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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The presence of so much spiked hair, ripped jeans, chains, piercings and the latest fashionable clothes might have led one to think a rock concert was taking place along Jerusalem's Haas Promenade Monday, but in fact it was the annual Ethiopian Jewish festival of Sigd, celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur on the 29th of Heshvan.
As the community's elders followed along with prayers by kessim, or religious leaders, thousands of Ethiopian teenagers enjoyed the treats of food venders; browsed stalls selling Ethiopian flags and music discs and walked along the length of the picturesque promenade overlooking the capital's old city.
Bussed in from around the country, the Jerusalem gathering is the main focus of Sigd, which means to prostate oneself in worship and is meant to renew the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The prayers, recited in the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge'ez, express a longing for Jerusalem.
Dressed in their traditional garb, throngs of older men and women joined in the prayers, waving their hands and kissing the ground.
"No one is eating or drinking we are just praying," commented one woman, who identified herself as Zehava. "Even though we are now here in Israel, it is still important to pray to help strengthen the Jews and bring them all back to Israel."
When asked if she thought the festival still had the same meaning for the younger Ethiopian generation, she nodded emphatically. "Look how many youth came here, everyone here thinks this festival is important."
But only a few meters away, just beyond the makeshift amphitheater, most of the youths were enjoying the social aspect of the holiday.
"Our parents are over there praying and we came here to meet our friends," Eden Oshada, 15 from Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post.
Her friend Habensh, 15, said that even though she was not fasting as is the custom on Sigd, she still believed that it was very important to keep the holiday.
The same rang true for a quartet of teens from Rehovot: "We don't fast but we still think it is important to mark this holiday," said Adi, 15.
But when asked what the significance of this festival and what did all the praying mean, she and her three friends had no answers.
"I don't know," she said looking blank.
"The young people here are lost," explained Avi Masfin, spokesman for the Israel Association For Ethiopian Jews, which had set up a tent along the promenade to hand out information about the festival and to get community members to sign a petition against drugs and alcohol within their ranks. "They come here to meet with friends and family, for them it is a day off from school."
He said that a month ago, a number of Ethiopian groups got together and decided to set up booths and tents aimed at engaging the youth and explaining to them the real meaning of the holiday.
"It was a quick decision," he said, adding "we hope to make it part of the holiday and next year we will be more organized."
At the tent belonging to the Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants in the Education System, director David Mihert explained that this was the first year the center had taken such an initiative.
"The youth on the promenade do not know what is going on," said Mihert. "The prayers are in Ge'ez and they do not understand. We want to provide them with workshops that will explain what is going on here so that they will not just be walking around aimlessly."
He continued: "I don't think it will be too difficult to get them inside the tent so they can listen to the educators talk about the holiday."
But outside, the teens seemed content to smoke their cigarettes and enjoy the day's festivities.
"I am very disappointed to see barbecues here," said Mihert. "I know the city council gave out licenses for venders to sell drinks and hot dogs, we want to stop that. We don't want this holiday to lose its relevancy and meaning."
While the Jerusalem happening was the main event, similar ceremonies took place in locations nationwide. At the Yemin Orde Youth Village, young Ethiopian immigrants marked the festival with a procession, prayer services and a presentation depicting Ethiopian culture and customs. While more than half of the residents at the youth village are Ethiopian immigrants, the celebrations there are also aimed at teaching those from other backgrounds about the holiday.
"We'd like to eventually see Sigd become a national holiday, much like the Morroccan Memuna [celebrated the day after Pessah ends]," commented Masfin when asked whether the community welcomed the interest of mainstream Israelis. "It is a daily battle to fit in with Israeli society and this would be a good way."
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