Live and Become (2005) [French title: Va, vis et deviens] is a wrenching tale of exile and assimilation, both topics that resonate for Jews. The twist, for Jewish viewers, is that the central character is an Ethiopian who at age 9 is pushed by his refugee Christian mother into a group of Falashas, Ethiopian Jews who are rescued from Sudan by “Operation Moses.” For the rest of the film, Schlomo (a name he is given by the Falasha woman who adopts him) has to hide his birth as a Christian while assimilating into a new Israeli Jewish identity. The film follows his life until age 30. The film is not short (140 minutes) and is in Amharic, French, and Hebrew, with English subtitles.
This film explores many topics, framed in the immigrant’s experience: issues of identity, of racism, of perseverance, of family. It is a valuable and moving film on many different levels. What struck me, for our purposes here, is that it is the best window I’ve seen into the emotional process of becoming Jewish.
Schlomo’s conversion, if it is a conversion, is highly irregular: he is adopted on impulse by a Jewish woman who has lost her son, just as she leaves a refugee camp with a group bound for Israel. Before she dies of TB, she hurriedly schools him in his new family’s history and warns him that he must keep the secret of his birth.
Schlomo (played by Moshe Agazai, Moshe Abebe, and Sirak M. Sabahat) does as he is told by his birth mother and his first adoptive mother: he lies. Out of the original lie, however, emerges something much more genuine: Schlomo pursues a Jewish education, becomes knowledgable enough to best another young scholar in a competition, and becomes a patriotic Israeli.
So how might this connect to the American convert to Judaism? There are echoes of the refugee experience for some new Jews: there are losses (the old life, sometimes even the old family) there is prejudice to face (“you don’t look Jewish, you aren’t really one of us”), and there is the struggle to assimilate into Jewish community, to learn not only the intellectual content but a million small things that every Jewish child (supposedly) knows: Chanukah songs and jokes about matzah, for instance. There are new foods to encounter: gefilte fish and chopped liver, presented with pride by a Jewish cook, are an excruciating experience for some on the first taste.
There was no beit din, no brit milah, no mikveh: but if Schlomo is not a Jew, what is he? The Falasha rabbi with whom he forms a bond (played by Yitzhak Elgar) says that he had misgivings about the first adoption when it took place, but their conversation implies that he has come to see Schlomo as legitimately Jewish. With his mention of the adoption and naming of Schlomo by Hana, whom he knew to be one of his Jews, he suggests that Schlomo perhaps did not need the intention to convert that would normally be asked of an adult. Once he was living in Israel, if he pursued a proper conversion, he’d have been deported to the camp in Sudan (and presumably that would have been a death sentence for a child whose mother had disappeared.) So is he Jewish? And if not, what should happen?
The film also raises questions about the tension between Torah and the realities of a modern State. How shall we reconcile the rules of the Law of Return with the commandment to love the stranger [Deuteronomy 10:19]?