In 1984, the people of Beta Israel, an ancient and secluded community in Ethiopia, began a perilous month-long journey on foot across mountainous terrain. Like most Ethiopians, they were Black. They were also Jewish.
“These were Jews who had practiced a rigorous orthodoxy for more than 2,500 years,” says Shari Rothfarb Mekonen, a filmmaker and an associate professor in BMCC’s Department of Media Arts and Technology. Subjected to brutal religious persecution by Ethiopia’s dictatorial regime, they decided their only choice was to flee.
“They walked at night, encountering many dangers along the way,” says Mekonen. “Eventually they arrived in Sudan, where they languished in refugee camps for a long time.” One of the refugees was 10-year-old Avishai Mekonen, who would become Shari Rothfarb’s husband.
Negotiating a dual identity
Like his wife, Avishai Mekonen would also become an award-winning filmmaker. Together, the two co-directed Four Hundred Miles To Freedom, a first-person documentary that explores his quest to remember and understand his childhood experiences and, says Professor Mekonen, “the broader human experience of what it means to negotiate a dual identity.”
The film garnered a Platinum Remi Award—the highest in the Political/International Issues category—at the 2012 WorldFest International Independent Film Festival in Houston.
Young Avishai’s mother was eight months pregnant by the time the family arrived in Sudan. “She gave birth to a son in the camp,” says Mekonen. Not long thereafter, Avishai was kidnapped by child slave traffickers. They held him for a month.
“One of the things the kidnappers did to the children was to give them a drug to make them forget who they were,” says Mekonen. “Then they gave them new names. Having your name taken away rips away a fundamental part of who you are.”
Her husband’s personal experience and lifelong effort to reconcile it is at the heart of the film’s examination of cultural, religious, ethnic and personal identity.
Avishai’s quest took him from Africa to Israel and, in 2001, to America, where he and Shari Rothfarb were married the following year.
“Wherever Avishai has gone, he has always experienced people calling into question who he is—and how he could be both black and Jewish,” Professor Mekonen says.
“Sometimes they express their bewilderment in ways that are relatively innocuous—and sometimes in more serious ways.” His story is likely to resonate with many BMCC students, “who deal every day to deal with the challenges of multiple identities,” she says.
Encounters with African, Latino and Asian Jews
“Avishai’s kidnapping was a life-defining experience and when we were making Four Hundred Miles to Freedom, we realized we needed to explore that first,” says Mekonen. “But we also saw that we were looking at what it meant to be both black and Jewish, and in the process we met amazing people from all over the world who had multiple identities.”
Among them were African, Latino and Asian Jews, including Angela Warnick Buchdahl, who appears in the film and shares her thoughts on being both Jewish and ethnically Korean, as well as the world’s first Asian rabbi.
Four Hundred Miles to Freedom touches on many themes as it illuminates the struggles of people “who are both ‘this’ and ‘that,’” says Mekonen. But the central throughline is positive, she adds. “The affirmation of identity is the glue that holds the story together.”