator or car was — and suddenly there was someone telling them that he plays a Western instrument. I can understand their confusion,” says Berihun, 42, who is now working on his second music CD, scheduled for release in the next few months. His first, “Ras Deshen,” which he produced with Israeli pianist Yitzhak Yedid in 2004, mixes traditional Ethiopian music with jazz. It received favorable reviews and was rated one of the two best Israeli jazz albums of that year.

Twenty-seven years after the first large wave of Ethiopian Jewish immigration began, Berihun is today among a small group of Ethiopian immigrants who are making their mark on Israeli society in the world of the performing arts, adding their traditions to the Israeli mosaic. Considered the doyen for many young Ethiopian-Israeli performers including actors, dancers and musicians, Berihun is “very unique,” says Effie Benaya, director of the Confederation House in Jerusalem, a popular venue that promotes the arts for all heritages and traditions of the city. “He has really broken in and is working in cooperation with [other Israeli] musicians.”

Most of the Ethiopian immigration to Israel took place in two airlifts: the first at the end of 1984 when Operation Moses brought some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews over the course of three months; and the second, which brought another 14,325 Ethiopian Jews in the spectacular
36-hour Operation Solomon in May 1991.

According to the latest figures available from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2008, there were 121,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, 32 percent of whom are Israeli
born.

While many of the older generation who arrived in Israel as adults struggled with adjusting to a new society, generally remaining in low-paying jobs, many of the younger generation
— both those who arrived as youngsters and those who were born here — have
begun to integrate into Israeli society, joining the army and studying at universities. Although the number of Ethiopian students in higher-level education is lower proportionally than those of other sectors of society, it has been steadily increasing with the help of various programs meant to assist Ethiopian students achieve academic excellence.

Despite their low representation in the arts — it is estimated that only about one percent of the Ethiopian-Israeli population has become involved in the performing arts — these performers are determined to use this medium as another way of not only bringing their
tradition and culture into the Israeli limelight, but also as a way of expressing their own individual artistic talents.

For Berihun, the problem of convincing people he was telling the truth about his accomplishments was compounded by the fact that he had left his saxophone with the other members of the quartet in Ethiopia, since they had bought all the instruments together as
a group in a place where they were hard to come by. He had never imagined it would be so difficult for him to get another saxophone in Israel, he says.

His family had already immigrated to Israel several years before, and he had stayed behind to be with his father and continue with his music. When his father died, Berihun decided it was time to join the rest of the family in Israel.

It wasn’t until well-known Israeli singer Ariel Zilber came to the absorption center with his wife, and Berihun was able to speak to the couple, that he was taken seriously. Zilber quickly
recognized Berihun’s unique talents. Zilber recommended that Berihun — who had studied music only as a member of the Ethiopian army band — become a student at the prestigious
Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon. While studying there, he met music producer and pianist Yedid. A collaboration with the talented young musician led to other opportunities. Since then, Berihun has gone on to compose music for various
plays with Ethiopian themes and a movie, and he regularly performs in music festivals both in Israel and abroad. Last year, he received first prize at a music festival in Afula; at the end of June, he is slated to perform in New York City’s Central Park.

After a difficult four-year period of financial instability, when he needed to work full time outside the music world, Berihun is getting back into the music world full force. He is also dedicating himself to tutoring young Ethiopian musicians in his small, rented music studio near the Tel Aviv bus station, exposing them to their own musicial traditions, some for the first time. “Young Ethiopians are interested in learning about Ethiopian music because they
don’t know it,” he observes. “Instead, they have been identifying with African-American hip hop music. Now I am teaching them about their own strong Ethiopian music.”

Berihun, who also does vocals, describes his music as a fusion of Ethiopian, African, jazz, groove and Eastern music mixed in with some Hebrew lyrics. Though he plays all saxophones, he prefers the tenor and soprano. He is now working on a project recording
sacred Ethiopian prayers sung by the community’s religious leaders, the kessim, and intertwining it with his own original compositions.

“It was hard — they didn’t want to do it,” he concedes. But he was able to convince the kessim the importance of the project. He now has recordings of the prayers, which he is in the process of producing into musical tracks with his own compositions.

“We have roots reaching back 2,000 years. Our music has a special [cadence], a special tune to them,” he says. “Now I want to bring that culture [to people’s attention]. Ethiopian music is special. White Israelis don’t know about it. I want to erase the idea [that we don’t have our own rich culture].”

Still, Confederation House director Benaya notes that the integration of Ethiopian actors is just at its inception.

