Monday, December 13, 2010

Tears, SRO screenings, student essays, the film in California

Do I begin with last night’s SRO moving and exciting benefit for our music scholarship fund for Ethiopian kids during which people cried when they heard the kids perform and we showed the film and raised NIS12,000? (The photo is of some of the kids jamming afterwards.) Or with the screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque that had to be moved to a larger hall because of demand and then was sold out (nearly 300 people)? Or do I write about how much I enjoyed screening the film and leading a discussion with 60 18-year-old soldier teachers in training? Perhaps most fulfilling of all, I found out by chance that an English teacher at the Music Academy High School in Jerusalem assigned her 11th graders Ruth Eglash’s article on my film in the Jerusalem Post as reading material and then had each pupil write an essay about it…

The film will be showing at Sinai Temple in L.A. on February 16 at 1 p.m. (for info: 310-481-3217) and I’ll be there to talk about making it and to lead a discussion. I’m hoping for more gigs in LA. (Feb 14-21), Denver (Feb 21-25) or the Bay Area (Feb 25-March 1) – so if you have any ideas, please let me know.

If you’d like to take a look at or buy the children’s book that inspired the film – Ma Shmi u’Mi Ani (What is my Name and Who Am I?) go to author Naomi Shmuel’s web site: . If you want to purchase the film and live in Israel (ti’s around NIS80) , get in touch with the distributor, Ruth Diskin: or 02-672-4256.

I haven’t figured out how to drive much traffic to this blog and I’m not sure it’s worth continuing. I’m hoping the film will take on a life of its own so I can get on with my next project – a cookbook/family memoir based on my mother’s delicious cooking. And after that: bringing the Pikler/RIE approach to baby care to Israel.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Opening in Ashkelon!

These are my Names will premier at the Jewish Eye Festival in Ashkelon on Monday, October 18 at 6 p.m! If you’re in Israel, save the date. It’s at the International Convention Center, Ashkelon Academic College, Ben Tzvi 2, Ashkelon. Tickets (NIS 25; NIS 15 for groups of 10 or more) can be reserved by calling the Center at 08-678-9246. A preview will be held Sunday October 17, at 10 a.m. for schools along with two other documentaries about Ethiopian Jews: Making the Crooked Straight (about Rick Hodges M.D.) and Falasha 62. If you have a group that might want to attend the morning event, please call Smadar at 054-9413388. I like the idea that we are opening in the periphery.

Here's the trailer for those who haven't seen it. And here is Brian Blum’s article about the film - I feel he really got what I was trying to do; and my article about Ethiopian Jews who disappeared on the way to Israel, which appeared on the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

Be careful what you wish for
Years ago, in a group run by Elana Rozenman I, along with the other women participants was asked: Given unlimited resources and talent, what would you like to do in your next life? The answer came to me immediately: make documentary films.

It seemed like the next logical and creative step for an idealist/activist/reporter. Documentaries are a captivating way to communicate with the public; to raise awareness and in the best case, get people to act on the world’s multitudinous problems. My friend Ellen Bruno does this with aplomb with her beautiful, award-winning films about injustices in Tibet, Burma, Cambodia. But I never dreamed I would make a film in this lifetime. It was enough for me to have been published – something way beyond my modest teenage dreams (well, not so modest given that I wanted to help make the revolution.)

To my astonishment, circumstances led me to accomplish in this life what I was saving for the next. With the filming and editing help of friend and neighbor, Naomi Altaraz,
the support of the Fox Family Foundation, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and 45 friends and relatives, I made These are my Names. See our new Facebook page, put up by the wonderful Laurika Harris-Kaye.
Now that that’s done, I have a new dream for the next life: singer-songwriter. That way I get to be creative and get my ideas across in an even more entertaining and fun manner. Might as well throw in dancer while I’m dreaming.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The inspiration for the film
I have to admit up front that I am totally in love with Ethiopian Jews. My kids say I’m racist – in reverse. All I know is I’m fascinated by everything I learn about them and I feel most comfortable in their presence. My sense that they are more connected to their hearts – as are other Africans I’ve met – is, I realize, an idealization of everything non western. My friend Shula Mola, who is the chair of the IAEJ says what I’m picking up on has more to do with the way people lived – a simpler life in villages, in extended families, connected to nature – than being African. Be that as it may, the best (longest, tightest, happiest) hug I ever got was from my friend Talalu, who immigrated from Ethiopia to Israel in the 1990’s.

