Ethiopian Jews celebrate return to Jerusalem in Sigd festival

Ethiopian Jews celebrate

Sigd ethiopians 248 88 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Sigd ethiopians 248 88
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis gathered on the Haas Promenade in the capital's Armon Hanatziv neighborhood on Monday to celebrate Sigd, which has been observed for centuries to pray for the community's return to Jerusalem. Although Sigd has been celebrated for more than 20 years in the capital, this was only the second year it was recognized as a national holiday. President Shimon Peres kicked off the two-week Sigd celebration with a ceremony at Beit Hanassi on November 2. Prayers to mark the end of Sigd, observed 50 days after Yom Kippur, started at 9:30 a.m. with a procession of Kessim - Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders - bearing brightly ornamented umbrellas. The haunting melodies of prayers in Ge'ez, an ancient South Semitic language, that recall Beta Israel's yearning for Jerusalem, echoed across the hills as hundreds of women dressed in white shawls raised their hands toward the stage. More than 3,500 people were bused in from around the country, according to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni, Ethiopian MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also attended. Unofficial estimates put the crowd at around 7,000 people. "We're very pleased with how everything went," said Hagar Yisraeli, assistant to the Absorption Ministry spokesman, adding that it was believed to be the largest Sigd celebration ever held in the city. "There are all kinds of people who come - people who pray and people who don't pray, some young, some old," said Yigazav Vandam, who turned 103 a few months ago. "It's beautiful that a lot of people can come. I'm just glad they're here." "Sigd is the trigger that within us we can show other things about the community," said David Mihret, director of the Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants in the Education System (, which provides materials and training on Ethiopian history and culture to roughly 50,000 students of all backgrounds. The challenge of Sigd is twofold, according to community leaders: to educate Israeli society about the traditions and history of a marginalized group, and to connect with a younger generation that has trouble understanding the prayers and doesn't relate to the idea of longing for a city they can see in front of them. The community needs to find a way to make the day relevant for the young people, Mihret said. "All the traditions are the same as they were in Ethiopia - the way they go up a mountain, the way they carry the Torah," said Shlomo Sa'alah, 23, a leader in the Shachar Project, a group within the Scouts directed at Ethiopian youth. "At the Shachar project, we thought we'd find a way that the young people can take part," he explained. "We can't change the ceremony... but what we can do here is make young people interested. We translated some of the prayers into Hebrew, the last part of the prayers, which is the most important. Maybe in the future when we are older, we'll do it in Hebrew also on the central stage, and that will appeal to the public more." The generation gap was stark during the day's ceremony. The older people clustered around the main stage for prayers until noon and then for a succession of speeches by community and spiritual leaders. The younger generation occupied the rest of the promenade, hanging out and catching up with friends. In an effort to connect with more youngsters, groups set up tents with exhibitions and presentations, offering an opportunity to educate non-Ethiopians about the traditions as well. "I've been coming here for years, and today I've been here since the early morning and I've seen a lot more people this year who are not Ethiopian," said Zehavit Demeka, 21, also a leader with the Shachar Project. "I think it's amazing, just great. The point of Sigd is longing for Jerusalem and the land of Israel and the nation of Israel... It's a feeling many Jews can relate to." In the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry tent, Israelis of all colors held a lively discussion about the meaning of the Ge'ez prayers. Another tent showed pictures from an Ethiopian delegation's trip to Poland and the history of Ethiopians in the Israeli Scouts movement. In the tent run by the Steering Center, project organizers distributed a quiz about the holiday, and a community elder gave a presentation about ritual objects and musical instruments associated with the day. But the biggest draw by far was the Scouts performance group Shva Na, Ethiopian-Israelis ranging in age from 14 to 17 who perform around the country. They presented skits, songs and dances on a separate, youth-centered stage. "You can feel the racism on all sides," one of the Shva Na performers told the audience toward the end of the presentation. "We, the youth, need to change it. Zionism belongs to all of us." The Shva Na performers summed up the day's delicate balance in one sentence: "We need to not be afraid to return to our roots, but also to be part of the nation of Israel."