Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

Celebrating the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd

Today I was privileged to join the Ethiopian Jewish community (Beta Israel) in Jerusalem to celebrate their Sigd holiday. The Armon Hanaziv promenade in Jerusalem was filled with generations of Ethiopian Jews who had converged from all over the country to celebrate together as a community. The air was filled with the sound of the Ethiopian drums and singing as the entire community, young and old, from the white-clad elders to the hip-hop youngsters celebrated together.

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Celebrating the Sigd Holiday in Jerusalem ( T. Book, 2016)

The Sigd holiday is unique to the Ethiopian Jewish community and is commemorated on the 29th of the Jewish month of Heshvan, 50 days following Yom Kippur.  The community rejoices for the renewal of the alliance between the people, God, and the Torah. In Ethiopia it was also a festival symbolising the yearning for, and desire to, return to Zion. Today, as the majority of the Ethiopian Jewish community has made aliyah, members of the community make their way up to Jerusalem. The holiday serves as an annual gathering of the entire Ethiopian community. They see it as a chance to strengthen their affinity to their history and culture.

The “yearning for Zion” that was such an important part of the Ethiopian Jewish tradition was recalled by Meskie Shibry Sivan, an Ethiopian Jew who arrived in Israel on “Operation Moses,” an dramatic emergency airlift in 1984 which brought 8,000 Jews to Israel. (This was followed by “Operation Solomon,” in 1991 which brought in more than 14,400 Jews over one single weekend to Israel.)

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to immigrate to Israel. However, we had not always known that the State of Israel even existed. Just the opposite – we used to think that we were the only Jews in the world, and observed our tradition very closely. Our grandparents told us tales about the Land of Israel whenever they could, making us curious about that land and yearn for it.

As dramatic and happy as the airlifts were, many Ethiopian Jews came without the emotional, social, cultural, financial and linguistic skills necessary for an easy absorption.

It is important to acknowledge that with all of Israel’s incredible successes in many fields since its creation, there are issues that Israel is grappling with as it continues to stride in the 21st century. The problems that the Jewish State faces include topics as far ranging as: security, religion, society, environment, how to harmoniously co-exist with a minority population and immigrant absorption.  Ethiopian immigrants have especially felt the last issue, immigrant absorption.  After the dramatic rescue from certain death by Israel, which was a fine example of Zionism in action, many Ethiopian Jews still feel marginalised in society.  The ancient community has arrived home and started its last, but no less difficult journey – absorption.

Yityish (Titi) Aynaw, Israel’s first Ethiopian Miss Israel (2013) stated that,

Martin Luther King fought for justice and equality, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here. I want to show that my community has many beautiful qualities that aren’t always represented in the media.  Israel is a multicultural state. We’re diverse and we come from different countries, so we need to show that outwardly.

The joyful scenes I witnessed today in Jerusalem reminded me that it is a privilege to live in the era of a Jewish State which, with all of its challenges, represents the actualisation of that age old Jewish dream expressed in our liturgy of the “ingathering of exiles” from the four corners of the earth. We live in an age of miracles and wonders where the “hope of two thousand years, to be a free people in our land” (Hatikvah) has indeed become a reality.

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Mekonen (C) Jerusalem U, 2016

About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He is the author (and illustrator) of the internationally acclaimed Zionism curriculum; “For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Education” (fifth edition, 2017, Koren) and is at present working on his next book, a history of the Jewish people. Tuvia has a doctorate in Israel education. His dissertation title is: “Through the Soldiers’ Eyes: Exploring the Influence of a Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli Soldier Participants.”
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