The picture book
I happened upon the wonderful children’s book is What is my Name and Who am I? by Naomi Shmuel. Shmuel is an Englishwoman with long blond hair married to an Ethiopian Israeli. She’s written a number of children’s books about Ethiopia including Aba Chum (Brown Daddy). Her books have probably done more to break stereotypes than any formal educational program. In What is my Name, our heroine tells us about her multiple names. Unlike us Westerners, Ethiopians have many names. Mom gives a name, Dad gives another, Grandma a third, perhaps a favorite uncle gives a fourth. One’s younger brothers and sisters can’t use your given name – that wouldn’t be respectful – so they give you yet another name. The book’s heroine tells us her father named her Almaz, meaning diamond, because she was the first girl born after many sons – like a diamond among precious stones. Almaz tells us about all her other names and what they mean and says she grew up happily in her family with her many names.

When she comes to Israel, Almaz’s name is changed to Chen. Like most of the people in our film, she doesn’t protest and doesn’t mind. Unlike them, she doesn’t care which name people call her and she never gets to the point of a raised consciousness nudging her, telling her that something is wrong here. (Unlike most of the film’s participants.)

The book is where I learned the ABC’s of Ethiopian names.

The incomparable Nir Katz
A short while later, I had a conversation with Nir Katz. Nir is a story unto himself and you can find our more about his work by clicking here. Nir is another one in love with the Ethiopian community, and he has serious credentials. Nir was travelling in Ethiopia in 1997 (having taught himself Amharic) as a young man when one fateful day, he was trying to hitch a ride out of a village. Nothing came along until a tractor that was going in the opposite direction. Nir had no particular agenda and decided to go with the tractor, which dropped off in a remote village in north western Ethiopia. As he tells it, Nir gets off the tractor and is surrounded by soldiers pointing rifles at him. When they have convinced themselves he is no threat, they give him a hut to sleep in.

When he awakens the next morning, Nir sees an old man sitting quietly against one of the walls of the tukul (hut.) The man asks him,
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Israel.”
The man says, “I’m from Israel too -- but a long time ago.”

Nir had happened upon Lower Quara, a village of Ethiopian Jews who had been left behind when the people of Upper Quara had emigrated to Israel. Nir stayed, helped, saved a woman from dying in childbirth and got attached. When he returned to Israel, he recruited allies and successfully campaigned for Israel to bring the rest o the Quara Jews home.

Today, Nir is married to an Ethiopian Israeli and is part of a community of Ethiopian and native Israelis who moved to Gedera to work with and strengthen the Ethiopian community there from within.

Years ago, he was substituting for a friend as a group leader on a hike with a bunch of Ethiopian teenagers. They couldn’t have cared less about anything he had to say about the flowers or ruins they were passing. One of them even took the trouble to step on a yellow flower that Nir was trying to talk about. Nir picked up the flower and said, If this flower had a name in Amharic, what would it be? Silence. He suggested Tsahainesh (meaning sun).

“Half their mothers had that name,” Nir told me. “They perked up.”

Shortly after hearing these two stories, I was visiting an Ethiopian immigrant friend named Aleli. It suddenly occurred to me that though I had known him for 3 years, I had never thought to ask him what his name means.

So I asked him. This man who usually wears a serious expression lit up and became unusually animated as he told me a story that went back to his grandmother and mother and his village -- and shed light on many aspects of Ethiopian Jewish life: that boys are more highly valued than girls, that girls marry extremely young, that grandmothers can nurse their grandchildren and more. I decided then and there that I couldn't keep this story to myself and that an article just wouldn't do it justice. I wanted people to see Aleli and to hear his story as he tells it.

The funding
I had a little money. I raised some more – mostly small contributions, Obama style, from friends and family. I hadn’t wanted to do this but a savvy rabbi I met with -- a friend of a friend – convinced me that I had to. I got some money from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. I had heard the founder, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, speak and say things that led me to believe he would appreciate the importance of the message I wanted to get across. I quoted him in a letter to him asking for support. I got another modest sum from a family foundation connected to someone I know. But I didn’t wait to start working on the film – I figured I’d do what I loved and the money would follow. I hooked up with Naomi Altaraz, a community filmmaker in the neighborhood, and we started to work.

The timeline
I work part time as a writer at Shatil, a job I love. I worked on the movie in my spare time. I thought the whole endeavor would take 2 months, 3 tops. Three years later, I’m finally done. I know it’s been three years because Asher, one of our interviewees, is holding 4-mlonth –old Shay (Tzegamlak who just turned three.

So here’s my time line:

Genesis of the idea: 15 minutes
The production: 15 days
Post production: 3 years.

Do you know how complicated it is to make even a short, simple documentary film?
Some of the vocabulary words I’ve picked up over the last three years:

On line editing (that’s a big one)
Edit list
Time code
Sound mix
International version
And all the acronyms:
Beta SP
Beta SX
etc. etc.

