It took seven years for Avishai Mekonen and his wife, Shari, to make “400 Miles to Freedom.” Over that time, the project morphed from being just an investigation of faces of Judaism often left unseen—African Jews, a Asian-American rabbi—to focusing more on Avishai’s personal story of faith, in which he flees Ethiopia as a young child for the religious safety of Israel, only to be kidnapped in Sudan. At times heart-wrenching, at others educational, "400 Miles" moves you to take a long look at your own sense of identity as Avishai navigates both his past and his present, a world where the legitimacy of his Jewish faith seems to be constantly challenged.
Jspace News talked with Avishai and Shari in the days leading up to the film’s debut screening at the Lincoln Center, January 18 at 3:45 pm.
Jspace News: What led you to make this film at this point in your life?
Avishai: When I came to U.S. as part of the immigration experience, I looked a little bit lost. Everywhere I went, people were suspicious. And you know, it was kind of “Wow, Let’s put him on the bima, make him read the Torah.” So after I read the Torah, I was very welcome. They would understand I’m from Israel.
In the film, you go and see the Chief Rabbi of Israel and he tells you that you have to undergo a short conversion process to be Jewish. What was your response to that?
Avishai: I started the film to look at what the Jewish people look like in the United States and around the world. In the beginning, it was about diversity.
As I started working on the film, the story became a little bit personal. It took me back to ask about myself, about my identity. When I was in Ethiopia, being Jewish, it was not easy. And that was reason why we left Ethiopia and then walked to survive.
I actually went to back and asked myself about that, because when we went to Israel and I was little, our identity was being questioned by the Rabbis and I couldn’t understand why because I knew I grew up in a Jewish home, and that’s the reason we survived to get to the promise land.
I was just curious to find out what exactly the Rabbi thought after 18 years and I was very surprised, really. I was shocked. I don’t have any answers for when he said I had to convert. The answer for that, my mother, she is the only one who can understand, she is the only one who raised me. In the Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish.
Shari: The answer for that is in the movie when your mother said that she raised you in a Jewish home and in a Jewish community.
You said that the project started as being more about different types of Jews around the world in all of these different countries. When did it shift to becoming more personal for you?
Avishai: It became more personal, because of all the people who came from different countries and ran away from different countries. I went back to myself and thought about in a different way what had happened to me.
Shari: When we first started thinking about this as Avishai said, he was new to New York, new to America. He mentioned that people were a little taken back or surprised by him when he would go to synagogue, but there were also experiences outside of there, like when he would show someone his Israeli ID. It’s not just about the Jewish community not understanding him as a black Jew, but about other people in his daily life, non-Jews, where he had some experiences. It was surprising to him why this was such a hard concept for people to understand.
I’m speaking more from the process point of view and he is speaking more about his personal point of view, but we begin to ask these questions—What other kind of people, maybe not Ethiopian Jews, but other Jews of color…who are they? And he had real questions about that. Our son was born and it became more and more apparent for the film to be truly honest, then Avishai would have to dig deeper into his own story.
How often do you get asked about your faith on a day-to-day basis in NYC? How often do people doubt you’re Jewish?
Avishai: I think it happens in the non-Jewish community. Even the Arabs sometimes, I tell them I’m from Israel, and there’s really a lot of questions.
People don’t know enough about Israel. What they see in the media is all they see. They don’t understand. It’s really made up of people coming from different countries, different worlds. They are not all Eastern European.
It was so important for me to not make Israel look racist. Israel is very diverse. It has a lot of good people living there who help build their country. People who are not Jewish need to understand that identity and the Orthodox issue have nothing to do with the government.
I think of what happened to me in Texas several years ago when I presented my earlier film, "Video Flour," at universities and public schools. Students came up to me looking for my number on my arm. They said, “Where is your number?” because of the Holocaust, and they thought all Jews had numbers on their arms.
There are a lot of organizations now talking about Jewish diversity. I hope this movie can help with that.
Shari: The film is absolutely about immigration and ethnic diversity in Judaism, but it’s also about diversity of the African experience as well. We are definitely aiming to reach those audiences and to talk about dual identity as well, which is something that people of all backgrounds struggle with.
Was the film in a way educational for you two as well, going around and visiting all of these different Jewish communities?
Avishai: It opened my eyes. Remember how I told you about coming the United States and being lonely and scared? Today, everywhere I go, I go with my head up and proud of who I am and proud of Jewish diversity. I learned so much from each community that came from a different story and history. Thank God that they are here and they exist and they fight for their identity.
Shari: We are working on building an educational campaign with discussion guides in hopes that it will be a catalyst for raising awareness about these diverse communities and facilitating dialogue around dual identity. Hopefully Avishai’s story can contribute to an understanding about human trafficking as well.
Is it hard to watch some of the more personal parts of the film?
Avishai: Yeah, it's not easy. But instead of the dark side, I see the positive side. Each time I see the film, its not easy for me, but the positive side is to see my son, my wife and my family. They can understand who I am. It’s not easy for me, but I’m still very glad that I did it.
Shari: Throughout all of years of making this and all of the questions of bringing in his story and to what extent, Avishai literally never talked about what happened to him, so to be digging that up and putting it out there was an incredibly difficult process and a very rough journey. Avishai thought it over, took his time, was very careful, turned to his family for guidance, and was able to bring it out. He was very brave to do that.
The film will be shown at Lincoln Center on January 11 at 3:45 pm as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival. "400 Miles" will also be shown at the same location on January 18 at 6:00 PM, as well as at the Museum of Tolerance in late February as part of the organization’s Black History Month celebration.