Cel­e­brat­ing Sigd, Novem­ber 2008, pho­to by the Asso­ci­a­tion of Ethiopi­an Jews

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.