If you got this far, I'd love to hear from you. Please comment!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The first sale!

Today, the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv ordered the film! It's our very first sale. Gila Cohen, the wonderful woman in charge of their film archive, told me she sat glued to her chair when she previewed the film and used the Hebrew yotze min haklal (exceptional) to describe it. I feel I can share this because it's the wonderful people in the film who make it what it is - Zoe, the beautiful fashion designer; Asher, the social worker who works with Ethiopian Israeli trauma victims (which includes just about everyone who came through Operation Moses); Mukat, the champion runner and Yuvi, the community activist who set up a core group of Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian Israelis to live together in the town of Gedera and help empower the local Ethiopian community from within. See more here; David Mihret, the educator; and many more -- it's their quiet dignity, their fascinating experiences and insights -- and I have to say -- their internal and external beauty that make the film.

Monday, April 12, 2010

My film -- These are my Names -- is done!

An invitation to you

Join me for the fun and – I hope – festivities – as I launch this baby into the world. I’m writing this blog because I can’t do that alone. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a worldwide community of friends and family and – here I am hoping again – some friendly strangers to get a film like this out there. So get in on the ground floor and follow along with me as the film makes its way in the world.

I’m also writing to tell anyone who has ever dreamed of making a film: You can do it. More on this below.

The film
These are my Names explores the experiences and identity conflicts of Ethiopian Jews in Israel through the prism of their original names -- names that carry a depth of meaning and connection that our names simply do not. The film is being released as I write. Click here to see a trailer.

The names
Turns out Ethiopian names are super cool. Unlike most of us residents of Earth, Ethiopians have many names. Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Smacho – everyone names the new baby. And each name carries a meaning and has a story behind it. In the film, we discover the meanings and hear the stories. We also find out that these precious names that connected the bearer to his village, family, his past and perhaps his future as well, were changed by well meaning but unaware officials as soon as the new immigrants’ feet touched the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport. (Well, some of them were changed by well-meaning but unaware kindergarten teachers.) These names changes were one more assault on the proud identity and rich heritage Ethiopian Jews brought with them to Israel.

The fall
Today, they’re not doing so well. These proud, committed people who once had a queen, who survived anti-Semitism, missionaries, droughts, famines and worse for thousands of years are having a hard time here in the land of their dreams. Before they came, when they longed to return to Zion, they literally thought the streets of Jerusalem were paved with gold. They thought every Israeli honored and kept the tradition, as they did. The shock of seeing Israeli Jews driving on Shabbat was only one of many assaults on their souls. Today, the crime, drug, school drop-out and under- and unemployment, and poverty rates are all higher than for the general population. More than a dozen women of Ethiopian origin have been murdered by their husbands – something unheard of in the Jewish communities of Ethiopia. There are many reasons for this and I can’t blame the name changes for the current reality. But the name changes were a reflection of an unwise absorption policy that didn’t give the kessim (rabbis) official recognition, split up extended families, gave out just enough mortgage money so people could afford a small apartment in slum neighborhoods, etc.

You can read more about Ethiopian Israelis here.
And I’ll write more about Ethiopian Israelis in future posts. For now, I’d like to get back to the film.

If I can make a movie, so can you
“Everyone has a film inside them.” So said a filmmaker I met years ago. If you have ever dreamed of making a movie, follow along with me. I knew nothing about making films when I started. I just had this passion. I had learned something inspiring and important and wanted others to hear it, too. While I’m a reporter, I knew an article wouldn’t do this subject justice. Besides, Ethiopian Jews are on the whole gorgeous. (I realize I’m generalizing.) And their bearing is dignified, even noble. That can’t come across in an article. Neither could the light in Aleli’s face when he told me the story of his name – a story that spanned three generations and taught me at least a dozen things about Jewish village life in Ethiopia.

After my inspiration (which I’ll write about in my next post) I hooked up with a neighbor, Naomi Altaraz who makes short films for community TV in Baka, our Jerusalem neighborhood. She had the shooting and editing skills and the time and patience to see this project through. And she was willing to wait to get paid until I raised money.

So get in on the ground floor with me. My task now is to launch the movie. I have a well regarded distributor, Ruth Diskin but I want to put energy into this as well. So for starters, if you have ideas for places that might want to screen it – a funky movie theater that shows ethnic documentaries, an ethnic cafĂ©, a synagogue, church, community center, inner city youth club, retirement home, Jewish women’s group, local film festival, etc. please let me know. (Ruth Diskin will submit it to Jewish film festivals.)