What does the Ethiopian holiday ‘Sigd’ mean?

I have rarely missed the annual Sigd event in Jerusalem. When I lived in Ethiopia, the annual holiday was a fixture of the Jewish community, celebrated every year 50 days after Yom Kippur and celebrated our connection to Jerusalem. After moving to Israel in 1984, I fell in love with the holiday again, celebrating it in Eretz Yisrael.

This year, however, I am not there, not only because of COVID-19, but also because I am here in the US for a postdoctoral year to preserve the heritage of Ethiopian Jews, creating an oral history project that will educate and it will be a source of strength for the community.

My last Sigd in Ethiopia was November 1983. The whole village ascended the nearby mountain. Men, women and children all dressed in our best festive garments for a day of fasting and prayer. I remember the strong feeling that surrounded us all, that soon our dream would come true: to reach Jerusalem. By that year, some of the villages in Beta Israel had already left to go to Eretz Yisrael, including some of my uncles. I watched from the sidelines as the adults prayed, while at the same time quietly chatting with my cousins, excited that we would no longer have to climb this mountain because we would soon reach Jerusalem and pray in the Holy Temple.

There are other memories. I can still see a woman sitting to the side and scattering grains of wheat on the ground as she whispers and cries. At the time, I didn’t understand what he was doing. Today I understand that it was part of the observance of Sigd. The Kessim, our religious leaders, read verses from the Torah and prayed for a return to Zion. But our elders also prayed for the deliverance of the souls of the dead, sprinkling grains of wheat or teff, asking the birds to eat the grain and fly their prayers to heaven. Sigd is not only a meeting of the living, but also a day to remember and reconnect with those who have passed.

Once in Israel, Sigd quickly found a place in the life of our community. For as long as I can remember, every year on the 29th of the month of Cheshvan, people would gather on the Promenade of the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood in Jerusalem, with a breathtaking view of the Temple Mount in the Old City, reenacting the rituals. of our Ethiopian heritage.

My views and practices around Sigd have also changed. When I first came to Israel, I was sent to a religious boarding school for girls where we did not celebrate or learn about Sigd. The only concession was that the school brought all Ethiopian students to the Sigd main event in Jerusalem. We wore festive clothes that we gave each other especially for the celebration. He was so excited, not so much about the holidays, but about the reunion, the reunion. Sigd was a gathering for so many people from our community who came from all over the country, just like they did in Ethiopia. I was excited to see the uncles and aunts that I hadn’t seen in a long time and my friends who had been sent to other boarding schools. We exchanged stories about our new lives in Israel, and the religious elements, fasting, prayer, were secondary.

When my children reached school age, I worked to spark interest in our Sigd vacations at their school. I volunteered to speak and lead activities. I wanted the school to reflect our presence among the variety of traditions and customs in Israel. I wanted the school to see us.

However, my activism was tinged with ambivalence. I longed to help my children feel connected to their backgrounds and to be proud of who they are. But I was irritated by my assumed responsibilities, since the school failed to create a space for all children and their cultures.

In those years I served as president of the Ethiopian Jewish Association. The association staff came up with an idea to make the Sigd a national holiday. National holiday status would mean that community members could take the day off without penalty and would allow us to pressure educational institutions to include appropriate holiday and community content in the curriculum. I had my reservations about the initiative. I was concerned that we were trying too hard to ask Israeli society to accept our culture. I preferred to fight racism and promote equality in education and employment.

I am glad that I did not actively oppose this initiative. Association staff successfully lobbied and the Knesset enacted a law to designate Sigd as a national holiday in 2008. Over time, I realized that there is no full integration without recognition, there is no equality without membership. The fight for Sigd was an integral part of our fight.

Once the law went into effect, the Sigd celebration flourished. Every school and community center that values ​​multiculturalism invites Ethiopian-Israelis to come and talk about Sigd and dedicates a day of learning about the “Ethiopian community”, including the schools where I worked and where my children studied. I spoke often these days, still ambivalent. Years later, these schools still asked me and my children to participate. I declined, explaining that these schools cannot rely solely on my family and volunteering and that Sigd’s programming must come from the schools as an integral part of its mission.

Released from the duties of school ceremonies, I turned inward. I focused on the celebration at my home with my immediate and extended family. Together we have renewed an old tradition where those who live closest to the Sigd ceremony welcome those who come from further afield. My apartment in the Baka neighborhood is transformed into a special place for family and friends who come to Jerusalem for the holidays. With each Sigd, I learn more and more about the essence of the holiday and its role in our lives.

Sigd Vacation, Nov 16, 2020 (Credit: NIR PUR)

The heart of Sigd is in the renewal of the covenants between a person and God, a person and the community, a person and a society. The customs of the day reflect and strengthen these bonds: charity, union, singing, dancing and communal meals. Rabbi Sharon Shalom maintains that Sigd was an ancient holiday that was once celebrated by all Jewish communities and later forgotten. Only Beta Israel and Ethiopian Jews continued to celebrate and preserve Sigd.

This year I am away from home again, in residence at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. We will celebrate Sigd with friends, away from the mountains of Jerusalem. It’s a strange feeling to see so many invitations and posts about Sigd celebrations on social media. I long for our home in Jerusalem, which, this year, will not be open to all of our family and friends who come to us for the Sigd. Hopefully we’ll be back soon.


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