2008's Sigd spells affirmation, unity, joy and hope for Ethiopians

Festivities recognized this year as a national holiday for first time.

Sigd 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Sigd 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Singing, dancing and reveling in the fulfillment of years spent yearning for a return to Jerusalem, thousands of Ethiopians from all over the country descended on the capital's Haas promenade in Armon Hanatziv Thursday to celebrate Sigd, the annual Beta Israel festival commemorating the revelation on Mt. Sinai and the acceptance of the Torah. Young and old, secular and religious Ethiopian-Israelis from as far off as Haifa and Ashdod arrived on chartered buses just before noon, passing by make-shift booths which sold everything from ice cream to books of psalms written in Amharic, their native tongue. The Kesim, or Ethiopian rabbis, led the crowd in communal prayers, bestowing blessings upon the masses as the crowd responded by continually twitching their hands - bringing the air of holiness towards them. Older men with white turbans walked past high-school age youths, their hair done up for the occasion in spikes and large afros. The girls, also dressed to a T, sauntered back and forth, chatting and giggling with their friends. "We're here to celebrate the Sigd," said one girl, Tehilla, shy and smiling. "But it's not just about Sigd, it's also about unity. Look around: Today all the Ethiopians in Israel are standing together as one." In addition to the holiday's theme of receiving the Torah, Sigd is also seen as a time of personal reckoning for the Ethiopian community, as members fast and use the holiday for introspection. Before their arrival in Israel, Ethiopians had also looked upon Sigd as a time for reflecting on the ultimate goal of returning to Jerusalem. But with over 80 percent of the Ethiopian Jewish community - more than 120,000 - living in Israel today, the holiday has taken on a more national undertone. "It's true that this is a holiday that celebrates the Torah and the holiness of Jerusalem," said Yisraela, who was dressed in a long skirt, her hair covered by a sequined purple scarf. "But because we're here now, the spirit of the holiday has changed for us. "When we were in Ethiopia, part of Sigd was to pray that we would merit coming to Jerusalem. Now that we're here, we're living in Israel, the soul searching that I think we need to do is about how we can succeed in Israeli society, and how we can truly fulfill the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in its fullest sense." While many of the people milling around on Thursday afternoon told The Jerusalem Post that the dream of immigrating to Israel had now been fulfilled, their commentary on the Ethiopian experience in Israel differed greatly. "It goes both ways," said Dago, a soldier in uniform who had arrived from Netanya. "The fact that I'm in the army means that on some level, I've already been accepted into Israeli society," he said. "But it depends on the situation. I grew up around Ethiopians, but when I wasn't around them, sometimes I felt like an outsider. You're always in your group, you know, Morrocans are Morrocans, Russians are Russians, and Ethiopians are Ethiopians. But in the army, there's none of that," he said. "There's no Ethiopian and there's no Russian. You're a soldier and a warrior, and that's were it ends." But Rami, sitting nearby, said the younger generation felt more accepted because they'd grown up here. "I came here when I was a small boy," he said in smooth, fluent Hebrew. "But my parents, they've been here for more than 10 years, and they still struggle with the language and the mentality. For them, their generation, I'm afraid it's going to be hard here for the rest of their lives." Still, as some measure of the Beta Israel's acceptance inside the Jewish State, this year's Sigd was the first to be recognized as a national holiday, after the Knesset added it to the list of official state holidays in July. The rigors of immigration and acceptance weren't showing on the faces of Thursday's revelers. Smiles, shouts and cries of joy, along with the steady beat of bongo drums, lent a carefree air to the atmosphere as the eclectic mix of Ethiopian society mingled and danced. "Finally there's a coming together of the young and the old," said Rabbi Joseph Schonwald, as he strolled through the crowd with his wife Rolinda. Schonwald, who had been on a mission to Ethiopia in the late 1990s, explained that that the enthusiastic participation seen on Thursday had not always been a given in previous years. "Now you see the young kids taking part in the prayers, giving respect to the elders, to the Kesim," Schonwald said. "That's what's different today. The youth used to use the Sigd as a social gathering, and they would sit back and smoke cigarettes or drink beer while the older generation took part in the religious services. "Now, with the increased involvement of religious leaders in the development towns and Bnei Akiva, the youth are more interested in the spiritual side. Just from looking around, you can see the Bnei Akiva kids have increased two-fold." As he was speaking, a young woman approached Schonwald and touched his shoulder. "Kes Yosef," she said, eyes gleaming. "Do you remember me? You worked with my family when we were still in Quara." "I do," Schonwald replied, turning back towards his wife. "The last time I saw her she was just a little girl. I remember standing on top of an anthill and telling her and her family that we wouldn't rest until they were in Jerusalem. Now," he continued, fighting back tears, "It's finally come true." As the celebration continued, throngs of revelers danced up and down the promenade, banging drums and singing songs. The colorful umbrellas of the Kesim were visible atop the crowd, and a sanitation worker, Manzar, from the Muslim Quarter in the Old City, gazed on in wonder. "I've never seen anything like this," he said. "It's amazing to me that we have so many different people in this city, and they all love it because it's so close to God."