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Another Exodus on Its Way to Screen

April 16, 2009 By:
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Yael Abecassis and her adopted son (Moshe Agazai) embrace life in the film "Live and Become."

Black and blue and ... white: The bruised and bedraggled road from Ethiopia to Israel was one colored with anxiety, fear and history.

And the spectrum of that special journey is all covered in hues of hope in "Live and Become," a spectacular 2005 Israeli movie -- just out on DVD -- which will receive a special screening Thursday evening, April 23, at the Gershman Y in Center City.

That screening is in tandem with the same-day opening of Irene Fertik's photographic exhibit, "From Tesfa to Tikvah: From Hope to Hope," focusing on Israel's Ethiopian village of voyagers.

The movie is as moving as it is sentient in sensitively assaying the plight of those Ethiopian Jews whose exodus was abetted not by parting waters, but by departing planes sent by Israel to carry them out of their country via the undercover "Operation Moses."

Plagued by ostracism in an impoverished nation whose countrymen considered them outcasts, these so-called "Falash Muras" -- generally considered a negative name for the Ethiopian Jews -- had their questions of survival answered by "Operation Moses," a harrowing Haggadah of their own begun in 1984.

"Live and Become" operates as a miracle of a mitzvah: French-Rumanian Jewish director Radu Mihaileanu's drama of a Christian Ethiopian youngster passing as Jewish to qualify for the mission misses not a heartbeat of the hurt and healing needed from these strangers from a strange land. As they landed in even more enigmatic quarters -- their planes touching down in Israel -- they faced their newfound alien nation with respect and regrets.

It is familiar turf for Yael Abecassis, one of Israel's leading actresses whose role as that youngster's adoptive mother in Israel may be the mother of all roles she has assumed in her career, which began when the 41-year-old was a teen model.

The movie, which the actress asserts was "very hard emotionally," didn't afford a frame of reference for Abecassis at first.

"As an Israeli citizen, I was not aware of the problems" the Ethiopian émigrés had endured in her country, she says, depicted unflinchingly on screen as the youngster Schlomo -- portrayed at various stages and ages by three actors -- deals with racism and rejection as a non-white émigré in the white heat of Israel's scrutiny.

But then, says Abecassis, ignorance is not a matter of bliss, but a blinding need.

"In our complicated situation," she says of the nation scarred by the sun and scorned by its neighbors, "we try to live calmly. We have enough problems and don't want to know" about all that exist.

But it is not so much a matter of burying heads in the sand, but keeping them above board so there is breathing room to survive. Yet the movie moved her so and has changed her in more than a reel way. "I know much better about their situation," she says of those Ethiopian Jews who found the milk and honey of their adopted homeland somewhat sour.

"But I played another role alongside an Ethiopian actress" in another film "and talked with her," enabling Abecassis to understand that the once new arrivals have really finally arrived in Israel, "that they feel more integrated now, feel more Israeli."

Yet she still feels for them: "There is more an awareness on both sides; I want to say it is better."

Abecassis is better than most in understanding the unalloyed alien strain of trying to adopt to a new country. Her mother is Raymonde Abecassis, a prominent Moroccan singer -- "the most famous," says her proud daughter -- who immigrated to Israel, where it soon became a matter of mother's daze: the famous entertainer who wowed them in Morocco soon found her career AWOL in Israel. "She had performed at all the Bar Mitzvahs and brit milahs of Moroccan society, but when she got to Israel, the Moroccans who live there want Israeli" entertainment. Change of life ... plans: "So, I said, 'Mommy, you will become an actress.' "

And she did, featured in "Live and Become," and living to be able to say, "my daughter, the producer": "I'm producing a film next with her in it."

The star of a number of Amos Gitai films, Yael yearns not for fame but for the good fortune of making a living at what she does best. "I am an Israeli actress who has never left Israel" to seek opportunities beyond its Mideast mosaics. "I like it this way; I feel that I am a member of the Israeli cinema family."

As well as a student of history at the university. The actress is also a study in introspection and uses her voice in movies as a soundboard of the heart: "I try to determine what it means to be a Zionist; I find it interesting clarifying for myself the Israeli Jewish enigma."  

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