From Ethiopia to Israel, emigre has a lot to laugh about

If Yossi Vassa had stayed behind in Uzava, the remote Ethiopian village of his birth, today he'd be tending a flock of sheep.

Instead, the 28-year-old Israeli is set to launch a new tour of the United States, performing his one-man comedy show before enthralled audiences.

As a 10-year-old, Yossi came to Israel with his family as part of the Operation Moses airlift in 1985, which rescued more than 15,000 Ethiopian Jews.

Now, having fully adapted to modern Israeli life, Vassa has a lot to say about family, culture, Israel and thong bikinis.

He'll bring his quirky insights to the Bay Area with a string of appearances set for next week, including one show performed entirely in Hebrew.

"I'm not sure exactly what I'll be doing," says Vassa in charmingly accented English about his upcoming itinerary. "But it will be about the journey from Ethiopia to Israel as seen through my eyes."

That sojourn was definitely no Carnival Cruise. Over a period of months, he and his family walked nearly 500 miles to a Sudanese transit camp, then waited a year before being airlifted to Israel. Along the way, Vassa's grandmother and two younger brothers succumbed to disease and died.

Not exactly the stuff of rip-roaring comedy, perhaps, but Vassa's is ultimately a story of survival.

"Generally my act is about how I saw Israel as a new immigrant. It's from an African point of view."

Many of his observations have a universal ring of truth, Jerry Seinfeld-style. "People are open-minded in Israel," says Vassa, "which is not the Ethiopian way. Back in Ethiopia we were poor and people would go with minimum clothing. Here Israelis own many clothes but they prefer to put little on."

With more than 80,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent now living in Israel, Vassa is part of a sizeable minority and well understands the many challenges of immigration.

"It took time to adapt," he says, "because there are a lot of differences and there's a lot to catch up with. All those white people freaked me out. We came from a place with no technology. Even TV was new. We took TV seriously."

By that he means his family initially thought TV was a literal window looking in on flesh-and-blood people. "At first, we wouldn't undress if the TV was on," he says laughing. "But now my parents feel free to take off their clothes in front of a TV."

When the family first arrived in Israel, Vassa was sent immediately to an ulpan in Netanya to learn Hebrew. From there, he blended into society, feeling welcome as a Jew and an Israeli. In college, he studied economics, but once he discovered theater, his life changed.

"I did an audition, and they took me," he remembers. Vassa continued his stage work while serving in the army, teaming up with a partner to do stand-up comedy in Amharic, the native language of Ethiopia. "We taped it and spread it to Ethiopians in Israel," he says with pride. "We sold 6,000 CDs."

After three years of military service, he returned to civilian life to develop his career as an entertainer. He did stand-up in Israeli clubs and a stint on "Am Yisrael Live," a now-defunct Israeli equivalent of "Saturday Night Live."

Earlier this year, Vassa completed the first leg of a U.S. tour.

"The USA is amazing," says Vassa. "But Americans take everything so seriously, which is funny for an Israeli like me, who doesn't."

Vassa also found that few American Jews knew much about Ethiopian Jews or Operation Moses. "But not many Israelis know much either," he adds. "Not deeply."

Today, Vassa worries about his fellow Ethiopians who continue to seek a foothold in mainstream Israeli society. "There are many difficulties," he says. "Crime, drugs, alcohol, kids who don't graduate. They have little self-confidence. The people want role models."

Though he is too modest to admit it, he himself has become a role model for his peers, and not only Ethiopians.

"I thought it would be difficult at this time to go around and tell about my life," he says. "But when I'm on stage, after five minutes I feel people forget what is going on around them. To think I could go on stage and tell my story and get paid is very strange."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.