Finding honey in Israel
He’s an Israeli filmmaker, but his own life is the stuff of a Hollywood drama. The year was 1984. Avishai Mekonen was 10, and living in Ethiopia. Ethiopian leader Col. Mengistu Mariam was increasingly oppressing Jews, sometimes killing them outright. Already prevented from owning land or openly practicing their religion, Ethiopian Jews, who refer to themselves as Beta Israel (House of Israel), began fleeing by the thousands to Sudan. Menkonen’s family — his whole village, in fact, decided it was time to try to make their way to Israel. “The kassim [rabbis], they say, ‘We know the story in the Bible, Moses [makes a] journey to Israel– we have to do the same thing they do, and we have to do it in secret,” Mekonen recalled Tuesday of last week. He was speaking at Tiferet Israel, at a program co-sponsored by the synagogue and B’nai Zion.
The Mekonen family, along with about 100 other villagers, spent four months traveling to Sudan, walking only at night to avoid the soldiers who would kill them on sight. To find their way, children would climb trees, Mekonen among them, and locate the North Star, so they could determine which direction to travel. Remembering the harshness of their conditions, Mekonen said, “We had no water, we had some food, but it’s not enough, no maps where to go, and all the time we follow the [sunrise].” Illness was also a problem, as were armed thieves. Mekonen’s cousin,like many, was killed in one of these attacks. Mekonen survived, he said, solely because of his dream to see Israel. “I said I’m not going to die before I see the Jewish country. Even though I’m skinny, the dream is like my medicine.”
At the Sudanese border, remembers Mekonen, the refugees realized they had to pass themselves off as Muslim to get into the country. This meant giving themselves Muslim names, something none of them knew anything about. “I say, you know what? I hear one time — in the village, someone told me, another villager, [his name was] Mohammed. He is a Muslim. I know the name Mohammed.” Laughing, he recalls someone saying, “‘So, just one then you have? So all of us have to be Mohammed?’ I said I can’t help that, [this is the] only way I can help. You know, everyone, the men, women, the kids, became ‘Mohammed.”’ The Sudanese soldiers laughed, but they allowed the group in. Once in the camp, however, things deteriorated. Malaria was rampant, food was appalling, and even after the Red Cross stepped in, medicine was scarce. When Mekonen’s mother became pregnant, he dressed like a Muslim and got a job selling ice cream to buy enough food for his family, as well as medicine for his mother. At one point, Mekonen recalled, Sudanese cannibals kidnapped him, like hundreds of other Ethiopian children, then decided he was “too skinny to eat” and tried to sell him as a slave instead.
Quieting for a moment, he said he knows it’s easier to talk about than it used to be because he can do so without crying. Describing the abuse and deprivation he and others suffered at the hands of their captors, he talked about silently praying for God to bring him safely to Israel. “No one talks about what happened, no one,” he said softly. “No one talks about what happened in Sudan on the journey. And in the 20 years we’ve been in Israel now, no one — they don’t do anything in the newspaper, they don’t do anything on the TV.” Mekonen eventually escaped and was found by Israeli Mossad agents who took him to safety and reunited him with his family. Soon after, they and hundreds of others were flown by helicopter to a ship at sea, and then finally taken to Israel through Operation Moses, an Israeli effort that rescued thousand of Ethiopian Jews. His amazement at his new surroundings was so complete that at first he was too filled with wonder to sleep.
However, living in Israel has its problems, too. Some Israelis don’t consider Beta Israel Jews to be Jewish, saying the Ethiopians need to convert. Most Ethiopian Jews were given Israeli names to replace their Ethiopian ones, and assimilating has been difficult for many. In many ways, Mekonen has been the exception. At 14, he convinced the local authorities to put him in a mainstream school instead of the one just for Ethiopians. Later, as a captain in the Israeli army, he convinced his superiors to place him in a regular unit, instead of an all-Ethiopian one. And after the army, where he “learned to scream like an Israeli,” he saved his money and went to England for a while. There he saw his first movie, “Philadelphia,” and was amazed to see a black man (Denzel Washington) playing a pivotal role. Inspired, he came back to Israel and studied filmmaking, graduating from Haifa University/Hebrew University with a B.A. in fine arts. For Mekonen, the dream has come true. He is, at last, living in the “land of milk and honey.” Talking about his initial arrival in Ashkelon, Mekonen recalled, “Everybody started to kiss the land, and I stand there, and I’m looking for the honey river, and the gold, and the kid who’s next to me, he saw me like that, and he said ‘What are you doing?’ “And I said, ‘I’m looking for the honey.’ ” His friend told him: “Shut up and kiss the land!”
Avishai and his wife, Shari Rothfarb, are both are documentary film makes, currently working on acquiring funding for their latest project, titled “Are You Jewish? Judaism and Race in America.” Inspiration for the film came during 9/11, while Mekonen was helping out the fire department and happened to mention that he was Jewish. The firemen had a hard time believing him, “because people tend to automatically assume that black people in the United States are either Christian or Muslim,” he explained. Mekonen’s acclaimed first project, titled “Video Flour,” was broadcast on Israeli television and exhibited at various international film festivals.
It centers around the comedy duo of Yossi and Shmuel, Ethiopian Jews from a small Israeli town, who climb aboard a flour van headed for Tel Aviv, setting out to be the first Ethiopian stand-up comics in Israel. Mekonen explained that the two comedians originally wanted to be actors, but but had no luck being cast in mainstream Israeli films, due to their skin color. “They were told, you can’t playa doctor … you can’t playa lawyer … you’re Ethiopian,” he said. Mekonen’s goal is to try and pave the way for younger generations of Ethiopian Israelis to be able to “pursue their dreams and become doctors or actors, or whatever they want to be. They have the same dreams as everyone else,” he continued. Mekonen longs for Israel and misses his mother, who works in a factory that manufactures cell phone components, that he fears may close down due to the current state of the economy. “Without Israel there would be no Jewish country,” he points out. He added that although there are a lot of Jewish people in New York, where he visits a different synagogue each Saturday, he feels his Judaism the most, in Israel.