Among other ensembles and festivals it sponsors, the Confederation House has provided a home for the Hullegeb Ethiopian Theater Ensemble for the past five years. Under the direction of Moshe Malka, the group produces original theater pieces combining the
talent of Ethiopian actors with other Israeli actors along with the innovative trends of modern Israeli fringe theater. Most of the productions deal with Ethiopian traditions, the Ethiopians’ connection to Israel and the difficulties the Ethiopian-Israeli population has encountered since making aliyah.

“We want to extend the theater to Israeli [themes], but we need to start with [Ethiopian] stories,” says Benaya. “No aliyah has had to deal with what they did. Theirs is a real exodus from Egypt…and it is right to start with their journey and tradition and slowly connect to the place where they live now. It is a long process.”

In December, the Confederation House sponsored a week-long Ethiopian-Israeli Arts Festival, giving a stage to musicians, dancers and actors from the Ethiopian-Israeli community for the first time in one shared location.

The response from the native Israeli population was very positive, says Benaya, but openness to learn about Ethiopian culture will only be created slowly. “There isn’t a lot of exposure
to what Ethiopians are doing [in the performing art world], but there is an openness and curiosity to see it.”

For many young Ethiopian-Israeli performers, following their chosen path has meant not only facing parental pressure to choose a more “serious” profession, but also battling
stereotypes of Ethiopians as submissive and underprivileged people who need to be led into the modern world. For some, like comedian/film director Shmuel Beru, 35, and dancer Tzvika Iskias, 28, discovering their love for the performance world was a lifeline out of
a troubled youth of boarding schools and misbehavior.

“I was a confused guy, and then I decided that if I am confused, I should be an actor, where you can be whoever you want,” says Beru, who walked across the Sudanese desert as an eight-year-old with his family to immigrate in Operation Moses. He grew up in Safed and served as an actor in the IDF’s entertainment corps.

“If you are an actor and don’t have work, you have a great excuse: There isn’t a lot of work,” jokes Beru, flashing his warm smile as he sips tea in a Jerusalem café just before a scheduled television interview. He discovered acting by chance when a friend convinced him to study at Haifa University because “there were a lot of beautiful girls,” he says. “There were beautiful girls there, but along the way I also learned.” He was lucky, he says, to have “amazing” parents who have their own sense of humor.

Still, Beru continues, he doesn’t feel completely accepted into the Israeli acting world where many of the roles for Ethiopians are usually typecast, and aspiring Ethiopian-Israeli actors are normally only cast in roles that specifically call for an Ethiopian.

“There aren’t very good roles and they are very limited. So you have to make work for yourself. That’s why I became a comedian,” says the young director, whose 2008 movie “Zrubavel” was the first full-length Israeli movie to explore the Ethiopian-Israeli experience.
It tells the story of the struggles of an Ethiopian family as they deal with the social and cultural gaps they encounter in their new country. The movie was filmed with an all-Ethiopian cast and a majority Ethiopian crew. Berihun, who Beru greatly admires, composed the music for the film and has a cameo part.

“In my movie I wanted to show the place where I come from,” explains Beru, who has been called “Israel’s first Ethiopian film director.”

He continues: “Most of the time, the only way people see this is when white journalists report on the community, without any emotional connection, and then they go on to the next story. In the movie I wanted to show a lot more.”

Having done some stints on Israeli television as well as performing in the Habimah National Theater productions of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Julius Caesar” and “The Word of the Ethiopian,” Beru decided he wanted to tell the story of the Ethiopian experience. “It was the most natural thing for me to deal with my story first,” he says. “I can’t deal with the Holocaust before I deal with our Holocaust first.” It is estimated that some 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died in their efforts to reach Sudan to come to Israel. Many people were also abused and robbed by smugglers and raiders during their desert trek.

“I think the majority of the Israeli population is not so interested in the real situation of the Ethiopian community,” says Beru. “People don’t like their assumptions [about others] to be challenged. So the ultra-Orthodox are viewed as parasites, Arabs as terrorists, Ethiopians as poor, and Ashkenazi as rich.” He says the kind of attitudes toward the Mizrahi Jews who were not welcome and not taken seriously is being repeated with Ethiopians. “They feel sorry for you, and treat you like you are ‘cute’ and need to be helped. I don’t feel any change in the attitude yet, but it will come.”

But the change should not come through “integration,” he maintains, which has connotations of losing bits of yourself to become a part of the larger whole. He would rather it be considered a “combination” or “partnership” of traditions and mores. “I contribute what I
can and you contribute what you can.”

