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Celebrating the Zionist festival
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel National radio commentary
January 2001

It's the 29th of Cheshvan, not an especially noteworthy day for most Jews in the world. But for Jews from Ethiopia, this date has long been observed as one of their main holidays, known as Sigd--a day celebrating their connection to Jerusalem and commitment to Jewish unity.

For the 70,000 who have immigrated from Ethiopia during the past decades, today is a combination fast day, day of thanksgiving and gathering of the clan.

Dozens of kessim (Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders) make their way to the Western Wall to celebrate the day which expresses their yearning for Zion and their gratitude for the Torah. The slender figures cut an elegant path through the plaza in front of the wall. Swathed in simple white robes, tallits draped over their narrow shoulders, the kessim are accompanied by an entourage which includes an escort holding a colorful umbrella over their heads.

The Ethiopian women arrive separately, clothed in their distinctive white dresses adorned with colorful, hand embroidered trim. Shoulders cloaked in white shawls, heads covered with colorful scarves, the women advance shyly toward the Kotel to take part in the prayer service marking Sigd here in the Holy City.

Prior to their mass aliya, generations of Ethiopian Jews yearned for Zion and expressed their longing in the annual Sigd festival. Jews would walk for days to arrive at a mountain top where thousands would join in prayer and listen to Torah readings.

Following the afternoon prayers and the blowing of the shofar, the community would descend from the mountain to partake of a festive meal. The holiday has its origins in the time of the prophet Nehemia, when the entire Jewish community assembled in Jerusalem for a day of fasting and confession. The day also commemorates the covenant between God and the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai.

For many young Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel, the mountain-top Sigd exists only as a story recounted by their elders. Children were not included in the observances in Ethiopia because of the three day trek to get there and to preserve the solemnity of the day. But for the past two years one prominent Jerusalem educational institution has made sure that Sigd gets the attention it deserves amongst the younger generation.

Nishmat, the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women based in Bayit Vegan, celebrated an observance of Sigd that wove together tradition, culture, respect, education, song and prayer.

Fifteen young Ethiopian Jewish women are enrolled at Nishmat in an inaugural college preparatory program. They study secular subjects to prepare themselves for the tough college entrance exams, as well as a full load of Judaic studies offered by the innovative Nishmat curriculum.

The women share dormitory space with native Israeli and English-speaking students to promote social integration. The Ethiopian young women are generally shy and reserved, but tonight they proudly show off their remarkable culture.

Zahava, a slight, Ethiopian young woman with long, dark hair and delicate features opens the evening. All the Ethiopian students present are dressed in the clothing unique to their community. Zahava wears a sleek white embroidered dress but she calls up Shlomit, dressed in a more conservative, billowy robe to point out the difference between the kind of clothing their mothers and grandmothers wear, and their own more up to date, but still traditional garb.

The women carry themselves gracefully and naturally in the robes, their heads covered with filmy white shawls. Zahava brings out an array of traditional hand made colorful basketware from a display table at the side of the room, carefully describing how each one is made and used.

As she speaks, a diminutive man with a silver beard, wearing a knitted kippa enters the room. The students all rise to acknowledge the arrival of Rabbi David Yosef, a kes of the Ethiopian community. Rabbi Yosef was invited to give the Israeli and English speaking students a presentation on the origins of Sigd. His lively eyes sparkle and quick smiles flit across his face as he lets the women in on his extraordinary life story in order for them to understand where Sigd fits in to the life of the Ethiopian Jew.

Rav Yosef graphically describes how men and women would separately observe the ritual of ascending the mountain for the great Sigd gathering. He points out that the tradition of Sigd was handed down by oral tradition. �Many Jews believe that we didn�t know from the oral tradition,� he says. Rav Yosef carefully explains the Ethiopian Jewish engagement and wedding ceremonies and asserts that their practice conforms to the Mishnaic description in Tractate Kiddushin (part of the Oral Law) of what constitutes proper Jewish betrothal.

He closes his remarks by noting that Sigd was essentially a way of remembering Jerusalem and strengthening Jews in a difficult galut (Diaspora) situation. But the holiday is just as relevant today. �We missed Jerusalem for thousands of years,� Rav Yosef notes. �Today, in Jerusalem, we celebrate...but just as we say �Next year in Jerusalem� at the Passover seder, so too at Sigd we pray for a rebuilt Jerusalem.�

Rav Yosef takes the Ethiopian students aside for a few minutes while the other women put the finishing touches to the special Ethiopian meal they have prepared. Platters of injara, the Ethiopian pita bread are laid out along with an assortment of dairy items and cooked and raw vegetables, served by the young Ethiopian women.

Nishmat�s founder and dean, the dynamic Rabbanit Chana Henkin, addresses the group while everyone munches on the delicacies. Henkin, her eyes glowing with pride at the self assuredness of her students, speaks from the heart as she tells the women how moved she is at the sight of a new generation of immigrants from an ancient Jewish community perpetuating the observance of a unique festival.

Sara, the bespectacled eldest daughter of a kes in Ashdod rises to teach the women some traditional Ethiopian songs in the Amharit language from a handwritten songbook compiled and printed by the students for the occasion. Most of the verses speak of Jerusalem.

For Ziva, a shy twenty year old from Ashkelon with dark braided hair, the Sigd celebration at Nishmat is a significant milestone. �This was a moment to tell our story,� she says quietly. � I feel like it�s a day of unity for us.�

For the young woman who arrived in Israel with her parents twelve years ago, the observance of the ancient holiday reminds her that �there�s so much to remember....