'Torn' Between Ethiopia and Israel: Second Generation Takes the Stage

At Jaffa Theatre, two Ethiopian-Israeli actresses dramatize inner conflict of children of immigrants, who, unlike their parents, aren't so quiet

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Tamar Asankao and Ortal Solomon.
Tamar Asankao and Ortal Solomon. Credit: Ilya Melinkov
Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi

In the spring of 2015, Tamar Asankao was among those who took to the streets in protest over discrimination by society and especially police against Ethiopian Israelis. She marched with the hundreds of protesters whom the police tried to disperse with teargas, water cannons and numerous arrests, and the sights and sounds of that experience stayed with her long afterwards.

“The Border Police on horseback galloping toward us, toward the protesters,” she recalls. “We’re shouting ‘No more violence’ and they just keep coming at us. We’re shouting from the depth of our souls that we’ve had it with our brothers being hurt for no reason. We marched, and we kept on marching, but deep down we knew this wasn’t the last fight.”

Asankao doesn’t recite these painful words in conversation. She recites them on stage in the play “Hatzuya” (“Torn”), which she wrote following the protests, feeling that there had to be more ways besides taking to the streets and protesting on social media to recruit people to support the fight of the Ethiopian community. “Torn,” which has been running since May at the Jaffa Theatre, does confront the audience with the social injustices that brought the protesters out. It holds up a mirror that reflects suspicion, condescension and racism, and presents what some of the audience is not even aware of at all, because it doesn’t want to be aware. “State religious schools won’t enroll children of Ethiopian descent!,” Asankao proclaims on stage. “Bus drivers won’t let black girls get on the bus! Police officers wander the neighborhood ghettoes and beat black teenagers – and no one says anything!”

However, “Torn,” as its name implies, is not just a theatrical indictment of Israeli society. It is a play that talks about the inner conflict experienced by many children of immigrants, who are torn between the desire to cling to their ethnic heritage and the values of their parents’ generation, and their eagerness to assimilate in Israeli society, to leave behind the things that brand them as outsiders, even to outwardly “whiten” themselves.

From “Hatzuya” (“Torn”).Credit: Tzvia Adler

“It’s like a split personality, between two identities. On the one hand, you want to preserve the tradition and not forget where you came from, but then there’s this voice inside of you that does want to break out,” says Ortal Solomon, Asankao’s collaborator on the play. She is also a second-generation Ethiopian immigrant and her experiences informed the text as well.

This inner conflict could have been expressed as a fierce monologue, but Asankao and Solomon, together with director Bat-Chen Yisraeli, chose another way: They turned it into a dialogue by a split character they play called Alemenesh-Ela. The main theatrical element that accompanies the character’s dialogue is the buna, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony using traditional vessels. So, as the coffee beans are roasted and ground and boiled and finally poured as a drink for the audience, the audience learns about the torment of those who are never allowed to feel like they truly belong.

Solomon, 29, a graduate of the Nissan Nativ acting studio who has appeared in a number of commercials and television shows, grew up in Ashkelon, the youngest of 12 children. The siblings had been making aliyah from Ethiopia gradually since the 1970s, and the parents joined them in 1983. Her father, who died two years ago, worked in construction here, and her mother is a housewife – two familiar immigrant stories. Hidden behind the invisible figures of “the cleaner” or the “housewife” or the “construction worker” are people who showed tremendous fortitude to get here, who endured incredibly arduous, life-threatening journeys, and afterwards faced all the difficulties of immigration and of discriminatory treatment.

A participant at the demonstration against police brutality against Israelis from an Ethiopian background, in tel Aviv, 2016.Credit: Ofer Waknin

Asankao, 30, graduated from the social justice education program at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College. Now a kindergarten teacher, she was born in Ethiopia and came to Israel in 1991 when she was four years old – not in one of the heroic operations the government likes to boast about, but independently, with her family: her father, who worked in Ethiopia as a healer with herbal remedies and continued to do so here, her mother, who now works as a cleaner for the Amigur company, and her two older siblings.

Asankao tells part of Solomon’s mother’s true story in the first-person, speaking as the character Alemenesh-Ela. “My mother was 43 when she made aliyah: A strong and hopeful woman, she walked for two months in the desert with a newborn daughter and never broke down. They went through hardships that neither you nor I could have survived, and all for the sake of the good life they would have here. All for the sake of the milk and honey that would flow out of the faucets,” she says. Later on Solomon adds a chilling detail to the story: “My mother arrived in Sudan and lived there for three years with a false identity with a Muslim name, just so they wouldn’t find out she was Jewish, all in order to reach Jerusalem of gold.”

In weaving the story, the two voices of the torn character complement one another, but in the conclusions that emerge from the story, they are divided. “And what did she get out of it? Shit, nada, nothing. She came to a place where she is looked at like a stupid new immigrant who doesn’t understand anything. I promised myself I wouldn’t be like Mother, that I would fit in and I would succeed,” says Solomon, playing the side of Alemenesh-Ela who wants to assimilate. The side played by Asankao answers her: “Do you hear yourself? These are people who had everything, especially a big dream, and they came here for Zionist reasons. Because of what your mother and her whole generation went through, we have a role to fulfill. We must be strong and proud of our heritage.”

Tamar Asankao and Ortal Solomon.Credit: Ilya Melinkov

Condescension, pity

The portrayal of the immigrants as having been saved by Israeli society, and the establishment’s appropriation of the aliyah narrative, draws a strong reaction from Asankao. “It bothers me that they talk about the Ethiopians who ‘came from the ghettoes’ and portray it as, ‘Look, they’re so pathetic and Israeli society helped them,’” she complains. “It’s often seen as if the society is the great savior, but that’s not how it is, and we’re not pitiable.

