For their forebears in Ethiopia, the Sigd was a religious holiday renewing their covenant with God and expressing longing for Zion. But for many among the thousands marking it in Jerusalem on Monday, the festival was more of a day of ethnic pride.
“The sigd is very empowering,” said Aviva Nagosa, 32. “It is the only thing left that joins us all together.”
While in Ethiopia, the Sigd highlighted the uniqueness of the Beta Yisrael — the ancient Jewish community — amongst their Ethiopian neighbours, today it defines them as a distinguished group among other Israeli Jews.
The government last year recognised Sigd as an official Israeli holiday, meaning no one gets penalised for taking time off work to attend. And indeed the buses came from all over Israel.
As white turbaned holy men, or kessim, holding up colourful umbrellas, recited prayers in the ancient Ge’ez language, Natan Biadglin, a 25-year-old Ethiopian youth counsellor from Haifa, said that “Ninety-five per cent of people here do not understand Ge’ez.”
Still, the prayers are significant as a part of the community’s heritage.
“Young people need to know where they come from. This strengthens them and helps them because Israelis do not accept them so much.”
White-robed women prostrated themselves at key points of the prayers and a kes offered blessings — this time in Amharic — for peace, livelihood and “that god will hear our prayers”.
Soldiers given the day off strained to take pictures of the holy men with their cellphones and cameras.
Despite some gains, Ethiopian Jews remain the poorest segment of Israel’s Jewish population and are at times stereotyped as a social burden. The sense of not being accepted by other Israelis was accentuated in September when religious schools in Petah Tikva refused to accept Ethiopian children.
“Even if they do not accept us at work or in school, we are here,” Shlomo Mola, an MK from the Kadima party, told the gathering. “We do not need a kosher certificate from anyone.”
Some in the crowd walked up to the kessim and gave them money, fulfilling vows they made during last year’s Sigd to donate money if their prayers came true. “Today I made a vow for next year,” said Tzahi Ezra, 36. “My mother is sick and if she becomes healthy, I will bring her here.”