Non-Ethiopians join in Sigd, the holiday of Torah and ‘aliya’ to Israel
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Non-Ethiopians join in Sigd, the holiday of Torah and ‘aliya’ to Israel

Following the example of the Moroccan Mimouna, a sectarian festival goes mainstream

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Illustrative: Several of the kesim, Ethiopian rabbinical leaders, at a past Sigd celebration at Jerusalem's Haas Promenade when thousands gather to pray and recite Psalms. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Several of the kesim, Ethiopian rabbinical leaders, at a past Sigd celebration at Jerusalem's Haas Promenade when thousands gather to pray and recite Psalms. (Flash90)

Mid-November in Israel is the time for Sigd, the Ethiopian Jewish holiday celebrating the acceptance of the Torah, and more recently, marking the fulfillment of the community’s immigration to Israel.

It’s been more than 40 years since the Ethiopian community first came to Israel, but Sigd was only declared a national holiday in 2008. Now it’s being included in this year’s Oleh Week, the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption’s celebration of immigrants and their contribution to the country.

The holiday has become an opportunity for all Ethiopian Israelis to mark their absorption into Israeli society, said Michelle Shelemay Dvir, who heads development for Fidel, the Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

“The fact that it’s a national holiday is significant in terms of Ethiopians’ integration into Israeli society,” said Shelemay Dvir. “I compare it to Mimouna, which has become popular and is celebrated by many people who are not Moroccan. Twenty years ago, no one who wasn’t Moroccan would have gone to a Mimouna celebration.”

Organizations like Fidel work hard at introducing Ethiopian culture to Israelis. One of Fidel’s trademark programs is run by Ethiopian mediators who work in schools to teach Israeli kids about Ethiopian culture and increase awareness of the community.

“I feel like we’re really successful when I go speak at a school that has no Ethiopians at all,” said Michal Avera Samuel, Fidel’s CEO. “Now I want more people. I want those who have no connection to Ethiopians to just come out to Sigd, to learn about us, and to expose everyone to the positive sides of Ethiopian culture, not just the difficulties. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Sigd celebrants usually dress in white to symbolize purity and the acceptance of the Torah (photo credit: Flash 90)
Sigd celebrants usually dress in white to symbolize purity and the acceptance of the Torah (photo credit: Flash 90)

During the one-day holiday, traditionally held 50 days after Yom Kippur, mimicking the time span between Passover and Shavuot, some celebrants fast and then gather up on a hill, like the Israelites at Sinai, where they recite Psalms and gather to read from the Orit, the Ethiopian Torah scroll. After the fast is broken, it’s time for the party, which can happen in all kinds of ways.

1) The official ceremony for Sigd will be held with a morning service at Jerusalem’s Haas Promenade in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood overlooking the Old City, on Thursday, November 20. Held this year with President Reuven Rivlin in attendance, thousands of Ethiopian Israelis dressed in white for purity will pray together. The event, which begins at 10 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m., isn’t easy for the average working person to attend, said Shelemay Dvir, but Fidel will also have a tent hosting Ethiopian dancers, food and storytellers, who will tell traditional Ethiopian tales translated from Amharic to Hebrew and English.

Ethiopian injera and wat, a hot, spicy stew, before you tuck into beer and roasted grains (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Ethiopian injera and wat, a hot, spicy stew, before you tuck into beer and roasted grains (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

2) Religiously observant Ethiopians fast on Sigd until the afternoon, but once the fast is over, they break it on one food in particular, dabo, a sweetened Ethiopian bread made with rosemary and honey (recipe), said Avera Samuel. It’s a dense bread, similar in texture to the Yemenite kubane bread, and “prepared by everyone,” she said. It can be made with white or whole wheat flour, even barley flour, and after it’s blessed by the kes, or priest, who takes the first taste, everyone digs in, often spreading it with dense, bean-based spreads.

3) If you don’t feel like delving into a yeast-based bread, try this recipe from Masret Walkmichael, the second-place winner of the last MasterChef season, who prepared many Ethiopian recipes during her season on the show, including tureba, Ethiopian butter-almond cookies:

  • 250 grams butter
  • 150 grams flour
  • 1 egg
  • 20 grams sugar
  • pinch of cardamom
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons almond flour
  1. Mix everything except for the cardamom and ground almonds until it forms a dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for half an hour.
  2. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and mix in the cardamom and ground almond flour. Don’t overwork the dough.
  3. Roll out the dough and cut 3×5 centimeter squares. Place on cookie sheet.
  4. Using a fork, press the tines into the squares of dough.
  5. Bake at 190° Celsius for 18 to 20 minutes.

4) While the official Sigd celebration at the Haas Promenade takes place on Thursday, many Ethiopians say Sigd actually falls on Tuesday, and more than a few Ethiopian and Israeli organizations are holding their own celebrations. Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai is gathering singers Ariel Zilber, Rudy Beinsin, Abate Berihun and Omri Mor for some musical appreciation after blessings and ancient liturgical poems recited by Ethiopian kesim (priests). Tuesday, November 18, 7 p.m., Beit Avi Chai, 44 King George Street, free of charge.

Later on the same night, there’s a party over at Drey, the Ethiopian Bar, where “we’ll be drinking tela (Ethiopian beer) and eating kolo,” said the bartender, who preferred to remain anonymous. Kolo is a crunchy, nutty snack made from a variety of roasted grains, including barley, chickpeas and sunflower seeds. Drey, 3 Havatzelet Street, Jerusalem.

5) There are more Ethiopian celebrations over the next few weeks with the fifth Hullegeb Israel-Ethiopian Arts Festival, a week-long celebration from December 4-11 of Ethiopian culture, music and performance organized by Jerusalem’s Confederation House. Go hear Ethiopian legend Alemayehu Eshete, the vocalist who emerged in the 1960s as Addis Ababa’s James Brown, December 4, 9 p.m., Jerusalem Theater. Aksum, a local, Ethiopian hip-hop reggae band will join soul sister Katerina at the Yellow Submarine, December 6, 9 p.m. See some contemporary Ethiopian dance with the performance of Hahoo (ABC), by the Beita Ensemble of contemporary Ethiopian Dance, inspired by the letters of Amharic, December 7, 8:30 p.m., Gerard Behar Theater. For more information, go to bimot.co.il, or call *6226 for tickets, which range from NIS 70 to NIS 150.

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