“For years, at home, I was told the story of how my family made aliyah,” she continues. “My mother said that her grandfather and grandmother used to talk with her about the dream of aliyah and that there were always attempts to make aliyah. But here, in school and all the time I was growing up, I was taught that ‘They brought us on aliyah,’ that the Mossad did it. One time I met a pilot and he asked me, ‘Which aliyah operation were you part of?’ When I said I didn’t remember, he said, ‘I might have been the one who brought you on aliyah.’ This thing of ‘I brought you’ is part of it, but what about my family? What did they do? All of my mother’s sisters came to Israel on foot. My mother’s sister lost a daughter on the way.

“They left everything behind,” says Asankao. “Not that it was bad for them there, but they just felt like it wasn’t their country. The lack of belonging was hard for them, and that’s why they wanted to come to this country. But these stories always come up about how ‘we brought you here’ and they try to erase or blur the fact that we were the ones who wanted to do it and that we were always active. It’s a shame that this narrative isn’t as widely known as it should be. As soon as the society knows it, then they’ll treat us differently too.”

A policeman confronts a protester at an Ethiopian-Israeli demonstration in Tel Aviv, June 3, 2015. Credit: Ilan Assayag

As you say in the play, your parents expected to find “milk and honey” flowing here and what they found was quite the opposite. How do they take that?

Solomon: “Our generation is a lot more brazen, a lot bolder, a lot louder and more talkative. When I told my mother that I was taking part in the protest, she was against it and said: ‘What do you need to protest for? We should be saying thank you that we’re in the Holy Land, that we made it to Zion and that we are here.’ The generation gap is very great. Our generation protests over what our parents went through. It’s so deep and goes back years, so I’m very glad that now there is a generation that is speaking and doing, and not keeping quiet like its parents.”

Despite all of its embarrassment about the ways of the parents’ generation and the children’s attempts to separate themselves from it, the second generation’s recognition of the parents’ suffering is one of the play’s main themes. “You must be asking where my mother is in this whole story,” says Solomon in one scene. “She was left by the wayside. They found ‘special projects’ for her that would pave her way directly to the fringes of society. A factory for invisible people.”

On these fringes, say Asankao and Solomon, is where Ethiopian immigrants have been grievously wronged. They chose to omit the story of Abera Mengistu, who is missing in Gaza but, despite the protests on his behalf, is not benefiting from much of an effort by the Israeli government to find him. But they have plenty of other episodes to mention: the destruction of the blood donations from Ethiopian immigrants in the 1990s, the refusal of people in Kiryat Malachi to sell them apartments, and the Depo-Provera birth control shots that were given to Ethiopian women.

“One woman from the audience came up to me and asked when the women were given the Depo-Provera shots. She said the state could be sued for that,” says Asankao. “If something like that were to happen now to the Jews in Europe, the media here would be going crazy and shouting ‘anti-Semitism.’ It doesn’t make sense that only someone who’s Ethiopian is familiar with this story, that it didn’t shake up the country at all when it happened.”

Abera Mengistu.Credit: Mengistu's family

Social activist Efrat Yardai, who lectures in politics and government at Ben-Gurion University, was born in Israel to parents who immigrated from Ethiopia in 1970. She says that Asankao and Solomon’s point of view touches her profoundly. “Our generation has respect for the parents, but we’re less interested in the ‘Jerusalem of gold’ and more interested in other things – making a living, parties, a whole different life. This is something you see in the play and I find it very interesting,” she says. “I relate more to the young people in terms of their boldness and the questions that they aren’t afraid to raise. In the parents’ generation, there were some who thought that if they don’t talk about these things and don’t deal with them, their children will be Israelis and everything will be fine, and even now there are voices in the community that say, ‘Enough whining.’ But it doesn’t work that way.”

Hair straightening

The subject matter may be heavy, but Solomon and Asankao present it with humor. This is also the tool they use to deal with the issue of outward appearance as the key to integration in Israeli society. “I broke eggs over my head, I smeared on henna, tahini, margarine, and I even ironed my hair!” declares Solomon’s character in a scene where she recounts the saga of trying to straighten her curls. “When none of that helped, I found this magical substance that promised to rid me of the terrible tight, curly hair that I so despised.”

In our conversation, the tone is more serious. “Do you know how many times we’ve gone out together to all kinds of places and were stared at?” says Solomon. “If we could have assembled this play from stares we would have done it. They’re not stares of suspicion. Mainly they’re stares of curiosity.”

“They’ll say to us, ‘Hey, you’re really pretty, can we take your picture?’” says Asankao. “Or else they take our picture without asking, or they say, ‘I bet you’re a really great dancer.’ One time we were out somewhere and people told us, ‘You two must be great dancers.’”

And how do you respond in such situations?

Asankao: “My brother once told me, ‘Always wear sunscreen’ – in other words, don’t let that sort of thing get to you too much. It’s a way of coping and being strong because I know who I am and who my family is, I know my history. These things often come from ignorance so there’s no point being insulted. I don’t think they come from fear of the other but from lack of familiarity.” And where would you currently place yourselves on the “Torn” scale – closer to the Israeli side or to the traditional Ethiopian side?

Solomnon: “I’m quite okay with myself by now. I’m Israeli and at the same time I will never forget where I came from. I want to hear more stories about the history of our people. It really interests me because we have a rich and beautiful history.”

Asankao: “I’m also in this situation but it didn’t happen overnight, it was a process. As an adolescent, I had a lot of questions about my identity, and I had a greater desire to dig, to find out who I am, and then I would also suppress one identity and try to amplify another identity. It’s a process that we go through and it’s impossible to separate the two identities. That’s what makes us who we are and that’s the beauty of it.”