Breaking through Boundaries

by Loolwa Khazzoom • August 8, 2012 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

This article was first published in The Jewish Independent, on Feb 24, 2006.

Folding up the red curtain that serves as the background of his every performance, Israeli actor Yossi Vassa marvelled at the number of Ethiopian restaurants to choose from in the San Francisco Bay Area – where he just finished one of many packed shows across the United States.

“It’s amazing,” he remarked, clearly moved, “Americans have so much appreciation for injara!” His excitement about something so simple – recognition of a flatbread – belies a deep yearning shared by the rest of the Ethiopian community in Israel: to be seen, heard and valued. “Israeli society doesn’t see difference as something positive,” Vassa said frankly.

The many implications are commonly known: Ethiopian Jewish history, culture and religious traditions are rarely incorporated into Israeli curricula; Ethiopians are barely seen in Israeli media – except in a negative light (such as news reports of youth violence); those looking for jobs are commonly received warmly on the phone, then rejected in person. The list goes on.

Anxious to be accepted, Vassa explained, many Ethiopian-Israelis have tried unsuccessfully to bleach themselves of their heritage and assimilate into mainstream Israeli society.

“The relationship between the Ethiopian community and [other] Israelis is extreme because of skin color,” he said. “You can’t escape the issue of difference. I don’t have the option of becoming Ashkenazi. I can try, but,” he laughed, gesturing to his skin, “I know this is how things are.” On the positive side, Vassa reflected, this extremity “gives me permission to be myself.”

It also, he said, propelled him into becoming an actor: “My desire to express myself came out,” he said, “it was so strong in me, without my even knowing.” At Haifa University, he switched from an economics major to one in theatre and, among other projects, wrote and acted in three Amharic [Ethiopia's main language] comedies about the Ethiopian community in Israel. Becoming a screenwriter, he says, was the result of necessity.

“When Ethiopians are cast in television or movies, we’re just the waiters serving people, or something of that nature,” he observed. “I write my own scripts, because I don’t have a choice. In Israel, the Ashkenazi world is the model for what to say, for what is beautiful, for what is esthetic. To my luck, I can’t turn into an Ashkenazi. So I have to speak my truth.”

Ten years later, Vassa is speaking his truth across North America, performing the theatrical comedy It Sounds Better in Amharic, which comes to the Vancouver Chutzpah! Festival this Sunday.

With sharp wit, personal narrative and five props – a suitcase, cane, bouquet of flowers, prayer book and wooden sign with Amharic handwriting – Vassa tells the story of Ethiopian Jews, from life in the rural villages 20 years ago (“Before you could date a girl, you had to make sure you were not related seven generations back on both sides – meaning you needed a doctorate of genealogy by age 14″) to life in the peripheral cities of Israel today (“We dreamed of Jerusalem for 3,000 years, then got dumped in Netanya. If you don’t know Netanya, have you seen The Sopranos? We spent three millennia pining for Manhattan, then ended up in New Jersey”).

In the middle, Vassa recalls leaving Ethiopia at age 10, walking the treacherous journey to the Sudan as part of Operation Moses. During the nine months that he and his family waited to be airlifted to Israel, Vassa’s two little brothers and grandmother died from insufferable conditions – including lack of medicine – and Vassa nearly lost his own life as well.

Though these traumas haunted Vassa in the years to follow, he shares them with both grace and humor – making it easy for audiences to listen, deeply empathize and even laugh. At one of his sold-out performances, for example, he recounted how he came to accumulate six names: In Ethiopia, he was born with the first name Andarge; in the Sudan, after falling ill, he was given the new name Terefa (Amharic for “he who is worthy of living”); in Israel, he was called Yossi; and throughout his life, his last name was the equivalent of a triple-hyphen American name, reflecting lineage on both sides: Vassa Sisiya Sahon. “During roll-call in school, my teacher would read from a list of my classmate’s names on one sheet and a list of my names on the other,” Vassa concluded, as the multicultural crowd burst out laughing.

Vassa repeatedly takes on hot button issues in Israel, charming audience members into a willing exploration of cultural and political conflict. By way of addressing the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi stronghold on religious life, he subtly questions the absurdity of requiring rabbis of Ethiopian heritage to wear Polish-inspired garb:

“My older brother came home and announced he had become a rabbi. My mother took one look at the long black coat, pants, shoes and massive fur-covered striemel on top of my brother’s head, then asked if it was snowing outside. “I’ve become a rabbi!” my brother said again. “Yes,” my mother answered, “but is it snowing outside?”

One of the greatest highs, Vassa revealed, is when Israelis of European heritage laugh appreciatively at these jokes. “When they laugh, and Ethiopians in the audience see it’s an Ethiopian guy who is making them laugh, it raises our communal self-esteem,” he said.

Perhaps it also gives the community pride to to see the red-headed sound man touring with Vassa – Shai Ben Attar, an Israeli of Iraqi heritage, who co-wrote the performance. The two met in the army, where they both served as part of the Israel Defence Forces Theatre troupe – Vassa as an actor and Ben Attar as a director.

“We had the best connection,” Ben Attar remembered, his voice exuding warmth. “I’d heard that Yossi wanted to do a one-man performance and,” he laughed, “I dug my own grave to work with him.” Ben Attar was just about to finish up his three-year service, he explained, but stayed in the army to work on the performance with Vassa.

“When I met Yossi, he was one of the first Ethiopians I’d ever met,” Ben Attar recalled. “I saw a guy who was intelligent, funny, amazing, smart, sensitive – the complete opposite of the Israeli notion of who Ethiopians are. I was totally smitten by this contrast and decided to be part of the work [integrating Ethiopian and Israeli identities].”

In Israel, Ben Attar continued, there is a special opportunity to address the universal issue of cultural integration: “You have a very young meeting between blacks and whites – without slavery behind them, a pure meeting, a virgin meeting, if you will. Even more emotional and touching than that, it’s Jews meeting. Blacks and whites all over the world are against each other, but we are first and foremost meeting as Jews – only after that as blacks and whites. In this regard, I feel we are dealing with the most interesting subject in the world. So wherever we go and do this performance, we have something to offer.”

“Our working together springs from this well of hope in Israel,” added Vassa, “hope for blacks and whites to do something together, to share the same vision for our future.”

“We never say ‘poor me’ or ‘we’re screwed,’ ” said Ben Attar. “We come in proud, and the audience has to take what we offer them. Changing their ideas is not easy to do, but,” he laughed heartily, “they don’t have a choice, because we are right.”

It’s Better in Amharic is at the Chutzpah! Festival on Feb. 26, 27 and March 1. For more information, visit www.chutzpahfestival.com.

Loolwa Khazzoom edited The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage. Her work has been published inMarie Claire, Rolling Stone and the Washington Post, among others. A native of Montreal, she now divides her time between San Francisco and Israel.

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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