This past Tuesday, the 29th of the Jewish month of Cheshvan, 50 days following Yom Kippur, the Ethiopian Jewish community (Beta Israel) in Israel celebrated their Sigd holiday. Sigd is unique to the Ethiopian Jewish community and is a holiday of rejoicing for the renewal of the alliance between the people, God and the Torah. In Ethiopia it was also a festival symbolizing the yearning for, and desire to, return to Zion. Today, as most 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.
A few years ago, I was honored and privileged to celebrate the Sigd holiday together with my Ethiopian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. 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.
The “yearning for Zion” that was such an important part of the Ethiopian Jewish tradition is recalled by Meskie Shibry Sivan, an Ethiopian Jew who arrived in Israel on Operation Moses, a dramatic emergency airlift in 1984 which brought 8,000 Jews to Israel. (This was followed by Operation Solomon, 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 grapples with as it continues to stride into 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 their dramatic rescue by Israel from certain death, which was a fine example of Zionism in action, many Ethiopian Jews still feel marginalized 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 in Jerusalem reminded me that it is a privilege to live in the era of a Jewish state which, with all of it challenges, is the actualization 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 2,000 years to be a free people in our land (Hatikvah) has indeed become a reality. PJC
Tuvia Book, Ph.D., born in London and raised in both the U.K. and South Africa, made aliyah at the age of 17. He is a licensed tour guide and has been working in the field of Jewish education for many years. Excerpts from this article come from his Zionism curriculum, “For the Sake of Zion, A Curriculum of Israel Studies,” (Koren: 2017).
This piece first appeared on The Times of Israel.