Homeward Bound (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A new documentary about a 'roots trip' to Ethiopia by a group of Israeli teenagers is a moving study of their quest for identity and understanding "My name is Gashau. It's the name I've had since I was born." As he grins both bashfully and proudly at the camera, wearing his Israeli army officers' uniform, Gashau's deceptively simple statement is the culmination of a long, difficult, literal, spiritual and metaphoric journey by a group of young Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. Produced and directed by Jerusalem-based filmmaker Eli Tal-El and written by Tal-El and his wife, Elaine Matlow Tal-El, "The Name My Mother Gave Me" is a thoughtful, moving hour-long documentary that follows this group as they travel to Ethiopia and back to find their personal and collective identities. They are part of a pre-army leadership training group, all male, for immigrants from Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union. In Israel, Ethiopian and Russian teens, both marginalized groups, rarely get along and there have been numerous cases of gang violence. But during this year-long program, this group of teens, ages 18-19, are challenged to work together and, together, to "dream a dream and make it happen," in the words of their counselors. They choose to go on a "roots trip" to both Ethiopia and Russia. But they aren't able to earn enough money and Ethiopia is cheaper, so that's where this mixed group of Ethiopian-born and Russian-born teenagers decides to go. The film opens with an argument between two young men as they work in a plum orchard to earn money for the trip. Both were named Gashau in Ethiopia, but one insists on being called Uri, the name handed to him by some bureaucrat when he first arrived in Israel, while the other rejects his Israeli-given name, Boaz, and insists on being called Gashau. Says Gashau-Boaz, "I'm proud of my name because it has meaning and dignity. It's the name my father gave me, so why should I change it?" Retorts Uri-Gashau, "In Israel, you will be a stranger all your life." Gashau-Boaz answers thoughtfully. "I say that what was has to continue to be, and then you move on from there. I can't bury who I was, otherwise, we'd have to bury the Bible, too." Says Uri-Gashau, "There's nothing to find there, in Ethiopia." But he does make the trip, together with the others, and his journey from Uri back to Gashau is one of the metaphorical trips that this group of teens must take as they move from childhood to young manhood and build their identities as individuals, Israelis, and Jews. Most of them, both Ethiopians and Russians, left their native lands as young children, and they begin the trip as tourists. From their positions as denizens of a post-industrial society, even the Ethiopians gawk at the primitive agricultural society they see through their tour bus windows, as they sing Israeli pop songs. Their guide explains to them about the injeera, the traditional bread that their own mothers made when they were young children. They stop along the road to one of the villages and, laughing, try their luck at working an ox-pulled plow and swinging a long farmer's whip. But gradually, their tourism transforms into recollection, and they begin to explain to each other what they are all beginning to remember. And they notice that their Amharic, latent within them, has become fluent again. "You're home, bro," they call to each other. They are traveling not only to their "roots," but to their own childhoods. Bewildered, Yossi is able to find the waterfall he used to jump into when he was a child, but admits, "When I was little, it seemed so much higher." They look at children playing with cars fashioned from cast-off wires. "I remember, I made those cars, too," says Yossi. "And now I remember that my brother would take the herd of cattle out to the fields, and I would help my mother. I remember the waterfall. I remember my village." Uri jumps from excitement as he approaches his village, "There are people who know me here, people who know me from when I was little. I was born here. I live with you guys now, but this is the ground I used to lie on." He rolls up his low-slung stylish jeans and tosses off his logo shoes: "This is how I used to be. I'm modern now, but I used to be like this." He enters a tukul, the traditional thatched roof rounded hut-home in Ethiopia, like the one into which he was born. "Only ours was bigger, because we were a larger family," he explains. Watching him, Yuri says, "I understand him now. I come from somewhere different, from Moscow. But I understand, I know what he is feeling. I would like to show them where I come from, where there are people who know me from when I was little. It's different, but it's the same." And Uri begins to wonder about his disrupted, disjointed identity. "If I had stayed here, and you came to visit, would I behave like these people who still live here? Is this who I would be?" As the group approaches the area of Gondar, in northwest Ethiopia, Yanesau vaguely remembers a restaurant, where there was a rare telephone… maybe they could call his mother? It has been 14 years since he saw her. She had been afraid to leave the village of her birth; he left for Israel with his father. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie, Yanesau does meet his mother. (It is this scene that gives the film its Hebrew title, "Taxi to Gondar," after the taxi that his mother must take from her village.) With his slick, mod haircut, a silver hoop earring in one ear, this tall, strong young man is nearly faint, barely able to stand or speak, and can only say, "I want to feel her, to hug her." And, as the other boys cry with him, he does hug her. He is too thin, she tells him, and he laughs bashfully. They talk for a few moments and then their lives separate again. "Don't forget me, my son," she calls after him. And, in a moment, they seem to have transformed, from goofy teenagers to maturing men, capable of remembering, embracing, crying and comforting. An individual journey, the trip to Gondar is also this diverse group's trip to their Jewish and Israeli identities. Yossi says, "This trip has really strengthened me as a Jew. Now, I want to go up to my grandfather, and kiss his feet, and say, the way you brought me up, it was awesome. That's what I want to do when I get home." He remembers the synagogue in his village, just up the hill from the road they are traveling on. Eyal, the counselor who has led this group for over a year, buys brooms and dustpans at a local makeshift store. "It's just up the hill," Yossi promises. But he remembers his non-Jewish Ethiopian neighbors, too. "They wanted to kill us, they hated us so much," he says. Finding the building that he thinks he remembers, they peek through the windows - yes, this is the synagogue, the Magen David that hung over the doorway has been thrown inside. The building, they believe, has been locked for years - until they push the door and find that the synagogue isn't locked at all. The villagers have simply abandoned it. The prayerbooks in Amharic have disappeared, but the books in Hebrew are just as they were left, coated with dust. Perhaps for posterity, they sweep and clean the synagogue where no one will probably ever pray again. Vadim, a Russian teen, says, "It's amazing. Hebrew prayerbooks in the middle of nowhere on some godforsaken mountain in Ethiopia - Jewish books, in Hebrew." Later, he will say, "At first, I was disappointed that we came here. I couldn't live like this. And I'm sorry we didn't go to Russia. But now I know there was once a synagogue in the middle of Ethiopia." Referring to the doubts raised by some rabbinic authorities in Israel regarding the Jewishness of some of the Ethiopians, he says, "If anyone ever says that there weren't Jews here in Ethiopia - it just isn't true. Dir Balak," he adds, using the Arabic that has been imported into Hebrew for "watch out." And, at that moment, it is Eyal, the Israeli-born, stern-faced counselor, who is overwhelmed. Sobbing heavily, he says, "It's been such hard work. Do you know what it was like at the beginning? They wouldn't even talk to each other. And now look at them, look at them all together. They have come here, and everything has been preserved… The unity, the togetherness." Indeed, this roots trip is also a roots-building trip as the group coalesces and the boys find friendship in their differentness. In a concluding session, Vadim tells the group, "All the kids know that I was really opposed to this trip, because I wanted to go home, too. I'm so sorry I was against…" his voice trails off as he cries and the group applauds. Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.