This past Wednesday, the 29th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, marked an important day in the Ethiopian calendar — the day of Sigd. When we were introduced to this event, I couldn’t help but wonder is this the day of Sigd (Yom HaSigd) or the holiday of Sigd (Chag HaSigd)? After talking to my Ethiopian roommate Banche, I learned that the there was some validity to my question — the definition of the day has changed significantly over the past century.
Sigd literally means “bowing down” or “prostration” in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian language. It roots from a verse in from Nehemiah that says “So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand… Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:2-6).
According to Ethiopian tradition, Sigd is set to occur 50 days after Yom Kippur as a day to renew their covenant with God and yearn for Jerusalem. All capable members of the community fasted and climbed the mountain near Ambober to spend the morning in prayer. After midday, they would retreat down the hill to a festive meal awaiting them.
Now that many Ethiopians have indeed made Aliyah and have access to Jerusalem, how has the day of Sigd changed?
Instead of the day signifying a deep yearning for Jerusalem, it is now a holiday that celebrates the return of the Ethiopian community with dancing and singing to be heard through the Old City’s walls. In 2008, Sigd became an official Israeli holiday articulating the joyful significance of this day not just for the Ethiopian community, but for the Jewish community at large.
At Midreshet Nishmat, an institution of higher Torah learning for women in Pat, Jerusalem, the Ethiopian students spend weeks preparing to bring this special day to Nishmat and the greater Jerusalem community. This past Wednesday, the spicy smell of traditional Ethiopian food permeated the Cheder Ochel (dining room) which was covered, floor to ceiling, with green tapestries that were reminiscent of Ethiopian village pastures. They painted a mural of a family traveling through the Sudan desert until they reached an even larger, gold painting of the Temple. In addition, they set up tables with different Ethiopian vessels that they made and used. My favorite was a special instrument called an Kra’ar which slightly resembles a banjo.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the evening was the show they put on for the crowd of over 300 guests. This performance consisted of short stories that echoed the change that has taken place in the Ethiopian community and the intergenerational tensions these changes have created. More than just referring to Yom HaSigd as Chag HaSigd, I watched powerful instances of sons and daughters walking the fine line between respect for their family customs and respect for the modern way in Israel. For example, one girls told the story of a son, a current Rabbi in Israel, refusing to eat meat schechted according to his father’s Halachic standards despite his father being a Kess (a rabbinical authority) in Ethiopia. The second story portrayed a daughter that refused to greet her distant relatives with hugs and kisses after learning the laws of Shomer Negiah (not touching men) in Midrasha. These refusals to partake in traditional Ethiopian customs greatly upset the parents and left them in a state of despair and confusion. As Rabbanit Henkin, the head of the Midrasha, put it, each and everyone one of these families that left their homes in Ethiopia has a “doctorate of faith” in the Jewish nation and in the state of Israel. The essential question, however, persists. Did they anticipate these cultural challenges? How can they learn and grow from them?
According to my roommate and close friend Banche, although these challenges weren’t anticipated, the Ethiopian community is so grateful to be in the land of Israel. They belong here and therefore, accept the challenges with pride in their homeland. We have much to learn from this community’s resilience and dedication to Israel. I know that I have learned to cherish family traditions while still appreciating my cultural surroundings.
After watching these powerful pieces, we were graced with an impressive combination of Ethiopian song and dance with the special Kemis dresses and all. It was only moments after they finished that my friends and I had stacked the chairs and made the room our own dancing stage. For the next hour or so, there were Israeli, American, British, and Ethiopian women of all ages dancing their hearts (and shoulders) out.
By the end of the night, whether we were wearing traditional Kemis or not, we were all part of one community appreciating and celebrating Ethiopian culture in Israel as it should be done more often.