His generation, the one in between those who came to Israel as adults and those born in Israel, have the most adjustments to make, he points out. “We are hit by all sides. The older people know it’s another culture, but it doesn’t influence them. We want to be very Israeli, we want to be a part of the gang and be invited to the party, but they don’t always invite you to come. On the other hand, we want to talk to our parents about something emotional for
us, but we don’t always know how to explain it in their language.”

Nevertheless, says Beru, who is working on getting backing for his second feature film, he believes that if Israelis are offered quality work they will come see it for themselves. “It’s like
with a couple. It has to go both ways. You have to offer something good for them to want to see it.”

In April, Meskie Shibru, 44, became the first Ethiopian actress to take to the stage in a leading role for a mainstream theater production, in playwright Ephraim Sidon’s “Lizzy,” a retelling of “Lysistrata.” Shibru portrays Lizzy, who convinces women from the different
segments of Israeli life to declare a sex strike to get the men to stop waging war.

Israel’s best known Ethiopian actress and vocalist, Shibru came to Israel on her own as a 16-year-old in 1985, supposedly to study computer science. But she soon turned to her first love, acting, and began studying at the prestigious Nissan Nativ Studio.

Her siblings later joined her in Israel, but her mother was able to be reunited with her family only after several years — two of them which she spent behind bars as a Prisoner of Zion in
Ethiopia for having helped other Ethiopian Jews escape to Israel.

It was not easy to enter the acting world in Israel, recalls Shibru, because of the language barrier, but she persisted and, indeed, she now looks back at that as “the easy part” of her climb to success. If there was any criticism or comments about her background, she
says, she never paid attention and kept her goal in sight.

Calling herself a very spiritual person, the divorced mother of two young teenagers says she keeps a positive attitude and continues to seek out the good in people. Usually, she notes, that is what she finds.

“I was very focused on myself and advancing myself and less on what people were saying,” she says. “I am a person of goals, and when I have a goal I just move toward that. That’s how I live my life today, too. It’s obvious that with every goal there will be obstacles, but that is part of life. You realize that Israel is made up of so many [waves] of immigration and people from so many places. For immigrants, it is harder coming to a new mentality, a new country. It is very complex and difficult, but it is also your home.”

On the one hand, she observes, it is difficult for all actors in Israel, since it is a small country with limited acting possibilities. On the other hand, as an Ethiopian woman, roles are still extremely limited because the color of her skin always singles her out.

In addition to numerous shows and musical performances, Shibru appeared in a 1999 episode of the popular Israeli TV series “Zinzana” and was also cast as the mother of the main character in the 2005 French-Belgian-Israeli-Italian film “Go, Live and Become,” which tells the story of a non-Jewish Ethiopian boy whose mother sends him to Israel to improve his life.

“I see life as a big challenge,” she says. “Today there is much more openness [toward differences]. Before I had to prove myself all the time. Now I don’t have to prove myself anymore. Now people just see Meskie. I think one of the reasons I have made a name for myself is that I am not trying to be someone else. I am very connected to my roots and I go with who I am.”

Just as she has instilled a sense of pride of their Ethiopian roots in her children, whose father is Ashkenazi, Shibru also is intent on giving Ethiopian youth a sense of empowerment through drama, with the aid of psychodrama workshops. She realizes that she is seen by many as a role model, having come to Israel as an immigrant with no connections and having attained the level of success that she has.

“When I look at my children, they are very rich inside with all the cultures,” she says. “They have Polish and Russian roots, Ethiopian roots. They hear Amharic. They study French, speak perfect English. They see the Ethiopian coffee ceremony and take their friends to their grandmother’s house. That is who I am and it is part of my family and I am proud. They enjoy all the worlds and it is beautiful.”

In choosing her projects, it is important to Shibru to have a sense of what the audience is also interested in. Currently, she is working on a show in Amharic for the Ethiopian community.

In all the productions she works in, she sees the opportunity to pass on messages, Shibru says. “It is easier for me to come and to give and not just to take. People hear and listen to you, and they will try to pass on your message. The messages change depending on the
time and social situation.”

On a darkened stage in a small theater in Haifa, a group of Ethiopian dancers face each other as the strains of music with an exultant beat begin to play as they portray a traditional
wedding dance, with a twist. Dressed in white with traditional embroidery along the edges of their garments, the dancers place their hands on their hips and begin to shake their shoulders in the custom of the Eskesta Ethiopian shoulder dancing. Then from the wings another dancer, dreadlocks flying in his wake, leaps onto stage and kicks up the beat of the performance a notch.

