Today, thousands of Ethiopian Israelis will celebrate Sigd, the annual holiday
marking their ancestral desire to return to Zion over the
The actual date of the holiday is the 29th of the Hebrew
month of Heshvan, but because this year’s holiday falls on Shabbat, celebrations
are pushed up to Thursday.
Many revelers will travel to the Armon
Hanatziv neighborhood in Jerusalem for a festive reenactment of their annual
ascent to a high hill in Ethiopia where they prayed for the end of their long,
bitter exile and a swift return to the Promised Land.
In the late 1970s
and 1980s, whole Jewish communities left their lives in Ethiopia behind and
started walking toward Jerusalem. The journey was treacherous and many lost
family members along the way. The dream of Zion clashed with the harsh realities
of aliya, with numerous repercussions still being felt today.
commemoration of a traditional event from the “old country,” Sigd highlights the
ever-growing chasm between the two generations of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews: those
who made the journey from Ethiopia, and their children and grandchildren born
into the Israeli reality. While the holiday still holds much importance for the
elders, symbolizing their fulfilled dreams for the Land of Israel, much of the
younger generation does not share those sentiments.
Though children of
immigrants often drift away from their cultural heritage when joining a new
society, the rift in the Israeli Ethiopian community extends well beyond the
familiar phenomenon. For many families, the generation gap has led to a
communication breakdown between parents/ grandparents and their Israeli-born
Language barriers often exist within the household. The
children often do not understand their parents’ Amharic and Tigrit and are not
always able to express themselves in a way their parents will
While the Western culture embraced by the younger generation
promotes sharing and expressing one’s feelings, the elders are used to an
Ethiopian culture that lauds internal dialogue and limited
Furthermore, constant social and economic troubles, coupled with
a noticeable lack of expressed interest from Israeli society regarding their
hardships (past and present) has led the older generation to bury their
experiences within themselves, never letting on to their children and
grandchildren the sacrifices they had to undergo to reach Israel.
result, you’ve got some of Ethiopia’s bravest men and women, people who risked
their lives for the loftiest of ideals and the opportunity to build a better
life for the next generation, but they are seen by those very same successors as
foreigners and outcasts. No recognition as heroes. No national or familial pride
in their unprecedented courage.
Nothing but scorn and
The distress and despondency is palpable, and our national
mission is clear. We must stem the tide and create effective programming that
encourages intergenerational dialogue in the Israeli Ethiopian community with
emotional and technical support on both sides of the conversation.
programming will allow parents and grandparents to delve into their pasts,
unburdening themselves while restoring their rich Ethiopian heritage and
bridging the cultural divide.
THIS OPEN dialogue will also help children
and grandchildren gain a new appreciation for their elders as well as an
improved sense of self and pride in their families and their community. With the
Ethiopian community often portrayed as underprivileged and unable to fend for
itself, personal accounts of their elders' bravery, sacrifice and determination
will give Israel’s Ethiopian youth the inspiration and encouragement they need
to fulfill their ancestral destiny – honoring the past while building the
As the coordinator of a project that introduces high school
students to the littleknown stories of “Prisoners of Zion” (those jailed for
Zionist activity or affiliation) from Ethiopia, I have seen the effects of such
programming firsthand. While the Prisoners of Zion are presented with a rare
opportunity to share their stories with the younger generation and receive the
recognition and respect they richly deserve, the students are introduced to
compelling elements of their cultural legacy and are empowered to carry the
More often than not, meetings with the Prisoners of Zion
prompt the students to ask their own parents and grandparents to recount their
family’s aliya stories. And sometimes it is the parents who break the silence,
taking advantage of the project as an “opening” to regale their children with
in-depth accounts of the journey to Israel. For many, it is their very first
dialogue about the topic.
The encounters also help the participants see
the older generation in a new light. As they begin to understand the trials and
travails of the Ethiopian aliya, and the leadership positions assumed by the
Prisoners of Zion – and sometimes their own parents and grandparents – to help
others make it through the arduous journey, they begin to develop a sense of
pride in their families and the community.
For them, living in Israel has
always been a given. But knowing that their elders fought and sacrificed to
establish this life changes everything.
The students often speak about
what they take from the stories and how they assimilate this bravery into their
own lives. They understand that they must never despair, and that their dreams
are always within reach as long as they believe in themselves.
newfound inner strength helps them believe that they can accomplish anything and
generally encourages them to succeed in life.
As one student participant
mentioned, “The Prisoner of Zion that we interviewed worked hard to bring us to
Israel. His actions inspire me to act, even in the hardest of times. I am proud
of my community and it gives me hope for the future.”
What a difference a
simple discussion can make. Our national mission is clear, and the time to act
With our help, the Sigd holiday can become a celebration of
intergenerational understanding, a platform for deep appreciation of the past,
and the launch pad for an impassioned push towards the brightest of futures for
Israel’s Ethiopian community.
The writer is the Coordinator for ATZUM’s
Project Abrah (www.atzum.org), an oral history film project that bridges the
generation gap in Israel’s Ethiopian community by shedding light on the heroic
struggle of Ethiopian Prisoners of Zion.