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Ethiopian-born Comic Mines History for Laughs

In the standup act he has been touring America with this month, Ethiopian Israeli comedian Yossi Vassa recounts how he came to accumulate six names: When he left Ethiopia at age 10, he was called Andarge; in Sudan — where his family waited nine months for an Israeli airlift, and where Vassa fell deathly ill — he was given the name Terefa (Amharic for “he who is worthy of life”); in Israel, he was called Yossi, and, from the start, he has had what in America would be a twice-hyphenated name reflecting both his parents’ lineages: Vassa Sisiya Sahon. “During roll call,” he joked, “my teacher would read from a list of my classmates’ names on one sheet, and a list of my names on the other.”

Armed with just five props — a suitcase, a cane, a bouquet of flowers, a prayer book and a sign with Amharic writing on it — Vassa mixes his own experience with a dash of wit to recount Ethiopian Jewry’s recent history. He begins with stories of the rural existence he knew two decades ago (“Before you could date a girl, you had to make sure you were not related seven generations back on both sides — meaning you needed a doctorate of genealogy by age 14”) and moves on to life among the Ethiopians living in Israel today (“We dreamed of Jerusalem for 3,000 years, then got dumped in Netanya. That’s like spending three millennia pining for Manhattan, and ending up in New Jersey”).

Vassa’s four-week tour — which was designed to coincide with Black History Month — offered American audiences a hilarious, though sometimes painful, glimpse into the lot of Israel’s Ethiopian community. At one point, Vassa set his sights on the matter of Ashkenazic rabbinic garb. “My older brother came home and announced he had become a rabbi,” Vassa said. “My mother took one look at the long black coat, pants, shoes and massive fur streimel on top of my brother’s head, and asked if it was snowing outside.”

The Shmooze reached Vassa just as he was wrapping up his tour and asked how things had gone.

“I learned so much from the people I met,” he said. “One of the things that really touched me was the [audience at San Francisco’s] Museum of the African Diaspora. I felt I was with a very loving community. They seemed really connected to the story I was telling.” — LOOLWA KHAZZOOM

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