The dancer is Tzvika Iskias, 28, who joined the Beta Dance Troupe (founded in 2005 by former professional dancer Ruth Eshel) a year ago, after having spent three and a half years as part of the Batsheva Dance Company and later as a dancer in Sweden. He came aboard with the Beta not only to dance, but also to collaborate with troupe associate director Meeka Ya’ari and Eshel in bringing freshly choreographed pieces to the stage. He was excited by
the chance to combine the traditional moves of the Ethiopian shoulder dance with the experimental moves of modern dance — though his dance studies had previously concentrated on classical and modern dance.

Iskias came to Israel on Operation Moses with his parents when he was two. A self-described “troublemaker” as a child, he bounced from one boarding school to another until he was 15. When he was 12, he joined a jazz group at a community center in Jerusalem, hoping to meet girls and instead, recalls Iskias, he soon realized he had discovered his life profession.

Facing being a professional dancer in the Ethiopian community was like the movie “Billy Elliot,” “but worse,” Iskias explains, though now his family is proud of his accomplishments, and young Ethiopian-Israelis interested in dance see him as a role model.

“I want to keep the tradition, but we have to make it modern. There is a lightness and strength in the movements. There is nothing else like that in Israeli modern dance,” says Iskias, noting that he is not interested in performing straight “folklore” dance. “We have
something totally different, totally authentic with techniques that are completely unlike classical ballet. I want to take that as the basis, preserve the language of the movements — not make them into classical ballet — but then put in something else.”

Though his love for dance is universal, he hopes that through dance he can expose Israelis to his Ethiopian roots. Some people may just be interested in the curiosity of Ethiopian dance, he speculates, but he hopes they will also come for the freshness of combination between the traditional and the modern. Most of the audiences who come to see the troupe are made up of white Israelis, he says, adding that of the older Ethiopian Israelis who have come to see the dancers have been a bit rattled by the combination of the traditional movement with modern dance.

Reaction to the dance numbers has been good, observes Iskias, but he hopes that one day the audience will “go crazy” over the dancing.

Iskias, who also teaches modern, jazz and hip hop dancing to youngsters, says he never aimed to be “The First Ethiopian Dancer” but realizes that is how he is now recognized. Sometimes, though, it hits him and he thinks: “Wow. I’m the first one who brought
this in the community.”

Being recognized simply as a performer for the sheer merits of a person’s talents rather than as an “Ethiopian” is a process, notes actor and comedian Yossi Vassa, 35, who has traveled abroad with his one-man show, “It Sounds Better in Amharic,” about life in Israel as an Ethiopian. He recently returned from a Canadian production of his show, “One of a Kind,” the true story of his family’s journey to Israel, which he co-wrote with TV writer Shai Ben Attar, and which was first performed at the Nephesh Theater in Tel Aviv.

“The reality forces us to deal with who we are in the community, dealing strongly with our identity and our connection here,” says the married father of a 9-month-old girl, following a performance attended by a group of young, mostly Russian-Israeli soldiers. “We are creating a new art and we have to do it, but we can’t be something that we aren’t. It is important we be there; it is a place where we can contribute a lot to Israeli society. It’s a place where we can put a mirror up to the audience, and we can move and change things.”

Before Vassa appears quietly on stage for his performance, the soldiers had been rowdy and a bit disorderly, shouting and teasing each other across the room. But within minutes, Vassa
has them laughing with him at the slightly exaggerated stereotypes he uses to get his point across. In between poking fun at everything from Ethiopian marriage and the chutzpah of Israeli youngsters, he tells parts of the story of his trek through Sudan at the age of 10
to come to Israel in Operation Moses. The audience listens attentively as he recounts how his grandmother and two younger brothers died in their attempt to reach Israel. Afterward, several soldiers go up to congratulate him on the performance.

“Humor is a very powerful tool,” Vassa says. “You can make some very strong statements, but if they are done with humor, then it feels more like a caress. When you are on the stage, it is not important who you are or who I am. What is important is that I am telling you a story and am connecting you to that story, engaging you in it. I am putting on stage a human story where people can see that they met a real person and not a monkey from Africa.”

Although the basic immigration experience is something all immigrants can relate to regardless of their origin, Vassa notes, for Ethiopian-Israelis the process was much more complex because of the tremendous socioeconomic and cultural gap they had to forge and because of the color of the skin. Most Israelis don’t comprehend the huge rupture the Ethiopian newcomers had to overcome when they reached Israel, he points out, adding that he didn’t learn how to read and write until he was 11 years.

Vassa has also written a play in Amharic, “Mar Ghetto,” specifically for the Ethiopian community, where he laughs at the Ethiopian experience in Israel. “I love Ethiopian traditions, I love Ethiopian stories. That’s what I wanted to do, to speak [to the Ethiopian community] in their language which is my language,” he explains.

