‘Live and Become’: from alienation to hope | AspenTimes.com

‘Live and Become’: from alienation to hope

Stewart Oksenhorn
Sirak Sabahat, right, and Roni Hadar star in "Live and Become," showing Saturday, Jan. 6, at 4:30 and 8 p.m. at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House. (Menemsha Films Inc.)

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“Falasha” is the term, generally pejorative, given to Ethiopia’s Jews. The centuries-old community is thought to be possibly one of the lost tribes of Israel, or descendants of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, as documented in no less a source than the Old Testament. Many practice as ancient and pure a form of Judaism as there is to be found; they don’t celebrate Hanukkah, for instance, since the holiday postdates the Bible.

In Ethiopia, however, the Falasha ” or Beta Israel, for “house of Israel,” as they call themselves ” are foreigners in their own land. They have been persecuted and segregated. As far back as the mid-19th century, they have embarked en masse, trying to get to Jerusalem. Translated literally, “falasha” means stranger.

Schlomo, the central character in director Radu Mihaileanu’s absorbing epic “Live and Become,” is a stranger through and through. Schlomo was among the Africans evacuated from drought-plagued Ethiopia in 1984 as part of Operation Moses, which resettled the Beta Israelis in Israel. But Israel is not exactly the Land of Milk and Honey they had envisioned; it is not the Promised Land of their dreams. With their dark skin and African culture, they are as foreign to Israelis as they were to Ethiopian Christians. In Israel, they are no longer falashas, but kushees, a derogatory term for blacks. Many are accused of faking their Judaism to gain entrance to Israel; they are used as political objects in the battle between Israel’s religious and secular factions.

The feeling of alienation is even deeper for Schlomo because, indeed, he is not Jewish. His mother, seeing the opportunity for her son in Israel, insists that he take the place of a dead Falasha and flee Africa as part of Operation Moses. The 8-year-old Schlomo resists, but his mother is adamant: Don’t cry, she tells him. “Go, see and become.” Sorrowful but dutiful, Schlomo obeys, and takes on the life of an orphaned African in Israel, pretending to be Jewish. He is at once alienated from his family, his homeland, his religion, his adopted family and his new country. He is a stranger.

“Live and Become,” however, doesn’t take a pitying stance toward its protagonist. Though he is taken in by caring, liberal parents ” an ever-loving mother, Yaël (Yaël Abecassis), and the more conflicted Yoram ( Roschdy Zem) ” Schlomo faces severe disorientation (the first time he sees television, he waits and waits for the tiny people to come out the back of the set), hostility (he is accused of faking his Judaism), and, for the first time, racism. Still, he manages to thrive. He learns the language, and other survival techniques, quickly, and becomes a clever thinker and writer. As a young teenager, he is adored by his pretty, flirtatious classmate Sarah (Roni Hadar). In an effort to prove his Jewish credentials, and to earn the respect of Sarah’s bigoted father, Schlomo becomes, oddly enough, a scholar of the Torah, and a champion debater on Jewish issues.

This is far from the standard- issue story of an underdog overcoming the odds. Even as he successfully makes his way into young adulthood, Schlomo (played by three actors, including the Ethiopian-born Jew, Sirak Sabahat, as the adult Schlomo) battles with issues of self-identity. And, as friends and family members repeatedly make clear, he will never be complete until he has reunited in some manner with his mother.

“Live and Become,” which has earned numerous awards on the festival circuit (including the Audience Favorite Award at Aspen Filmfest 2006) is a long film, but it makes use of all its two hours, 20 minutes. Mihaileanu works on an epic scale, weaving history, contemporary war and politics, sex, and family issues into the fabric. The length allows not only for the examination of issues, but also for minor characters to make big impacts. Two of the most memorable are Schlomo’s charming, wise grandfather (Rami Danon), and an Ethiopian rabbi (Yitzhak Edgar). Through all that, ” Live and Become” never wavers from its emphasis on unity, delivering a complex but clear viewpoint that differences can be overcome, and that fragmented people can become whole.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com