The happiest Sigd

The new immigrants and those who were here celebrated together, for the first time, the Sigd holiday in Jerusalem.

By KASAEY DAMOZA
November 23, 2011 23:37
3 minute read.
Ethiopian Jews in Gondar Province.

Ethiopian Jews children Gondar 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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On May 25, 1991, when the first airplanes of Ethiopian immigrants started to land in Israel, I was at home with my parents eating a traditional Ethiopian breakfast. It was a Shabbat, and at noon the media started to publicize the exciting news about the aliya that was taking place. Because we kept Shabbat at my parents’ house, we had had no idea what was going on until a neighbor, an immigrant from France, knocked on our door and told us the news about Operation Solomon.

We decided to turn on the television, and from that moment my parents were glued to the screen. With tears in their eyes they tried to recognize familiar faces among the people disembarking from the airplanes. During that Shabbat all my relatives from both sides of my family, who we’d had to say goodbye to seven years earlier, arrived in Israel.

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I had come to Israel with my parents in December, 1984, during Operation Moses. After walking for several weeks from our village in the Gondar region of Ethiopia, we arrived at refugee camps in Sudan. The waiting in the camps seemed to go on forever. Luckily, with the help of messengers and assistance from Israel, we were able to get to Israel. However this was only one month before the operation was forced to end because someone in Israel leaked its existence to the international media.

Many of the Jews living in the camps in Sudan who had been waiting for so long were forced to return to Ethiopia when they realized that no one would rescue them. They had to go all the way back and reconstruct their lives and rekindle their hopes. They maintained their hopes of re-uniting with their families in Israel, a hope that was almost lost through the arduous process of waiting in Sudan and returning.

SIX YEARS after my aliya, in 1991, because of the worsening situation in the Ethiopian civil war and fears that the regime would collapse, the Israeli government was able to come to an agreement regarding bringing out the remaining Jews. With intercession by diplomats from the US, Israel was able to find a brief window of opportunity to use the airport in Addis Ababa. The rebellion, then at the doors of the capital, was delayed just long enough for the evacuation to take place. Beginning on May 24, 14,000 Jews came to Israel in 36 hours.

I was 10 years old at the time and still carry with me the vivid memory of the reunion of our extended family. It’s hard to contain oneself when seeing the excitement of relatives who hadn’t seen or received word from each other for many years.

My family spent a long time just catching up on what everyone had experienced over the time they had been apart. Even at that young age, I realized nothing can hold a person against their will.

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Today, with the celebration of the Sigd holiday, which takes place this week, we remember the 20th anniversary of Operation Solomon. We commemorate the two events at the same time.

This holiday’s source is in the Biblical book of Nehemia and takes its name from the root of the word segida, which means to pray or bow.

In Ethiopia, 50 days after Yom Kippur the Jewish community would commemorate this holiday through fasting and climbing to the highest nearby mountain. Led by the kesoch (rabbis) and community leaders, they would ascend the high summit and pray for the return to Jerusalem, in Zion.

When the community got to Israel, they continued this tradition by coming together from all over Israel to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv. The promenade there overlooks the Old City so it was appropriate.

Interposed with the regular prayers of the holiday the community also uttered a prayer to be reunited with the families they left behind in Sudan and Ethiopia.

In 2008, thanks to the herculean efforts of Ethiopian organizations, Israel passed a Sigd Law that turned it from a holiday only identified with the Ethiopian community to an official holiday of the State of Israel.

In November 1991, the Sigd prayers for the reunion of our families was answered. The new immigrants and those who were here celebrated together, for the first time, the holiday in Jerusalem. My father recalls that the 1991 holiday was the happiest Sigd of them all.

The author has an MA from the Hebrew University and works for the Israeli government.

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