It’s 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in November, and Shlomo “BabyBaby” Shmuel is on time. He’s even a little early. That’s an Ethiopian anomaly, he told me, as he sat down at the cafe table in the central Israeli town of Gedera.
“Ethiopians are never on time,” he said.
He’s joking, of course, but that’s Shmuel’s professional prerogative. The 31-year-old is a comedian. Anything and everything is fodder for his humor.
The endemic lateness, the token Ethiopian politicians in each Israeli political party, the way non-Ethiopians think that the Ethiopian flat bread called injera is “so healthy,” even the community’s struggles with racism — all are potential material for Shmuel in “Based on a True Story,” his 45-minute one-man show.
He’ll perform the act on December 12, as part of the upcoming Eighth Hullageb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival at Jerusalem’s Confederation House. That follows last week’s performances at Tel Aviv’s Habima as part of Sigdiada, the theater’s now-annual Ethiopian arts festival, marking Sigd, the Ethiopian Jewish holiday.
Shmuel has always made fun of his ethnic group. It’s the most obvious topic for an Ethiopian, he said, given the racism and stereotypes his community has dealt with for the last 33 years since Ethiopians first began emigrating to Israel in 1984.
“Comedians always make fun of what they know, right?” he asked, with a wry smile. “I had a hard time not joking about Ethiopians. Married comics make fun of marriage, comics with kids made fun of kids, I’m Ethiopian and I make fun of being Ethiopian.”
In many ways, Shmuel, the first native-Israeli sabra born to his parents after they arrived here in 1984, is more Israeli than Ethiopian. “I was my mother’s first birth stipend,” he quipped, referring to the government grant received by new parents.
Shmuel didn’t experience the journey across Sudan; his parents made that treacherous trip with his two older brothers and other members of their extended family. He can’t remember the name of their Ethiopian village, either. When he thinks about a family roots trip, what comes to mind is the immigrant absorption center in Beersheba where his family first lived before settling in the seaside city of Ashdod.
His parents didn’t speak of the hardships in Ethiopia, wanting life to be easy and smooth for their Israeli children.
“As a kid, you think you’re smarter than them, because you know Hebrew and they don’t, and you can read and they can’t, but then you realize they’re the real heroes,” he said. “What you see on TV isn’t the real thing. ‘Fresh Prince’ is great, but they’re the real heroes by definition, by what they went through in life. They went through very tough things and kept it all inside and didn’t let us feel it.”
His family home, said Shmuel, wasn’t a place of trauma or sadness, though he knew, in some fashion, that his parents had suffered unimaginable losses.
“They’re strong people who may have cried at night,” he said, “but they didn’t show us.”
When his family first moved to Ashdod, they didn’t live in an Ethiopian neighborhood and Shmuel was often the only Ethiopian in his class. But every kid goes through tough times, he figures, and his were due more to childhood ups and downs than not having other Ethiopian kids in his class.
He was, in fact, the jokester of the family and the master of ceremonies at family parties. He was also the funny guy in class, making his friends — and teachers — laugh.
When a cousin opened a club for Ethiopian artists, with the aim of creating a stage and eventually an agency for musicians, comics and actors of Ethiopian background, Shmuel began to ply his skills onstage, but for a mostly Ethiopian audience.
The club didn’t succeed, primarily because it didn’t find enough of an audience, but Shmuel loved performing and moved into other comedy venues.
Once he left the circle of fellow Ethiopians to perform elsewhere, he found that he had to write bits, and not just talk about his own experiences.
“You’re in the big leagues now, you want to be like the other comics. There are gaps that are too big, that don’t go over as well,” he said. “The material has to be simple, the delivery funny.”
He began writing, and found that he was still writing about being an Ethiopian, but from the perspective of being on the outside, looking in.
“The garage is one place that Ethiopians have something over the Ashkenazim,” he joked during a recent event at Habima. “Because Ethiopians don’t even have cars.”
“I deal a lot with racism and stereotypes and I use that to get further,” he said. “But when people are paying money to hear you, it changes the whole game, it creates a lot more pressure. I had to prove myself, because this is what I want to do.”
One favorite subject is Ethiopian quirks.
“It’s the bits about parents that get everyone laughing,” he said. “Like the kuntit, it’s a little slap that’s like a flick, every Ethiopian parent does it. My mother once did it to a friend of mine and he was traumatized.”
And racism, of course, is frequently discussed.
“‘Can I call you an Ethiopian? Are you black, is that okay to say?'” he joked, using a certain kind of Israeli voice. “It’s the people who are okay, because it’s important to them that you feel okay. It’s racism from people who don’t know that they’re racists.”
Here’s another one: “You would have terrible heat and AIDS if you’d stayed in Ethiopia,” panned Shmuel.
It’s all fine, as long as it gets him to where he wants to go.
Shmuel considers two models of comedians when he thinks about his career path.
There’s the Israeli model, which includes steady work at comedy clubs, on various stages and on TV. And there’s the American model, exemplified by stars like Chris Rock and Dave Shapelle, who star in TV shows and movies and have “mansions in Hollywood,” said Shmuel, who has made a pilgrimage to the US and spent years of his childhood watching American TV shows like “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
“I love black comedians,” said Shmuel, “We grew up on American black comedy, hip-hop, their sitcoms. You connect to it more, you feel they’re speaking to you. They speak about race relations in the US, which should be the most liberal place in the world, but it isn’t, and you know what that’s like from the inside.”
The Ethiopian experience in Israel is similar, but different. “There’s no slavery here, but there is racism,” he said.
“It’s a deep connection because of what you have in common,” he said of seeing an African American stranger. “If you see a Jew while you’re traveling, you feel more at home. Same thing with black comedy for me, you go to who you feel will understand you better.”
He wishes he had the same opportunities in Israel as African American comedians do in the US, particularly on television, which offers a national platform.
“You don’t really see Ethiopians on Israeli TV,” said Shmuel, allowing for the exception of “Nebsu,” a Reshet TV comedy about an Ethiopian man married to an Ashkenazi woman, created by and starring Ethiopian actor Yossi Vasu.
“You don’t see the color range here that you would see in the US on posters and advertisements,” he said. “It’s like there’s no need here, they don’t even think about it. There’s no sensitivity because they don’t think it’s important, they don’t pay attention.”
But he still can work full-time as a comic, or standupist, as comedians are called in Hebrew. Shmuel recently left his job at Israel Aircraft Industries to work on his comedy career.
He’s hoping that “Based on a True Story” will catapult him into the next stage of his career, creating a platform for wider audiences. He created the 45-minute work with his life partner, Esther Wonde, also Ethiopian.
“An Arab comic friend of mine says just keep on working with it,” said Shmuel. “You use the worst things and make gold out of it. It’s a way of making something positive out of it all. There is racism and there are gaps in Israeli society, it’s clear, we experience it, and you think, ‘how could Israel, how could Jews who went through the Holocaust, do this to other human beings,’ but you have to believe that not everyone is bad, and you use what you have.”
The Eighth Hullageb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival will take place December 7-13 at the Jerusalem Confederation House.