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PASSOVER, which begins at sunset Wednesday, is the annual remembrance of the exodus from Egypt — and I haven’t seen a more powerful (and delightful) contemporary film on Passover themes than “Live and Become,” one family’s fictionalized story of the historic exodus of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s.
Today, Ethiopian Jews aren’t quite as surprising a group as they were when they first emerged on the world stage. In January, we honored world-class peace activist Ephraim Isaac as an “Interfaith Hero.”
As a journalist in the 1980s, I visited Ethiopian Jewish communities in Israel and experienced first-hand the bittersweet nature of their exodus from life-threatening conditions in Ethiopia to this new homeland. While Israelis, overall, worked hard to make them feel welcome — they also experienced bigotry, suspicion and the bewilderment of cultural displacement.
In Radu Mihaileanu’s movie, “Live and Become,” he heightens the passionate connection with Ethiopia. He introduces his main character, Schlomo, as a 9-year-old boy who two Ethiopian mothers nearing their own deaths decide to “save” by declaring him a Jewish child.
When Schlomo arrives in Israel, he must deal with an intense homesickness, bigotry from a few white Jewish neighbors and a guilty secret about his non-Jewish identity that he fears may lead to his imprisonment. That’s a whole lot for a 9-year-old boy to shoulder and it’s understandable that, most of the time, Schlomo walks through his new life with his handsome face bowed.
But Schlomo is strong, extremely smart, talented at languages — and in his heart he carries an almost instinctively Jewish love of God and the world. He pours his life into Torah study. He strives to become even better than those few students who want to humiliate him.
Finally, Schlomo benefits from an Israeli family who adopt him and become his strongest defense. The mother and father remind me of Israeli Jews I’ve met over the years — from a fairly secular background, in this particular drama, but also committed to Jewish solidarity as a part of their identity. They seem a bit out of synch with Schlomo at first — but the family’s embrace of this troubling new son is the real wonderment in this movie.
If you’re not Jewish and don’t particularly care about Israel — the film still is stirring. On a human level, this is a heart-warming movie about the spiritual callings of both parents and children.
The film runs nearly two and a half hours and, eventually, Schlomo becomes a young man and falls in love with a Polish-Israeli Jewish girl, named Sarah. Unfortunately, Sarah and Schlomo have a major crisis in their relationship. I won’t spoil the outcome, but as their emotions flow back and forth — Sarah eventually says to Schlomo: “It is amazing how many mothers love you!” And that’s certainly true, we have to agree.
As a parent watching this film myself, that scene was stirring. This is a rare movie if only because the parents (with one or two horrible exceptions) are depicted from start to finish as fiercely, compassionately committed in their love of their children. There’s a great deal of hope portrayed here for the world’s orphaned children — and that’s a very welcome message these days.
In the end, “Live and Become” is a universal experience.
The movie has just been released, today, on DVD and you can buy a copy now by clicking on the Amazon link at right.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)