Arduous journey to freedom — and Israel — profiles Jews of color
By Dan Pine
Published: May 10 2012
Director Avishai Mekonen titled his documentary “400 Miles to Freedom” to signify the distance between his home village in Ethiopia and the Holy Land of Israel.
In 1984, at age 9, he walked every mile of it.
The new film recounts not only his family’s harrowing journey some 30 years ago, but their adjustment to a new life in Israel. He didn’t stop there. Mekonen also wove into his narrative other daunting tales of survival among far-flung Jewish communities, from Cuba to Uganda.
Why? “Am echad,” he says, using a Hebrew term to describe the Jews of the world: “One people.”
Mekonen and his wife, U.S.-born film editor Shari Rothfarb Mekonen, will be in the Bay Area to discuss their film and show clips. They will speak 7 p.m. Monday, May 14 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The event is co-sponsored by Be’Chol Lashon, which helped produce the film.
The Mekonens, who reside in New York, today live a pleasant American life. It’s a far cry from the primitive village Avishai Mekonen called home during his first years.
There, he and his fellow Beta Israel — the ancient community of Ethiopian Jews — lived quietly until nascent anti-Semitism drove them to immigrate to Israel by any means possible.
Between the Israeli airlifts Operations Moses and Joshua in the 1980s, and Operation Solomon in 1991, approximately 120,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel. Thousands more never made it, perishing in their quest for freedom.
“What the Beta Israel community went through to get freedom was not easy,” Mekonen says. “I saw a lot of images as a child. In the end I decided maybe I’m the one to tell [the story].”
He means the dangerous trek out of Ethiopia and into Sudan where, at age 9, Mekonen was kidnapped. He could have been sold into slavery or worse, but fortunately he was rescued after three weeks.
In his film, Mekonen recounts that trauma and meets for the first time in decades the man who saved him, a fellow Ethiopian Jew now living in Israel. The filmmaker also introduces his close-knit family.
“My mom is the person who made me strong,” he says. “While eight months pregnant she walked 400 miles, giving birth to my brother in the middle of the journey [at a Sudanese refugee camp]. She educated and raised six boys. She never gives up.”
Mekonen met his wife in Israel, and the couple decided to relocate to New York. At first, the film-school graduate had to take odd jobs as a furniture mover and grocery store stockboy. Eventually, his talent as a photographer opened doors. That led to filmmaking opportunities in the U.S. and Israel.
The Mekonens included in their film stories about other diverse Jewish communities, including the Abayudaya of Uganda and the Anusim, descendants of Spanish Jews forced to convert to Catholicism.
“That’s a strong theme for us with this film,” says Shari Mekonen. “We’re sharing the story that people come to Judaism from different ways, whether through heritage, conversion, marriage or adoption.”
Despite the hard journey and difficult adjustment, the rest of Mekonen’s family has thrived in Israel, with younger generations of Ethiopian Jews feeling like full Israelis.
“I think about the place I escaped from,” he says. “It’s the worst place. Today it is different. We have our own voice.”
“400 Miles to Freedom,” discussion and film clips 2 p.m. Sunday, May 13, Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., S.F. Free with museum admission. Also 7 p.m. Monday, May 14, JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St. $10-$20. http://www.bechollashon.org or (415) 292-1200
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