From Ethiopia to the courtroom

Daniel Remer’s documentary ‘Leah’ recounts one immigrant’s success story.

By MARGARET STONER
March 6, 2011 21:19
3 minute read.
Leah Biteolin

Leah 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The State of Israel is, to say the least, a rainbow of cultures.

For more than 60 years, Jews from the cities, ghettos and villages of Europe to the Middle East, America and Africa have been immigrating to the new state in search of freedom, security and fulfillment.

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And despite the great variety of people that fit into the framework of Judaism, many were surprised when, starting in the 1980s, Ethiopian Jews began immigrating to Israel. Though the presence of Ethiopian communities in Israel is well known, few have had the opportunity to hear a firsthand account of the bravery and perseverance that brought that population to this land.

Daniel Remer, a London-trained filmmaker, is attempting to tell the story of one such immigrant in his new documentary, Leah. It is the story of Leah Biteolin, who came to Israel from Ethiopia with her family at the age of three. Remer approached Leah and asked if she would be the subject of his newest film project. Though hesitant at first, she decided that “this is a story that needs to be told,” and agreed.

Over the course of 18 months, Leah was filmed traveling throughout the country discussing her past, present and future, as well as her relationships with Israel and Ethiopia. The film also includes footage of Leah participating with actress Natalie Portman in a Jewish Agency-sponsored trip to Ethiopia and speaking as a guest at the annual GA summit in Washington, D.C.

Leah was born in 1981. In 1984, her family walked from their remote village of Seramele to Sudan, where they turned to the Red Cross for help. After settling into a refugee camp, they worked relentlessly to get in touch with the Israeli authorities.

Six months later the Biteolins, with many other new Ethiopian immigrants, took a four-hour flight to their new home in Israel. The family lived in an absorption center in Kiryat Gat for four years and eventually bought an apartment in Rishon Lezion.

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Leah graduated high school, completed her National Service and continued her education at Bar-Ilan University.

After working with the Jewish Agency, she attended law school and is currently interning for the Justice Ministry in Tel Aviv.

Though the film is generally inspiring, the most emotional moments take place during Leah’s visit to her home village. She explains that her parents, whom she describes as her “greatest inspiration,” never went to school or learned to write in their own language.

“I could not believe this was my starting point,” she says.

Despite such remote isolation, the village upheld Jewish practice for 2,000 years. And though much of the Ethiopian population has become more secularized, Leah maintains a strong connection.

“Being Jewish means everything to me,” she asserts.

The film holds interest as a story in itself story but has higher-reaching goals as well. Remer explains: “I wanted to create a portrait of a life and to show how Israel can offer opportunities to some people that they may never find them anywhere else. It should be the first in a series of four to six films about olim who become successful due to their aliya. I want to make one about a Russian and other nationalities.”

Though the 30-minute documentary could have benefited from more footage of Leah’s trips to Ethiopia or perhaps more background information about the Ethiopian communities in general, it is successful in what it does. It creates a vivid picture of Leah – her struggles and her triumphs as an Ethiopian, an Israeli and a human being.

An eloquent speaker, Leah maintains a delicate balance between respect and reverence for her past and a willingness to shape her own future.

Remer hopes that the film will be shown around the world, reaching people from a variety of backgrounds, and that it will help inform an international audience about some of the positive aspects of Israel.

“I think it says that Israel has the potential to allow and facilitate immigrants to have a future that they never would have dreamt was possible.

A girl from an African village can become a lawyer and work in the Ministry of Justice! Where else does that happen?” he says.

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