Ethiopian Jews’ Panel Touches Questions of Race, Religion

“If you’re presented with choices, such as being both black and Jewish, then who are you?”

This question, posed by Scott Rubin, was at the heart of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s panel discussion on Saturday, July 29 at Berkeley’s Roda Theatre. Rubin, a senior research associate at the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, was moderating a panel discussion on race, adoption and Jewish identity.

The discussion – sponsored by Be’chol Lashon, a program of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, which seeks to grow and strengthen the Jewish people through racial, ethnic and cultural inclusiveness – followed the screening of “Sisai,” a documentary about a young man’s journey from his adopted home and family in Israel to locate his long-lost father in their native Ethiopia.

“The lesson that I learned from this experience is that you should not have secrets in your family,” Sisai Bayo, the star of the film who was in Berkeley for the screening, told the packed audience. “Make sure that your children know everything. Don’t hide anything from them.”

“Sisai,” which was the winner of top documentary honors at last year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, is a portrait of immigrants caught between two worlds. When Bayo wants to get married, he and his fiance can’t find a rabbi who will marry two Ethiopian Jews. Later, when he wants to tell his birth father about getting married under the chuppah, he realizes there’s no word for chuppah in Ethiopian.

Ethiopian Israeli filmmaker David Gavro, Bayo’s older brother – who said that “the script came to me as I was filming”- took the film to Ethiopia last year, and Bayo’s birth father came to the screening.

Audience members had many questions for the brothers about the present day relationship they have with Bayo’s Christian birth father in Ethiopia. Bayo said that he has tried to stay in touch with his father, but due to the unreliable postal system in Ethiopia, few of his letters have reached his father. However, his father’s letters have arrived safely in Israel.

There are 100,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel and more than 100,000 remaining in Ethiopia, according to Rubin. Out of a U.S. Jewish population of 6 million, 7.3 percent (435,000) are African American, Asian, Latino, Native American, mixed-race, or some race other than white, according to the Institute for Jewish & Community Research’s book “In Every Tongue: The Ethnic and Racial Diversity of the Jewish People.”

“Most of the diverse Jews we have spoken with express a strong sense of unity, of joy in being both black and Jewish, Asian and Jewish, and so on,” Rubin said. “They find points in common among their various heritages, with each reinforcing the other. It’s a natural fit, since the Jewish people were born at the intersection of Africa, Asia and Europe.”

Ethiopian Israeli Sirak M. Sabahat, who stars in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival film “Live and Become” and was also on the panel, recalled the first moment that he saw Israeli Jews. “When we first arrived in Israel, we were in shock when we saw white Jews,” Sabahat said. “We thought they had a skin problem.”

“This film asks each of us to wonder about the power of our origins,” said Rubin, who shared with the audience that he’s the father of two adopted children, an African American son and a Latina daughter. “Some diverse Jews, however, find themselves at the very least having to consider how their racial or ethnic identity integrates with their Jewish identity,” Rubin added. “Often these questions are coming from external pressures rather than an internal sense of misalignment. The larger black community may wonder how someone who is African American can also be Jewish, and the Jewish community may question the legitimacy of a non-white Jew, often as a result of ignorance but not malice or racism.”

Asked what was the most important thing that happened to him as a result of being in the film, Sisai Bayo, now a charming, 23-year-old, soccer-playing father, said, “That I became a celebrity.” The audience exploded in laughter. “You cannot forget where you come from,” Sabahat added. “Our hearts will always be in Jerusalem, but how can we forget the house where we were born?”


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