I have a powerful memory of my last Sigd in Ethiopia in November 1983. Sigd is a holiday of the Ethiopian Jewish community which takes place fifty days after Yom Kippur each year. Sigd celebrates our connection to Jerusalem; the entire village would go up the nearby mountain – men, women, and children – dressed in our best festive clothes for a day of fasting and prayer. The Kessoch, our religious leaders, read verses from the Torah and prayed for a return to Zion. I remember the strong feeling that surrounded us all, that soon the dream would come true for us to reach Jerusalem. By that year, some of the villages of the Beta Israel had already left to go to Eretz Yisrael, including some of my uncles. During that Sigd in 1983, I watched from the sidelines as the adults prayed, and I spent my time quietly conversing with my cousins. We talked about how we would no longer have to go up this mountain, because we would soon reach Jerusalem and would pray in the holy Temple.
I remember many other things from that Sigd. For example, I can still see a woman sitting to the side and scattering grains of wheat on the ground while lamenting in a whisper and crying. At that time I did not really understand what she was doing. Today I know that it was part of the observance of Sigd. On this day we also prayed for the release of the souls of the dead, sprinkling grains of wheat or teff flour for birds to eat so they would fly our prayers to heaven. The holiday of Sigd is not only a gathering of the living, but also a day to remember and be reunited with those that have passed.
The community held within its heart the dream of going to Jerusalem through the celebration of the Sigd holiday every year. Our generation was able to realize the dream of many generations and return to Zion. The return to Zion was possible thanks to the power of the dream.
The poet Danny Adamsu, in the song “Memory, How Much Power Has the Spirit,” described the journey from Ethiopia to Eretz Yisrael:
No right, no left. Straight. Just north. Walking and walking, marching brotherhood.
Districts, villages, and families.
There are no days, only nights
Eat a little, strong spirit
The same spirit that sustained our community for many generations in Ethiopia also sustained us in the difficult journey that the community endured. I was a twelve-year-old girl when I made the journey described in Adamsu’s poem.
We are walking, the water is gone, and the food is gone.
Desert, the earth is hot, determined to arrive.
There is power, which comes from the Spirit.
These lines from Adamsu give me chills. These lines bring back the memory of that journey — I remember the ground burning my feet. But I ignored it; I didn’t pay attention. Mainly I remember the expectation, and the talks between us children, that soon we will arrive in Jerusalem. I remember the strength in the spirit. In recent years many in the community, including me personally, have been looking for that spirit that Adamsu describes. We try to follow the spirit for power. To trace the spirit that has sustained our community for 2500 years.
The holiday of Sigd became a national holiday in Israel in 2008 through the joint effort of the poet Danny Adamsu, during his time as the CEO of the Association of Ethiopian Jews, and Avi Masfen, another man who held the spirit and hope of returning to Jerusalem. At that time I served as the chairperson of the organization but I was not convinced that it was really important to gain recognition for our Beta Israel celebrations from the wider Israeli society. Today, almost fifteen years later, I realize how lucky we are as a community to have such a meaningful holiday for us and other Jewish communities to recognize. I am more and more convinced that our chance to feel at home in Israel can only be realized if we find ways to express our culture and traditions as part of the larger spirit and culture around us.
According to Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, Sigd is an ancient holiday that was forgotten by the other Jewish communities and preserved by the Beta Israel community. I think the universal spiritual and social meanings of the holiday can only be real positive additions to society as a whole. The heart of Sigd is in the renewal of the covenants between a person and God, a person and the community, and a person and society. We give to charity and help the people and villages who need it. And in the second part of the day, we lift our spirits through singing, dancing, and communal meals. This holiday has the power to strengthen the connections between people and affirm our community’s identity. Today I am engaged day and night in searching for this spirit of our community. I am documenting the history of our community for the strength of our children and future generations.
Since the mid-1980s every year, on the twenty-ninth day of the month of Cheshvan, people have gathered on the Promenade in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood in Jerusalem, with a breathtaking view of the Temple Mount in the Old City.
Shula Mola is an Israeli civil and human rights activist and educator. She is a former Chairperson of the Association for Ethiopian Jews for over 10 years, a co-founder of Mothers on Guard, protesting police brutality against youth of Ethiopian origin, and a board member for the New Israel Fund. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow at HBI — Hadassah Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University.