Telling a life story

This year's Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival features a play about one boy's odyssey from his village in Ethiopia to Israel.

One of a Kind 521 (photo credit: Stephanie Berger)
One of a Kind 521
(photo credit: Stephanie Berger)
Yossi Vassa is pretty special; possibly even one of a kind. This comes across in his quiet and unaffected offstage demeanor as well as in his professional conduct, both as a stand-up comedian and a bona-fide theater actor. The latter skill will come across loud and clear when Vassa takes the stage, along with his colleagues from the Nephesh Theater company, at this year’s Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival, which kicks off on Thursday under the auspices of Confederation House. Vassa and five other actors will perform One of a Kind on December 24 (8:30 p.m.) at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem.
One of a Kind has successfully done the rounds across the country as well as overseas.
“We performed the play on Broadway. Not off-Broadway,” Vassa is keen to point out, “and we won a prize at the Haifa Theater Festival.”
He is clearly proud of the show, which, considering the very personal nature of the storyline, is not entirely surprising. One of A Kind tells the story of a young Jewish boy’s odyssey from his village in Ethiopia to Israel, and all the trials and tribulations – as well as the joys – he experiences en route. Vassa co-wrote the play with playwright-director Shai Ben-Atar.
Before he set pen to paper for the current Hullegeb Festival show, Vassa had already channeled some of his boyhood endurance test into a well-received stand-up act called “It Sounds Better in Amharic.” For Vassa, telling his tale in public is not only a means of processing some of the horrors he encountered on his way here, it is also a way of further facilitating the Ethiopian sector’s absorption into mainstream Israeli society.
“I feel there is some kind of wall between the Ethiopian community and Israeli society in general,” he notes. “I think that these kinds of shows create some kind of middle ground where we can meet and talk, and really get to know each other beyond the stereotypes and see the Ethiopian community for what it is, beyond all the problems we have had.”
The Hullegeb Festival plays a central role in trying to achieve that objective. Veteran Israelis and immigrants alike may recall all the political hullabaloo and the demonstrations in the 1980s when there was a strong public outcry against the government’s ruling that Ethiopian immigrants needed to undergo a process of conversion to Judaism, claiming that their Jewish roots were not entirely clear. Later, there was more trouble when the public was warned against using blood donated by Ethiopians, alleging that there was a greater risk of contracting AIDS-related diseases.
Vassa desperately wants to help eradicate any negative sentiment associated with the Ethiopian community as well as to convey to Israelis the human side of the arduous voyage. “There is all this Zionism aspect to it, which is fine, but there were also emotions involved, and there were many acts of heroism but also very challenging things. Very few people know about these things.”
Vassa experienced tragedy firsthand when two of his siblings and his grandmother died in a holding camp in Sudan on their way to Israel. That was during Operation Moses in the mid- 1980s.
Besides allowing him to tell his own story, Vassa says that One of a Kind has also enabled him to learn something about the undercover Israeli side of the secret aliya campaign.
“I have had people come to the show who were on the other side of the whole thing, Israeli secret service agents, Israelis who were on the organizational side. When I hear their version I am amazed. These people did some incredible things.”
The show is not all doom and gloom, and Vassa says he wants to communicate with his audience and make the play as accessible as possible.
“There is some dark humor in the script, as far as that is possible, but I really loathe it when someone comes across as selfopinionated.
This is a story of a very difficult experience, but there is always humor in our way of life; even in the Holocaust there was humor.”
That does not mean to say that any of the really difficult events are made artificially more palatable. “It is not funny to see a member of your family die. But you can laugh when someone wants to make tea, but they haven’t got any so they serve you a cup of hot water.”
Vassa says he did his best to keep a positive thread running through the play, hardships notwithstanding. “I think that sometimes people want to hear us criticize Israel, and talk about racism, but as a theater professional all I want to do is to tell a story and nothing else. I want to tell my story, which is based on facts and deep human emotion. I don’t want to get into politics.
That’s not my thing.”
Like any work of art worth its salt, One of a Kind leaves its audience with plenty to mull over on the way home, at work the next day and even beyond.
“I want the members of the audience to come to the show and, rather than thinking about me, think about themselves. I also think there is something pure and Zionistic about the show. You know, these days, people often relate to Zionism as something that belongs to the past, something primitive. But I see that One of a Kind sometimes arouses those feelings in people.”
At the end of the day, Vassa and his Nephesh Theater cohorts just want to convey some of their experiences. “This show is the first time that Ethiopians had the opportunity to get together to tell their story, in an enjoyable way, so that people say ‘I want to go to see that show.’ I don’t want people to come to the show because they feel sorry for us, or they think that seeing a bunch of Ethiopians on a stage might be an interesting experience. I don’t want anyone to do me any favors.” • For more information about the One of a Kind show and the Hullegeb Festival: (02) 624-5206 or