Ceremonial Questions (Extract)

This year's celebration of Ethiopian Jewry's annual holy festival, the Sigd, reflected both the unity and the divisions within the community in Israel

18falash224 (photo credit: Esterban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esterban Alterman)
Article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. By the thousands, on chartered buses from all corners of the country, members of the Beita Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community, converged on Jerusalem's Haas Promenade, overlooking the Old City, on November 27 to celebrate the Sigd, the annual holy festival. Observed each year exactly 50 days after Yom Kippur, the Sigd dates back to the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, from the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Only a few miles away, in front of the Knesset building, several dozen Ethiopian immigrants persisted in their month-long protest against substandard conditions at immigrant absorption centers, only one of the many hardships challenging the 80,000-strong community. Cutbacks in the Ethiopian National Project mean that thousands of children won't be receiving the supplementary education that they need to make it in Israeli schools. Hundreds of Ethiopian academics can't find work, and disproportionate numbers of Ethiopians live below the poverty line. Yet along the Haas Promenade, the atmosphere was festive. If only for one day, the celebrants seemed determined to ignore the difficulties. In July 2008, the Knesset formally added the Sigd holiday to the list of official state holidays, although no funding has been allocated for this. Yet even here, longstanding tensions within the community were in evidence, including the question of just how to celebrate this ancient holiday and what meaning it should have in Israel today. "As a community, we've made tremendous progress towards equality in the past few years," says Danny Admaso, head of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry (IAEJ). "But it's still not clear to us whether this should be a religious festival or a cultural one." Indeed, it did seem to the observer that this year's Sigd was actually composed of two separate celebrations, only loosely connected. On one side of the long promenade, men and women prayed devoutly in a tightly-packed, solemn crowd. Most of the worshipers seemed elderly, or at least middle-aged; many of the men wore traditional robes; the women wore white dresses colorfully embroidered and were wrapped in the natala (a long, white shawl.) Many other women wore modern Western, yet modest, clothes and covered their hair in accordance with Jewish religious custom. The senior keissim (religious leaders), standing on a stage with the Old City as their background, read from the Orit, the Ethiopian Torah, and recited communal prayers, bestowing their blessings on the tightly-packed crowds. Nearest to the stage stood the other keissim, their brightly colored umbrellas shielding them from the unseasonably warm sun. Further back, the worshipers answered amen, their palms together in supplication, their fingers pulling the air to draw the blessing in, and their eyes shut. Most of the people on this side of the Sigd celebration fast until mid-afternoon, says Negiste Mula, 65, from Beersheba, as she shows the dabu, the traditional bread for breaking the fast that she had brought with her. A few hundred yards away along the promenade, hundreds of younger Ethiopians, most dressed in low-cut jeans and logo-shirts, many with their hair braided into cornrows, mingled together. Hawkers called out at makeshift ice cream and hotdog stands, set up next to stands selling books of psalms. Young women handed out flyers advertising makeup for women who are "dark and beautiful." And it is here that the Education Ministry and advocacy organizations, such as the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), set up tents offering lectures and workshops about the meaning of the Sigd. Sitting cross-legged on straw mats, dozens of youths and young adults, some of them in army uniform, listened carefully. Falaka Hobgan, 22, from Rehovot, recently discharged from the army and dressed in a fashionable T-shirt and jeans, stepped out of one of the tents. "To tell the truth, I didn't know much about the Sigd until this year. I knew it was important to my parents, but I didn't care that much. But now I've started to think that this is my heritage, too. I still don't know very much, but I'm learning." But when asked why she had come, Bat-El Solomon, 17.5, in tight-fitting, low-slung pants, her hair straightened and styled, from Carmiel in the Galilee, giggled, seemingly embarrassed. "I've come to see all my friends," she says. "The holiday has lots of meanings for the adults, I guess, but to me it's just a fun time." Well before Jerusalem mayor-elect Nir Barkat, wearing a white kippa, promised the worshipers at the other end of the promenade that "there are challenges ahead of us, as Israelis and as Jerusalemites, and we will meet them successfully," and hours before the keissim had concluded the prayers and the fast was over, some members of the Tzofim, the Israeli scouts, had already set up a stage for their Ethiopian musical troupe, who performed songs from the early-70s hit, "Don't Call Me Black," (Israel's own self-styled version of "Hair") and classic Zionist songs from the pre-state period, set to rap. Looking over at the younger crowd, Aviva Gama, 30, a housewife from Tel Aviv who came to Israel when she was 16, wore a traditional white dress with bright turquoise and black embroidery. She kept her sleeping 2-year-old daughter, Sarah, wrapped in her natala on her back, in the way that mothers in Ethiopia have always done. She sighed. "There is assimilation here in Israel. Many Ethiopians, especially young ones, aren't even religious any more. The Sigd is a religious holiday that all members of Ethiopian community should observe." But Shoshi Avraham, 23, dressed in a flowing skirt and tunic, a check-out clerk from Hadera, looked at the praying congregation, and said, "If some people want to pray, that's fine, of course. But the Sigd should be a cultural celebration. I'm a Beita Israel, and I want to celebrate my heritage, but if they make this into a religious holiday, there won't be anything for me here." Speaking with The Report, Rabbi Yeffet Alemu, a community teacher and activist, said, "I want the absorption to be two-directional. We in the Beita Israel community have gained a lot from Israeli society; but we, too, have values and the Sigd is a holiday that can, and should, have meaning for all of Israeli society. In Ethiopia, the holiday symbolized the yearning for aliya; in Israel, it symbolizes our yearning for a true absorption that accepts us as who we are." Article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.