Comedic insights into Ethiopian pain

Shmuel Beru’s no-holds barred show at Jerusalem’s Confederation House will probably move you to laughter and tears and much in between.

Shmuel Beru 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shmuel Beru 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you’re looking for smooth, PC-adherent light entertainment you’d be best advised to give Shmuel Beru’s one-man stand-up show, this Tuesday (6 p.m. and 8 p.m.), a miss. Beru made aliyah with his family in 1984, at the age of eight. Thankfully his parents and all his eight siblings safely navigated the arduous journey to Israel, in four groups.
The family was given housing in Tzefat and Beru embarked on the trail to absorption and acceptance into Israeli society. According to Beru it is an ongoing, and painful, journey and the content of the show is clearly alluded to in the double – entendre title Milla Shel Etiopi (An Ethiopian’s Word) .
“Milla” can mean “word,” as in trustworthiness, but also references the contentious issue that arose in the 1980s when the rabbinical establishment required Ethiopian olim to undergo a conversion process to Judaism, as in brit milla.
“The business about having to convert after we came to Israel was traumatic for the whole community, and it still is,” says Beru. “It taught us a lot about the rabbinical establishment here, and also highlighted social difficulties.”
As far as Beru is concerned, anything and everything is up for grabs in his show.
“There aren’t any taboos or red lines. Things have to be brought up and talked about. Of course, it helps when they are presented in a humorous way. It helps people to accept what I talk about, and it helps me to get things out.”
Beru has been performing Milla Shel Etiopi since 2005 to all kinds of audiences.
“Everyone reacts differently to the show,” he says.
“Of course it is very difficult for Ethiopians to hear some of the things I talk about, and also for sabras.” Beru says he did not undergo a particular difficult absorption continuum, but puts that down more to the Ethiopians’ natural mindset than to benevolence on the part of Absorption Ministry personnel.
“Like any oleh we had language and other problems. But, to begin with, we were too naïve to realize we were being discriminated against. But I understand where that attitude came from. There is a natural fear of Jews that, after so much persecution and especially after the Holocaust, they may lose their homeland. It’s like a mother cat which takes care of its kittens. Sometimes she has to scratch and lash out to protect her family.”
TWENTY-SEVEN years after he arrived here, does Beru think the situation of the Ethiopian community has improved?
“I don’t think so. I think, to begin with, Israelis thought we [Ethiopian Jews] had only come for the weekend. They thought we’d only be here a short while and then go back. So then they were nice to us. As time went on they became less nice and less tolerant. Of course the color of our skin plays a major role here too. We live in a very racist and hypocritical society, even though we show solidarity when there is some tragedy. But in daily life we are not so nice – we have no patience on the roads and elsewhere. We live in an aggressive and violent culture where everyone is looking for instantaneous gratification.”
By now it had become clear that Beru will be shooting from the hip from the Confederation House stage this week.
“I am direct, sometimes very direct,” he declares. “But I think the arts offer a good vehicle for airing things, as uncomfortable as they may be. I have to heal my own wounds and, maybe, help others too but I don’t set out to hurt anyone. There are plenty of laughs in the show.”
Beru has also taken an entirely serious look at the plight of the Ethiopian community here. Two years ago a drama he wrote and directed, Zrubavel, won Best Film Award at the Haifa International Film Festival, and was screened in the United States and Italy to highly enthusiastic responses. Zrubavel tells the story of a young boy’s dreams of becoming Israel’s answer to Spike Lee, and how his artistic ambitions spark off a feud between the traditionalists and the younger members of the family who want to gain full entry into Israeli society.
“I don’t want to exacerbate the differences between the Ethiopian community and Israeli society but artists have to shout out about the pain, and feeling estranged from society. We interest educationalists and a few others, but I don’t think the average Israeli cares. That’s painful but that’s the reality. I don’t think the show can change the world, but every bit helps to open up a new window of opportunity. I just hope the show generates a bit more understanding of our pain. Like the Palestinians, we are all human beings and we all have our basic needs. If we can laugh it about it too, that can only help.”
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