Reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future, Ethiopian Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the annual Sigd festival, which invokes the community’s rich heritage and history.  

Under a cloudy Jerusalem sky, thousands of Israelis, including President Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin, gathered Wednesday at the Hass Promenade in south Jerusalem to celebrate the Sigd, a traditional Ethiopian-Jewish festival that marks the 50th day after Yom Kippur and brings together a variety of Jewish prayer customs, religious themes and especially communal bonding.

Women dressed in traditional white, kessim (religious leaders) in traditional garb, men in their holiday best and laypeople travelled from around Israel to pray, talk and to celebrate the community’s customs and heritage together.

Ethiopian-Israelis say the holiday dates back at least 2500 years, to a time when Jews first arrived in Ethiopia following the destruction of the First Temple. Traditionally, the holiday – the word ‘Sigd’ means “to bow down” – is marked by a half-day fast, with community elders seeking the purity of high mountain air, carrying heavy rocks on their backs and offering prayers of forgiveness and repentance. The 10 Commandments are read, upon which penitents descend the mountain and join communal celebrations with traditional foods, music, dancing and dreams about Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.

Identity, History and Connection

Today, the holiday is largely about identity, history and connection. Although Ethiopian communities around the country sponsor Sigd events, Jerusalem’s is by far the largest event, with community organizations sponsoring education and culture tents with traditional music, arts & crafts activities for children, informative displays about the holiday and about the community’s unique ancient history.

“In Ethiopia, we waited all year for Sigd,” said Yossi Mengistu, a leather-faced man in his mid-40s (he doesn’t know his exact age) who walked 1000 kilometers at the age of 13 with a group of adults from his village in order to be taken to Israel. “The excitement would begin after Sukkot and build towards the day, with people talking about what they were going to wear and eat, and where they would have their family celebrations.”

“Then, on the day, people came from all the villages in the area to pray and celebrate together. It was a real community festival,” said Mengistu, who now lives in Nes Tziona.

In many ways, however, today’s festival is a potent reminder of the challenges that Ethiopian-Israelis face in modern Israel, and especially of an Ethiopian Judaism that is searching for identity and continuity. For older people, the discrepancy between their dreams about the Land of Israel and the reality of the modern state came as a painful shock to the system – many people got to Israel expecting to see the Temple, and couldn’t believe that there were non-observant Jews, especially in the Land of Israel.

Furthermore, as the mass-immigration events of Operation Moses (1983) and Operation Solomon (1991) fade into history, it appears that a shrinking number of young Ethiopian-Israelis speak Amharic or feel strong connections to Ethiopian Jewish history. While all of the five or six children interviewed for this article said they were “excited” to celebrate Sigd, none described an atmosphere of preparation or excitement in the days and weeks leading up to the day.

In a sign of the times, one of the tents at the Sigd festival was sponsored by the National Authority for the Fight Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Discrimination, police violence and neglected communities have been documented for years, with protests turning violent several times in recent years.

Bridging the Cultural Gaps

To a large degree, the phenomenon is one of a small community – there are approximately 130,000 Ethiopians in Israel, just 1.6 percent of Israel’s population of 8 million – struggling to maintain ties to a rich heritage in the face of a vastly different cultural and religious reality. Yossi Mengistu said he left his home without his parents simply because they told him to.

“I barely knew what was happening, but my parents told me I had to go, and in Ethiopia you didn’t challenge your parents. So I went,” Mengistu said.

On religious issues, too, Ethiopian Jewish customs and laws are far removed from European (Ashkenazi) and Sephardi (Arab and North African) ones that dominate Israel’s cultural milieu. Jews arrived in Ethiopia following the destruction of the first Temple, and the Oral Law (Talmud) never made it there. As a result, some of the community’s customs governing issues like kosher food and marriage law differ significantly from Orthodox law. That’s tough for many members of the community.

“Yes, there are some challenges,” said Ouriel Elazar, 30, of Ein Tzurim. “Personally, I try to walk a fine line between the Judaism I learned in yeshiva and the Judaism I inherited from my parents. When there is a conflict, I would certainly follow the Shulhan Aruch (a 15th-century code of Jewish law that forms the basic outline for most of Rabbinic law). But my parents keep to the traditions they grew up with. It’s tough, mainly for them.

“But I think there is a lot more that connects us than divides us, and it’s important to try to bridge the gaps and to emphasize the points that bring us together. Sigd is a perfect example: There are many customs, and we continue to observe them. But look at all the non-Ethiopian faces here. [These are] people who have come to celebrate the holiday with us, to learn about it and about our community, and most of all to be together as Am Yisrael (the Jewish people). So that’s a very important point,” Elazar said.

For Elaza and for others, the growing interest in Sigd represents a chance not only to teach non-Ethiopians about the community, but also for Ethiopian-Israelis to consider the holiday’s messages, as well as the values and reality of Ethiopian Judaism today: family, community and the Land of Israel.

“Of course, the reality of Israel today is very far from the Israel we dreamed about back in the day,” said Ron, an elderly man with a strong Amharic accent. “Growing up, Jerusalem was a value for us, as natural as breathing. It was clear that the city was here for us, waiting for us, that it is our holy city.

“Today, you see that the city is a bit different -it’s messy, loud. But look over there – instead of celebrating Sigd on a mountain dreaming about Jerusalem, we are here. That is worth a thousand mountain tops,” he said.

By: Andrew Friedman/TPS

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