No laughing matter

‘It Sounds Better in Amharic,’ Yossi Wassa’s one-man show about his journey to – and in – Israel, sounds very good in Hebrew as well.

Breaking news (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Breaking news
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Yossi Wassa has quite a story to tell. It will make you laugh and may make you cry, but it is a safe bet that no one in the audience of his two shows at Jerusalem’s Confederation House, as part of the Hullegeb Ethiopian-Israeli Arts Festival this Sunday (6 p.m. and 8 p.m.), will remain unmoved.
The 35-year-old Wassa was born in the village of Abaroda in Ethiopia and made the arduous and perilous journey to Israel with his family at the age of 10. A quarter of a century on, Wassa now earns some of his bread telling the story of his physical, cultural and spiritual odyssey from Abaroda to mainstream Israel.
The It Sounds Better in Amharic show is part comedy and part tragedy. “I used to call it a stand-up story show, but it is not just about laughing,” says Wassa. “There is a part, which lasts about 10 minutes, when I tell some of the story of our journey here, with the pain and difficulties and about the people who died en route. There is nothing funny about that section of the performance. I tell the story as honestly as I can. People get that.”
Wassa began performing It Sounds Better in Amharic eight years ago and has performed all over the country, and abroad, since then.
“Some Americans who knew Hebrew came to one of my shows here and they said that it would go over well in the States if I could do it in English,” Wassa recalls. “My English back then was sort of high school standard, but I got the play translated and improved my English and those Americans were right – the show does go down well outside Israel, too.”
The show is not just about the problems and challenges the Ethiopian community here has faced, and still faces. “There is something universal about my story.
I performed at the opening of the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) in San Francisco [in December 2005], and there were people there from all over the world and from different ethnic groups.
They all understood and felt what I was talking about. At first none of them knew I was from Israel, but my story is a human story that anyone can connect with.”
That goes for practically everyone here, too. “Israel is a land of immigrants or the children of immigrants. We all bring our cultural baggage with us from elsewhere, and I think we are all looking for an answer to the question of who and what is a real Israeli.”
He points out, however, that there is an obvious difference in his case. “If you come from England or Russia, for example, and you have lived here long enough, you can maybe get an Israeli accent and people will treat you as a tzabar. But as soon as people see the color of my skin, they relate to me as an Ethiopian. There’s no getting away from that.”
That also applies to Ethiopian Israelis who have no direct contact with Ethiopia and can cause some difficult identity issues. “There are kids and young people who were born here and have never even been to Ethiopia but are still treated as olim.”
The answer, according to Wassa, is to connect to yourself. “We cannot try to be Israeli by force. You need to bring out everything in yourself, your strength and to be true to yourself.
That is the only way. You know there are Sephardim who, over 60 years after the creation of the state, still feel deprived. There’s no point in moaning. It is very dangerous to slip into self-pity mode and feeling sorry for ourselves because of discrimination. We have to get on with things and live our lives.”
Wassa has come a long way, on many fronts, since making aliya. “I went back to my village three years ago, and I was amazed by the difference between there and Western society. People there, for example, have never even heard of Martin Luther King. We also had to make a great mental leap when we came to Israel. I only learned to read and write when I was 11, and people of my parents’ generation had to learn how to use a telephone and a TV. But Rabbi Akiva only started to study when he was 40 and he did well.”
It Sounds Better in Amharic is not all talk. There will be musical entertainment courtesy of Tomer Yossef. “The music is stuff I love, like African songs, Bob Marley numbers and Israeli music,” says Wassa. “There is a song by Tomer that says, Go right ahead, don’t be afraid; beyond the imaginary border, there is no border.’ For me, that says it all.”
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