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Friday, May 6, 2005 | return to: arts


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Rastafarians and Jews rock steady in ‘Awake Zion’

by michael fox , correspondent

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"Awake Zion" is full of wacky statements by an assortment of curious characters, but none is stranger than this: The first plant to grow on King Solomon's grave was herb.

Monica Haim's cheerful documentary, which played last year's Jewish Film Festival, explores the connection between Jews and Rastafarians. Rastas, of course, are the black Jamaican followers of Haile Selassie famed for their reggae music and dreadlocks.

They're also known for their religious devotion to herb, which they consider a sacrament. You may know it as ganja, mon, or marijuana.

Opting for gentle irreverence rather than scholarly rigor, "Awake Zion" has a funky, homemade vibe. But the one-hour documentary turns out to be surprisingly ambitious, as the reggae-mad Haim shleps from Manhattan to Kingston to Tel Aviv.

And in its determination to narrow the distance between blacks and Jews, the film has a social conscience that lifts it beyond the bounds of the typical music doc.

"Awake Zion" screens at 5 p.m. Sunday, May 15, in the fourth annual DocFest, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival.

Essentially, both Jews and Rastas trace their roots to the Jewish Bible. Marcus Garvey drew from the good book to foretell a black leader, and the Rastafarians consider Haile Selassie, the late deified king of Ethiopia, as the fulfillment of that prophecy and a direct descendant of King Solomon.

There are several other points of connection — or coincidence. Both groups claim the six-pointed star as their symbol, for example.

Haim is enthusiastic and bemused as she unravels this thread, although she's respectful when interviewing a Rasta, rabbi or unaffiliated expert.

While she's intrigued by currents of history, religion and geography, it was the music that first drew her to reggae culture and it remains her main passion.

So she slides a pair of headphones over her grandmother's ears and plays Desmond Dekker's 1969 smash hit, "Israelites." She surprises her bubbe with this offbeat Jewish reference, while demonstrating to viewers the irresistibility of a killer groove.

Oddly, Haim doesn't attempt to interview Dekker. Nor, for that matter, does she see fit to seek out Alpha Blondy, the African star whose albums include "Jerusalem" (1986) and "Yitzhak Rabin" (1998).

She does include a large number of lesser-known musicians and singers, including Nigel the Admore, aka Yehoshua Sofer, a Jamaican Jew who was an influential figure in the Israeli music scene a few years ago. He's given only a few seconds of face time, long enough to deliver a hilarious rap about a first date:

"So I made a reservation at a Travelodge

I slapped on my Aramis, or was it Eau Savage

I put on my Kenneth Cole shoes and my Givenchy socks

Put on the fat rope cable worth half Fort Knox."

For both Jews and Rastafarians, Zion refers to heaven on earth, or utopia. Should such a society come to pass, both groups would naturally recognize their shared lineage.

"Awake Zion" begins with a dedication to the memory of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbush, the young men killed in 1991 in Crown Heights. Haim is acknowledging that we haven't yet reached Zion, then devotes the next hour to bringing us a few steps closer.




"Awake Zion" screens 5 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at the Women's Building, 3543 18th St. (at Guerrero), S.F. Tickets: $9. Information: www.sfindie.com.


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