A family of six — a white woman, a Black man, and a gaggle of kids — pose for a portrait
The Baruch family are featured in the short documentary "BrownWhite."

‘BrownWhite’: Biracial Israeli children talk about being ‘half and half’ in Sacramento Jewish Film Fest doc

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The title of Ruchama Ehrenhalt’s new short documentary was coined by her nephew, Ely. “I’m brown-white,” the 3-year-old told his father when asked what color he is.

Ehrenhalt and her older sister, Aderet, are white, Ashkenazi Jews who made aliyah from Long Island, New York, two decades ago. Aderet’s husband, Adis, is Ethiopian Israeli. And Ely, their son, is half white and half Black. He is one of several biracial Israeli children featured in “BrownWhite,” a selection of the Sacramento Jewish Film Festival that is available to stream through March 21.

Ruchama Ehrenhalt
Ruchama Ehrenhalt

In a Zoom interview from her home in Jerusalem, Ehrenhalt told J. she was curious about the ways biracial children like her nephew think about their identities as they grow up. “I wanted to educate myself because this is something that has to do with my family, first and foremost, and it’s not something that I just know about,” said Ehrenhalt, 29. “And then I thought, this film could benefit a lot of other people.”

In the 10-minute documentary, which Ehrenhalt completed as part of a master’s degree in human rights practice at the University of Arizona, children ages 3 to 15 answer questions about their skin color and family backgrounds. The older ones address the challenges they have faced, from being misidentified by their peers to feeling like outsiders in each of the communities to which they belong.

“Sometimes I wish that I was more brown because a lot of people don’t understand that I’m half and half,” says a 15-year-old girl who, like Ely, is half white and half Ethiopian. “People always think I am Yemenite or Indian.” She goes on to say that as a biracial person, she feels “less connected” to relatives on both sides of her family.

Throughout the film, Ehrenhalt shares findings from research on biracial children in the U.S. (According to the 2020 Census, there are 33.8 million multiracial people living in the U.S. Ehrenhalt said she was unable to find statistics on the multiracial population in Israel.) The findings indicate that children begin noticing differences in skin color at 6 months, biracial children pick up on the social implications of race by age 4, and those who are raised with “a true biracial identity” are happier than those who are raised with a “single-race identity.”

A graduate of Ma’aleh School of Film and Television in Jerusalem, Ehrenhalt said it was important for her to involve the children’s families in every stage of the filmmaking process. She sought their approval about what questions to ask and how to edit the footage. “At the end of the day, I am a white filmmaker doing [a film] about mixed-race couples and their kids who are biracial, and I don’t have that lived experience,” she explained.

Although she could not fully relate to the children in the film for that reason, she said her nephew’s words resonated with her as an American immigrant to Israel who “always feels American here or Israeli in America, and never really both.”

The Sacramento Jewish Film Festival is also screening Ehrenhalt’s 2019 short narrative film, “Give It Back!” about a 12-year-old American girl who immigrates to Israel and befriends an Ethiopian boy at school. “Although it’s much harder to film children or to have [child] actors, I think that we have a lot to learn from them, and that’s why I keep going back to that,” Ehrenhalt said.

Teven Laxer, the director of the festival, said he and his committee selected Ehrenhalt’s films in part because the festival wants to highlight more stories of Jews of color. “Too often we [Jews] think of ourselves as monolithic, and we’re not,” he said. “There are more and more Jews of color coming into our communities, into our synagogues and into our films.”

Recently, Ehrenhalt’s sister told her that Ely, now 4, announced that he wanted to just be white for a few days. The comment was apparently prompted by something one of the other kids in his kindergarten said to him.

According to Ehrenhalt, Aderet replied, “Where we live white is the majority and being brown is a minority, but you are very special and your color is beautiful.”

“BrownWhite” and “Give It Back!” are available to stream in Northern California through March 21. Register at sacjewishfilmfest.org for a free pass to watch all of the short films in the festival’s lineup.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.