As a symbol of community togetherness, November 4’s Sigd celebration filled me with awe and admiration. Vast crowds of Ethiopian Jews gathered together on the Jerusalem Tayelet, the city’s major promenade, to celebrate connection and the fulfillment of their yearning for Jerusalem. Many of them endured strenuous travels and obstacles in order to fulfill this dream.
The unique customs and practices of Ethiopian Jewry shine a light on how incredible it is to have maintained their dedication to tradition throughout the diaspora. As can be expected, politicians spoke at the opening ceremony of the event and praised the accomplishments of the community. Afterward it got interesting. I met a friendly young man named Oded who offered my friends and me some of his Dabo, a traditional Ethiopian bread. Many Ethiopian Jews serve this bread on Shabbat and it’s the same bread with which many break their Sigd fast. Oded explained with eagerness his mom’s commitment to Judaism and gratitude to be in Jerusalem. His parents, he told us, immigrated to Israel in Operation Moses, and ingrained in him the importance of tradition which they had maintained while growing up in Ethiopia.
When walking down the Tayelet, you could see many booths selling books, literature, and memorabilia related to Ethiopian-Jewish customs. Almost all the books were in Amharic, which further emphasized to me the community’s unique ability to maintain identity from their homeland whilst integrating into Israeli society. I saw this same commitment at another booth in which two women sold a children’s educational card game with pictures on one side and the word for the picture in both Amharic and Hebrew on the other. Language is one of the key unifiers and preservers of culture. By committing to educating children in Amharic and Hebrew, these Ethiopian Olim dedicate themselves to maintain both the Jewish and Ethiopian cultures. In today’s world where traditional Judaism is constantly challenged by technology and development, it is inspiring to see how Ethiopian Jews strive to simultaneously maintain tradition and integrate into Israeli society.
There is no better ice-breaker than food, and indeed this held true again when meeting Brhan, an Ethiopian-Israeli young woman currently studying at Ben Gurion University. We couldn’t say no to her offer to taste some more Dabo, and we quickly got to bonding and talking. She told us she speaks Amharic at home, which you would never guess because of her flawless English and Hebrew. Her name means “dawn” in Amharic, which her dad chose because he loves sunrises. She passionately spoke to us about Ethiopian customs and traditions, and one that particularly stood out was that many Ethiopian-Israeli families keep pets (mostly dogs) because in Ethiopia their parents and grandparents were shepherds, and tended to animals. Today they express their affinity to animals by owning pets.
One ceremony that drew the most attention was the blessings of the Kessim, the Ethiopian religious leaders. Brhan explained to me that they act in ways similar to Rabbis, but deal with more intimate matters such as household disputes and interpersonal arguments. They spend many years studying, and each Ethiopian Jewish family can choose their own Kess that they go to for guidance and advice. They were easily distinguishable at the Sigd by their elegant gowns and highly adorned umbrellas. People of all ages were going up to them and receiving blessings from them. I found this touching as the relationship of the Kessim to the community signals a relationship transcending religion, anchored deep in history and tradition. It is therefore heartbreaking that the rabbinate in Israel has tried to negate the authority and position of the Kessim in hopes of getting the Ethiopian- Jewish community to assimilate completely into mainstream Israeli Judaism. A prominent advocate against this attempt is Rabbi Dr. Sharon Zauda Shalom, who was born in Ethiopia, immigrated to Israel and received rabbinical ordination from the Chief Rabbinate. I briefly had a chance to meet him, but wasn’t able to discuss some of his controversial rulings, such as permitting Ethiopians to bring cash to synagogue on Shabbat in order to donate to the synagogue.
The enthusiasm evoked by this holiday didn’t stop at the Tayelet, however. After the ceremony, a group of young Ethiopian-Israelis congregated at a bus stop and played traditional Ethiopian music while dancing and celebrating. A little hesitant but eager to join in on the spontaneous bus-stop-celebration, I began dancing with them. They became ecstatic and showed me classic dance moves from their culture. The sheer excitement and energy I felt at the bus stop brought to life the idea of Israel as a “melting pot.” On the bus, we talked with one of the bus-stop dancers, Itafu, who told us about his experience as a lone soldier who came to Israel in 2009, inspired by the “kibbutz galuyot” or the Biblical promise of “ingathering of exiles.” We often think that a distinct, unified, Western-style culture has emerged in Israel in the past 70 years. But the Sigd holiday showed me that within this culture exist a plethora of practices and traditions that are unique to the different groups and that make up Israeli society.