A few years back, I spent a Shabbos by a Sephardic friend in Brooklyn. Over the course of the weekend we ate by a few families, all of Sephardic backgrounds. Although in my predominantly Ashkenazi enclaves, the division between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is rarely if ever discussed or acknowledged, it seemed that at every meal the topic of conversation at some point veered toward Ashkenazi arrogance and ignorance. It was shocking how much stifled animosity there was.
At one point our host brought up the mistreatment of Sephardim in Israel. He said that it is difficult for them to make a living and receive equal pay and opportunities. He said that Sephardim in Israel are treated the same way black people are treated in America (though I'm pretty sure he used more colorful terms).
With that “racial” dynamic and tension in mind, imagine what a Falasha Jew faces in the land of milk and honey.
Live and Become is part history lesson, part exposé, part family drama. Overall it is an important film, particularly for an orthodox Jewish audience.
Radu Mihaileanu's movie, out of France, is a valuable and eye opening historical tool in that it reminds us of the miracle of kibbutz goliyot and the incredible resilience of our people. In the mid 1980's the state of Israel rescued thousands of Falashas from Ethiopia and Sudan and brought them to their homeland.
Live and Become tells the story of a Christian boy whose mother forces him to pretend he is Jewish (“you're name is Solomon”) so that he may survive and escape poverty and hopelessness. He is eventually adopted by a loving (and “liberal”) Israeli family. Solomon's charade is really beside the point and stands out only as a gimmick to make a summary of the film sound more interesting (though it does also enlighten us as to why many Israelis are skeptical of the movement). Live and Become most winningly provides an education as to the cultural bonds and traditions the Falashas share with Judaism. At the same time it portrays the difficult and thorny assimilation process and the struggle to authenticate Falasha Jews as “true” Jews. What becomes apparent is that, in a fit of religious pride and passion, the Falashas were transported to Israel, but afterward, once the outsiders were brought in, there was a national change of heart. It is a sad and depressing transformation to witness – mainly because we are the villains and also because it is despicable and abhorrent behavior.
While intolerance by Israelis toward their black brothers is a horrid thing, Mihaileanu's script (along with co-writer, Alain-Michel Blanc) lacerates the orthodox community with an obvious vindictiveness. One elongated scenario finds Solomon participating in a sort of torah debate to prove to an orthodox man that he is Jewish enough for the man's precocious daughter. The test takes place in a shul and is presided over by rabbis. Solomon, black with a small kippah resting at the top of his afro, battles a charedi with payis and a black hat. As you well know, such debates only exist in the mind of a manipulative writer. Moreover, the topic of the debate is, “What color was Adam?” The question allows the charedi to answer that since Hashem is white, Adam was white. Then the boy goes on to explain (inexplicably) that Cham was black and cursed to be a slave.
Not only is the entire scenario inconceivable, the nature of the question and answer (both provided by “frum” characters) shows exactly what kind of reaction the filmmakers sought. Unfortunately, such underhandedness taints an otherwise beautiful motion picture.
The beauty of Live and Become is found essentially in one very specific place – the relationship between Solomon and his mothers. His African mother whom he yearns for painfully. And his French/Israeli mother (played masterfully by Yael Abecassis) who connects with him on the deepest of levels (deeper than with her own flesh and blood).
Whether a Falasha Jew actually descended from Shlomo Hamelech, or represents the lost tribe of Dan, or is authentically Jewish by some other means, is mostly irrelevant. The fact is these people practiced and observed halachah, cut off from any foundation of Judaism, for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years.
The lesson for us is not to become caught up strictly in bloodlines and family trees. One Falasha in Israel despondently states that, “In Ethiopia I was an outsider, so I came home to Jerusalem…and here I am an outsider as well.” It's the age old sermon that we've heard in every class on every level of our Jewish education, yet it never seems to take hold.
Achdus, people. Achdus!