Vassa dreams of the day when he can perform “Waiting for Godot,” but even then, he predicts, he will do it in a “different way.”

Though Ayala Ingedashet, 32, was born in Ethiopia and came to Israel as a 2-year-old with her parents in 1981, Israel is her true home, and all her memories are from Israel, says the young singer. With her self-titled debut album in 2007, a rhythm and blues/soul production, she was signed by Israeli record label Hed Arzi, becoming the first Ethiopian-born Israeli singer with a major label deal. She has since achieved popularity and has performed with acts like Ehud Banai, Mosh Ben-Ari, Jill Scott and Macy Gray. She has also appeared on stage at the Habima National Theater.

Ingedashet joined a youth musical group at the age of 14 in Ashdod without the knowledge of her parents, who kept a religious home. As a religious girl she didn’t intend to join the army, she recalls, until she became aware of the possibility of serving in the Israel Defense Force’s musical troupe, which she secretly auditioned for three years later. At first, her father found it difficult to accept his daughter’s foray into the world of music and show business, recalls Ingedashet, smiling as she looks out the large window of the home in a southern Moshav she shares with her Moroccan husband and 3-year-old son. Having lived in Tel Aviv
for 10 years, Ingedashet recently moved with her family to the home next door to her in-laws, searching for a more simple lifestyle.

With her success came compliments even from within the Ethiopian community, she says. And although this was not her main aim when she embarked on her journey into music, Ingedashet’s father is now proud of her when he hears people say that she has brought pride and honor to the Ethiopian community.

She sings in Hebrew, but in her album some of the tracks have bits of Ethiopian music in the introduction, and in “Memaheret” (In a Hurry) there are a few words of Tigrit, an Ethiopian
language, serving as part of the refrain. Lately Ingedashet has become curious to learn more about her Ethiopian cultural roots, and after having met jazz saxophonist Berihun during the December Jerusalem festival, she is considering taking a few lessons with him.

Though she bristles at labels of any kind — sometimes when people emphasize that she is Ethiopian too often, it seems as if they are relating to her as some sort of “small sweet pet” — Ingedashet says she realizes that just by the virtue of the color of her skin, she is unique in the Israeli music scene. And she is also savvy enough to realize that the use of an Ethiopian language — even if she does not speak it fluently — can be another hook to make her stand
out in a very competitive world. “This is my tradition, my roots, where I was born,” she states. “Maybe one day I will be able to do something deeper than just use a few sentences.”

Ingedashet is now working on a second album, which will reflect the changes that have taken place in her life since becoming a wife and mother.

As the singer has become better known, people, especially young Ethiopian girls, stop her in the street to talk to her, she comments, to praise her work and let her know how much she
has influenced them to continue with their own dreams.

“It is always very emotional for me and always ends with a tear and a hug,” says Ingedashet. “It’s fun because it is like giving me a stamp of approval, saying there are people behind you — that even though you have chosen a different path, they appreciate your work.”

For Mazal Damoza, 23, a young dancer with the Beta Dance Troupe who was born in Israel, performing on a stage has brought her closer to her Ethiopian roots.

As a youngster she never delved into the traditional world of her parents, she says, striving to be like her Israeli friends — concerned most about the latest fads and television shows. But
then her father died 10 years ago and something changed inside of her. “I felt devastated and was searching for something to anchor me, and I decided I had to return to my roots,” recalls Damoza, who sports a tattoo on her shoulder and is completing her degree in sociology at
Haifa University.

She always loved the Ethiopian dancing, which figures so prominently in all the social gatherings, and when she found out about the Beta Dance Troupe she decided to try out.

“Before, my traditions and what had happened in the past had not interested me,” Damoza explains. “I was young and immature. But when I joined the group, I discovered a whole new
world.” Not only did it provide a connection to her roots but it also became a vital form of self-expression.

“This dancing is a part of me. I feel the most ‘me’ with it. I discovered myself again,” she reflects. But, she adds, since the dances incorporate modern dance as well, anyone can feel a connection to it. “As a minority, it is easy for people to put us into a corner and not see any importance in what we are saying and/or have to offer. But the biggest thing I have to offer Israel is my culture.”

Two years ago, Damoza traveled to Ethiopia with the troupe, and it has become much easier for her now to ask her mother about her life in Ethiopia, about her village and how they lived.

The youngest of five children, Damoza is the only one still living at home and often finds herself sitting with her mother, talking about their traditions and performing the time honored coffee ceremony.

“It is something we do at least once a day and includes a prayer, but which I never paid attention to before,” notes Damoza. “It is as if I have rediscovered my mother — and it’s fun.”

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